Being single has never been easy. Humans are social beings: we gain meaning, purpose, fulfilment, contentment, drama, prosperity, knowledge, understanding from interacting with other people. Online dating apps and websites can be dark and lonely places for those who are looking for a traditional relationship. But they can also offer a protective boundary, a new way to explore the world and those around you. New technologies are making long distance relationships easier than before. But private companies are also profiting from all of this. I’ll expand upon all these points below.
Dating apps forge faceless connections between us and thousands of single people. I say 'faceless' because although we can see the profile pictures or holiday snapshots of other people, they remain strangers. We are not sure if the picture depicts the real person, if they are trustworthy, or if they are even really single. There are predators out there, and this requires new kinds of trust and new types of negotiation skills (the sociologist Antony Giddens is good to read on these points).
Social networking and dating apps can be experienced as shallow, superficial hellholes for the lost and lonesome. There is no real, face-to-face contact and commitment between people, only virtual. Because of this, people are free to express themselves in entirely new uncommitted ways. 'Dick pics' or 'tit pics' can be shared, cyber-sex can occur, sexual abuse happens, in ways that would be unimaginable by real-world standards. It is illegal to flash in public, so why isn't illegal online?
Social networking and dating apps can be experienced as shallow, superficial hellholes for the lost and lonesome.
Some might say that trawling through this mess is search for something deeper, more fulfilling, and to establish a more traditional or conventional relationship based on face work, intimate trust bonds, loyalty and honour, can seem like a never-ending and fruitless venture. Essentially, being online looking for genuine love can feel like swimming in a barrel of rats. Alternatively, cyber-worlds can also be safe spaces for socialisation, deeper levels of personal enquiry or sexual experimentation.
On the other hand, the spatial distance that separates us from others provides a great protective boundary. This can lessen the need for absolute social commitment or make us more blasé about the fear of rejection. Networked dating can be a bit of fun for us to toy around with until someone special comes along. Who knows, that fun could carry on in the background of a fairly healthy, material relationship. There are positives once a social bond consolidates.
Video: Sociologist Eva Illouz introduces her book titled "Why Love Hurts"
The original purpose of information communication technology is bring people together, rather than separate them or enforce a rule of out stretched relationships. While you are travelling, it is now possible to show a distant partner a photo of the cup of tea you're drinking, choose what movie to watch tonight, send love songs or poems, discuss your partner’s wellbeing with close friends or family members, and so on. This kind of transient relationship was inconceivable one or two hundred years ago, and we are only just learning the rules today - and they will have changed by next year. A very intimate and close relationship can emerge that is stretched out, but also very connected in many ways.
Online dating also takes us beyond our most intimate and subjective experiences of love – today, the data of online lovers is used by private companies that profit hugely from this developing love industry
What does this mean for love in the contemporary age? I would like to suggest that quite traditional relationships are being amplified, higher highs and lower lows. Being single has always been hard, but in the present, it means more depthless flirting, more casual dating, interacting with greater numbers of people who are extremely untrustworthy by traditional standards. If this boundary between self and the faceless other is intercepted, and a meaningful relationship established, then a newer, more connected, emotionally entwined and entangled relationship could emerge, even if it is separated by great distances.
Importantly, while I have written here about the emotional aspects of relationships in the era of online dating, we have to remember that online dating also takes us beyond our most intimate and subjective experiences of love – today, the data of online lovers is used by private companies that profit hugely from this developing love industry.
Many people seem to think that online dating offers possibilities other, more traditional forms of meeting partners, did not. To begin with, the sheer scale of choice is much greater: whereas previously the ‘pool’ of potential partners would have been limited to the people one knew through family, school, work, or everyday interaction (and, in many cases, chosen by family members), now we can access profiles of users from different parts of town, country, or even different countries, and interact with people we would not otherwise meet in our daily lives.
It could be claimed that online platforms make dating easier, both by widening the pool of potential partners, and by helping people choose those they may want to meet 'in real life'.
