Online Only

Love virtually

Dating and mating on the internet

BEFORE THE ADVENT of internet dating apps, finding romance online was the habit of nerds, misfits and desperados. I know this because I was certainly one of those, perhaps even all three. My regular haunt was the internet, which most people didn’t understand back then; but what I didn’t understand while frequenting online chat rooms in the late ’90s was that I was merely an early adopter.

The shift we’ve made to finding lovers online is nothing short of profound, and it’s a trend observable across every age group in Australia. Even the oldies appear to have taken to it with zeal. As the digitisation of our lives proceeds unabated, the use of digital platforms as a legitimate way to find a prospective mate has embedded itself in our culture.

As it is with all new frontiers, the way ahead is uncharted and not entirely without dangers. There are regular reports of false profiles, scams, catfishing, meet-ups that go awry, and cyberbullying. According to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) in 2017, Australians lost over $42 million to dating and romance scams, often initiated via dating websites, apps or social media.

The internet was ostensibly designed for purposes other than romance, so we are currently negotiating our way through a fog of unintended outcomes. Dating on the internet can be a dehumanising experience, to say the least, and the impact on people’s mental health is far from negligible. While these perils are both perceived and real, in this realm of our lives, as in so many others, focusing too squarely on the downsides misses the main point: we are being fundamentally transformed.

 

JUST WHEN IT seemed as if every segment of the market was catered to, Facebook launched a new feature: Dating.

The ubiquitous social network didn’t even bother to invent a catchy name for the service. Perhaps the extension of the platform into romance is only to be expected, given people have already been using it to find love.

In 2018, the Good Weekend’s Two of Us column profiled Simon Tedeschi, a concert pianist, and Loribelle Spirovski, a painter. Their meet-cute involved a photograph of one of Loribelle’s paintings in an art appreciation group on Facebook. Simon was struck by the work and felt compelled to send a message to the artist. As he is quoted saying in the column, ‘before long our discussions became deeper. The actual physical meeting had an air of inevitability.’ It was intriguing to read about two artists whose relationship originated on Facebook.

‘We wouldn’t have met otherwise because I don’t go out much,’ Simon explains, when I contact him to find out more. ‘I’m particularly private and tend towards reclusiveness even.’ It sounds almost odd to hear such a well-known and seasoned performer say this, until you consider what it means to be introverted in an extroverted world. But Simon and Loribelle’s origin story does not seem in any way strange now. Facebook groups bring people together based on mutual interests. It’s natural that tenuous connections might grow into relationships.

Irrespective of how Facebook Dating unfolds – and it is not yet available in Australia at the time of writing – it signals just how much further the social network can permeate into our lives. That is, if we let it.

Our relationship with Facebook is currently open plan: we erect the flimsiest of boundaries around it, if any at all. However, as various and significant problems come to light about Facebook’s practices – not least of which includes the Cambridge Analytica data scandal, the spread of fake news and the company’s concerted lobbying against its rivals – this may start to change. In Australia, an unexpected leader has emerged in this area in the form of the ACCC, which has taken on the unprecedented challenge of trying to regulate the digital behemoth.

 

LINA AZAR WAS in her late twenties when she moved from Lebanon to Australia at the start of 2015 to begin a new life. She and I had become friends while we were both living overseas in 2013, and on a trip we took to Naples she showed me an app called Brenda (now called Wapa), which she used for lesbian dating. When I later visited her in Beirut, I saw first-hand how internet dating had even greater utility there, serving as a wormhole in a conservative universe. After arriving in Melbourne, however, Lina started using mainstream dating apps instead. She signed up to OkCupid and was faced with a long list of multiple-choice questions.

‘I didn’t answer any of them,’ she tells me, because she found the questions ‘intense’. It was difficult to describe herself in a satisfactory way. ‘I was a “free-rider” on the app. I wasn’t going to worry about my profile and just find people I was interested in.’ Because Lina didn’t answer the questions, she had no matches, but she started to browse and came across a woman who had an interesting profile and nice photos. Lina sent a random message and they started chatting. Despite the atypical start – Lina’s largely empty profile looked ‘dodgy’, as she describes it – they arranged to meet in person a few days later.

In 2018, I scrolled back through my Facebook conversations with Lina to pinpoint when I had first heard about the relationship. I needed this information for my letter of support for her visa, ahead of their wedding earlier this year. The two of them marrying is an unexpected outcome, given same-sex marriage wasn’t even a possibility in Australia when they first met. But it’s an unexpected outcome in any case: that two people who meet for a ‘blind’ date will fall in love and marry.

 

A FEW YEARS ago, at a high school in northern NSW, I met a fifteen-year-old whose parents had met through online gaming. The boy’s father had ended up migrating from the United States to Australia. So aside from dating websites, smartphone apps and Facebook groups, there are – and have long been – many other forms of online communities. Hearing about the boy’s parents made me recall that, around the same time his parents probably met in the early 2000s, I frequented a bulletin board run by a relatively little-known British band called Coldplay. Through the bulletin board I started making friends from all over the world, including several I still maintain. It wasn’t long before I formed an intense virtual connection with another bulletin-board member and booked a ticket to meet him…in London. It became my first serious relationship, and paved the way for venturing onto an internet dating site later on.

