It’ll be a typical morning that I log onto Twitter, perusing my timeline as I groggily jam some toast and tea into my facehole, and read lamentations of my peers who had yet another bad date off of OK Cupid, Tinder, or whatever the hell all you kids who need to get off my philosophical notion of a lawn are using now.
Then I’m out at my usual haunts where I can plunk down my laptop to work and people-watch, and it’s inevitable I’m going to see cyber dates morph into IRL meetings in the wild. In fact, shortly after I started writing this, I found myself hankering for a sandwich and to get out of the house so I hopped the bus to the Co-Op City Panera. Aside from being one of the few options for public meeting spaces with plentiful seating and outlets up here, it’s also primetime people-watching. You get everything from Meetup.com groups to app dates to LinkedIn connections meeting in here, and more often than not the dating ones are intensely stilted.
It typically starts as a casual observation as I work and shitpost over my latte that quickly turns into a forcefield I can sense from across the room. This time, the forcefield spans the petite square table overlooking the Bay Plaza parking lot as I’m drafting a consulting client’s sales strategy. I don’t know what app the two people across the room met off of but it looks like this man is far more into this woman than the other way around. He offers to show her a video he made with a friend after they ask each other questions like “So where do you work?” and if they’d seen the latest Netflix shows.
The brainfreeze from my superfruit smoothie kicks in as a fortyish man in a suit at the table next to me conducts a job interview for a traveling sales representative. First I’m just trying to focus on the task at hand but it hits me that I literally cannot tell the tone apart from the date two tables away. At least after the interviewer is done discussing the job details with the man across from him, they have a natural dialogue as they laugh about childhood memories at Miss Francine’s and hanging out in Crotona Park.
Whereas this man is now just smiling and nodding while the woman across him finally becomes animated talking about seeing her friend in an off-off-Broadway play. Dude is acting like she’s Ben Stein reading a bill on healthcare and the whole thing feels more sterile than a hospital corridor after a fresh coat of Lysol. The two daters both seem to be looking for excuses to get back to their phones amidst more quiet and awkward small talk. Needless to say, I’ve had more riveting exchanges with those automated chatbots from HP customer support. I break up the tough parts of the sales plan with too much time on Twitter then by the time I update the Q4 bar chart, she’s scurrying out the door and this guy is sitting at the table looking non-plussed. He’s not repulsed or like, relieved she just left but doesn’t exactly seem like he’s leaping for joy.
Hold on, this is what people think is the gold standard for dating these days? This is what I’m supposedly missing out on? All I can think is, “Christ, no wonder this generation is so fucking depressed.”
This date I just observed seemed less natural than a real literal job interview taking place next to me so I can’t even use THAT as an allegory anymore.
Before my mentions get blasted with “But it’s not always like that!”, I know. But I’ve seen enough stiff and forced looking interactions in coffee shops of all stripes around the world to know this mode of meeting potential romantic or sexual partners holds less appeal to me than getting my toenails yanked out one by one while having The Art of the Deal read to me through an Intellivision voice synthesis module.
Given all the perverted parables I constantly hear amidst the general frustration with what’s essentially commodification of attention and attempts at companionship, I can’t be the only one out there who eschews dating apps. I’ve never actually used them unless you count the Punkconnect days harkening back to the W administration when it was a kinder, earlier Internet. People primarily used the site for bandmates, booking shows and hosting bands in your city, other people to go to shows with, and buy/sell/trade but there were dating and hookup options you could check off. It didn’t have to be about those things up though we certainly used it for that. Dating within a tiny subculture has its own intricacies that merits a whole other essay, but there were still creepy messages and people too eager to please because they were lonely. Some things about the human experience apply no matter what music you listen to or what subculture you align with. But on this mainstreamed grander scale, highly emblematic of late capitalism, online dating just sounds so much worse now based on what I observe.
Let me be clear though: I’m not negatively judging people who use dating apps. Consenting adults, what’s fun for thee may not be for me, et al. It’s just something I’d rather not bother with and I’ve gotten a surprising amount of flack for stating this to the point it merited an essay.
