Is online dating the future of dating?
Every February in high school, the Future Community Leaders of America always handed out these “personality quizzes” to us in homeroom. It was the kind of ultra-deep quiz that asked things like “What’s your favorite pet?” and you picked A) dogs, B) cats, C) horses or D) flying pigs. (Animal-haters were SOL, I guess). After we filled out the quizzes and turned them in, the club used some kind of online program that analyzed and matched up people based on how similar their results were.
Then, at lunch, you could pay $1 (#capitalism) to get a list of your “compatibles,” aka a list of the people whose results matched up to yours, even showing the percentage of questions that matched up. I think the club also sold long-stemmed roses on this day, the idea being that you could shell out another $1 and boom, have your V-Day all ready to go. (Ah. Young marketing. )
We all made fun of the whole deal, but that didn’t stop us from sheepishly lining up at the FCLA lunch table, handing the dollar over and then sprinting back to our friends’ table to giggle and compare lists. If the random guys who you knew you would never actually date or kids you only vaguely knew, like Mr. Messy Hair from chemistry, were at the top of your list, you’d scoff and rant about how stupid the whole test was.
But if the class heartthrob or your secret crush showed up, you’d feel this undeniable glow of vindication. You’d be like, I knew it! I knew we were always secretly compatible! Our love for flying pigs just means we’re both spontaneous, wacky and meant to be!
As far as I know, no one ever got a date based on their FCLA quiz results, but it did make class way more interesting. For example, you probably hadn’t given much thought to Mr. Messy Hair before, but the next day in chemistry, you were suddenly hyper-aware of his tousled locks now that you knew that your dumb personality quiz results were 65% identical. You’d inevitably start wondering what else you and Messy Hair could have in common, and then think, hey, actually, Messy Hair wasn’t really all that messy. It was kind of cute, even.
And so, at age 14-ish, us Millennials’ love affair with technology-driven dating began.
I mean, wasn’t that the whole point of MySpace? And Facebook, eventually? I’ll wholeheartedly confess that my friends and I used MySpace 99% of the time only to find our crushes and draft up all these hypothetical, subtextual posts we could write that hinted at our undying love. This was obviously more along the lines of “online pathetic crushing” than “online dating,” but it was the stepping stone.
Like Googling geometry answers
For the generation that grew up online, it only made sense to use the power of the Internet and technology to help us figure out love as much as it helped us figure out how to cite sources or look up the Pythagorean Theorem. We were just as awkward and shy and terrified of each other and dating as the generations before us, but we had technology on our side as a crutch: Photoshop was for erasing pimples, HTML was for dressing up our profiles and brandishing our personalities, and those endless online personality surveys to embed in our profiles were substitutes for “get to know you” conversations that people in ye olden times supposedly had in real life.
Banter was easier. Courage was easier. Rejection was easier. We had more control online over ourselves and perceptions of us than we did as free-falling vulnerable bodies shuffling through school hallways.
Or at least, that’s what we thought.
And so, it became normal to have friends who actually began and sustained relationships on MySpace and Facebook before they noticed each other at school. We watched and accepted movies like “A Cinderella Story,” where loser Hilary Duff literally meets football babe Prince Charming online.
Sure, MTV’s “Catfish” and countless panicky Internet safety seminars held by school counselors were widespread — but not really so much to warn us against putting our hearts online. Their purpose seemed only to caution us against the handful of sketchy af people out there we might encounter in the otherwise bits and bytes paradise.
We’re in college now, or graduating, or starting to hold down real jobs. A spectacularly few of my generation have already found their soulmates and married (Insert here a reverent yet horrified shriek trademarked by my young female peers on the so-very-single side of this phenomenon).
But for the most part, the rest of us are now just starting to navigate the world of serious actual relationship finding, where cafeteria dates apparently don’t count anymore. We’re older and more sophisticated now, so we know at least MySpace stalking is not super acceptable anymore. But that doesn’t mean we’ve given up on tech-dating entirely.
Let’s be real. Technology, with all its algorithms and data analysis and empirical thingies (sorry, just FYI, this is a journalism major trying to wax poetic about science), is reassuring and dependable and objective the way we all wish love could be. There’s nothing more terrifying than dating. And if we can have technology that makes work and school easier, why can’t we have technology that makes dating easier?
So that brings me finally to my question: is online dating the future of dating?
Short answer: I kind of think so.
While we Millennials are ambitious 20-somethings hellbent on establishing careers (by “careers,” I mean some kind of wage-earning device that pays for ramen diets), it’s not hard to imagine we’ll prefer skimming through reams of contacts online and setting up lunch dates with a few keystrokes instead sitting around all night at a bar and wishing Mr. or Ms. Right would waltz into our lives.