When I signed up to a site called RSVP in 2007, however, I resented how it commodified what I had already experienced for free and without regulation. The world wide web I first encountered seemed far more porous and less colonised by commercial interests.

RSVP launched in 1997 and is Australia’s most established dating platform. By the time I became a member, it was just over a decade old and had been bought out by Fairfax for $38.92 million in 2005. Nowadays, it’s the most expensive service to subscribe to in terms of the popular dating platforms in Australia. The other top services are owned by North American companies, and together these companies form a billion-dollar industry.

Facing RSVP’s drop-down menus to characterise my ‘ideal partner’ was like compiling a shopping list: pragmatic, though worryingly narrow. I restricted my search to Sydney, though was open-minded enough not to nominate a specific area. After a few false starts, in late 2008 I came across a well-written profile that made me laugh. But I paused over our astrological compatibility: was this witty Gemini going to be different to the last one? I plunged forth and sent a message…and didn’t receive a response for five days. The speed of our connection at the start was even more sluggish than dial-up had been in the ’90s.

When our daughter eventually hears the story of how her parents met, she might hear it the way I hear stories about people meeting via punch cards inserted into room-sized computer processors. Though when she comes of age, the hipsters of the future will probably have created a ‘slow dating’ movement for courtship without technology. A lot of waiting around will be involved.

 

IN 2017, THE market research company YouGov found that around 35 per cent of Australians in their sample of more than a thousand had tried internet dating, with an even higher uptake among millennials. These findings roughly accord with a more recent study by sociologists Michael Rosenfeld, Sonia Hausen and Reuben Thomas. They found that 39 per cent of heterosexual couples and 60 per cent of same-sex couples in the US met online. The Australian-based YouGov study found that embarrassment about internet dating still remains, though it is decreasing. Whereas the US study suggests that over there they are quickly moving past embarrassment and into cultural acceptance.

But as long as embarrassment lingers, ‘meeting through friends’– a classic scenario of adult urban life – can still be used as an effective cover for couples who prefer not to admit to meeting online. I accepted one such story for the first year of a friend’s relationship until his new girlfriend asked me, ‘You guys met on the internet as well, right?’

Perceptions of respectability are an ongoing issue, and aside from a still pervasive idea that there’s something unnatural about internet dating, the stigma is no doubt in part due to prevailing judgements about casual sex. A long-married friend recently confessed that he had used an internet dating app for fleeting liaisons. But hooking up is one thing; dating with a view to forming long-term relationships is another entirely.

 

A FRIEND I’VE known for almost as long as mainstream internet dating sites have been around is Michael Hobbes, who first came to Sydney as an exchange student from Seattle. Over the years, his stories about internet dating subverted everything I discovered in my own explorations. Whenever he revisited Sydney, Michael would meet men on DudesNude and Grindr. ‘The funny thing is, guys would send me naked pictures, but then sometimes we’d spend our entire first date talking about our childhood and past traumas,’ he once told me. ‘Straight men may struggle to find sex online, but gay men often struggle to find intimacy.’

In ‘Together alone: The epidemic of gay loneliness’, his recent longform piece for Huffington Post, Michael concludes that ‘the real effect of the apps is quieter, less remarked-upon and, in a way, more profound: For many of us, they have become the primary way we interact with other gay people’. Inhabiting virtual spaces from their earliest iterations, Michael suggests, may have contributed to a pervasive loneliness in the gay community over time.

‘It’s a big deal that the majority of gay couples now meet each other online, compared to almost 0 per cent twenty years ago,’ Michael tells me in a message over Facebook, which is how we primarily talk now that we live on opposite sides of the Pacific. ‘And we don’t have the norms of social behaviour to go along with it. This is why we keep having debates about “ghosting” and the like: we simply don’t have established rules for what this is supposed to look like.’ This seems to apply to the wider population as we increasingly turn to digital means to find companionship, with fast-shifting norms guiding our behaviour. We have also begun to discuss an ‘epidemic of loneliness’ in Australia, and it’s an epidemic that cuts across all groups.

 

DATING IS A vulnerable experience at the best of times, but when it occurs online everything accelerates and multiplies. Unfurling connection as well as patience is rare in the vast digital sea of opportunity. First impressions become even more critical when another possibility is a mere swipe away, which can make rejections efficient and ruthless – if people even get to a first date.

The ephemeral and visual nature of the internet as a medium has created a new set of problems, as well as exacerbating what already exists in the offline world. It would be naive to overlook race, for example, and I was conscious of this as I logged onto RSVP as an Asian woman in Australia. Race is a salient aspect of identity that comes to the fore online. Back then it did not seem to characterise my experiences in a harmful way, though I was not an active user for very long. But upon reflection, I’ve also wondered if my strategically daggy photos helped by not reinforcing preconceptions men might have of Asian women. In the age of Instagram and Tinder (which both came years later), I doubt I would have been as brave about uploading that photo of me wearing a bucket hat in the jungle. I held to the stubborn belief that if someone was going to judge me on the basis of my photos, we were likely doomed from the start.

