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Tackling Tinder: Online dating and a social media sense of self

Tackling Tinder: Online dating and a social media sense of self Tinder graffiti (IMAGE:Flickr)

According to a recent article in Vogue: “Your romantic future may now hinge on the few carefully selected photos you present to the online dating world en masse”. Although aimed at the fashion conscious girl of 2016 looking for ways to create the “perfect online dating profile”, the article highlights a number of required hoops that many online daters now have to jump through. Thanks to dating apps like Tinder and OKCupid, dating can feel like less of a social activity and more of brand-building exercise – with your personal identity as the brand.

However, that is not to say that online dating cannot be about more than just a perfect photograph and stock profile.  But it can be extremely problematic for those who are not very tech-savvy. Potential online daters might be certain about what they want from a relationship, but if they are not clued up on the tools needed to play the online dating game, they can be left struggling with anxiety. And that feeling of being in a romantic minefield affects millennials and older generations alike.

In fact there are already a number of threads on Reddit, Quora and even a fitness website where people have expressed how their self-esteem has been destroyed after partaking in online dating. As one online dater reveals:

Sending hundreds of messages and getting a few replies only for them to stop responding mid conversation made me get terrible self-esteem.

This could be attributed in part, to the instant gratification that online dating apps now encourage, where you swipe right to like someone’s face, and left if you don’t, which makes it that much easier to thoughtlessly reject people – and that’s just on Tinder. People discussing blows to their self-esteem lamented the fact that some people seemed to use dating apps to boost their own self-esteem with how many likes they could get. In addition, users were often pelted with negative replies (for men) or sexually aggressive messages (for women).  Unfortunately these gendered responses to men and women engaging in online dating are increasing, and raise serious concerns about how these online interactions impact people’s offline activities when it comes to sex and relationships.

Last September, Nancy Jo Sales of Vanity Fair wrote a piece on Tinder and online dating, where she interviewed numerous millennials who were heavy users of online dating. Amongst other things, men talked about how competitive the online dating game was:

Men view everything as competition…who’s slept with the best, hottest girls?

And who could rack up the most dates in one week. Despite raising the question themselves about whether the whole practice was misogynistic, they enjoyed how little effort they had to put into “hooking up” with someone, and how little they knew of the women they had hooked up with. Similarly, women reported the same experiences but spoke candidly about the fact that having grown up online, they felt they didn’t know how to be with people in real life;

You form your first impression based off Facebook rather than forming a connection with someone.

If you weren’t one of the early adopters of social media and you don’t post daily selfies everywhere you can, online dating can appear a murky water of mystery and misunderstanding. Yet it is very likely that these days, everyone has a friend who has met someone online that they’ve been with for years, who they will eventually marry. This is a great story to hear if that’s what you’re hoping for; but the reality of engaging in online dating brings with it alternative goals for relationships.

Joshua Pompey of Huffpost suggested that dating is evolving so rapidly, that the culture of relationships is being changed, where people are given so much choice (beyond what was previously just friends of friends and work colleagues), that the desire to commit to one person is decreasing significantly. There’s an argument for whether this is a good or bad thing for society, but what does it do to our sense of self?

There is nothing wrong with having choices of course, but as this Quora user pointed out, too much choice can become overwhelming. Yet, we still encourage choice in our society; from choosing one of thousands of programmes and films on Netflix, to what social media app we will use most and which out of the seven or eight political parties we want to run our country (in Britain at least).  Jean Paul-Sartre said: “We are our choices” So what does an abundance of choice of potential dating partners – who we can accept or reject on a whim – say about us?

Online dating poses the risk of discarding what might be a perfectly good choice if not for the hundreds more waiting to be made. Many online daters describe being “Ghosted” for example – where someone you’re dating just disappears into the digital sphere – the most recent version of “he didn’t call back”. It might be easier to do now, but it probably still stings as it did back then. Moreover, it gives more truth to the notion of online dating as “shopping for people”. And if your view of it is just like shopping, then surely your view of people in general could change? Could it be that online daters begin to see people not as they are, but as commodities to pick apart, comment on and swipe away for the next best thing on another shelf?

And what does this mean for how we view ourselves; is being easily discarded just part and parcel to how we relate to people now, or does it make the online dating generation slightly colder and a little more detached? Sherry Turkle, a social psychologist, noted that millennials are so used to the distraction of being online and exiting a physical space mentally, that being faced with real one-on-one connections is terrifying. Having the barrier of a phone or computer screen means you reduce the risk of being hurt and you have more control over the sides of yourself that you show to the world.

It sounds cliché, but going outside and meeting people in real life whilst also doing something you can enjoy alone, will always spark an experience that cannot be accurately determined by an online dating algorithm. Interacting with people even on a semi-emotional level helps us develop as people, and there’s nothing that says we cannot do both – online and in real life. Yet there still remains the potential for a dichotomy of a generation, where you have someone who is confident in who they choose to date and has complete control over what they put out into the world, but has not been given the social tools to emotionally protect themselves when faced with real life rejection or difficulties. Some might say there is a substitution of emotional development, where technology provides a shield that would have previously been built up internally.

Still, that doesn’t necessarily point to online dating as the death of a generation’s emotional wellbeing; it could just mean that people’s approach to it should be both light-hearted and measured. Some of it comes down to upbringing, and much of it is about not relying on one medium to interact with people. As Sherry Turkle points out: “It’s a great psychological truth that if we don’t teach our children how to be alone, they will always be lonely”.

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