For one thing, doesn’t the latter strike you as horribly inefficient? Like, what if Mr. Right went to the wrong bar, or what if he accidentally got citrus-scented facewash in his eyes that night and became blinded three hours before you were supposed to meet and boozily fall in love?
And for another thing, well, we weren’t the generation that was taught to sit around and wait for college admissions, jobs or anything else worthwhile to land in our laps. People claimed we were the entitled ones — so we laughed hysterically and held up our 30 college apps, student loans and unpaid internships in response. We didn’t learn to follow our dreams — we learned to strategize, lunge and tackle them. It was the only way to survive.
So why would this generation of deadly determined busybodies then want to leave something as important as relationships to the rather fallible fate?
The paradox of Millennial’s mate-able options
My friend Celia and I were talking about a few weeks ago about how psychology and common sense make clear that we do want to have things in common with our potential mates, after all. Especially the important things. I like to think I could be all for someone who likes windsurfing and rap music, sure, I definitely don’t think I could jive with someone who’s mega into Satan worship or even devout veganism. I just really place importance on my chicken fajita lifestyle, you know?
It’s one thing to grow up and settle down in the same small town your entire life, where people know you and have the same background as you. It used to be that most of us would get to know the same set of people through our whole lives, and our mate-able options were thus limited but obvious.
There are all these “findings” out there like this one throwing stats from anywhere between 70-80% that say by the time you’re 18, you’ll have met the person you’ll marry. Which makes a lot of sense, especially if you think back to like, the Laura Ingalls Wilder days, where the area frontiersmen were the best it was going to get.
But as the world population becomes increasingly mobile, city-hopping every few years and using social media to keep our networks intact, the old patterns of meeting The One through mutual friends or at the office seem less likely or realistic. We don’t even know if we’ll be near the same friends or in the same office ourselves in the next few years, or sometimes even months.
As an alternative, we could hope for those rom-com types of situations where we randomly meet guys at a corner Starbucks and pray to God that we have something to talk about besides gosh I sure love pumpkin spice season! But how many hours should we spend at Starbucks before we realize that has a pretty slim chance of happening?
We’re cut loose from our foundations, but while we’re wildly ricocheting across the universe in search of our individual dreams, we want to find someone compatible and who isn’t really that different from us.
So how can we do that easily and quickly in a socially acceptable fashion? We could go to where the supply and demand are: online.
The scarily foreseeable future
It’s almost 2014, but I think it’s safe to say that the stigma against online dating is waning — or at least, looking wistfully at the exit sign. Google “online dating site,” and you get 445 million results. If you search “job listings,” there are only 427 million, and at this point, everyone knows that finding a job online is nothing groundbreaking.
And with the onslaught of eHarmony and Match.com commercials (disclaimer: I watch a disproportionate amount of CNN, so this could be a skewed observation) and the simple fact that people are finding lovable matches more often than ax-wielding psychos online, it’s no longer something to point and laugh about, like look at those losers going online and messaging people to date them.
Now it’s like, Oh shit, look at all those people finding all them fine honeys! I could be doing that! Why aren’t I doing that?
The upsides of online dating versus real life dating are plentiful: 1. Since we can’t require all single people to carry giant signs that say “I’M AVAILABLE AND INTERESTED!” in real life, but we kind of can online, this is the the primary plus. People who are on online dating sites are obvi looking for others, and there’s just this breakdown in the rule of “acting too cool” that seems to run rampant even at bars and parties, aka, supposed dating meccas. There’s none of this “Is he or isn’t he single” guessing (Unless you never cared, in which case I guess ashleymadison.com might be for you.).
2. You get to meet nearby people who you probably wouldn’t have ever met, just because you happen to go to the gym at 2 p.m., and he goes at 4 p.m. If listening to all these online dating site commercials has made any kind of impression on me, it’s that hot singles have apparently been living next to me for years AND I JUST HAVE TO GO HUNT THEM DOWN! AND ONLINE DATING IS THE SOCIALLY ACCEPTABLE WAY TO DO SO!
3. Do you have this unhealthy obsession with basketweaving? There’s probably a dating site that caters to you, or at least some kind of filter function on dating sites that will help you find Mr. Perfect Basket Weaver. Never again will you forlornly travel between social groups on campus, meekly wondering who you’ll spend the rest of your weaving days with.
I could go on and on, but considering that I haven’t actually been on a dating site (I’m secretly afraid that the targeted ads that would result would follow me to my grave), I think those three reasons are pretty compelling in itself. In real life, we are supposed to have this pretense that we have it all together and we’re not the desperate, lonely people we sometimes are. Online, it’s like, there are no rules here. Just find someone. As Budweiser says, it’s only weird if it doesn’t work. (And, of course, if it’s legal, safe, etc.)
Still, online dating isn’t the standard. Yet.
