Have you ever done online dating? Have you ever wanted to? Do you know anyone who has met their partner through online dating? Have you heard horror stories?
The answer to all of those questions is increasingly likely to be yes. We live in a world where the online world is slowly becoming inextricable linked with the offline world, and we use online resources for pretty much everything, including looking for love.
The world is a very different place to the one when Match.com launched itself in 1995. At that point in time barely 15% of people were online, and internet dating was a bleak last resort for those who were unable to find love in the so-called ‘real world’. Nowadays over 90% of western individuals are online, and internet dating is the one of the most common ways for couples to meet. However, undercurrents of uncertainty persist, despite the growing acceptance of online dating.
There used to be a stigma to meeting people online, but with the proliferation of dating sites, and apps like Tinder, the stigma is fading and it is becoming more socially accepted to look for partners online. What was seen as a last resort is fast becoming normalised.
Is dating online any different to going to a bar and looking around at who is available? No, not at all, there’s more choice online, sure, – but is this a good thing? Not always, sometimes too much choice actually inhibits our decision making leading to individuals ‘hedging their bets’ – meaning everyone loses in the end.
It’s not just the big name brands that are involved with internet dating now: Match.com, eHarmony.com, and Tinder are all well known. But there are areas of the internet where gamers can meet in chat rooms (or via the online games), people meet on Twitter, Facebook, and there are plenty of specialist sites which appeal to narrow demographics of individuals with specific interests and fetishes. There really is something for everyone online.
I’ve got a few friends who have met their significant others on dating websites, I’ve seen how well it can work out; but I’ve also heard horror stories and seen news items about how badly things can go wrong. There are no guarantees online, much as there are none in the offline world.
I’ve been on dating websites, in my pre-mummy days, and I’ve been on dates through them. I can tell you there are still plenty of oddities to go around, but they’re not all bad. Think about it, if you’re going online to look for a date, you can’t assume everyone is a nutter – you’re online, and you know you’re ok, it stands to reason (and the basics of probability) that other people will be perfectly normal as well.
My most prominent memory is a guy who seemed nice enough, but had what Eddie Izzard refers to as a ‘sock in a cup’ handshake (my instant thought was that his hands were never getting near any part of me ever again); he followed that up handshake with the statement ‘No love without a glove’, at which point I was trying to work out how quickly I could politely leave without seeming rude. Yes, he really said that…after that handshake (*shudders a little*).
At the end of the day he wasn’t a weirdo, not at all, he was nicer than some men I’ve met offline. He was just socially awkward, and this is the group of people whom the internet really supports well. Real life can be confusing to navigate when you’re socially awkward, the internet at least takes away some of the awkwardness and allows you to get past some of the initial hurdles.
In the ‘offline’ world we form relationships with others through what’s termed propinquity, which is the repeated exposure to others which enables bonds to be formed over time. However, just because traditionally this meant face-to-face exposure, does not mean it has to now. With the advent of online meeting spaces propinquity has been redefined to mean the repeated exposure or interactions with other individuals which lead to an increased liking between those individuals. This can be online as well as offline, in which case it is termed electronic propinquity: having a shared experience online, be that a computer/technology mediated conversation, online quest, or all-night chatroom session. This shared experience can foster a sense of closeness between individuals – because fundamentally propinquity is the development of closeness between individuals through interaction.
People engage in online dating for lots of reasons, not just social awkwardness. Some people prefer computer mediated communication (CMC – communicating via technology in all its forms) to face-to-face communication, and the appeal of that is obvious for those with social anxiety or social awkwardness.
But the appeal of online communication and dating is also easy to see for those of us with kids or demanding work lives, after a long day at work we rarely want to socialise, we’re exhausted; I don’t know about you, but I’m in pyjamas and braless by 6.30-7.00pm of a weekday. Work and non-traditional family commitments in the modern era mean that a great many people have minimal time for socialising but still want to form a connection with someone – we just prefer to search from the comfort of the sofa so that we can conserve some energy for the next day of our busy lives.
There is also geographical mobility of individuals to consider. There is the increasing tendency for people to move away from the areas they grew up. Gone are the days when we stay in one place our entire lives, we move to go to university, we move where new jobs take us, and sometimes we move for other reasons. But the crucial point is that friends and families are increasing being spread across the country, and the globe, and this impacts on the ability meet people through friends, so they turn to online resources instead.
But we worry. What if the person on the other end of the computer isn’t who they say they are, what if they are a nutter, what if there is something altogether more terrifying waiting for us if we meet them. Most of us will have heard a few horror stories about online dating that went horribly wrong; fortunately online deception is not the typical scenario.
Online deception is much rarer than most of us think, but it is ever-present and increasing. The transition to offline encounters is where the big issue lies with deception – this is when people are lured into situations with predatory individuals after being groomed for months, when money changes hands, be that traditional or newer like bitcoin and game-related purchases. Deception online involves the same elements that occur offline, but the digital barrier enables the scam to be more effective and continue for longer.
For example, have you heard of a catfish? In the world of online communication (such as internet dating) a catfish is someone who pretends to be someone they’re not using Facebook or other social media to create false identities, particularly to pursue deceptive online romances. The term catfish was made popular by the 2010 documentary film by the same name (which has also morphed into a series on MTV, I’ve never seen it, apparently I’d shout at the TV so I’ll be avoiding it). It refers to a person who is intentionally deceptive when creating a social media profile, often with the goal of making a romantic connection (be that a legal or illegal one). This deception can be elaborate, and may involve the use of fake photos, fake biographies, and sometimes fictitious supporting networks as well.
Why do they do it? The reasons are complex, but may be rooted in the “online disinhibition effect“, where the potential for anonymity in online spaces reduces people’s responsiveness, and attentiveness, to social and moral codes – leading to antinormative and harassing behaviours such as trolling and predation. Online spaces mean that users doesn’t always have to face the people they deceive, so feelings like stress, tension, guilt and shame can be avoided as they explore who they might want to be or how far they can press a storyline. Catfish lean heavily on avoiding offline meetings as deceptions are revealed at this point, and they get pleasure in knowing that they are deceiving people. They typically paint a picture of busy-ness or tragedy that keeps them away even while they continue to emotionally feed the relationship. Hopefully none of you are wondering if you’re interacting with a catfish online now!
Fortunately this is uncommon, and for every scary story, there is a picture of success. A friend of mine recently celebrated 6 years with the person she met online – they’re happily married with a beautiful daughter. Another friend is moving in with the guy she met just over a year ago. It’s not all scary, and quite possibly is still a risk worth taking – after all, there are plenty of nutters in the offline world too.
One of the reasons for writing on this topic was to showcase some student work. I’ve been teaching a new module on ‘Cyberpsychology’ this year, and it’s been a lot of fun. My students have all worked really hard so I asked a few of them if I could showcase their work in my blog: fortunately they said yes. Their brief for this particular task was to create a ‘How to’ guide for online dating. Their only remit was to make it accurate, appealing and include academic research to support their claims. Here are my favourites, I hope you like them.