As it turned out, my witty Gemini took the approach a step further: he had no photos at all. When we started messaging, I actually thought I was possibly chatting to someone Asian because he mentioned he had just moved back to Sydney after living in Beijing. There was only one way for me to find out for sure: Are you Chinese? I typed.

The question recalled what’s your natio?, which was a mainstay of chatrooms in the ’90s after you established a/s/l (age, sex, location). Asking about ‘nationality’ was a habit peculiar to Australians.

No, I’m just your average Anglo, was his short reply to my blunt query. I was, momentarily, disappointed. A Chinese boyfriend would have been a welcome change; no Asians had ever reciprocated my crushes during my adolescence, in part because I did not conform to the narrow standards of beauty imposed by all the cultures I was part of. It was liberating to exist in disembodied cyberspace.

When we finally made a plan to meet, he sent through photos of himself with the explanation that he hadn’t uploaded any because the whole idea of internet dating made him cringe (and still does). Our first date at a café on Glebe Point Road was a free-flowing talkfest, which made up for the slowness of our online exchanges. Among other things, I was delighted to discover he wasn’t a Gemini. It turned out he didn’t know anything at all about astrology and had just picked a random sign. He never thought anyone would notice, let alone calculate the prospects of a future together on the basis of it.

A few weeks later, he asked me, ‘Why did you choose such terrible photos?’

 

ROMANCE AND SEX are experienced in as many different ways as there are people, but what is undoubtedly true for many is that internet-facilitated meeting simply leads to the possibility of being together IRL – ‘in real life’. Seeing each other in person confronts any ideas formed online only. The wondrous aspect of all this – and something we seem to already take for granted – is that encounters from the internet bring us into contact with strangers we may not have met otherwise.

There is still much to be understood about the psychology of internet dating, and how using such services is changing norms at the population level. During a four-month period in 2016, behavioural economists Stephen Whyte and Benno Torgler from QUT reviewed more than 200,000 instances of contact made by more than 40,000 members of RSVP. In their data set, people tended to make contact with those who had similar education; the more highly educated gravitated towards those who were also highly educated. But this is not so different to the way the world already works. However, Whyte and Torgler also found that younger men were more willing to contact those less educated compared to those who were older – and the same went for another group, older women, as they are ‘likely to focus more on ongoing interaction rather than securing an exclusive relationship’.

Another unintended consequence of internet dating, according to economists Josué Ortega and Philipp Hergovich, may be the steep rise of interracial marriages. While their work focuses on the US, the same is likely to be true in Australia, where our large urban centres are hotbeds of interracial marriage. Internet dating provides an opportunity to mingle outside existing networks and to overcome monocultural milieus. That isn’t to say these services aren’t ‘filter bubbles’ par excellence, but curiosity still has a way of bursting through.

 

IMAGINING THAT AUSTRALIA – and indeed, the US – has a singular dating culture is reductive given the inherent plurality of both our populations. Courtship rituals do exist, after all, including those imported from elsewhere. I’ve met those who migrated here from India, for example, whose relationships include ‘love matches’ as well as formal introductions – and the internet sometimes played a pivotal role in those relationships too.

Around the same time that I first connected with my future husband, my school friend Avishkar Misra reconnected with a woman he had briefly met in India, introduced by mutual family friends. Their families considered them a suitable match as they came from the same caste, religion and educational background, among other things. While my future husband and I began meeting for coffees in cafés, they had coffee-accompanied conversations online. ‘Our initial conversations started with things like Oscar Wilde, Tintin and Yes Minister, as we courted via Skype and Google Talk,’ Avishkar tells me.

A few weeks after my own fateful first date on Glebe Point Road, Avishkar returned from a two-week trip to India with the news of his engagement. His wedding was scheduled for less than two months later – and this was how I ended up on an impromptu trip to India to attend the celebrations, as well as visit the Taj Mahal, the world’s most glorious monument to love.

On the face of it, the beginning of Avishkar’s marriage seems far removed from mine. While his is a testament to the possibilities of Old World love, I pursued the kind of mixed marriage possible – and increasingly normal – in the New World, with no familial input and crossing a multitude of boundaries. But is my virtual love match all that different to his ‘arranged’ marriage? Looking closely at the way our internet dating profiles were constructed, we both signalled our affiliations including class, ethnicity and religion – all of which were noted, even if those factors were not decisive in the success of our relationships.

Users of internet dating services see themselves as free individuals making informed decisions; but we are also customers giving up our data. We assist the matching process by writing profiles and filling in questionnaires. Our answers feed algorithms that can apparently predict future felicity, and these algorithms are far from transparent. Of course, we can opt out, but most of us opt in, providing answers and uploading photos in good faith, curious about an unknown future. All of which points to how the brave new world of internet dating is not necessarily all that removed from ancient pairing practices; it’s just that, rather than relying on kin logic to match-make for us, we’re now relying on machine logic instead.

 

Some names have been changed to protect privacy.

Griffith Review