I don’t know if you’ll believe me, but just a few decades ago, couples met each other in real life.
The story went: you two met in college at a midnight study group, bonding over your conclusions of Nietzsche. . . you were introduced over watery cocktails by an overzealous mutual friend. . .or your parents, who totally knew best, had a hand in the serendipitous encounter.
The good old days, or maybe the dark ages of dating involved chance or good connections, and depended on physical proximity. And yet, our generation seeks connections differently. I shouldn’t have to go in depth. Most people know that today, dating looks much more digital.
Today, according to Pew research institute, 3 in 10 American adults have used a dating app. 12 percent have been married or entered into a committed relationship from an app, and 23 percent have gone on at least a first date. Broadly, more users are likely to rate their time spent on the app as positive rather than negative, and for the LGBTQIA+ community, success rates are much higher.
COVID-19 has thrust us even more into the realm of the intangible but we were already in perhaps THE age of online dating. When bored on a Saturday evening, what’s there to do but open up our favorite dating app, Tinder? The likelihood of finding an attractive match is statistically high, and the benefits of connecting online can outweigh the negatives.The advantages are plentiful.
Part of why people enjoy using apps is because dating app platforms create a liminal space where play becomes safe. Users enjoy embodying their online personas where technology creates a more comfortable space to experiment.
When using apps safely, the online realm can potentially liberate users by creating more distance between each partner in the relationship’s preliminary stages. Like slow burning kindling as opposed to a raging wildfire, the extended time for conversation lengthens the possibility for emotional connections to ignite, instead of in person relationships where people more likely jump quickly towards physical connections.
Shy users report benefiting from the private nature of these initial conversations, feeling as if they can explore the relationship before disclosing or defining their feelings.
Even for more extroverted users, reducing the role that physical attributes play in dating enhances the development of kinship, closeness, similarity, and mutual self-disclosure, all of which build lasting bonds. The connection thus becomes about the emotional, rather than lustful physically mediated interplay.
Such knowledge is not new. Research on the strengths and weaknesses of online dating has been both confirming and refining the practice since inception. An early study published in 2008 by researchers in the field, Mediated Person Communication, theorized that in person presence translates into what they deemed tele-presence.
They posit that the perception of relationship space, both in person and online, is an amalgamation of the senses of social proximity and richness, visual realism, and sense of travelling across space. I.e, how close and real people feel. Also important are the senses of immersion, and feeling present as a social actor within the medium. The established informational and emotional experience contributes to the feeling of real-ness in online relationships.
If online mediums can mimic or recreate the in person experience by addressing these variables, then people are likely to enjoy their dating experience. New dating apps which allow users to choose each other based on curated profiles and privately message have the attributes which spark real connections.
On the other hand, if any of those components lacks quality, users have a difficult time gaining trust in both the dating app and the users they contact. Sense of trust is a fundamental component of any strong relationship. When users do not have physical confirmation of one and other, a sense of trust becomes hard to build. Also, the internet is notoriously untrustworthy. Not merely in online dating, adults tend to have skepticism that the websites will not protect their security.
Additionally, children tend to learn trust from their parents by watching them interact with others, not through what they learn online, and they carry these beliefs into adulthood.
Establishing a sense of trust among two people who have never met in person remains a challenge. However, the perceptual space of the internet contains many avenues which when manipulated, facilitate trust as users also take it upon themselves to confirm identities.
An example is a common practice among students who attend the same institutions on Facebook posting their class schedules in private group chats for each other to view. Mutually understood information solidifies the trust bonds between two people regardless of physical knowledge of one and other.
Online communication is not fail safe. Some users, particularly young females, report higher instances of harassment and scammers, and some are still concerned that building genuine connections can only be done in personal settings.
Some users fall too far into the realm of fantasy, and when the day finally comes to meet in person, they find themselves falling far into disillusionment. The sense that their partner acts differently than they had thought becomes confusing.
Yet disillusionment is also common among couples who’ve met in person. Often people do not amount to the way they seem in our head.
So, if online dating presents the same benefits and challenges as in person dating, and has higher rates of success, the question thus becomes, why not give it a try?
As most of us responsible adults are quarantining until who-knows-when, perhaps venturing into the online world will alleviate some of the loneliness.
Alas, we appear to have no credible alternative. Given the quickly spreading virus, only some socially distanced meetings may be permitted. Nights spent greeting fervent singles over cocktails at the bar on the corner may not be possible for a while.
And so, some conclude that on a macro level, this whole idea of internet-first relationships might be the way of the future, romantically, and otherwise. If given the choice to FaceTime and dine over lack of connection, most choose the former. And who knows, if the emotional connection builds strong enough bonds that you and someone special decide to do the quarantine before meeting, this new social paradigm might not be that terrible.
Online dating may just be evidence of a deep connection made possible by the internet. Dr. Michael Laitman, Philosopher and Medical Bio-Cyberneticist said recently on medium.com, “In this new virtual world, we will develop an inner vision and an inner feeling of others. We will ascend to a higher dimension of life where we will detach ourselves from the physical form of people and connect to their inner essence.”
His expert reasoning feels familiar. He acknowledges that some important physical attributes of a relationship such as the smell of perfume or pheromones may be lost to technology. However, he writes that the safety granted by a platform in which people can feel freer to express themselves yields a new kind of deeper connection.
And his conclusions paint a hopeful picture. He hypothesizes that, as these connections enter our lives more, through virtual learning, work, and socialization, we will learn to value each other in truer ways. Our focus will shift from salient, physical characteristics towards the thoughts raised about the individual in front of us. We will focus less on appearance and superficial qualities and more on the individual’s desires, goals, and plans.
If when people do inevitably meet, their physical appearance does not match their imagined version, the updated image will not change their impression of one and other, as they have already connected to this other individual’s inner richness.
At work, we can attest to that.
Just a few months ago, my team (who were all based in different states), assembled for our first “All Hands Meeting.”
At 9:00 EST I clicked on a link in my email. Boxes popped up in my gallery view. New faces I had never seen against backgrounds of bedrooms and kitchens arranged themselves on my laptop. We faced awkward pauses and horrible connections, but we began as a team, together.
As weeks progressed, spontaneous meetings at all hours of the day populated our schedules, and we populated communal Google Docs. We spoke about puppies and our favorite summer activities. We had happy hours and shared stories.
When, after quarantining we finally met in a socially distanced gathering, our interactions felt completely normal. Our conversation flowed seamlessly. My colleagues were exactly as imagined and they reported similar findings.
Somehow in our absence of touch, we made up for space in other ways, through scrutinizing conversations and meetings lasting too long; through constant communication and unprofessional comments made off the cuff.
Statistically, online daters are not more likely to break up than their counterparts, and studies suggest that the kinds of relationships people pursue encourage open mindedness.
Though none of us can predict the future, and the drawbacks to both the risky nature of online relationships and remote connections in general have real consequences, we might be at the forefront of a movement to build social capital out of thin air and through hazy pictures on a computer screen. And who knows, we might even make deeper connections.
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