Dating is objectifying and uncomfortable no matter where it’s happening
It's sometime past two in the morning, and I’m trying to make interchangeable sets of torsos, heads, and limbs that fit together to make impossible bodies. I’ve answered a Call for Papers for a conference on gamification and, since one of the suggested topic areas is “personal relationships,” I’m designing a vaguely rummy-like card game about online dating. (The conference encourages experimental formats.)
My game is called “OkMatch!” which not only puns two popular online-dating sites—OkCupid! and Match.com—but also captures many people’s ambivalence toward the prospects they find on such sites: “okay” matches (if they’re lucky). In the game, players try to assemble a complete “partner” by accumulating 11 body-part cards, each assigned a profile attribute (height, education level, zodiac sign, etc.) with point values. It’s easier to draw, say, a +1 right thigh than a +5 one, so players must decide whether to hold out or “settle” for the lower value card they already have. The game ends when one player completes a partner (and so earns a 15-point bonus), but whoever has the most points “wins.”
The highest-scoring possible partner—one with +5 attribute types in all attribute categories—is a visual catastrophe. This person is the exquisite corpse gone wrong, a biologically impossible remix of different ages, races, genders, sizes, and abilities. This is my less than subtle way of suggesting that the ideal partner we fantasize about is usually an absurd abstraction. Even a person with all the specifications we think we want would not be perfect for us, because there’s still so much left to go wrong (even when all those things are “right”). There’s also the minor technicality that even when we think we know what we want, we probably don’t. How often are we excited to get exactly the person we want, only to discover within a few months that they’re not so great after all? If we “know what we want,” and yet whom we want rarely turns out to be that, perhaps the fault lies not in our partners, dear Brutus, but in our self-awareness.
People love to get up in arms about online dating, as if it were so terribly different from conventional dating—and yet a first date is still a first date, whether we first encountered that stranger online, through friends, or in line at the supermarket. What’s unique about online dating is not the actual dating, but how one came to be on a date with that particular stranger in the first place. My point with my game’s mechanics is that online dating simultaneously rationalizes and gamifies the process of finding a mate. Unlike your friends or the places you end up standing in line, online-dating sites provide vast quantities of single people all at once—and then incentivize you to make plans with as many of them as possible.
Online-dating enthusiasts argue that you know more about first-date strangers for having read their profiles; online-dating detractors argue that your date’s profile was probably full of lies (and indeed, fine publications from Men’s Health to Women’s Day have run features on how to spot just such digital deceptions). As a sociologist, I shrug and declare that identity is performative anyway, so it’s probably a wash. An online-dating profile is no less “authentic” than is any other selfpresentation we make on occasions when we try to impress someone, and no more performative than a carefully coordinated outfit or carefully disheveled hair. It is easy to lie on an online profile, say by adjusting one’s income; it is also easy for privileged kids to shop at thrift stores or for working-class kids to buy clever designer knockoffs. Focusing on the ease of enacting online falsehoods merely deflects attention from the ways we try to mislead each other in everyday life.
We are all broadcasting identity information all the time, often in ways we cannot see or control—our class background especially, as Pierre Bourdieu made clear in Distinction. And we all judge potential partners on the basis of such information, whether it is spelled out in an online profile or displayed through interaction. Online dating may make more overt the ways we judge and compare potential future lovers, but ultimately, this is the same judging and comparing we do in the course of conventional dating. Online dating merely enables us to make judgments more quickly and about more people before we choose one (or several). As Emily Witt pointed out in the October 2012 London Review of Books, the only thing unique about online dating is that it speeds up the rate of essentially chance encounters a single person can have with other single people.
The typical critique of online dating is that it encourages singles to adopt “a shopping mentality” when looking for a new lover or partner. And yes, online dating is like shopping—but offline dating is also like shopping. Online dating may make the comparison-shopping aspects of selecting one’s next lover more readily apparent, but the shopping mentality is hardly unique to online dating. Sociologist Arlie Hochschild argued in The Commercialization of Intimate Life that capitalism has long been working its way into not only how we love and care for one another but how we think about “love” and “care” in the first place; “economy of gratitude” and “care deficit” are terms that make sense now. Alternatively, sociologist Viviana Zelizer argues in The Purchase of Intimacy that intimacy and economics have never been so separate in the first place. If dating (whether online or conventional) is like shopping, we should not feign surprise.
