Continuously accelerating technological change, particularly since the widespread adoption of the Internet, has affected almost every aspect of life, not least sex and romance. My last article for this publication touched on the impact of extreme leverage, and how the Covid-19 crisis is highlighting the fragility of deeply interconnected and highly imbalanced systems. The idea for this submission began with dispassionately swiping through online dating profiles while watching episodes of Tiger King, evidence of my growing despondence with modern dating. I wanted to explore how the quarantine is impacting the quest for love amongst my peer group, and more specifically, – whether people are resisting, or further embracing the technologies that have fundamentally changed the face of romantic pairing.
In Eric Klinenberg and Aziz Ansari’s seminal novel Modern Romance, Ansari illuminates the paradoxical downside of being drowned in choice. In using online platforms to meet romantic partners we’ve begun to treat relationships like any other consumer experience. We browse all the options on offer, add some of them to the checkout, and maybe eventually make a purchase, and subsequently even a return. Using this process to find the perfect partner unsurprisingly leads to dissatisfaction. Whether it’s an exciting prospect “dying inside your phone” before getting the chance to meet or even a partner inexplicably “going dark” or cold after a few promising encounters, many of us have been on both sides of this equation. And often the relationship severing, or in some cases ghosting, occurs due to a more exciting prospect appearing. This can hurt. Even if you don’t partake in these platforms, chances are your suitors do and, in any event, our treatment of each other has been irrevocably changed by their existence.
I reached out to my network through social media to ask whether any of them in lockdown were taking stock of these broad themes or tectonic shifts in romance, and to reflect on any new ones since Ansari published his book 5 years ago. And finally, I asked how they are affected by our current inability to physically interact with others. Of course, this research has no pretension of scientific credibility, nor do I purport my network to represent the wider population. But I did receive some thought-provoking responses, some of which I’ve included below. I took a cursory look through my contacts and note that there is a broad gender balance although I received many more responses from females, and I’ve tried to collate responses from as diverse a set of people as possible.
- Katherine: “Do we all settle down coming out of this or are we crazier than ever?”
- Jenna: “I am so fucking sick of online dating. Can’t we just forget about the whole thing and go back to a world with chivalry, a well-timed approach in a bar with a thoughtful pick-up line. I am not online dating in lockdown.”?
- Dave: “Dude, seriously why are you doing this article. Are you a blogger now. Do you really need such a reason to hit on chicks online?”
- Olivia: “A super available, nothing going on relationship through a screen sounds like hell and I’ll jump off my balcony before I get in one of those. I’d rather just quarantine alone and get back to dating when this is all over.”
- Hugo: “To be honest, I’ve just been watching way more porn.” (in a cool South African accent)
- Emily: “The lockdown is helping weed out the weirdos online. I’ve decided to not meet anyone right now.”
- Jeff: This guy is a degenerate womanizer and recounted stories of continuing this behaviour in lockdown with partners willing to break the distancing guidance. Don’t do this.
- Ruby: “Maybe we’ll take this further and instead of bothering with all of this ridiculous swiping and empty chat we can let AI take over to choose our partners.” (this is a badass idea btw and I’d love for some deep science to swipe or troll Instagram for me)
- Peter: “Did you watch Love is Blind?” I loved it. Jessica is a nightmare.”
- Sarah: “I’m never anywhere consistently enough to develop a serious relationship. I’m currently working in Dubai and experimented with dating apps for the first time in the lockdown, but the guys I encountered messaged me like I was an escort, so I deleted them.”
- Melissa: “Is it harder to ‘ghost’ people knowing that we are all at home?”
- Arianna: “I am a nurse and dating is the last fucking thing on my mind. I just want this nightmare to be over. But I hate online dating.” (RESPECT; my article only covers the population not having to fight this virus and care for people on the front lines and my heart goes out to these people)
- Ed: “A not insignificant number of gay people are not respecting social distancing. Evidence of Grindr chat. Many people in the community take PrEP to decrease the chances of contracting HIV so I think they think they’re more immune to Covid-19.”
- Naomi: “Dudes are just coming out of the woodwork but who wants to chat loads with a person that you can’t meet up with for the foreseeable future.”
I purposely offered wide guidance for response and naturally this type of feedback was a lot to process. But I think that reflects our collective disorientation in our frenetic dating lives, and when the music quickly stopped in lockdown some of us realized that while we’ve built the illusion of having so many awesome romantic prospects, maybe we don’t have any. Or just none that are genuine.
If my friends above can represent any wider sentiment, so many of us think that these things suck, but we continue to use them and increasingly rely on them to meet new partners. This creates cognitive dissonance, or an inconsistency between attitudes and behaviours. The dissonance theory suggests that not only will this stress everyone the fuck out, but that people must inherently take steps to reduce the extent of their dissonance, or the inconsistency between certain behaviours and beliefs. But that didn’t seem to be happening even pre-Covid-19 quarantine.
While everyone seems so sick of online dating, early figures from the large dating apps suggest that people are doubling down on it in isolation. Apps such as OkCupid, Tinder and Hinge are reporting double digit growth in both user activity and user base since the lockdown, although I note this is specific to large western markets + Australia. Many of these platforms have recently enhanced video-conference features, encouraging their users to go on ‘virtual dates’ thus keeping more of the relationship ‘in-app.’ They’re also serving spatial-distancing related public service announcements to promote these features. The app Hinge informed me that 70% of its user base ‘would be up for a virtual encounter’ although my opinion wasn’t solicited for this. Of course these are powerful solutions for our collective boredom and importantly our desire for connection. But with platforms offering its users the rules of engagement as they supposedly shuffle between virtual dates ‘in iso,’ I can’t help but conjure images of a lazily written episode of Black Mirror. Can we really build meaningful connections in this manner?
