By Imad Alatas
The perception of romantic heterosexual relationships as a requirement to maintain the illusion of well-being and oneness has been called the ‘heterosexual imaginary’. The celebrated notion of romance has increased the desirability for individuals to find a suitable partner which has been made easier with the emergence of online dating. This is because individuals do not need to allocate a certain time and place to meet their romantic interest but can instead meet them on the Internet through platforms such as social networking sites. Before the advent of modern technology, relationships could only be maintained by two people constantly seeing each other or writing to each other which was rather arduous and inefficient. However, the emergence of online dating has changed the dynamics of relationships in three ways. Firstly, it has enabled a more efficient way of conveying emotions during a relationship. Secondly, it has given rise to an artificial nature of relationships whereby online rather than offline interaction is able to dictate the direction and nature of relationships. Lastly, the emergence of online dating has also led to a commoditization of relationships where relationships are manifested as a result of two individuals successfully selling their image to each other.
Online dating has changed the dynamics of relationships whereby it has enabled a more time efficient way of sharing emotional intimacy. Before the introduction of online dating, maintaining a bond in a relationship would consume a huge period of time where a couple would have to arrange to meet each other. In circumstances where a couple could not meet each other, for example during a war, they would have to write to each other through love letters. This again consumed time; a party in the couple may only receive the letter a week later. Thus time was rather a hindrance to couples in a relationship where they would have to wait for a considerable period of time until both of them were able to mutually express their emotions and feelings at the same time. Online dating has significantly reduced the time required for a couple to emotionally connect with each other. In fact, the time gap between writing, receiving, sending and reading has been made almost instantaneous. This means that couples can instantly communicate with one another online without having to worry about the discrepancy between their emotional state and the time at which they send messages to one another.
However, one may argue that the absence of non-verbal cues when couples communicate online negates the efficiency that online dating provides in conveying emotions in the first place. Words alone in Computer Mediated Communication (CMC) words alone may not be enough for couples to convey their emotions and feelings to one another. The lack of physical visibility when couples date online may render emotions conveyed online as ambiguous as both individuals would not be able to see each other’s facial expression. Non-verbal cues are important in decreasing the ambiguity of emotion expressed online. At this point, I would like to highlight the usage of ‘emoticons’ in providing a way of solving this problem of ambiguity. They compensate for the lack of physical signals required during face-to-face interaction. ‘Emoticons’ are online pictorial representations of a person’s emotions in the absence of physical interaction with another individual. The ‘emoticon’ may reduce the ambiguity of purely verbal messages between a couple by providing each other information on what emotion is being associated with their message. Nevertheless, ‘emoticons’ themselves cannot be seen as a substitute for conveying emotions offline because unlike during face-to-face interaction, there is no way to validate if emotions expressed online are in fact sincere and genuine since they are being expressed through the impersonal medium of technology. This impersonal nature of online dating brings me to second point on how online dating has resulted in an artificial way of looking for a partner and hence starting a relationship.
The emergence of online dating has also made relationships seem more artificial. Prior to online dating, a couple found it hard to exaggerate their physical attractiveness or personalities in the absence of a technological barrier, leaving no room for deceiving the partner. In other words, the perceptions that both individuals in the couple had of each other were more immutable. It is at this juncture that Erving Goffman’s work ‘The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life’ is relevant in explaining how online dating has made relationships seem more artificial. In it he mentions how an individual is profiled as he ‘enters the presence of others’ where his characteristics and qualities are judged. Likewise, the online dating world dictates the kind of information that the individual would want to disclose about himself. This disclosure is facilitated by the fact that individuals may reinvent their self-presentation after it has been posted. With the emergence of online dating, the absence of face-to-face interaction between two daters means they can exaggerate key information such as their height to enhance their attractiveness. This deception in presentation provides an artificial basis for starting a relationship as individuals use the abovementioned information that can be false to select a partner. Furthermore, information on online dating sites such as photos can be constantly edited. This again reduces the authenticity of the relationship where a couple’s perceptions of each other are mediated by online data that is constantly manipulated.
In suggesting a nature of communication between an online couple that is artificial, one must not forget that online couples do eventually meet offline. The fact that couples know each other’s beliefs and viewpoints might motivate them to meet offline. This would suggest that relationships that have their origins in online communication may not be artificial if the relationship transits to the offline arena and hence is free from the artificial online world of dating. The fact that couples would want to meet offline due to the impressions that they have of each other shows an attempt to continue the relationship, making it all the more sincere and genuine. However, while the transition from online dating to offline interaction may make a relationship less artificial and more personal, arbitrary indicators that couples have used online such as job occupation to get to know one another make the basis of a relationship artificial. Rather, the dearth of non-verbal cues evident in computer-mediated communication makes it difficult for one to establish a personal identity. Hence it would be difficult for two individuals to establish a human connection in the online dating world. Compounding the artificial nature of these indicators is the fact that individuals may have gone through a comprehensive process of filtering out less attractive choices for a partner rather than focusing on one person. This filtering out of less attractive options brings me to my final point on how relationships have become commoditized with the advent of online dating.
The emergence of online dating has led to a commoditization of relationships whereby relationships act as an outcome of a successful marketing strategy by two individuals. The key differences to note between the times before the emergence of online dating and after are the mechanisms used to find a suitable partner and the existence of a wider availability of a mating pool. Before the emergence of online dating, the mechanism used to find a suitable partner was much more inter-personal in nature where mutual friends and the like would introduce a potential partner in a common social setting. However, it is the Internet that has rendered this ‘shared location’ as a necessity for meeting someone redundant. As the nature of online dating transcends geographies, there is also a wider market available for individuals to find potential partners who share similar passions and goals. This in turn has led to relationships being commoditized as individuals seek to present the best possible version of themselves while at the same time looking for a potential partner that possesses the desired qualities. The analogy of a relationship to a commodity can be explained by how individuals use the acquired online information about their subject of interest to decide whether to meet this person offline, that is whether they should ‘buy the product’. The wide array of online profiles has also meant that individuals can simply forego the less appealing profiles and move on to a more appealing one. Above all, it is the impersonal nature of online dating that has made a relationship comparable to a commodity as people are assessed based on arbitrary data rather than character.
In looking at the abovementioned points from a sociological perspective, George Ritzer’s explanation of the McDonaldization of society is a relevant metaphor in explaining the artificiality, efficiency and commoditization present in online dating. George Ritzer views McDonaldization as a formal rationalization of life where the values of the fast-food industry such as efficiency, control through non-human technology and calculability have seeped into areas of life such as the family. Online dating itself is a concrete example of the formal rationalization of life. Just as technological innovations in the fast-food industry have enabled a more efficient way of producing fast-food, so have they enabled a more efficient way of providing communication between an online couple. Secondly, the mechanization in the fast food industry which has resulted in a lesser human role in producing fast food is also present in online dating where artificial indicators provided by technology as opposed to interpersonal relations determine the success of finding a partner. Lastly, the ideal of calculability in fast-food restaurants where quantity is emphasized over quality is found in online dating where the value of potential partners are assessed based on quantifiable data such as income rather than their inner beauty.