by Jordan Poyner
A few weeks ago, New Herald contributor Oliver Young argued that the use of online dating applications and sites has corrupted the authenticity of the romantic experience. In representing ourselves online and allowing an algorithm to aid us in finding potential romantic interests, Young claims, we diminish the meaning of our choices and miss out on an essential part of the experience of love. If this were true, it would mean something devastating for young people in America, 27% of whom reported using online dating sites or apps. But I don’t think the picture is as grim as Young paints it. I remain skeptical of the claim that online dating seriously mitigates the significance of its participants’ anxiety or the meaning of their choices. There is likely good reason to worry about the ways in which the internet has affected our social behavior, but it is vitally important to also acknowledge how that behavior predates and informs our online activity. A misdiagnosis of the problem here obscures what’s truly at stake.
Young begins by summarizing the principal motives for love well: romance is the result of our human longings to be freely known and wanted–to be seen and desired–and to reciprocate this experience with another individual. This experience requires active participation: individuals must choose to pursue one another, and persevere through the anxiety which necessarily results from the recognition of each other’s freedom (to reject and to accept one another). By delegating the process of romantic selection to algorithms, claims Young, this anxiety is not allowed to develop and our capacity to choose another is made inauthentic. To truly outsource the task of making meaningful decisions to algorithms or artificial intelligence would indeed represent an abnegation of something essentially human. But in arguing that online dating represents just such a surrender of meaningful choice, Young fails to account for the ways in which choice and anxiety remain inalienably present in these situations. Online dating may alter certain aspects of romantic entanglement, but it cannot ultimately change the reality of a more fundamental social experience.
Unless a person chooses to live as a hermit, they cannot much escape being seen. At work or school, as we move throughout our day, we are exposed to one another by varying degrees. This way of being seen incorporates actions we do or don’t take, decisions we do or don’t make. These decisions might have moral content (one finds the proverbial wallet and makes the effort to return it to its owner) or be value neutral (one wears a blue t-shirt out in public). The more extensive our exposure to others, the more we consequently observe the choices they make. The phenomenon of being seen in this sense is the unavoidable reality of living together in society.
Though the advent and popular usage of the internet has augmented that reality, we are often blind to the ways in which digital life follows the same strange human logic as offscreen existence. Though it is true that self-representation becomes a much more consciously curated affair in the digital world of online dating, it does not follow that this negates the power or reality of the participating individual’s choice. Take the scenario of a first date or impromptu romantic encounter. Two individuals–prompted by their interests and desires, their hopes and fears–offer one another jokes, anecdotes, or stories which help create the idea of an individual capable of longing, and worth longing for. Though it is often more instinctive in the physical world, individuals are still aware of how they are seen (and how they want to be seen).
According to Young, matchmaking algorithms alter what it fundamentally means to see and be seen by presenting us with a curated range of potential romantic interests, based on what each individual says about themselves. Yet it is a mistake to imagine that the real world offers no opportunities for social filtration and limited selection. By definition, socialized individuals understand themselves in relation to others. This results in significant determinations about the environments we choose to live in and the kinds of people we choose to associate with–two immeasurably important factors in the search for love. For most of us, our jobs afford us access to the presence of co-workers, customers, and associated individuals. Like any given online dating utility, this too is a circumscribed space in which we see one another in limited ways. Dating sites and apps offer a new system for noticing and attracting one another, but similarly narrow or configured systems exist organically in the world around us.
Having noticed (or been noticed by) another, we must make some primary choices which confirm our interest or lack of interest in them. In this, online dating differs little from offscreen interaction. Users of online dating sites may be prompted to look at certain profiles, but in order for this to become more than just browsing, someone has to risk a gesture of interest. Furthermore, for online dating to have any significance whatsoever, it has to eventually transcend the digital realm. At a certain crucial and exciting point, an in-person meeting must be arranged. In this moment–and the moments that follow–the kind of anxiety which gives romance its depth of feeling is acutely present. People will still have to decide what to wear on their date, what information to share with one another and what questions to ask. Online dating can only prompt encounters between individuals: it can’t navigate those experiences for them. All the choices of offline dating are ultimately present–they are simply being offered by a new social apparatus.
There is much to be said about the way that digital dating utilities present (and thus implicitly understand) the process of romantic selection, but their approach to this process does not represent a hollowing out of the meaning of individual choice. Other social phenomena and institutions exist which help us sort our romantic compatibility, but neither these entities nor online dating can absolve us of the most meaningful experiences of love. A site’s ability to suggest potential matches and offer an introduction cannot fully obscure the ways in which both users are still resiliently human. Though the point of origin for our feelings of attraction might be digital, in order for them to be sustained we must encounter one another offscreen. You may be able to find potential romantic interests with more facility, but the pursuit of them is still rife with anxiety and choice.
Jordan Poyner is a recent graduate of Indiana University, where he studied English literature, film theory, art, and anthropology.