I Like Bubble Baths and Long Walks on the Internet

How digital flirting might be changing real world dating.
By Gina DeVitis

Fiona “Feeny” Myers* ducked under the large windowpane of her favorite Lower East Side bar.  She didn’t have much time.  Bored out of her wits, she had told her date she was going for a nicotine break.  Myers held her breath as she scurried past, hunchbacked under the glass like an amateur assassin. Her fingers trembled with adrenaline around her cigarette. Once on the other side, she broke into a sprint down the sidewalk.

Ten minutes later, her phone buzzed with a text message.

“Are you serious?”

But she was already halfway home to New Jersey and couldn’t be bothered to respond.

“I was lonely and I wanted to date.”

Myers sat on the stoop of her sex-addicted, investment banker pseudo-boyfriend’s apartment and explained why she joined OkCupid in late 2009.

“The fact that it was free appealed to me,” she said, “I liked it because I can get a gauge on what kind of person someone is going to be, whether I’m attracted to them or not.  I met a lot of people I most likely never would have crossed paths with in real life.”

So she went on a few dates until a few dates turned to well over a hundred.  She quit multiple times.  The entire cycle was easy and the attention was nice.  Myers felt little pressure for things to work out in the long term but enjoyed the company all the same.

For a technology driven generation, it is only natural that people are turning to their smart devices to find romance.   The taboo of Internet dating is wearing away, and with it the subculture is slowly morphing.  As people begin to spend more time online, sites like OkCupid are becoming normalized.  The rules for dating are getting an upgrade.

“I think flirting online is different than flirting in real life because it’s hard to be shy on the Internet,” Myers said, “Not that I’m shy, but you could say the whole thing feels less sincere because of it.”

OkCupid and other dating websites have little of the real world’s gravitas since interactions are private until both users decide to make them public by meeting.  Initial rejection loses virtually all chances of causing public or social embarrassment, and confidence becomes easier to fake.  With such fears removed, connections are made that might never have occurred in a real, physical setting.

Myers is far from the stereotypical Dungeons-and-Dragons-playing, introverted Internet dater of years past.  She is incredibly attractive, with large hazel eyes, a slim nose, and a full mouth.  She is lithe and petite, as only a Russian-trained ballerina like she can be.  She is incredibly friendly and instantly a sexual presence.  Myers has never had a problem striking up a conversation and getting a phone number.

From a psychological perspective, physicality is key to flirting.  Attraction is instinctual, and women and men alike subconsciously flaunt their assets and baby-making abilities to potential mates.  Physical cues are key to the rational side of the brain’s ability to measure the success of romantic advances. The most physical thing about flirting online is touching a keyboard.

“In a bar, I might use gaze or body language to show someone that I was receptive,” Myers argues, “With OkCupid, I would check someone’s profile, wait until they checked mine, and, if they didn’t message me, check theirs again.  It’s just a low stakes way of showing someone that they had my attention.  Non-verbal cues are always important, online or not.”

With less effort comes less emotional investment.  The courting process is sped up online: A dating profile is the ultimate form of self-promotion.  You know what you have in common with someone before you’ve even messaged them, oftentimes including things that could take years to discover offline.  If things dwindle quickly with an online suitor, emotional recovery becomes easier because the turnover rate is so high.

Myers enjoyed joking about her OkCupid history.

“A lot of people are weird,” she said, “I was telling my friend about this one guy and she said to me, ‘He wrote a book called All My Friends Are Dead.  Of course he was weird.’  You meet a lot of characters.  There isn’t a ton of commitment in a first date, so it’s fun.  Most dates are first date, last date.  There’s no pressure.”

In the digital age, time is of the essence.  The Internet has made us an impatient generation: We use it to make our lives more efficient, so why not use it to make our dating lives more efficient as well?

The anonymity provides an added layer of protection in both directions.  There is much less harm in sending a message to someone than building up the courage to approach someone in person.

Likewise, it’s easier to ignore unwanted advances.  When a man walked by the stoop and gave Myers the onceover, she promptly told him to keep walking or she would call the cops.  But she never applied the same social courtesy to the Internet courting game: When she received unwanted messages, she simply did not respond.

The stakes in online dating are inherently lower, which is unchanged when the flirting comes offline: When things went sour, Myers felt it was acceptable to ditch a date for sweatpants at home in the guise of a cigarette break.

“I’ve been straight forward with people during the first date,” Myers said, “I’ve said, ‘Look, this just isn’t happening’ and left.   Why waste our time?”

People who become used to the ease and speed of the online love algorithm find that their expectations for the real world shift accordingly.  For Myers and her friends, of whom many have used and quit OkCupid multiple times, this is exactly what brings them back.  Returning to the real world dating pool becomes tedious, like having to thumb through the Encyclopedia Britannica after a few years of Wikipedia.

Online dating is already old news, but the fact that it is no longer considered a phenomenon when it is so inherently unnatural speaks volumes.  OkCupid and websites like it have offered a new perspective, and a new option, for romance.  But traces of the stigma still remain.

“I’m going to get murdered,” was Myers joke of choice when meeting someone new from OkCupid, but it did not stop her from making sure someone had the contact information of her mystery man and knew where she was at all times.  She admitted to be less likely to give someone the benefit of the doubt if she had met him online.  OkCupid greatly shortened her patience: Finding another person was too easy.

“On my most recent date, I was thinking of ways to leave the whole time,” she smiled, “But he picked a place that was all windows.”

*Name has been changed.

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