Swipe, Sweat And Tears: Online Dating and Social Media Are Freaking Me Out
By Sasha Bortnik
Death by swipe . It’s real. I’ve swiped around, so I should know. A lot of us share slightly, if not strongly, negative associations with dating apps — unsolicited nudes, rude messages, alarming profiles — whatever your experience has been, my guess is that it’s generally uncharmed. That is, unless you find things like dead end conversation, varied degrees of cat fishing, and finally handing over your number to a stranger just for them to flake on you, charming. Aside from the few tales of a friend of a friend who found their now fiance after being on an app for just one day (it was the wildest thing!), for the majority of us the symptoms of dating app use include early signs of carpal tunnel and cynicism.
Despite this deep, dark rabbit hole of pixelated photos and poorly cropped bathroom selfies, many of us continue to swipe, even though the act itself can often feel like a self imposed slow death. But regardless of how fatal all the Tinders and Bumbles of the world may be, their popularity showcases the resilience of the human spirit, also known as the fear of loneliness; we have tangible evidence that love and dating will often hurt us, but most of us always step up to bat again. It’s a beautiful thing. Once our emotional cuts have scarred, dating apps allow us to jump back in at anytime, anywhere, and we are all about it.
A little bit ago, when my dating wounds had healed, I experience one of these hopeful days and matched with a guy who looked okay. Okay meaning non-threatening and well adjusted. There was only one photo that kind of troubled me - what troubled me about this one photo was his off centered distant gaze combined with pixelation, obscure location, overall low quality, and that it was quite possibly taken seven years ago. This one photo was enough to make me super hesitant, but still I reasoned that there was only one bad photo so the odds were ultimately in his favor. After some back and forth we agreed to meet for a drink. He chose Father’s Office, an important detail to note and you will see why in a few sentences. Our date arrived on a chilly Thursday evening, and I marched into the restaurant wearing a leather jacket and a new over-sized scarf that gave me a strange boost of confidence (if you know, you know), and I braced myself for whichever photo he turned out to resemble most. And there he was. Smaller than I had imagined and reminiscent of the photo that irked me — but only because he looked nothing like any of his photos and that REALLY irked me. Despite the evidence before me, I decided to stay for one drink because it sounded better than dying alone. I also reasoned that sometimes appearances can be deceiving, and although unlikely it was possible that he was my soulmate. So, like the resilient, highly imaginative, and hopeful human being that I am, I ordered a glass of red wine. He ordered a beer. After a few sips he started profusely sweating and ran to the bathroom at least three times in 30 minutes. I didn’t want to embarrass him further so I appeared unphased. However, he just continued to sweat and I couldn’t help but suggest that we sit outside. Maybe he was hot? So we moved outside, still sipping our drinks, until he finally confessed that he was allergic to beer, whilst still holding and drinking his beer. I told him to put down his drink and said I was going home. He insisted on walking me to my car and then tried to kiss me (which I denied), and after I left he texted me several times in a row saying I really fucked this up didn’t I?
OKAY. Even though cat fishing (mixed with a very stubborn approach to an allergy) comes with the online dating territory, it’s still a shitty experience that’s evidently hard to let go of. Going on “regular” dates is exhausting enough - but bringing yourself to such a point of optimism that you are willing to trust a digital profile and muster up the courage to meet this profile in the flesh, brings you to a whole new level of tired. And tired can quickly turn into exhausted, when that person is nothing like you imagined them to be from their four photos and witty replies to trite questions like what’s the most spontaneous thing you’ve ever done? There are of course less severe offenses in the online dating world than cat fishing. For example, I recently matched with a guy and spoke to him on the phone several times only so he could cancel every date he made with me — that’s cellular data used, and I would have preferred to not use it on him.
But my frustration goes beyond a few bad dates and lengthy chats that lead to nowhere (dating is hard no matter how you meet, let’s be real) — I’m afraid that online dating is actually making matters more difficult. Even though it’s giving us more options than we’ve ever had, and the ability to meet people at any time, anywhere, it is somehow making it harder than ever to actually meet people. Dating apps create this illusion that there are an infinite amount of fish in the sea, but in reality I feel that my tangible options have dwindled - I think this illusion has turned our focus to collecting surface level connections rather than taking the time to build meaningful ones.
Dating apps provide this instantaneous way for us to come across a plethora of filtered strangers and engage with them in this distant, digitally specific way, similar to the way we engage with strangers on social media. Many of us follow brands we love, celebrities, and even our crushes, as way to stay in touch and establish “connection”. Social media and dating apps breed this aspirational mindset of always looking for more, for the bigger and the better. The truth is that we are rarely satiated in the digital space, and I believe it’s designed that way.
