We’ve covered online dating a lot on the Feelin’ Tingley show…from stories that played out in the media to tips & tricks for finding a partner online, this is a topic that seems to keep coming up. Tonight I’m thinking about it again as I prepare for an upcoming conference presentation. I was reading a post on TheFrisky.com about being sex positive and I stumbled upon another post on the blog titled Dater X: Are We Really Talking About Sex Before Our First Date? The post shares a story about a woman who is on OkCupid and is talking to a few different men who brought up sex before they had even met. The author seems to think this is surprising, but let’s take a second to think about why this happens.
We can start by thinking about what we’ve defined as traditional dating. You know the story, it’s the formula for about 1,000 romantic comedies and it’s likely what most of us were raised to believe is the ideal way to find a partner. The problem is that real life isn’t like that and it takes some of us a long time to figure that out. While people on the fringes of gender and sexual identity have been using the web as a way to meet for a long time, people in the sexual majority really started using Facebook and Google as the first step toward “data mining” their prospective dates.
In the past, we didn’t find out who our dates really were until after we met them. Maybe we relied on info we got from friends and family, or we dated people who were geographically and socially connected to us, but that’s not the norm today. I grew up in a world where finding someone to date eventually meant reading their LiveJournal and Myspace pages to figure out what was important to them and seeking them out based on that knowledge. That eventually progressed to preemptively Googling dates and searching for them on Facebook. All things that undoubtedly poisoned my dating experience.
Bringing it in to 2013, there are so many ways that we can data mine people we might want to date. It has become part of how we do dating. To quote a friend, “it’s less spontaneous, but data mining became popular with Facebook. It just seems obvious at this point. Like of course we should date like this.” This sentiment seems to be shared by those who create online dating sites. While sites like eHarmony and OKCupid help you find a match based on a series of questions and personality tests, far more sites let you filter people out based on a variety of factors including, gender, race, genital size, favored sexual position, age, height weight, etc. We use these filters to help us find the “perfect” match, but how well does that actually work? and what does it say about us?
In Relationshopping: Investigating the market metaphor in online dating featured in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, the authors found that online dating resembles online shopping:
The functionality of online dating sites, specifically the ability to filter through thousands of profiles, supports the market mentality of online dating in that participants had to make decisions based on an increased “supply” of potential matches. This encouraged a shopping mentality, in which participants searched for the perfect match based on discrete characteristics and reduced potential partners to the sum of their parts. Decision making based on these qualities was quite different from offline dating situations in which individuals often get a more holistic impression of the individual, usually taking into account unquantifiable aspects of personality (such as energy level) and interaction (such as chemistry).
To me, our consumerist (and often impersonal) take on dating has made it okay to also filter people out based on sex, a topic that many people are made to believe should be off-limits. Now, we’re entering territory that’s up for debate, right? If your goal is to find a sex partner online, then yes, it makes sense that you’d send messages about that; If your goal is to start a relationship, is that really the best way to do it?
I think there’s lots of debate on all of this, clearly there are lots of judgements placed on everything related to this and the decisions we make about sex and dating. We can only really be responsible for our choices and how we respond to others and I think that’s where we need to focus our energy. I wonder, what would it be like if we thought about what it means for us to behave this way online. Are we so insecure or vain that we need to pick out a partner like we shop for shoes online? In First Comes Love, Then Comes Google: An Investigation of Uncertainty Reduction Strategies and Self-Disclosure in Online Dating the authors found that people who use online dating sites often employ “uncertainty reduction strategies” to protect themselves not only physically, but mentally. We’re so afraid of getting let down by the dating process that we try to choose someone based on a perfect online profile.
What we know about online profiles is that they’re, at best, slightly obscured to show a person in their best light and, at worst, a gross misrepresentation of the person you think you’re talking to. The authors of Strategic misrepresentation in online dating: The effects of gender, self-monitoring, and personality traits found that both men and women misrepresent their physical traits, personal demographics and even their personality based on what they believe the person they’re talking to online is attracted to; interestingly enough, men misrepresent this information at a much higher level than women. All of this self-monitoring and deception flies in the face of what we know lays the groundwork for a healthy relationship.
Now, I hope we all know that it’s not exactly realistic to believe that we will find a partner solely based on serendipity and using online dating as a tool can be extremely useful. I challenge you to use online dating as a tool that starts a relationship you might not have had the courage to start in person. If we choose to think of people as a series of checkboxes and drop-down lists, we’re missing the boat on the human experience and we’re using a dating profile to sell ourselves short. We need to know that we are worthy and capable of being in a healthy relationship and we need to know that there’s more to people than what you can find online.
Alright, I’m stepping off of the soapbox. For more on this, please check out the show at feelintingley.com We’re on every Monday at 10am CST