Other people using these apps doesn’t bother me. What does is when refusal to participate in dating apps is conflated as giving up on sex and romance, period. I simply refuse to believe the entire frigging world is on those accursed things. That it’s now seen as the ONLY way to put yourself out there…?! Noooo.
“But how else do you meet people if you’re actually interested in meeting someone?” is the most common query I receive when I state my refusal to participate in what’s essentially the worst that tech and capitalism have to give us. This is followed by “Why not use the apps just to have some fun if you already don’t think you’ll find your soulmate there? Just go out with some guy who messages you if the messages sound nice. You never know where it could go!”
Oof, there’s more to unpack in these statements than a Samsonite rife with full-size shampoo bottles before it gets yanked for TSA inspection.
A Paradox of Intimacy
This past year, I’ve been thinking and writing an awful lot about duality. It was a major theme in Fran Bow and my experience as a child abuse survivor, and I got into the duality of Jewish mourning rituals in my recent homage to Broad City.
And is there ever a duality when it comes to Internet dating. It’s present in many digitally-sourced relationships that aren’t necessarily sexual or romantic, but when it comes to a designated dating context like an app or other space like a forum or Twitter DM group? There’s this duality of having no pre-existing intimacy which makes things feel rushed and forced, yet it’s also possible to become more intimate with an avatar instead of the actual person behind it.
Let’s get into that first half of this duality. I’ve read countless articles and Twitter threads about frustration with online dating. It sounds like this never-ending churn of unsatisfying dates and tepid sex because well, you’re commodified as just another swipe. Not to mention your attached marketing data, and those app developers don’t want you to halt your usage to keep that cycle going so you bet that algorithm isn’t going to land you a soulmate any time soon.
Then there’s the time suck in browsing profiles and setting some arbitrary standards so if someone doesn’t check every single box…welp, to hell with them! And as someone who has her own digital business and a sizable social media presence, the thought of having more inboxes to check just sounds utterly exhausting. I’m on at least 60 Slack channels that I don’t even check and probably haven’t logged into the platform since my Congresswoman won her election, and no one’s trying to get into my pants or put a ring on my finger there. I instantly groan when another game developer in my life asks me to create a Discord for the love of god and I respond, “I love you, but I don’t have the headspace.”
And I haven’t even gotten into the fact that easily 85% of those new push notifications and inboxes will surely be comprised of dick pics and abusive/negging messages where I’m expected to be grateful for the attention because I will never be a size 4. Or the opposite and it’s the same guys who try to sleep with me at game conventions except they’ll now say whatever because we’re far from the physical spaces that have codes of conduct. My Twitter and LinkedIn are enough emotional labor in this department, thanks.
Then well, there’s shit like this on a regular basis.
But let’s say you get lucky with the algorithm one day or you get an initial message or response from that person whose profile appealed to you. If they’re going by what’s in your profile and possibly reverse-image searching your picture to scope you out on social media and anywhere else you got a significant online footprint, how do you know if they’re being genuine or trying to just win you over based on that information? Assuming the conversation gets to the point of wanting to get together, you’re still more or less forcing it along even though there’s potential for intimacy to develop. As this fantastic piece by Shani Silver describing this very phenomenon of lowered expectations in draconian app hell says, “It used to be how long do we date before we have sex, now it’s how long do we have sex before we date.” Sex or no, these series of dates seem to be an endurance test rather than something you get genuine enjoyment out of that’s more likely to come from a genuine connection or living in the moment because there were no pretenses.
Case in point, I’ve had dates off of Twitter or through people I met in meatspace that didn’t necessarily end in sex. But at least I was looking forward to spending time with these men and always had a great time. I even ended up becoming good friends with two of them and it’s totally platonic.
Like any other way of meeting people, meeting off a dating app could be just a one-time thing. Maybe a few dates or a few months before your involvement ends. Then there’s people who get married off these things. But it doesn’t change that there’s often no real pre-existing intimacy to some extent whether it was forged online or offline. After all, it’s a space designated for sex and romance so you’re more than likely shooting your shot opposed to a serendipitous connection through shared interests or values.
To flip the hourglass, there’s also this paradoxical sense of hyper intimacy.
