Image and Potential in Digital Dating

This is the third in the series of short articles (here is the second) about some of the social and cultural factors behind the worldwide phenomenon of online dating, which is fast becoming the standard way of finding a mate, if not a partner.

How we see ourselves and others see us

We are immersed, whether we like it or not, in the era of The Selfie. The smartphone and its easy-access camera paired with current online dating technology has changed our perception of ourselves. mirrorWe can amass a limitless number of images of ourselves, distorted through filters, airbrushed or ‘beautified’ and we can then choose to release these into the world, saying ‘this is me’.

In this digital age we can also be overly swayed by the reaction our images creates in others – the number of ‘likes’ for example, or visits on a profile page, or contacts from potential mates. We may even allow ourselves to be influenced (positively or negatively) by comments or reactions from others online.

This technology directly feeds and fuels a narcissistic attitude where image is everything.

Research shows that women who use a full-body image receive a whopping 203% more messages. (See more stats from I’ve had guys say to me that ‘average-looking’ women too often think they’re super hotties because of the unrealistic effect of comments from men around the world. Or it could be because men can be prone to easily dishing out compliments if they think they’re going to score.

Viren Swami, professor of social psychology affirms that “appearance does matter. People perceived to be physically attractive get asked out on dates more often and receive more messages on online dating sites. They even have sex more often.” (Viren Swami ‘There Are No Rules Of Attraction When It Comes To Meeting Your Match’ The Conversation March 2016)

And then there are the hurtful or insulting comments typed by some keyboard warrior with no risk of being discovered or seeing the repercussions face-to-face. Slut-shaming, fat-shaming or just downright misogyny is alive and well thanks to trolls and faceless cowards in the 21st Century taking over the internet as their personal revenge outlet. Women online cop the brunt of abuse, which is well recognised as a worrying trend. (For a taste of this topic see The Guardian here and here, Amnesty International, Huffington Post, CNet, Time magazine, and Ashley Judd’s TED Talk).

A whole world of potential – or is it?

Online dating is also opening up the whole world as a meeting place where once we might only have had the chance to meet a guy from the local village, or a girl at work.

One British sociologist has pointed out the obvious that the internet enables people to meet others well beyond their own social circle, neighbourhood or workplace community. (Catherine Hakim The New Rules 2012) While it’s true that we might meet and fall in love with a man in Ireland or Australia or Germany, it’s more likely that unless we can meet them easily (that is, they live within a hundred clicks of our home), it probably won’t amount to anything.

Between 5% and 20% of Americans in committed relationships say they met their partner online.

And that’s not to say chatting, sexting or flirting with people in other parts of Australia or the world can’t be fun – but let’s be sure about what it is, and what the risks are. I’ll come back to the issue of risk next time.

By bringing the world into our backyard, social media – especially with the intent to find romance or a mate – skews our perceptions because of an unrealistic sense of availability and promise.

When you are presented with one hundred new faces a day (as in kik’s Martch&Chat), you are guaranteed to find several new people to ‘chat with’ very soon. They may not stick around, but you’ll be served up another hundred soon, so why does it matter?

There’s an endless production line of faces and bodies to be consumed, objectified or collected. Even in a small-ish city in Australia there is a sense of ‘plenty of fish’. This can also beg the questions – why aren’t they all flocking to me? How come I haven’t had any ‘contacts’ today, or this week? How come I still haven’t found ‘the one’?

Our sometimes-fragile perception of ourselves can be overly influenced by social media. The Facebook phenomenon is now well known: everyone else is having more fun than I am.

Is meeting online the new norm?

The data shows that most singles believe that meeting people through online dating is socially acceptable. In 2015, 12% of these singles said they were seeking casual hook-ups, while 70% said they wanted a relationship and 11% said they were searching for their future spouse. (Elyse Romano ‘New Survey Offers Insights Into Dating Trends Around The World’  9 September 2015) There is no going back; technology and all its repercussions is here to stay – for good or for evil.

Writer Michael Arceneaux says that, “a lot of people seem to have an attitude about [hook-up] apps,” that they seem “seedy, desperate, lazy or some other adjective that describes behaviour one should be ‘above’.” He condemns the argument that people sometimes make about ‘the real world’ versus ‘the online world’ as “bullshit”. (‘I Went On Jack’d To Get Laid – Instead I Got Recognized’ Fusion online 4 June 2015)

Some writers on the topic have described hook-up or dating apps as comprising a certain ‘honesty’. Certainly this can be true of hook-up apps, but many dating apps are also used for this purpose and not everyone understands that. It was only after spending considerable time chatting to men that I realised the strong culture of negotiating ‘hook-ups’ as opposed to conducting any sort of genuine ‘let’s get to know you’ sort of relationship. In an earlier post I noted my observation that men on genuine hook-up sites were far more ‘human’ and polite than those on the average dating site.

One Guardian writer says, “I love Tinder – it’s the great equalizer of modern dating. There’s a cards-on-the-table honesty and the tiniest bit of vulnerability to the fact that we’re all hanging out in this virtual meat market.” (Desiree Akhavan ‘I Loved The Honesty Of Tinder – Then I Met Mr No Sex Before Marriage’ The Guardian 16 June 2015)

Rachel Hills, author of The Sex Myth (2015), agrees and believes that sites like Tinder “cut through the lack of communication about whether or not you are attracted to someone.” But she’s not sure if these new online dating sites do actually create more options, especially for people seeking more than just casual sex.

Like many people venturing online to find connection, I wasn’t sure exactly what I was seeking, apart the pleasure of sexual contact and new relationships.

One article goes further than Rachel Hills, quoting a psychology professor who argues that some dating apps foster an impression that “there are thousands or millions of potential mates” encouraging men to pursue a “short-term mating strategy leading to unstable relationships and a rise in divorce rates.” (Elle Hunt ‘The Tinder Generation is Real’ Vanity Fair magazine August 2015, quoted in The Guardian, 12 Aug 2015).

What the data says

There are some fascinating statistics around the use of online dating. Mostly, they reaffirm what we already know – that more and more people around the world are using online apps to meet people.

I’ve quoted a couple of times from, which is a useful site set up with the sole intent of putting together in one place as many annual stats about online dating as possible. It’s a treasure trove of (mainly American) information.

Research seems to point to men making 80% of the initial contacts (of which only 25% are reciprocated), but 92% of men say they’re comfortable being asked out by a woman.

In an article ‘Have Smartphones Contributed to the Rise of Dating Apps?’ the author states that Tinder alone claims it matches more than 12 million people per day, and processes more than a billion matches daily as well. Men are slightly over-represented on dating sites, making up 52.4% of users, and 49% of users say that physical characteristics are the most important factor. (Kelly Seal, 13 March 2015)

Online dating is certainly worth a bucket load. The US dating service market was estimated in 2014 to be worth US$2.2 billion, expected to rise to $2.7 billion by 2019. (Elyse Romano ‘The Biggest Online Dating Services, By The Numbers’, 30 May 2014) Mobile dating apps generated a billion US dollars in 2011.

Globally, the online dating market was estimated in 2013 to be worth US$4 billion. (Elyse Romano ‘Forecast: Online Dating Market Boom’) In 2015, Tinder alone was estimated in 2015 to be worth US$1 billion. (Kelly Seal ‘New Report on Dating App Trends Reveals Some Surprises’) Stats on the dating industry in Australia show that online dating is worth at least $100 million a year. (Online Dating Statistics, 2017)

Though there are a plethora of free dating sites (the only ones I have used), the advertising revenue and irritating presence is increasing daily. Advertising, along with all of the other pitfalls, is the price we pay for attempting to meet and mate in today’s world.

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