Monday, February 18, 2013

Online Dating

The dating scene is intimidating. Not everyone is comfortable with the idea of setting up appointments with near-strangers so they can desperately search for something in common. Not everyone likes dealing with the silent expectations of intimacy that can be present when going out under the label of 'date'. Not everyone is good at working the bar scene, the club scene, or any other scene that's supposed to soothe your anxieties with loud music and overpriced beer.

To be fair, one alternative hypothesis is that I'm just bad at this, and totally not bitter about it.

So, in our digital age, we have the invention of online dating. Proving once again that the internet has penetrated itself into our daily lives, online dating sites now comprise a billion-dollar industry, with most single people in the United States having tried online dating at least once.

On the one hand, it's a pretty convenient setup. You could say that online dating helps organize and structure the dating process for some people, making it easier to explore your dating options (more than half of people saying they have dated more than one person simultaneously) and making it easier to find people with the same romantic interest (be it some fling or a committed relationship). Plus, if you're really busy with your work and life in general, it's nice to put yourself out there, even if it's just through an online essay with your face on it.

Seems ideal. Except it's not.

Let's quickly talk about what shouldn't be considered problems of online dating.

The stigma of online dating websites present something of a paradox to its participants. Through social networking sites like Facebook, it has become fashionable to put yourself online. Individuals can feel no shame in posting their names, pictures, and mundane details of their day for the world to see. However, if you have an online dating profile, you certainly won't be posting a link to your Facebook about it. In fact, you'll probably try to keep as silent about it as possible.

Pictured: How seemingly half of the OkCupid population answers this portion of the profile.

Conventional wisdom would tell us that dating online has its stigma from how the internet is still perceived to be a fairly 'nerdy' place to spend time on. If you're looking for dates online, what's that say about how you're spending your time?

Well, not much, considering that most people use the internet a lot anyway. It is an indispensable and ubiquitous tool that most people use quite extensively. We use it to connect to new people in a business context and in a friendly context, so using it to connect in a romantic context isn't really so crazy. Plus, considering how meaningless the word 'nerdy' has become anyway, it seems pretty silly that there'd still be any sense of shame associated with online dating.

Another problem commonly cited for online dating for its anonymity. Anyone can be whomever they want to be online, and can trick you into believing falsities. However, in this age where nearly everyone takes advantage of social networking, and where there exists search engines specifically for finding information on other people AND reverse-searching images posted online, the problem of anonymity and deception has a much smaller impact on online dating than it ever has before.

Seriously, we can all google now. This guy probably isn't going to be the one to trick you.

No, the problem of online dating is no longer dealing with reasonable stigma, nor is it fear of being deceived by other people. It is the trap of deceiving ourselves.

Let's look at non-romantic relationships for a moment. The Internet has brought with it a new social paradigm. It gives individuals greater control over who they talk to, and who they can simply ignore. It allows us access to a greater breadth of people to interact with, and more options for ceasing interactions with individuals when we've had enough with them.

One can't pinpoint which quality of internet ubiquity and online social networking has affected us the most, but an overall effect is emerging: We have fewer "real" friends than ever before. There are fewer people in our lives that we are willing to intimately confide with. The term "friend" has been cheapened to the point where most people qualify as our friend on social networks. This trend of having fewer real friends could be observed in the years prior to the Internet's rise to prominence, but it is intuitive that the Internet would accelerate the trend.

But, wait. We still interact with people on these social networking sites, sometimes quite extensively. Where do status updates, likes, and comments fit into how we measure interactions with people?
It's been postulated that, when people are posting about their interests and mundane day-to-day events on networking sites, it is less that they're trying to socialize with other people, and more that they're deliberately using the platform to explore themselves in the presence of other people. It makes sense - if someone "liked" something you said on Facebook, that isn't really interacting with you, is it? It's more like they're reacting to something good that they read online - nothing social involved. Or, when you post pictures of your food online - nobody cares, and you know that nobody will probably care, but you do it anyway because that's what's on your mind right now.

Thank you for sharing. I feel much closer to you, as a person.

Combine this need for self-expression with the ability to pick and choose who you interact with, and you sow some dangerous seeds.  Sometimes people will seek platforms to explore themselves in the presence of people who will only provide positive feedback to them. This can allow for cyberbalkanization, or the cultivation of unsavory - if not outright incorrect - viewpoints in isolated bubbles of the internet. This fosters an egoism and lack of communication that can probably get us in a lot of trouble one day, if it hasn't already (but that's a topic for another day).

Enter online dating. If these factors have a known impact on our concept of friendship, then imagine how it impacts our pursuit of intimate relationships.

