Attention is turning to how technology is changing something that has, perhaps until recently, seemed uniquely human: how we interact with others, be it intimately or platonically. With the online dating industry generating a revenue of $1,221 million as of 2019, discussion and debate regarding these sites have exploded along with their usage figures. Tinder, for example, boasts around 57 million users worldwide. While they may provide a wealth of choice and an unprecedented opportunity for self-expression amongst their users, I would argue that – particularly in this age of personalised advertisements, online dating, and the handling of vast amounts of our data – Valentine’s Day, dating, and how other people think we should be doing it, has never seemed so outwith our individual control.
The translation of dating into data has, firstly, muddied the waters of ethics within the pursuit of romance, an all-too-volatile minefield even when conducted away from the screens. Recently, technology company Revolut caused a stir with a frankly Orwellian Tube advert, which sported the slogan: “To the 12,750 people who ordered a single takeaway on Valentine’s Day – You OK, hun?”. Obsessive Valentine’s Day smugness has never been so chillingly illustrated as it is by the assertion that they know how to plumb the ins and outs of what laughably used to be called your ‘personal life.’ Despite this mockery of those without a partner by faceless technology companies, however, technology itself has alienated the importance of human interaction from the initial stages of dating, making it more about observation than communication.
Social media has completely altered our perceptions of the people behind the profiles, and I would argue that online dating has done the same. Online, finding somebody attractive has lost the additional need for personality to be factored into the equation; instead, people are falling for profile pictures, proximity and a carefully choreographed ‘biography’ – in other words, a crudely watered-down parody of the real thing. Granted, it moves things along nicely – there’s no umming and ahhing about whether your feelings are mutual, whether you’ll ruin a friendship if you confess all, or whether a quick drink at the pub counts as a date. If you match with someone on an online dating site, the likelihood that you already know each other, or that the other is going to run a mile when you suggest meeting up, is obviously fairly low. And offline dating can be as disappointing and impersonal as its online counterpart.
But is profile-obsessed online dating and a corresponding emphasis on hook-up culture damaging our expectations of intimacy? In the 10 February 2019 edition of the Sunday Times, a 17-year old Tinder user admitted that the app is for “random hook-ups, not for finding the love of your life”. In the Guardian in October 2018, Emily Reynolds cited a ComRes survey which found that around 25 per cent of 18- to 24-year-olds would happily treat their relationships “like a phone contract” with the option to “’upgrade’” easily available. The fact that users of these dating sites are so saturated with potential partners has led many to lose respect for the idea of long-term, fulfilling relationships.
Hook-up culture, many argue, promotes sexual freedom, agency, and transgresses societal expectations of behaviour. But does it also help to percolate the stereotype that young people are terrified of commitment or, even more worryingly, provide an ideal environment for this idea to acquire an element of truth? Sexual agency is without doubt about self-fulfilment. But are dating sites really empowering us, or simply allowing us to filter out human imperfection until we are left with nothing? Swiping left and right robs us of the awareness that behind the photos are real people, in all our vulnerable, sometimes-spotty, pyjama-wearing glory. Is this really something that terrifies us so much that we are becoming increasingly unwilling to navigate a learning curve that has been a fixture of growing up for so long: the thrilling, agonising awkwardness of falling for a friendly face at the bar?
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