Nor did the rise of online dating precede the chorus of self-styled experts who bemoan the shopping mentality among singles. Matchmakers, dating coaches, self-help authors, and the like have been chiding lonely singles—single women especially—about “romantic checklists” since well before the advent of the Internet. (An undesirable behavior likened to shopping and attributed to women? Ye gods, I am shocked.) My suspicion is that the shopping critique is a thinly veiled attempt to get dismayed singles to settle—to play that +1 right thigh instead of holding out for a +5. After all, there are two ways to solve the problem of an unhappy single: supply or demand. Especially if you’re working impersonally through a mass-market paperback, it’s easier to modulate singles’ demands than it is to determine why no one is offering them what (they think) they want. If you can get them to choose from what’s available, then congratulations: You’re a successful “dating expert”!
Such “experts” unsurprisingly see online dating as a step in a very wrong direction. The gamification aspects of online dating encourage singles not to settle but to keep searching; after all, with “plenty of fish” (to name another online dating site), that mythical +5-in-all-categories partner has got to be out there somewhere. (It’s also worth noting that online dating sites make money when you subscribe to them, log into them and view advertisements, or both; much as the gurus’ reputations and social clout benefit when you decide to take their advice and settle, online-dating companies benefit when you tenaciously hold out for the impossible.) The conventional dating expert wants you to let go of all those silly, superficial qualifications; the online dating site not only wants you to cling to those qualifications for dear life, it also wants to convince you that searching for someone who meets all those qualifications is “fun.”
The old guard insists, however, that online dating is anything but “fun.” Online dating profiles (they allege) encourage singles to assess prospective partners’ attributes the way they would assess features on smart phones, or technical specifications on stereo speakers, or nutrition panels on cereal boxes. Reducing human beings to mere products for consumption both corrupts love and diminishes our humanity, or something like that. Even if you think you’re having fun, in truth online dating is the equivalent of standing in a supermarket at three in the morning, alone and seeking solace somewhere among the frozen pizzas. No, far better that people meet each other offline—where everyone is a Mystery Flavor DumDum of potential romantic bliss, and no one wears her ingredients on her sleeve.
For more recent critics of online dating, the problem with the “shopping mentality” is that when it’s applied to relationships, it may “destroy monogamy”—because the “shopping” involved in online dating is not merely fun, but corrosively fun. The U.K. press had a field day in 2012, with headlines such as, “Is Online Dating Destroying Love?” and, “Online Dating Encourages ‘Shopping Mentality,’ Warn Experts”. “The allure of the online dating pool,” Dan Slater suggested in an excerpt of his book about online dating at The Atlantic, may undermine committed relationships. (“Allure”?) Peter Ludlow’s response to Slater takes that thesis further: Ludlow argues that online dating is a “frictionless market,” one that undermines commitment by reducing “transaction costs” and making it “too easy” to find and date people like ourselves. Wait, what? Has either of them actually tried online dating?
Ludlow argues that the formulaic rom-coms of the 1950s had it right: Domestic bliss comes from “unlikely pairings.” (Let’s just forget that those film pairings are also fictional.) In what strikes me as an uncanny echo of the shopping critique, Ludlow argues that such “unlikely pairings” produce what compatible pairings cannot: chemistry. “Compatibility is a terrible idea in selecting a partner,” Ludlow writes—and as far as he’s concerned, online dating is a cesspool of compatibility waiting to happen.
Compatibility—who wants that? But chances are if you’ve had any exposure to divorce or domestic disputes, you might appreciate the allure of compatibility. And if you expect an equal partnership or even just a pleasant night out, compatibility will be to your advantage. While life may be “like a box of chocolates,” dating—whether online or conventional—is not. The mere fact that a chocolate exists and is in the box does not make it a viable option; it may be a chocolate, and you may have a mouth, but this does not “compatibility” signify. As journalist Amanda Marcotte once tweeted, “Women can get laid whenever they want in the same way that you can eat whenever you want if you’re up for some dumpster diving.”
Part of these critics’ discomfort with online dating may be the degree of agency it grants women. Both men and women can afford to be picky while clicking though a bottomless pit of profiles, but Ludlow openly pines for a period when heterosexual partnerships were anything but equal. When Ludlow complains that the best pairings happen only when scarcity forces singles to date people they ordinarily wouldn’t, what I hear is, “Online dating is bad because desirable women won’t get desperate enough to date ‘regular’ guys.” Quelle tragédie, they are holding out for the +5! When Ludlow casts chemistry and compatibility as diametrically opposed, what I hear is, “My god, nothing turns me off like having to compromise.” Sure, maybe incompatibility is “exciting” (Ludlow’s word) if it’s 1950, and you’re a heterosexual man, and you can stand secure with the weight of patriarchy behind you in your domestic disagreements. But it’s 2013, and you know what really turns me on? Not having to argue about everything, for one.