Another element that really drives home the frustration, is that now if you aren’t on dating apps people assume you’re not trying hard enough. I’ve been guilty of convincing my friends to download dating apps and “get out there” despite their visceral aversion to the whole concept. The reality is that the more time I spend in the dating app world, the more I believe that it stops us from approaching people in the physical world. Why approach someone at the risk of getting shut down when you can sit at home, watch Netflix, and swipe? Why be vulnerable? I’ve even seen people open their Tinder at a bar instead of scanning the room and building up the courage to speak to someone. You have the mask of the app, a mask that you’ve thoughtfully built in order to present only the elements of yourself that you perceive as most attractive. The apps appeal to us by removing our vulnerability, which enables us to take connections for granted. And here begins another part of the problem — when we match with someone or even message with them, it’s difficult to treat the connection with the same sacredness or potential as we do when someone asks for our number at a bar. When dating within the apps the stakes are much lower. We swipe all the time, we chat, we ghost, we come back, we ghost.
For some, dating apps are simply a place to grow one’s social media following. Someone actually told me that they use Tinder to gain new followers — a sort of “match for follow” type system. No dates, just followers. I recently came across a guy’s profile where he wrote “don’t really use this app so add me on Snapchat/Instagram” and then provided his handle. He too was more interested in gaining followers than finding a date.
In a recent Telegraph article, Whitney Wolfe, the founder of Bumble, said “we are responsible in part for this epidemic of social media obsession”. She added that it was “time to encourage our users to focus on themselves and mental health and not [be] trapped in this warp of a never ending stream of connection.” In response, Bumble will be adding a “Snooze” function, which allows you to freeze the app for a certain period of time, just like Instagram allows you to temporarily disable your account. I recently disabled my Instagram (temporarily of course) and was surprised, and even a little comforted, to see that I was able to list I just need a break as a reason for disabling it. While I appreciate Bumble’s efforts to remedy our social media obsession, the issue itself is concerning and very reflective of where we are as a society.
I’ve also heard my friends confess to solely using dating apps as a way to boost their confidence. Seeing people swipe right on them strokes their ego but doesn’t require any real effort on their part, aside from opening the app of course. It’s not very different from the validation (aka dopamine release) that happens when someone likes our Instagram post. Unlike dating websites like Match.com that require you to fill out a lengthy bio and take your time, several apps are intentionally gamified and function a lot like Instagram or Snapchat. After you match with someone on Tinder, for example, the app presents you with two options: send message or keep swiping. Keep swiping. The notion itself implies such a mindless activity, much like a game, thereby removing all vulnerability. How truly vulnerable of an act is swiping right on a stranger? Being vulnerable is crucial to creating a connection with another human being, but through social media and dating apps we have a found a way to seemingly connect with no personal investment.
In a lot of cases, a dating profile is really just an extension of your Instagram profile with a green light for someone to hit on you. Social media and dating apps are so closely linked that you can’t even sign up for a dating app without having your own personal social media. Social media is the barrier of entry to all dating apps. The implications of that are a little scary, suggesting that if you don’t exist on social media you can’t exist in this certain dating space. If your online presence is lacking, then you are lacking too, and you can’t even participate in modern dating.
I’m not discounting those who have met and truly connected through dating apps, I think they are just as lucky as anyone else who’s found their match. My concern is more about a general behavior that’s slowly changing the way we interact with one another. I believe dating apps have the potential for a positive impact if we use them as a way to expand our options, not as a replacement for old school human to human contact. I also believe that having the option to hide behind a digital profile, whether that be on Instagram or a dating app, allows us to create a persona that isn’t necessarily true to who we are. Again, it’s that idea of removing vulnerability while still trying to forge connection with others. I come across so many profiles with a cheeky line like: if we get married I’m willing to lie about how we met. On some level we all crave a romantic meet cute, and I think many of us believe dating apps are robbing us of that meet cute.
Of course I don’t have the answer, but I believe it’s worth discussing since social media and dating apps are so tightly weaved into our daily lives. In the movie Valentine’s Day, which came out in 2010, there was a scene at the beginning that showed Jessica Alba’s character sleeping next to her cell phone - this was supposed to show how work obsessed she was. I remember seeing the movie in theaters and everyone sort of laughed at the image of her asleep with the call phone practically on her pillow. Today, that image wouldn’t even phase us. It’s natural to sleep within inches of our phones, as we constantly exist within inches of our phones. The way we interact with the world has drastically changed even in the last eight years. We publicly document things like going to the gym, we use filters and lenses, and we pay attention to likes, follower count, and verification.
I hope that years from now I look back on this article and think how overly dramatic I was being, and perhaps we’ll all kick our digital addictions or find a healthy way to live with them. But until then, I’m trying to become more conscious of my online behavior and how it affects the way I am in the physical world.