Online dating sites very conveniently fit the mold as a platform for singles to explore themselves in the presence of other people. Most dating sites have you fill out a profile, where you get to talk all about yourself. Above this, dating services offer multiple ways for you to make your profile even more unique. OkCupid has a database of questions that help determine how you present your personality, your preferences, and your viewpoints (and since everyone is answering questions from the same database, it allows for direct comparison with other people). EHarmony boasts its "29 dimensions of compatibility", which again serve towards expressing the uniqueness of the user's tastes. The profile is a shrine to yourself, that you design to your liking.

Once you've picked and pruned your profile to present yourself in exactly the way that you deem reasonable or accurate (which should already set off red flags in your mind, since anyone who's tried to describe themselves to anybody knows that they can't accurately depict how they present themselves to other people), you then get to browse other people's profiles and decide who you'd like to contact. This is where it gets especially hairy.

If you're a guy looking to get into the online dating scene, expect to be ignored a lot. If you're a girl looking to get into the online dating scene, expect to get harassed a lot. I mean, a lot. And not by pleasant people. It will get embarrassing for everyone involved.

Can I emphasize any further how bad I feel for women on online dating sites?

It's very easy to spend hours on a dating site browsing other people's profiles but ultimately not choosing to contact anybody at all. If your profile is too short, you'll come off boring. A "well-done" profile tends to emphasize many facets of an individual. However, someone viewing your online profile can choose to take issue with even the most minor of your quirks, and ultimately decide not to message you.

For example, let's say that you're a non-smoker, and you have a personal preference to date non-smokers. Let's say that you were to view someone's profile on a dating site, and you see that they answered the multiple choice question "Have you smoked a cigarette in the past six months?" with "Yes." Although you don't know the details behind the answer to that question,  it might set off a red flag somewhere in the back of your head. You'd think, "Well, this person's got this unsavory habit, and there are certainly other options to browse on here, so I might as well not contact this person."

But, let's say you happened to meet a person in real life that would have also answered that same question with "Yes." The subject of people's smoking history is generally not a prominent issue in our minds when we first start talking to somebody. You'd probably talk about more mundane things first, like how your day has been, what your interests are, etc. It's entirely possible that you could get to know a lot about a person - and even decide that you like them - before you find out that they've had a history of smoking.

In the second situation, it's unlikely that you'd break off contact with someone just because they may or may not have some unsavory habit, preference, or viewpoint. But it's very likely that you'd never initiate contact at all over that same issue, since you had prior knowledge of it. If the example of smoking seems extreme, then apply it to other questions as well. "Are you a dog person?" "Are you religious?" "What does wherefore mean in the phrase 'wherefore art thou, Romeo?'"

Why would this ever be part of your criteria?

In fact, it's entirely conceivable that you could find happiness in a relationship with someone that you wouldn't even give the time of day had you been going by their dating profile. Dating websites allow us to be so picky that we can convince ourselves that it's not worth making connections with some people over the tiniest of details.

The counter-argument to this is, "Well, shouldn't we be picky? If we're on here to look for a relationship, then it's okay to have expectations for who we'd want to be with."

I agree completely, but there are two fundamental flaws to the online dating scene that enable us to be downright unreasonable on these websites.

1) Online profiles are static, but people are not. People's behavior, opinions and tastes can change with every passing day, sometimes drastically. Sometimes these people aren't even aware of how they've changed. Sometimes the influence of other people (like, hey, your significant other!) can cause people to change. At their best, online profiles can only provide a snapshot of what a person was like at the time that they last updated their profile, assuming it was a thorough update. Which it might not have been.

2) People sign up for online dating sites with the explicit purpose of finding romantic encounters. Not to meet new friends, not to find local activities, but to date around and to see if they can find someone promising. The online system might work well for no-strings-attached hookups, but it's likely very counter-productive if you're looking for a relationship.

Never is it healthy to start interacting with a stranger with the expectation that a relationship might come out of it. Unless your companion is to be your spouse in an arranged marriage, it's better to approach people with as few expectations as possible. Once you begin comparing the strangers you meet to an idealized companion, it gets harder to like them for who they are.

Online dating enables these bad habits with its compatibility tests and its ego-pandering profiles. It is a platform that brings strangers and their expectations together, with the hopes that maybe you'll run into someone whose expectations are compatible with yours. We are encouraged to scrutinize everyone we see on these sites, asking ourselves "Would I date this person?" when all you know of them is a profile that couldn't possibly do justice to any individual.

People cultivate relationships through equal parts common interests and time spent together. A prerequisite to mutual cooperation is relevant exposure to an individual in our day-to-day lives. If our relationship has no relevance to our daily lives and routine, then it's doomed to fail - which probably accounts for part of the reason why long-distance relationships suck.