So while the “shopping mentality” critique is not new, online dating has made it evolve. Before, the shopping mentality was seen as preventing people from being happy: If only frustrated singles would abandon their checklists and learn to want the partners who are available, they could have the partners they really want. Now the problem is that online dating has made “shopping” so enjoyable that no one would ever want to stop dating and pair off. The gamification in online dating sites is proof positive: “See? They’ve gone and made searching for a partner fun, like a game! Of course no one will want to stop playing.” And let’s face it: panic about “people” not pairing off is really panic about women not pairing off. Unbonded women, the carcinogenic free radicals of society!
I have an alternate hypothesis, however: that the rationalization and gamification of online dating are not reflections of how fun and easy dating is but rather tacit acknowledgements of how difficult and not fun dating is. Online dating sites make money when
you use them, obviously. But assume for a moment that dating (frankly) sucks: How would those sites lure you into using them, given that their purpose—dating—isn’t very enjoyable in and of itself? By making the process of encountering other single people easier than it is conventionally (rationalization), and by incentivizing you both to keep providing more information and to keep contacting more people (gamificaton). In short, online dating hasn’t made dating too much fun; online dating is trying to compensate for the fact that dating, whether online or conventional, is often kind of a drag.
Certainly, yes: There are people who view dating as a fun hobby, as not a means to an end but a purpose in and of itself. I am emphatically not one of those people. Yet I too had my stint with online dating. Why? Well, “it’s complicated.”
First, let’s just acknowledge that yes, online dating can be bloody weird. But online dating is weird because dating in general is weird, regardless of how on- or offline it is. Online dating doesn’t intensify the weirdness of conventional dating; it merely makes the weirdness of all dating more glaringly apparent. A date is always an audition for a part based on profile attributes. And the mix of meanings in the word dating contributes to the confusion. The dating of “online dating” is a verb, but dating can also denote a status: It’s when you start leaving the party together in front of everyone, instead of offering rides and then choosing a route that just happens to drop him home last. It’s the first footstep into a new ordinary: Dating is the reasonable certainty that, when you next see him, it will still be okay to kiss him. This dating I can understand.
Dating as verb, however—the process of auditioning strangers or near-strangers for the position of future lover—still confounds me.
My first entrée into online dating had little to do with dating. It had everything to do with a good friend—who was also an ex—who called me up one freezing winter evening to demand that I join some website called OkCupid. He wanted me to answer its questions because “it tells you how compatible you are with people!” Since we had already proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that we are not, in fact, romantically compatible, I didn’t see the point of this exercise. Still, he insisted: “I want to know how incompatible we are! I want a number!” So I spent an aimless subzero night in the dead of winter answering (occasionally off-putting) multiple-choice questions on the Internet. Answering dumb questions was something to do when all my online conversations were waiting for responses. But the more questions I answered, the more my “maximum match percentage” went up. Even though I had no intention of ever meeting anyone though the site, bumping that hypothetical potential from 94% to 95% still felt like an accomplishment. Then spring came, and I forgot about it.
I went back to OkCupid years later, when graduate school found me three time zones away from the expansive, diversified social network that had kept me in friends, lovers, and everything in between for a whole decade previous. I was having a hard time making friends in a new city; I was also living 75 miles from my university campus, because it had become clear that small town life and I were not particularly compatible (10% Match, 39% Friend, 83% Enemy). In the depths of restless post-breakup depression and rainy-season sunlight withdrawal, I decided to try online dating. It didn’t seem so implausible at the time to imagine all sorts of perfectly reasonable and well-adjusted people who, for whatever reasons, didn’t want to date within their tight-knit communities of interesting friends. Perhaps they might prefer instead to date random, disconnected me instead. They’d get access to sex with me, and I’d get access to their social networks: Fair, right? (See, look: I was conceptualizing “dating” as a market transaction, and I hadn’t even tried online dating yet.)
I took up online dating in earnest, as a second full-time job. I’d correspond with people during the week, and have a date lined up for each of Thursday through Sunday by the time I got back to the city. Soon it became one each for Thursday and Friday, and two each for Saturday and Sunday. I didn’t get a lot of academic work done, but I did process a frightening quantity of people and personalities—with ruthless efficiency. I took full advantage of the site’s rationalization features: I stopped writing long responses or corresponding for more than a week before meeting with anyone. I eventually stopped reading other people’s profile text altogether: a glance at the pictures, a quick scan for any obvious mangling of the English language, then click “message” or “back.” I could process two or three profiles per minute if I didn’t write to anyone, and about one profile per minute if I did. Yet at no point did I feel like a kid in a candy store. Far from a “shopping” experience in which I intently compared desirable models, this was more like my eyes crossing as I spent hours clicking through the bland, lumpy oatmeal of so many undifferentiated characters.
