I have been uneasy with online dating for a while. It clearly remains a controversial topic, entering general discourse either as a “guilty pleasure” or a “pragmatic solution” to modern problems of time-poverty and diminishing intermingling between established social groups. Recently, around the time I was reading an interesting piece condemning how critics of social media establish a distinction between “real” life and “virtual” or “online” life, and listening to friends talk about their experiences on Tinder, it struck me that the problem I have with online dating is basically the same problem I have with people talking about their “love life”. Online dating takes place in a “virtual world”, by which I mean that it takes place in the real world, but a part of the real world that we designate as being detached from the rest, a screen upon which we project our dreams and desires without necessarily asking what the screen is made out of or how it in turn affects our dreams and desires.
You often hear talk about people’s “professional life”, “private life”, “family life”, “love life” and so on and how important it is to keep these spheres separate. I’ll say this openly- I am unable to fragment my life in this way. Although I accept the usefulness and importance of presenting different faces in different social contexts I cannot conceive of my life as separate spheres in which my behaviour and values are fundamentally distinct. For better or worse, I will always allow my values and my behaviour from one sphere to manifest themselves in other spheres. I feel that, as human beings connecting with life, we should frolic, love and make love with the same motivations and passions that we use to work, run and fight. While we need balance in our lives, once we find the things that really matters to us, we should live and breathe those things. And while not everyone is that simple, one of our greatest powers as humans remains to unite our contingent circumstances into a meaningful arch of life, of which love is somewhere near the keystone.
Love is one of the greatest expressions of human freedom. And we often take it as a given that entry into this virtual world represents an escape from “real life”, escaping its obstacles and opening up new freedoms by giving us so many options for potential partners that it begins to resemble a marketplace of love. Yet having more options does not necessarily mean greater freedom, and this “escape” comes at a price- the conditions we impose upon ourselves for entry into this virtual world. We see it in the way that so many profiles begin to look the same- “fun-loving”, “open-minded”, “energetic but not demanding” are just a few of the tired clichés that people seem to aspire to become. Yet this virtual world is not just our online activities, but also leaks into the space within which we follow up on online introductions with dates and other encounters, which takes shape as a sphere separate from the rest of our lives. It is through this lens that we can understand the problems with online dating much more clearly.
On a basic level, my main problem with online dating is that it kills spontaneity. The standard argument is that it exposes us to a greater range of people than we would normally come across, or even people who may have similar traits to us but come from completely different circumstances, consider this. Consider the price that one pays to enter this wonderful marketplace. Most sites and apps ask you what you’re looking for, what degree of physical or emotional attachment. Your response will determine whether you place this activity in the sphere of your “love life”, “sex life”, or whatever other space you’ve carved out. Even in apps like Tinder where these labels are absent, there is the expectation that people will fall into one of these categories. This has a few implications. Many sites are very calculating and algorithmic in the way they match people, and their users tend to catch on to this attitude as well. It means that the people we get matched with tend to be those most similar to us (which defeats the argument in the first place), or those with whom it’s easiest to get along. Yet sparks that so easily fly follow formulaic patterns, and after a while we lose sight of the fact that not only is romance worth reconciling radical differences for, but reconciling such differences is intrinsic to good romance. In the words of Peter Ludlow–
‘Much of what is valuable in this world is the product of mashing up ideas or music or personalities that are on the face of it incompatible…The result is often unexpected and beautiful. So it is with relationships; compatibility is a terrible idea in selecting a partner. It leads to stasis, both for individuals and for relationships…that is predictable and unexciting.’
The other implication is that you find people genuinely different to you, and find excitement in this diversity. Yet something is required to mediate that difference in this virtual marketplace- and that is the reduction of our most personal desires to those categories that have some weird kind of common currency in dating culture. “Looking for casual sex”, “looking for fun”, who really knows the meaning of these words until they find them somewhere they didn’t expect? From these pre-manufactured desires, people begin standardizing their profiles, and their responses to others’ differences. This game takes the substance out of connecting with someone truly different.
A related implication is that being “single” comes to have meaning largely in relation to other sexual signifiers, and we begin to lose sight of the usefulness of those periods where the relentless flow of relationships comes to a stop and we can see things more clearly. Where reflection and personal development have their due, where we can consolidate all the different movements of our “real lives” free from any virtuality, and explore the (not necessarily romantic) passions within.
The main consequence of emptying difference of its true substance, in a “low-friction” marketplace with so many choices, is emptying each experience of its separate, unique value. As Dan Slater outlined, with all these choices that seem to fulfil our stated needs, we value each less, and with more choices around the corner, it becomes less costly to move on from each partner to a new one. People are treated less indispensable. Yet just as nobody is the same either in respect to their personal traits or how they fulfil others’ desires, nobody is indispensable.
If there is any kind of freedom in the virtuality of online dating, it is a freedom alienated from the materiality, the contingency of our everyday lives, that which all the great romantics throughout the ages wrote poetry about. It is a freedom for which spontaneous, contingent love is too real, too wound up in uncertainty, volatility, vulnerability. Yet these things are the true cost of romantic freedom, and at the same time the very things that make it beautiful in the first place. If this starts becoming too real, or too inaccessible, we have to change the nature of our reality. We can start by removing the virtual aspect.
The pendulum is swinging in favour of online dating, with over a quarter of Australians having used online dating and another quarter saying that they would, and these views seem increasingly old fashioned. Altogether, this post probably represents a protest against many of society’s current attitudes towards dating, sex and love which may have nothing to do with online dating. But I hope that we don’t get sucked into these fads so easily. The problem with online dating is not that it is different from offline dating, although it clearly is, but rather that it obscures and naturalizes these differences as tolerable side-effects of our quest for greater freedom, and therefore, before we know it, begins to change the way we express our freedom to love. So please, if you’re on Tinder, Grindr, eHarmony, RSVP, Match, Zoosk, OkCupid or whatever, get off it. Romance and sex are exciting wherever they are found, but the most exciting thing is the freedom to shape and act on our desires wherever we encounter new people and experiences we like, rather than being sold these pre-manufactured desires on a virtual marketplace.