Everything you do on a dating site comes with expectations. Contacting someone on a dating site sends an unspoken expression of interest. Continued contact can lead on someone with the expectation that this contact might lead to a date. These expectations are a factor when we decide to message people, or even let them know that we've been looking at them. These expectations are self-imposed, and ultimately restrict us.

Contrast this to a website that might be the exact opposite situation: Omegle.


Omegle is not a dating site, or a social networking site. When you hit the 'go' button, you are put into a one-on-one chatroom with a complete stranger. You are not given any information on your conversational partner; they are merely called "stranger". You can abort the conversation anytime you want, but once you do, you'll be paired up with another stranger. It's unlikely that you'll ever contact the same person twice, and if you do, you'd probably never know it.

The premise of the site deliberately snubs any expectations that you might have. You're not on here looking for friends, and you're certainly not on here to look for a relationship. You're there to talk to strangers. Morbid curiosity and boredom has brought you here, and you have no idea what to expect, outside of the baseline internet noise of online sex solicitors.

On sites like Omegle, you'll run into a lot of strangers asking for your gender, and then leaving right away when they find out that you don't have boobs. But, sometimes, you'll run into someone looking for conversation, and you might find yourself talking about lots of things that you wouldn't normally share.

The anonymity lends itself well to this task, but a large factor is the fleeting nature of the conversation. This social interaction isn't leading to anything on its own - in fact, it can't. You have every reason to believe that there are no consequences to talking to a completely anonymous stranger. If you happen to have an enjoyable conversation with one, your hopes of including them in your life in any way is virtually nonexistent. You can't revisit conversations with them. Any good conversation with an interesting stranger is a rare, memorable commodity.

Online dating sites can't seem to capture this same sensation. Don't get me wrong, sites like Omegle open themselves up to some abuses, but the preciousness of talking to someone new is poisoned by people's expectations of other people. Who knows how many connections were missed just because one person didn't think that the other was compatible enough for them?

I think that online dating should sell the conversational angle more on their websites. There should be more emphasis on making friends online, on having conversations with new people. Compatibility tests, profile-building, and relationship expectations should take a back seat to meeting people and putting yourself a little out of your conversational comfort zone. Relationships - platonic or romantic - are about compromise, so maybe there should be a little less emphasis on what you want, and more on what you could learn or do with other people.

And, granted, you can probably guess from the pictures used in this post that most of my experience is with OkCupid. If you know of other websites that operate on a fundamentally different matchmaking system, then by all means educate me. I should also mention, for the sake of personal humility, that it's not like I haven't occasionally found myself guilty of the same things that I'm criticizing above.

This person listens to music I don't like? NEXT.

So, let's soil this warm and fuzzy talk about better matchmaking and let's talk capitalism. Is it necessarily to the dating site's advantage to pursue better ways to match people? Probably not.

Like I mentioned far earlier, the online dating business is lucrative. Many people are willing to pay money in hopes that some digital matchmaker will magically find someone that will fulfill their expectations, unconcerned about how much of a fool's gambit the prospect may be. While dating sites reap benefits if they have more success stories to brag about, they reap even greater benefits from people constantly looking for matches. Because generally, once you've found your match, you tend to stop using the website, which means less money for the website.

It may even be that the plethora of compatibility tests out there don't even work at all. It isn't as though any of them have been put through any real scientific rigor, outside of vague correlations between keywords. They offer lazy consolation to the online dating user that relationships can form from common interests and perspectives alone, when in reality it takes as much work to start a relationship from online as it does from real life. What the hell does having a 93% match mean, anyway?

And why would we, apparently simultaneously, be terrible friends?

At some point, the game of running an online dating website is less about pursuing matchmaking success, and more about maintaining a consumer base. You only need enough success stories to paint the illusion of widespread success on your website, but you must feed off the unreasonable expectations of your customers. This delicate balance would suggest more evil than good, unfortunately.

But, wait! There's a counter to this argument as well. Maybe there isn't a need for online dating sites to keep people coming back to their service. After all, new people become eligible singles every day. Maybe it's just as profitable to cater to the newly single as it is to the chronically single. The catch is, arguing this stance effectively would require demographic information that doesn't - and will probably never - exist. So it's up in the air as to whether dating sites thrive on their broken models, or if they even have to.

Still, ultimately, all this suggests is that online dating does not have any real advantage over traditional dating. In fact, it might have more disadvantages than previously considered.

Despite what conveniences the internet scene may provide to you, it does little to change the real toil, compromise, and sacrifice that comes with forging - and maintaining - a healthy relationship. It just goes to show that nothing great comes easy, and that the real treasures of life come from being willing to respond to your surroundings with personal growth. These websites permit us to be too lazy about dealing with other people, and too reluctant to get over ourselves.

But, it's probably still better than loud music and overpriced beer.

Not that I'm painting false dichotomies or anything.