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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Expectations in Online Dating and the Risks of Addiction

In this series of articles (see the first one here), I examine some of the social/cultural factors behind the technology that has overtaken our lives.

Yes the internet has made life a darn site easier in so many ways, but online dating, as one example of how the internet reaches into our personal lives, is already beginning to have profound implications for our relationships and choices.

If you look just at the issue of 24/7 availability and the way our smartphones are like an extra appendage, we can see how technology has changed our expectations.

We expect our messages to be returned within the day, if not within the hour.

Research shows that 94% of online daters say they expect a response from their message within 24 hours. (Online Dating Industry Facts and Statistics accessed 25 July 2017)
So often, we expect someone we’re ‘chatting with’ to talk every day, possibly all day, because they can – if their phone is with them. If they don’t, we wonder why not. We can allow ourselves to be eaten up with pointless worry and self-doubt, reading ridiculous motivations or meaning into their behaviour. (More on this next time).

Sex on tap?

And then there is the deeper, more nuanced topic of sexual expectations in this modern era, or other undisclosed expectations.

This hidden agenda so many people carry with them like a set of spare clothes. Does this online dating era mean that people are more promiscuous? Almost half of all American singles have had a friends-with-benefits arrangement. (Elyse Romano Singles in America Study Tackles Sex and Exes 7 April 2016) One man I know on a polyamory dating site claims to have had more than 600 partners – and he’s only 26. Mutual friends believe him! In one hushed conversation between these three poly guys at a party, they worked out that they had sexual connections between more than 30 people.

So does it also mean that people’s expectations about sexual contact are skewed?

These are interesting questions and I’m not sure there’s an easy answer. There is definitely a fair percentage of people on dating sites who are after just sex, as well as those who are after so-called relationships. (Then there are those who are just there for the ego thrills and never intend to meet). Clearly on hook-up sites the expectation is usually about NSA sex. Some men (not always young ones) on dating sites expect to be instantly invited sight unseen to a potential mate’s home. Interestingly, in contrast there does not seem to be that expectation on hook-up sites (in my experience).

Communication is the key to avoiding potential misunderstandings. Be clear about what you want – and as a woman you should feel no shame saying so if it’s sexual intimacy. Slut shaming has no place in the modern world as far as this cougar’s concerned! Later, I’ll bring in some more interesting research I’ve uncovered about sex and online dating.

Addicted to the swipe

There’s a side issue related to expectation. Addiction might be seen as the bad-apple cousin of expectation, because this new technology more easily enables us to become obsessed with another person. Or even obsessed with the idea of perfection – or choice.

I have compulsively checked my messages. I have been borderline obsessed with more than one man on this journey. I have juggled numerous ‘conversations’ at once, getting a kick from the energy of being wanted. There’s nothing quite like the distraction from mundane life around you when you have a heap of guys competing for your attention online!


I have also opened my apps and wondered why no one was messaging me, why my inbox was empty, why the notifications had suddenly gone quiet. Sometimes there is just no explanation why this happens. There seem to be peaks and troughs in people’s energy or focus, just like in other areas of life. I have greedily added more and more ‘potentials’ to my list to fill my daily existence with talk and fantasy and facile desire. I have also allowed my sense of self to be subsumed within a ‘relationship’, to be swallowed whole by hope, daydreams and the sheer addictive quality of being wanted.

Men are 97% more likely to feel addicted to dating than women – although more women feel more burned out by the process (54%). (Kelly Seal Match Releases 7th Annual Singles in America Study 13 March 2017)

You have a virtual someone in every part of your life – your home, your bed, your car, your work – constantly sending you images of themselves or their world. They occupy you with conversation, they share confessions, whisper (via keypad) you how beautiful you are and how much they want you.

It can be overwhelming. It can leave you wanting more. And when it stops (for whatever reason, even because they are asleep), when that constant gratification is gone, you feel that gap as a chasm of loneliness. You feel that person’s lack, their absence as a deprivation. I shared my story about being catfished and how much that hurt me at the time, and I have other similar stories to come. It’s taken me a long time to build a shield between my heart and the attractions to be found online. Sometimes now I wonder if I am numb from online dating – but then I meet someone really special (like E) and realise that no, my heart is still raw and pumping, even if that’s not such a wise thing after all.

The ending of an online love affair in which I was deeply emotionally invested was one of the hardest things I’ve ever experienced. It’s so easy to give in and send a message or a photo, when really you should be licking your wounds and keeping yourself safe, away from them.

You should be experiencing the ‘old world’ reality of separation (‘they are somewhere else and I have no idea what they are doing right now’). Instead, you stare at your phone and yearn for their message or call. Or worse, you trawl through screenshots or kept message threads, or you replay videos or voice messages. I’m such a sucker for this – I still have voice messages, screenshots and dozens of videos from a man I was smitten by more than a year ago. Can’t bring myself to delete them – yet.

As a Generation X woman, I sometimes think that life was so much simpler before this technology invaded our lives. Millennials and Gen Z youngsters have normalised the technological route as an acceptable way to break up with someone, with at least one in seven Australians under 24 believing that it’s acceptable to break up with someone on social media. (Elyse Romano Digital Love in Australia 1 Jan 2013)

Contrasting with this claim, an American study found that more than 90% of (all-aged) singles agreed it’s not acceptable to break up with someone via text. (Elyse Romano How Singles Use Technology in Dating 19 March 2013) Personally I think it’s at least better to be told something, rather than the coward’s way, which is becoming increasingly common – ghosting!

Poor Millenials are apparently struggling with addiction to online dating in a way that other generations aren’t.

“In the 2017 Singles In America study it was found that 15% of singles say they feel addicted to the process of looking for a date on a dating service. Millennials are 125% more likely to feel addicted than older generations.” (Elyse Romano 2017 Singles In America’ Survey Reveals Secrets Of Millennial Dating
1 March 2017).

It makes sense, when you think about it, why this would be the case – millennials are most likely to be looking for a mate to settle down or start a family – or they may be inexperienced in relationships and feeling the pressure to ‘pair up’. This pressure is all around us and difficult to escape, especially for young people.

Sometimes I really worry about Gen Z, who are growing up as I write, into a world where meeting potential romantic partners online is the norm, where people don’t talk to each other or socialise as much as in the past when it was ‘normal’, and where people disappear from each other’s lives with no accountability or resolution of conflict (if it was ever even voiced). As always, technology is a double-edged sword.


PS. I just came across this video of a spoken word poem on You Tube. My god it’s powerful. Though I’m not a millennial I feel every word of it. A part of me wants to share it with my 16-year-old son, though he hasn’t even started that journey. But I want to ward him away from this…emptiness that I feel in the writer’s words. The loss of hope, the confusion and the emotional turmoil disguised as ‘cool’. An incredible piece of writing and performance.