A friend of mine who recently graduated was joking with me about signing up for all the online dating sites that could cater to the new city she’ll be moving to. But then we both admitted to each other that we were afraid to actually do it for fear of getting recognized online by someone who know.
And frankly, I can’t imagine bringing someone home to my parents and telling them we’d met online. At least, not yet. My parents still think that the existence of Amazon is mind-blowing. And really, there’s still this kind of shame because there’s a false assumption about people looking online only as a last resort.
But it’s fading.
Putting ourselves out in cyberspace is simply becoming the more efficient version of putting ourselves out at a party, assuming, of course, that you’re doing it in a tasteful, safe, legal way (as would be reasonably expected at a party). And there are so many platforms for it — traditional social media, online dating sites, apps like Grindr (which, tbh, gives my gay friends the kind of success rate I dream about) and more.
And this technology will only evolve.
Imagine signing up for a dating site that makes you take an extensive test — something like the ACT or SAT that quantifies everything from your personality traits to your values to the way you’d handle common dating scenarios. Will our test score-obsessed society develop some way to define our individual emotional maturity as a number? And then pit us with people who would numerically be most compatible with our life stage?
What about extensive data-mining, location tracking and all those other slightly creepy digital services out there right now? Instead of brands using them to target customers, could this information be used to show potential hubbies that not only do we love long walks on the beach, but we also like browsing vintage decor on Urban Outfitters, and that should be a sign that we want to move in?
Like this article from The Atlantic suggests, will we create profiles and specifications where we rate the qualities we want suitors to have? You could put 100% of your date points in “attractiveness” and 0 in “fidelity,” and you could end up having one very enjoyable evening with like, Ryan Gosling!
Can we pull a few leaves out of LinkedIn’s book and get recommendations from previous dates, or even endorsements for our Italian dinner cooking skills? If we can schedule doctor’s appointments online, why can’t we also schedule dates on a Google doc-like calendar, even going as far as to include the Zagat rating for the sushi place in mind?
Could we offer potential matches a “trial period” if they’re unsure? Could we set our status to “Looking for a 3-6 month fling” or “Looking to be married within five years” so as target the right demographic? Would dating sites analyze similar suitors and suggest them to us, not unlike how Amazon recommends books for you to read based on previous searches?
These possibilities are a long way off from matching up two people who happen to like flying pigs, but not by much. It’s all really scary in the way that all new, strange digital things are. But think of the efficiency! If dating is like finding a needle in a haystack, then these online tools could take a turbo-powered leaf blower to said haystack.
Love at first click?
Part of me wonders if this kind of dating will turn us into shallow profile-seekers in the end. And I hope it doesn’t. I’d like to think that if dating is like fishing in the sea, then technology would be like a really good fishing rod or net. It’ll just help you get to the good ones easier and faster. Hopefully, it won’t kill dolphins along the way.
But will going through hundreds of online profiles and deciding to whom we’ll send a “wink” (as the imaginary dating service portrayed “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” allows) make us emotionally stunted?
If we don’t go through the awkward, often painful experiences of ghastly first dates and public rejections, will we miss out on learning how to handle things graciously (or, alternatively, learning how to sneak out of restaurant bathroom windows)? And how much time will we sacrifice to be scrolling through lists of potential mates on our laptops instead of being out at the neighborhood pub, actually meeting people?
In the real world, the dating gods tend to favor The Bold, The Confident, The Beautiful. Sometimes, yes, it favors The Drunken, because at least they’re the ones who speak up next to you in between cranberry vodkas.
But will an overtake of online dating give evolutionary advantages to The One With The Best-Lit Profile Photo? Or give The One Who Doesn’t Have A Life — the suitors who spend hours and hours on their computers, crafting impeccable online presences? They’ll create arsenals of digital pickup lines and flirting techniques, gaining a definite advantage over the poor potentials who spent their time like, volunteering or playing basketball or something instead.
And if a computer algorithm matches us up only with blond, 20-25-year-old men who love dogs and Thai food, then how many 27-year-old red-head snowboarders (this wasn’t meant to be a profile of Shaun White, but miracles happen, right?) will we never even get to consider on our computer screens?
In the end, I guess we’ll see. The possibilities and questions about tech-driven dating are as exciting as they are terrifying. If there’s anything being a Millennial has taught me, it’s that any attempt to halt technology in favor of old-timesy-sentiments is about as effective as throwing yourself at a high-speed train, trying to drag it to a stop.
In the end, I hope that no matter how we do it, we’ll each find people who are wonderful, beautiful, kind complements to our lives. I believe we’ll find love. And I suspect that no matter how hard we’ll try to quantify love and break it down into lines of computer programming and psychology models and biology, nothing will ever make love itself any less mysterious, unpredictable, or senseless than it always will be.