Online Dating Goes Back to the Future
Have you noticed an uptick in move-ins or engagements in your social circles lately? How about divorces? While everyone seemingly dreads the loneliness of quarantine, statistical and anecdotal evidence suggest both move-ins and divorces are on the rise as we collectively strain under the burden of separation, immobility, and social and political upheaval. Unable to go to work, take a trip, or hug an acquaintance, we’re all unwitting participants in a global experiment in the psychological effects of social deprivation.
Usage of social networks like Facebook spiked more than 50% in many countries that have been hard-hit by Covid-19. “Netflix-and-chill” has gone from titillating innuendo to drab, bloodless white noise. Rewatching Spike Jonze’s film Her (2013), many of us might relish the thought of falling in love with our Alexa chatbot rather than rubbernecking at an erstwhile “loser.” Through it all, online dating companies have remained profitable – despite the potential for in-person meetups seeming more remote than ever. Online dating companies have been quick to throw out premium features – from video chats to flirting advice hotlines – to solve the problem of remote intimacy. Instead, this post seeks an answer for the distanced dating boom in how our contradictory hungers and fears around intimacy have given birth to the cultural phenomenon of dating itself.
As an anthropologist, I spent more than twelve months conducting ethnographic fieldwork on heterosexual male dating coaches and the seduction-coaching communities where they ply their trade. Based in New York City, I followed coaches and trainees in and out of the bars, nightclubs, online forums, and rented office and studio spaces where they gathered to meet women and coach each other in the craft of heterosexual seduction. In the course of my research, I came to understand that seduction training – much like the ritual of dating in America – has always been a project of self-improvement that rests as much in flesh as in fantasy. My preliminary research on dating in the age of Covid-19 suggests that social distancing has accelerated the cultural crosscurrents of individualism and conformity that drive many of the contradictions of American dating behavior. These contradictions deal with the murky boundary between freedom (experiencing a transformative sense of personal agency through the other person’s presence) and commitment (limiting that agency in the name of intimacy). Lockdown is a denaturalizing agent, breaking down dating’s competing drives for power and belonging, and re-absorbing these forces as surplus value that powers capital-driven technology’s increasing colonization and commodification of our senses, relationships, and lived identities.
Dating Fast + Slow
While loneliness is increasingly recognized as a debilitating condition – neuroscientist Livia Tomova compares longing for social interaction to the neurological response of a hungry person craving food, whereas former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy compared the health effects of loneliness to smoking fifteen cigarettes per day – nobody can seem to agree on the effect lockdown has had on dating. Are we seeing a surge in “turbo relationships,” where people take a more intentional approach to screening partners for compatibility, followed by compressing two years of commitment into two months? Or are we seeing a blossoming of “slow love,” where quick hookups are off the table and people adjust to a new normal of episodic Zoom dates and socially distanced drinks?
Whether caffeinated like a Starbucks fix or unhurried like a drip-distilled single malt, popular consensus is that Covid is causing a tipping point in the normalization of online dating. Journalist Abram Brown writes that “Tinder, Bumble, Hinge, and Coffee Meets Bagel are scrambling to avoid becoming corporate Covid-19 victims the way festival hosts and cruise-ship lines have.” Hinge is rolling out new video-based conversational features. Match.com staffed a hotline for customers unsure how to date during a pandemic. Grindr is offering phone-sex tips. Far from flavor-of-the-month, these features signal a new frontier in the normalization of “mediated intimacy.” In a study run by the Match group, 94% of OKCupid users plan to continue dating virtually even after the global health emergency subsides. Forget perfume, nice shoes, and one night stands – mood lighting and a curated bookshelf for your Zoom are the must-have dating accessories of 2020, and potentially far into the future as well.
These tactical adaptations are misleading. Rather than pressing the pause button, Covid-induced quarantine has made Americans both lonelier and more paranoid about personal boundaries than ever. Like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, we’ve awoken in a pandemic world feeling like strangers in a foreign land – everything familiar made strange. It has supercharged the underlying tension that dating in U.S. middle-class society historically sprang up to solve: the paradox of how to be yourself with another person. Dating in this context has always been stressed with the dual tensions of expressing individuality and sacrificing that same individuality in the name of connection and companionship. No surprise that, as we exist in suspended animation, the fantasy-machine of dating purrs along more smoothly and persuasively than ever, reassuring us that our single-serving soulmate (or temporary squeeze) is always already out there, only just out of reach. “Even though it’s a different world, I’m still seeing a big desire for people to connect with others,” says matchmaker Christina Smith Kelley. “Covid has definitely caused singles to put more effort into meeting new people.”
The concept of dating arose among white and immigrant middle-class communities in the US in the late 19th Century around the same time as job search manuals, self-help literature, and newspaper advice columns. Dating gave people a new sexual script in response to social and economic upheaval: increasing rates of women in the workforce; increasing social mobility from rural areas to cities far away from their parents; massive immigration from Europe and formerly slaveholding southern states; the increasing prevalence of wage labor; and the rise of entertainment industries that gave people activities (“dates”) to do together. In practice, as historian Beth Bailey explains, “Men and women often defined themselves and each other as commodities, the woman valued by the level of consumption she could demand… and the man by the level of consumption he could provide.” Though most people could work out their sexual market value, savvy daters could game the odds. They could manipulate their appearance or project status to date “up” or date “down” the social ladder.