Last summer, I started the groundwork for a narrative-focused point-and-click adventure game, Limerence, which is currently on the backburner in favor of a game with far less feature creep. It’s a psychological term that literally means “addicted to love”. I was doing research on “yahoo boys” in Nigeria and came across a ton of interesting articles, the most notable being a psychologist’s observations of “idealized avatars” being the way that people fall into the scammer’s trap.
In essence, whether the person behind that avatar is their real self or a scammer using a stolen photo, it’s plausible to form this “hyper-intimate” relationship. Many people use the internet to say violent and disturbing things but from the safety of a keyboard and an avatar: they also can use those same avatars to discuss highly personal issues that may seem like impositions in live conversation. As the psychologist and researcher behind human-technology interactions in the article pointed out, it’s the fact that you can see the same texts repeatedly that makes the relationship seem stronger on its own accord. This is partly why the marks become so attached to the scammers even if they come off as rational and intelligent people in every other aspect of life.
419 scams aside, assuming we’re talking ordinary people seeking some kind of intimate connection? There’s definitely this paradox of forced intimacy and moving it too quickly while simultaneously falling in love with avatars and having those expectations totally dashed after it was built up over time, if you took that approach.
When it comes to other aspects of reality not meeting your expectations because you saw it online first, it’s easy to joke about how no one has pristine tables like the kind food bloggers splash all over Instagram and those mompreneurs with H&G worthy houses and perfectly coiffed hair only look that way for the cameras before the entropy resumes. But amidst the jokes about how online dating is the ninth circle of hell, the commodification of sex and romance has really left people starving for meaningful communication from people they’re romantically and/or sexually attracted to. And it’s all too easy to conceptualize this idealistic romantic relationship with this person who’s telling you what you want to hear. After all, you’re fast-forwarding past the kind of unfiltered conversation that reveals those wonderful little quirks about potential partners…along with things that could be deal-breakers or downright terrible things.
When you’re first connecting in a space where there’s this pretense already there? You might keep your weird hobby quiet or not admit to loving a band that some people can’t stand if you want this person’s approval but then happily put this stuff on blast on social media or in real life. We can end up creating these fake versions of ourselves, in addition to facing digital effigies from the other side of the aisle. And no matter how you chalk it up, it’s all too easy to create this degree of intimacy beyond the norm. Especially if you communicate better in type or are more introverted.
Getting Out in the World
There’s been numerous critiques about the roles that tech and social media play in our lives, particularly in the capitalist hellscape that is America. Work is made into such a focal point of our lives that it’s completely normalized using dating apps because you literally have no time to meet people and get out in the world.
Maybe some people make this work for them while I insist on the old way, just like how I recoil in horror at the thought of a working a 9–5 job yet the way that I make a living makes their heads explode. But as cliche as it sounds, there’s a lot to be said about getting out in the world and letting the universe do its thing when you do the things you love. Even if every date I had in the past year didn’t work out, at least we liked and respected each other enough to still be Twitter mufos or become friends. And even if you’re just hooking up and think that spiritual connection and mutual respect don’t matter as much in that context? Maybe not in the long run, but then you have a partner hellbent on mutual pleasure just for one night opposed to the kind of lukewarm sex that entails less effort and imagination than a corporate board meeting trying to get malaise-ridden employees to pay attention with a Fortnite dance.
Reducing people to swipes, shopping for a partner the same way you look for a blender on Amazon? It just sounds incredibly unenjoyable and exhausting compared to getting out in the world. I take that literally since I frequently travel for work and fun, but I can’t imagine life without game development, punk shows, organizing for basic income and other causes I care about, amphibian conservation, and so on. If I’m bored and laying in bed, I’d rather be reading, playing a game, writing, or browsing Twitter than see who an algorithm potentially wants me to smash fun bits with. I don’t say yes to every coffee meeting proffered to me for business, and I’m probably pickier about that in the romantic context despite being told forever I wasn’t normal or attractive enough to do just that. Even if you’re unable to really get out in the world to the extent you’d like to thanks to an exploitative society, hey, imagine meeting someone through an online game or perhaps a Twitter group or forum for something you really care about. That’s got to beat the hell out of these stilted job interview style dates and 419 scams.
But at the end of the day, it’s ultimately up to you. Me personally, I’d rather skip the apps and just let the universe unfold as it should.