My first significant romantic relationship began with a handwritten letter. Driven by lust and the type of confidence that comes with youth, it brazenly revealed my feelings towards a coworker. The strange thing is that it worked. Within a week I received a response in the mail; the feelings were mutual.
At this time in my life, drunk on first love, single life seemed distant; the concept of Internet dating sad and peculiar. Thirteen years later, I’m single, but still find Internet dating odd. My reluctance connects to a broader aversion to online profiles. Whether it be LinkedIn, Facebook, Google+ or other platforms, I resent having to develop an online identity. Connecting with people digitally has never felt right .
But in an increasingly digital era, avoiding online culture is not an option. Last year I received an automated email from YouTube reminding me that my profile needed updating. Adding a photo was recommended, and a more original name. Apparently there are already eight Timmahs. Not long after I made the updates, I got a message through my Melbourne Rock-climbing Meetup account from a stranger telling me that he liked my picture and asking me out for a drink.
“How do we use the new opportunities afforded by the digital world
while managing the ethical issues arising from the detachment and anonymity?”
These encounters felt intrusive. My “real self” wasn’t equipped to respond to comments from strangers or computer operating systems that I could not ground in real life. I discussed the emails with a friend. She believed that in the digital age, the difference between your “real” and “online” self were indistinguishable, and avoiding a digital identity impossible and naïve.
Our dependence on social media and the Internet is unquestionable. More and more people are interacting, finding love, running businesses and organising their “real” lives online, suggesting that this is an irreversible trend. The benefits and popularity may be obvious but are we underestimating issues arising from our digital?
Some of my friends have found partners online, for others it’s created new opportunities to start dating after the end of a long-term relationship. Despite the good stories of people benefiting from the opportunity to represent themselves and connect with new people, there are downsides. In particular, the focus on the profile picture has always been a deterrent. Finding a date is heavily linked to our physical appearances, but in a sea of selfies competing for attention on your average dating site, we risk losing other qualities and nuances, which make attraction thrilling and indefinable.
The question is, how do we use the new opportunities afforded by the digital world while managing the ethical issues arising from the detachment and anonymity? In particular, are women’s experiences of objectification exacerbated in a world where one’s profile picture is everything?
Writing in the late 90s, author Jonathan Franzen was already concerned about the inadequacies of online profiles: “It is scary to think that the mystery of our identities might be reducible to finite data sequences.“ The scenario is even more frightening for women uploading photos online. In a recent article, feminist Clementine Ford alluded to the murky territory these spaces create, reducing women to images open to judgement: “In the world of online dating, women’s sense of self and values are casually dismissed and aggressively responded to.”
Recently on a tram, I overheard a woman in her mid-twenties telling her friend why she deleted her Tinder account. It occurred to her that men were free to dismiss her based on her looks, devaluing her sense of self. When she got a match the resulting banter was sex-based, and demeaning rather than flirtatious. This characterisation is borne out by conversations I often overhear between my young male neighbours describing their Tinder conquests. They casually denigrate the women they meet as if they are not real, often calling them fat, ugly or easy, as though they don’t have personalities; they are simply three-dimensional versions of their profile shots.
Another friend of mine lamented E-Harmony’s misogynist underpinnings. When building her profile she was asked a series of questions, including which of the following magazine covers she would like to appear on if she were famous: Playboy, Time, Vogue or Women’s Weekly.
The question was intended to help her find a match, but is just another example of the crude gender stereotypes which prevail in 2015. When dating sites are constructed on chauvinistic values, they normalise sexist behaviour and encourage users to view women as clichés.
Despite my concerns, I understand and respect women who engage in online dating. Women have the right to play with these new tools, to start dirty conversations and post pictures of themselves if they want to. But we also need to talk about boundaries and develop a greater awareness of the superficial and manipulative aspect of Internet dating. As Maria Popova puts it:
Dating sites make their money through advertising and subscriptions. They benefit from you coming back to the site again and again, spending as much time as possible looking for – but not finding – a mate.
I’m not sure how we explore our sexuality online without feeling ripped off, or viewed through out-dated gender constructs.
Nic Low, in his work Facebook Redux, predicts a dystopian future where social media manipulates our data for material gain and we are coerced into false identities. The story’s protagonist chats to a friend online after re-activating his Facebook account and agrees to meet her in real life. His digitally savvy daughter is left to catch him up to speed.
“She’s not real?” He says feebly.
“She’s a premium service, Dad. I know you’ve been lonely but so do they; they know how you’re feeling better than you do. It’s total manipulation.”
Low’s bleak vision may be fictional, but it acts as a warning.
We need to think critically and ethically about how we interact online now and in the future, creating spaces which move beyond shallow representations of ourselves. Apps and dating sites that encourage meaningful engagement and opportunities to share interests and information could achieve this. Knowing what a potential date looks like may be the motivating factor, but finding ways to highlight our personalities could reduce the superficial quality of most Internet dating sites. With the right framework, finding love in the time of Tinder may only be a swipe away.
Timmah Ball is an urban planner, community arts worker and writer. She has been published in Assemble Papers and Inflection Journal.
Feature image: Denis Bocquet/Flickr