For most of the 20th century dating was still considered a well-defined yet transitional stage of life. In the 21st century, though, dating and hooking up have become acceptable adult lifestyles. In the after-effects of the Great Recession of 2008, young people are choosing to delay, or opt out of, many role transitions traditionally associated with adulthood. This includes everything from homeownership to marriage, child-rearing, finishing education, and finding stable jobs. Today, “dating” is just one out of many sexual scripts, from “one night stands” to “fuck buddies,” “hookups,” “pickups” and “booty calls.” As much as they may satiate our desires, these scripts also help people like my research interlocutors cope by exchanging the nerve-wracking fragility of relationships for a buffet of endless choices. As one of my research informants told me, “When it comes to hooking up, the person who cares less has more power over where that relationship will go.”
As these scripts proliferate, so too does the language we use to talk about and shape our desires. From sexting to cam-girls, porn, and online dating, technology is often both the medium and the message – driving how these desires get expressed as well shaping their emotional and affective content. Online dating has become the primary gateway for singles to meet, whether for marriage, dating, or hooking up. From platforms like Christian Mingle, Match.com, and Tinder to more esoteric choices like Farmers Only (“meant for down to earth folks only”), Stoner Singles (“built by stoners for stoners”), Sea Captain Date (“the most popular Sea Captain dating community in the world”), MouseMingle (“the place for people to connect who love Disney”), and even DateAnIncel (“turn your romantic life into a message of hope”), online dating can empower people by giving them tools to express and share their desires. It can also compound people’s feelings of loneliness by turning their lives into objects of display, evaluation, and comparison with others.
During my fieldwork, I attended a seminar on how to do a makeover of your online dating profile. Introducing her philosophy, the coach – let’s call her Isabella – said:
If you’re thinking about your profile in terms of brand technique, what makes you respond to the brand? What makes you want to click on it? Your brand can attract different people, but the point is that you need to be branding yourself to attract the person you want. It’s about typing a profile for consistency and telling a story. I think the best profiles allow me to imagine a person that I’m seeing. But there will always be a kind of doubt, something about that person that escapes the profile. Then it’s a game between me and this person, of how far you can take that story. How far you can you take that initial promise.
At that point a young man in the audience replied:
With any of these social networks, the dynamic is that you have a grid of stuff, a list of stuff, and then you have the person. In order to be something other than just a list item, or just something in a spreadsheet—which is what you really are in any of these sites, you’re a thing in a SQL database—you have to do something different. But the only chance that any of these sites gives you is a username and a profile picture. There’s not much opportunity there. Within the bounds of the site, you really only have raw, animalistic attraction. I think the best way to meet someone is through way weirder places than OKCupid. I think it’s cooler to meet someone through Yahoo Questions, or something like that. I think it’s cooler to meet someone because you love their Yelp review.
For many of us, romance defies the convenience of single-serving portions. As Mitch alludes, in the world of online dating commerce and community might start to seem interchangeable. As gender theorist Jasbir Puar writes, young people especially may “see the ‘choice’ of internet surveillance as a mandatory regulatory part not only of their subject formations but of their bodily habits and affective tendencies” in ways that “create simultaneous sensations of exposure (the whole world is watching) and alienation (no one understands).” This kind of self-surveillance creates new configurations of conformity and freedom: authenticity seems compulsory yet tantalizingly out-of-reach.
Breaking the Mirror
Some opine that Covid marks the end of hookup culture as singles turn towards certainty, authenticity and companionship. Others argue that social distancing has made the allure of hookup culture even more powerful by framing it as forbidden fruit. “I was bored after being at home for so long and lockdown and the stress of it all, so I was just looking for fun,” says Sarah in The Irish Times. “I was at a point where I was like ‘f**k this, just give me someone.”
Intimacy and technology have never been separate. Just as every new technology is hastily bent to consumers’ erotic needs (not just VR and film but even such innocuous-seeming inventions as the postal service), so do Hollywood rom-coms teach children and teens scripts for dating before they encounter the real thing. Now more than ever, online dating’s recipes for dating success are part-and-parcel of an accelerating consumer society that has replaced community ties with an ethos of self-improvement and endless productivity.
That’s not to say finding love in the age of Covid can’t be done; classic literature from the Romeo & Juliet to Pride & Prejudice have shown how love blossoms under conditions of constraint. The trade-off of freedom and loneliness isn’t a pain point to be solved through user interfaces. It’s a numinous truth at the root of what it means to be human. If Covid-19 shows us how to be alone together, then our task might be better seen as a call to become more skillful agents within technology’s hall of mirrors: to escape the fictive self that gets refracted back to us via technology, and figure out what kinds of service unto others makes us come alive.
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