In a recent YouTube video blogger Matthew Hussey likened modern dating to watching 5 movies at the same time and trying to derive meaning from all of them. You could choose the greatest 5 movies ever made and you’ll get nothing out of any of them. He laments that relationships require a narrative to unfold between two people. We need to tell each other a story and build it to tell others, and in that sense, relationships are just evolving stories.
Otherwise it’s nothing, like a country with no flag or shared history; it has no context. The richer and more organic the story, the more attachment we can feel to it and to the person with whom we’re in a relationship. But the narrative building between two people is now so constantly disrupted by the prospect of seemingly more exciting people, or many other aspects of modern life. Good stories require focus, air to breathe, the chance to evolve, and they need to take unforeseen twists. Isolation could offer this space, or it could completely quash it with further embracing some of the bad habits of modern dating.
When someone’s story is made to fit an Instagram account or to prompt questions on a dating app, its reader quickly builds their own story about that person, based on flimsy material or evidence, and presented to bias its audience into reading it a certain way (look, I travel and hang out with beautiful and successful people that know Black Coffee and Bedouin and we go to tons of sick parties that you don’t know about and mysteriously we don’t have to buy into the ‘system’ to pay for all of this).
This is not limited to online dating, and people have always craved validation. But the streamlined packaging of stories encouraged by dating platforms may have developed at the cost of new romantic partners forming their own rich and organic ones. Perhaps we’re not giving people enough of a chance because we think we already know so much about them. It is possible that our collective quarantine offers the chance to lift the veil of a glossed online profile and actually get to know someone.
In the WhatsApp group chat for my best male friends in London, I’ll often write or receive a response to an invitation with a, “mate, would love to but I’ve tee’d something up with [insert flag of nationality of romantic prospect].” Which one is that?” “Oh, 5’9”, digital marketing, used to model, been flaky AF so don’t want to try to reschedule.” Of course, this type of formidable banter existed before ‘the apps’ but there’s a pervasive and accepted attitude to hyper-dating that I believe has been turbo-charged by their widespread adoption.
Boxed and pre-packaged narratives fit nicely into this system in part because they help reduce accountability. “Oh ya [insert flag again] didn’t work out. I knew she was flaky, she probably had a few other guys on the go. All good, I have [new flag/moniker] on deck tonight.” Our sausage-factory compression, or reduction of each narrative becomes the story itself, and many of us have created a series of these almost like a beat. Forced isolation could be an opportunity for at least some restoration of accountability. As my friend Melissa pointed out, everyone is at home. No one has a better option tonight.
In high school there was a T.V show in my native Canada called Keys to the VIP where aerial cameras and hidden microphones tracked the show’s male contestants as they approached single women to interact with, with the general goal of getting their phone number (pre smartphone). A panel of hidden judges provided running commentary on each interaction, scoring them in areas such as ‘approach,’ ‘engaging conversation / chat’ and overall confidence. The show was totally ridiculous and probably offensive to the women who were unaware of being filmed and judged, but from then on I was determined to hone this skill. And in the almost 20 years since, my most meaningful relationships began with my heart beating hard at the prospect of ‘calculating the approach,’ garnering the courage to ‘go-in’ and proving that I could endear myself to a girl who seemed to have many better options than me.
These interactions evolved to become more natural and adapted to many other types of situations outside of bars and clubs (just in case you think I’m claiming to be the dude in a country music video crooning to his temptress). Those are my stories, and I realize that many other people have built more meaningful relationships differently, but my best chapters always began with improvised narratives which I’ve yet to replicate online. But these experiences are completely off the table for the foreseeable future, so perhaps those similar to me can create more visceral experiences in isolation. Ideas include introducing friends to each other for phone calls or virtual meetings, writing letters or just investing more time in each virtual relationship.
The use of dating apps has evidently led to millions of good relationships that wouldn’t have otherwise happened. But we generally need to find a way to better invest in each story and to let them gestate. Maybe this crisis allows for stories to have a better chance of organic evolution. Interacting with multiple romantic prospects that you’ve never met seems more pointless in lockdown if you’re unlikely to meet any of them (well-articulated in Naomi’s comment above). And people in relationships that have chosen to ‘self-isolate,’ or those that quickly chose a self-isolation partner, are likely to fast-forward what might have otherwise happened pre-quarantine.
Some of these will grow strong and some will quickly blow up, but the silver lining is that it will be a learning experience to many singletons in this technology centred dating universe. Or if you’re like me, single and in isolation, the time may be best spent in investing in your own story, or the relationship with yourself. This could help us better navigate the virtual dating jungle when this is all over. So far for me that’s involved focusing on my work, connecting with friends, buying a piano to re-learn some skills and writing these articles. And hey Dave, someone interesting might just respond.
Technology has been a powerful tool for change, and like my friend Ruby’s prediction that AI will guide us in better selecting a romantic partner, it is likely to continue to offer new ways to form and build relationships. But like the canals in Venice that have become clear for the first time in modern history or seeing London with empty streets – many of us could be well-served to create this kind of clarity in our dating lives by hitting pause or at least slow-motion on some of the online platforms to see how they’re actually serving us.