Dating Apps: the Funhouse Mirror

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Image credit: ThisIsWhyImBroke

There are few people over the age of sixteen and under the age of seventy who haven’t at least considered going online to see if they can find a partner, for a lifetime or merely for a brief encounter. Some apps are hyped for their promise of quick hookups, others for the premise that they will enable you to find The One. All, however, are in truth usually little more than funhouse mirrors.

We all want to present our best selves to the world and this is never more true than when it comes to attempting to attract others. Evolution has honed our competitive instincts because we need to stand out against the crowd if we’re to secure a suitable mate. In real life this has in the past led to a wide variety of false displays such as cod pieces, padded calf stockings, high heels, shoulder pads, padded bras, corsets, makeup, and all manner of other artificial beauty-enhancers.

Today we have it easy: instead of posting pictures of ourselves as we are today we carefully select images taken ten or even fifteen years ago; then we adjust them with software until those unfortunate blemishes, those unfortunate love-handles, and all other perceived defects, are carefully removed. We tell ourselves this isn’t deception but rather simply a reflection of who we really are.

……Which is true, but not in the way we tell ourselves….

If we are women we remove several years from our chronological age and we delete at least ten percent of our body weight. If we are men we increase our height by around fifteen percent, select a picture from the past when we still had hair, and we make false claims about our wealth. All of these distortions are ingrained behaviors from our evolutionary past, based on a subconscious understanding of what the other side is looking for (even when they don’t know it, or deny they’re looking for it).

What we ignore while we’re doing this is the fact we’re creating a myth that will be exposed were we ever to meet someone in real life. We’re so busy fabricating our online presence to satisfy our craving for approbation that we utterly forget the fact that as human beings, real-world connections are thousands of times more important than any ephemeral dopamine hit resulting from some anonymous person swiping right on our profile or “liking” us.

Then we self-sabotage even more.

The world of online dating is full of women who use apps to festoon their images with cartoon animal ears, pulsating hearts, dancing stars, and all manner of infantile nonsense. Presumably this is done (a) as a compensation mechanism to draw attention away from the person’s real features, and (b) as a signal that the creator of the profile is “cute” and “playful.” Unfortunately the actual result of these efforts is to convey insecurity and immaturity. Perhaps some men are attracted by these traits, but I doubt such men will make satisfactory companions.

Staying with women for a moment longer, so many write things like “Not looking for liars, cheaters, abusers.” The phrase stating the blindingly obvious springs to mind here. Do these women believe that if they fail to insert such disclaimers then men will assume they are looking for liars and cheaters and abusers and will send messages making strong claims toward possessing these traits? “Hey cutie, I’m a liar, a serial cheater, and a wife-beater. Let’s get together!”

Turning to men we see a wonderful world of mad behavior starting with our old friend The Dick Pick. Yes, there really are many men out there who believe that the way to a woman’s heart (or any other part of her anatomy) is via an unsolicited picture of a penis. Of course, it may not be their penis if that is of modest proportions but rather an image of a more impressive penis. What better preparation for that first intimate get-together than for your new acquaintance to look down at your supposedly huge gentleman’s sausage and see instead a rather inoffensive chipolata?

Then there’s the monosyllabic response. Amazingly, a woman decides to communicate with a man (a very rare event in the world of online dating): she sends a message asking some questions in order to elicit responses that will enable her to form at least an adumbrated opinion of the person she’s considering as a potential encounter. Now the man has an opportunity to convey the richness of his personality, his warmth, his humor, his trustworthiness. So he responds to “what do you like to do with your free time?” with “fuck.”

The thing is, even the most simple-minded man is likely to have more to offer than this monosyllabic response just as even the most paranoid woman is likely to have more to offer than her list of things she doesn’t want in a partner. But the combination of unrepresentative photos and unrealistic claims & demands means that only a minuscule percentage of people on dating apps will ever actually meet another human being in the flesh as a result of putting up a profile. Instead, most will continue to play a bizarre game of make-believe in which the impression we seek to create and the impressions we get of others bear as much resemblance to real people as the highly distorted images grinning back at us from funhouse mirrors.

It’s been estimated that anywhere between 100 million and 150 million people are on dating sites at any moment in time. All sites and articles make reference to those who’ve met online and gone on to form real-world relationships. Unfortunately these outcomes are a minuscule fraction of the total. If 400,000 people get together as a result of being on dating sites, and there are 100 million people online, then the success rate is 0.04%.

This is admittedly thirteen times better than your lifetime risk of being struck by lightning (0.003%) but I’m not sure that’s much of a consolation.

Personally I think this is all rather sad. We all need human connections and those in our workaday lives aren’t adequate. We will leave our job one day, the checkout clerk at the supermarket is being replaced by a self-service kiosk, and our online “friends” are merely images on a screen. Dating apps ought to be one means by which we can make good the deficit of meaningful human interactions but instead we use them to self-sabotage, feeding our craving for approbation with empty gestures and meaningless swipes.

Call me old-fashioned, but I think the time has come for us to stop playing make-believe and begin to reach out as real people. It’s not going to be easy, but the alternative is a world full of increasingly isolated and neurotic people attempting to live vicariously through avatars that bear less and less resemblance to any human who’s ever lived.

That’s not a future most of us would want for ourselves but it’s the future we’re actually building.

So let’s stop making impossible lists of attributes we demand of each other. Let’s stop telling ourselves we’ll only meet people who seem to fit our laundry-list of requirements because we “don’t have time to waste” in our endless quest for perfection. Let’s realize that we humans are both worse and better than our online presence and that only by meeting each other in real life can we ever hope to grow as people and perhaps one day find someone with whom we want to spend a lifetime or just an evening.

Let’s step back from the funhouse mirror and step out into the real world. It’s nice out there and we’ve been missing a great deal since we started hiding behind electrons. It’s time for us to rediscover our humanity.

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Anyone who enjoys my articles here on Medium may be interested in my books Why Democracy Failed and The Praying Ape, both available from Amazon.

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