Furthermore, online communication makes it easier to establish initial contact (which may be particularly important for young people, those who are shy, or LGBTQ individuals in closed, conservative, or homophobic environments). In some cases, users are able to signal what type of interaction (longer or shorter-term) they are looking for, which, in theory, helps minimize disappointment. Equally, many platforms provide a wealth of information about potential ‘dates’, information that we would otherwise have to find out in conversation, all the way to suggesting potential ‘matches’ on the basis of relatively sophisticated algorithms. In this sense, it could be claimed that online platforms make dating easier, both by widening the pool of potential partners, and by helping people choose those they may want to meet 'in real life'.
Video: Eva Illouz, author of the book "Why Love Hurts," presents lecture on "Internet and Romantic Imagination"
On the other hand, it would be too optimistic to claim Tinder, Grindr or OKCupid can overcome or subvert gender, class and other inequalities that persist in the domain of romantic relationships. Research suggests that people’s preferences, including in online dating, continue to exhibit patterns that confirm what sociologists suspected: people choose other people they have things in common with – which frequently translates into differences in terms of race, ethnicity, class, or status. In Dataclysm, Kevin Rudder, one of the founders of OKCupid, presents a relatively grim image of users’ preferences, showing that most people display racial and other forms of bias (the data from OKCupid has been leaked in the meantime, so, in principle, it is possible to use it for similar forms of analysis). Even outside of stark forms of discrimination, people are more likely to engage online with people they judge to be of similar educational status - something that usually conveys class.
What has changed is that specific patterns of consumption/lifestyle choices can no longer be mapped neatly onto class divisions; in this sense, though people are still (more) likely to choose those they have interests in common with, that may include people from a wider variety of backgrounds than would have been the case 20 or 50 years ago.
This reflects the fact that, besides chance, physical attraction, and availability, partner choices depend on deeper and longer-lasting social mechanisms that influence the way we socialize. When I did ethnographic research on heterosexual romantic relationships in 2007, right before the wide adoption of online dating, many of the criteria people mentioned in the selection of potential partners – such as taste in music or cinema, political orientation, or part of town/country they came from – could be read as proxies for class belonging. These criteria remain important in the era of online dating. What has changed, however, is that specific patterns of consumption/lifestyle choices can no longer be mapped neatly onto class divisions; in this sense, though people are still (more) likely to choose those they have interests in common with, that may include people from a wider variety of backgrounds than would have been the case 20 or 50 years ago.
In sum, while it is still early to judge the long-term effects of online dating, unguarded optimism about its powers is little more than believing technology has the power to transform humankind. A few aspects in which online dating may influence longer-term societal dynamics warrant mentioning, though. First, online platforms may give women more control in the context of heterosexual interactions (one app, Bumble, has been developed explicitly with this in mind), and thus help subvert some of the stereotypes in terms of who should be making the first move. Second, they may provide more opportunities to connect for people who are elderly, differently abled, or experience anxiety in social situations. In this sense, they may, indeed, transform the way many people experience their romantic relationships, as well as overall social interaction.
Online platforms may provide more opportunities to connect for people who are elderly, differently abled, or experience anxiety in social situations.
On the other hand, given the array of possibilities they enable, they may contribute to the already existing social pressure to be engaged in dating, and thus exacerbate the stigma of singledom that persists even in relatively egalitarian contexts. In this, they play a role in the creation and perpetuation of what Eva Illouz has dubbed 'emotional capitalism' - the pressure to increasingly 'publicise' feelings and engage in emotional interaction. Paradoxically, they may also deplete the emotional content of relationships: the idea of abundance of potential partners 'at a mouseclick' may minimize incentives for sustained commitment to getting to know other people, especially irrespective of their 'mating' potential.
In a nutshell, just like any other technology, online dating is a mixed bag: it can enable us to meet more people and in a different way, but, in the end, it cannot do the work of relationship-building for us.