My two-month experiment in online dating ended when I met a whole group of friends through a friend of a friend, and started hanging out with them on weekends instead. Watching movies and building out their illegal warehouse was a lot more fun, and provided far better company, than did sorting through what Slate’s Amanda Hess recently called “a horrific den of humanity.” It turned out that, despite my gender, offering my skills with power tools in exchange for friendship was actually more effective than offering the hypothetical possibility of sex. I lost track of how many individual humans met me for coffee, dinner, or drinks, but during my Great Online Dating Adventure, I was inspired to see all of two people a second time. The first opened with misogynist jokes, then patronized me for not finding them funny. The second made me dinner, said some interesting things about politics, then laid his head in my lap and delivered a lengthy soliloquy about how he was polyamorous and had been dumped by three different people over the past month and was “messed up in the head” and didn’t want to date anyone because he just couldn’t handle another breakup. I went on no third dates.
Online dating gave me something to do with my restless, alienated ennui—and it had certainly generated a wealth of fodder for sociological analysis. I discovered that I can make two hours of conversation with pretty much anyone (much to my surprise). Still, I wondered what it was I’d thrown so much time and effort into.
Perhaps dating strikes me as strange because I’d always had the luxury of selecting my partners from the branching arms of my social networks. I met my high school boyfriend because we both worked on the high school newspaper; I met my first college boyfriend because we lived across the hall from each other in the same college dorm. I met someone randomly at a bus stop, but it turned out he was good friends with several of my good friends (all of whom I’d met through a previous significant other). No matter whom I chose, everyone was somehow connected.
This was my normal: Attraction that flourished quietly in nonsexual contexts, and friends who later became lovers. Yet whether we first encounter prospective partners online or in person, the “dating” paradigm makes explicit certain things most of us are far more comfortable leaving implicit and ambiguous: that we are performing for one another and that we are judging and comparing one another’s performances; that we are interacting with each other specifically to determine whether we might feel sexual attraction; and that rejection is possible and we are vulnerable. It’s easier to talk to someone at a series of shows and parties and only gradually start to spend time with them on purpose, and then still not admit attraction until 6 am and sunrise finds both of you still sitting on their couch, talking in hushed tones across a six-inch distance. If it never happens, it’s easier to pretend there was never anything at stake. Ambiguous and indeterminate contexts leave room to negotiate and to save face.
The “dating” paradigm, however, allows for no such pretenses. Even a casual date, a “let’s see where this goes” date, has an agenda—and by extension the pressure not only to perform, but also to judge and decide. Over time, one learns that familiar gestures code differently between strangers than they do between friends. When a “date” invites you up to listen to records, for instance, you can no longer answer based on how you feel about music; you must now answer based on the fact that, nine times out of 10, this person will probably try to put their tongue in your mouth before side B. Sometimes that’s awesome, but otherwise—with the looming question forced and answered and with no shared contexts—there’s no reason to continue contact. Game over; go home.
Advanced-level daters may be especially impatient to hit the point of “make out or move on”; if my experience is any indication, even novices can date their way to Taylorized proto-flirtation in about two weeks, thanks to online dating’s streamlined efficiency. (And if you’re on a date through OkCupid’s new “Crazy Blind Date” app—which Jezebel’s Katie J.M. Baker recently called the “Worst Idea Ever”—then the pressure to perform is compounded by your date grading your performance online in “kudos”; OkCupid says users who give and receive more kudos will be looked upon more favorably by the app’s algorithms.)
In the event of overwhelming mutual attraction, perhaps the implicit agenda of a date is exciting. Personally, if I know that I’m supposed to figure out ASAP whether I find someone attractive, the determination becomes that much more difficult. (Whether attraction should be something that needs to be determined, rather than experienced obviously, is a whole different issue.) Perfection in a partner is something we grow into, something we create together over time—not something we can spot in a profile, and not something we can recognize over the first drink. Certainly calling “dating” what it is may be more efficient than stumbling blindly through sexually tense friendships, and online dating is probably a more efficient way of finding prospective dates; I do acknowledge that there is something to be said for efficiency. The problem is that I don’t know if I want my love life to be efficient. In fact, I’m pretty sure I don’t.