From OkCupid to Tinder: will technology be the death of love?
Ewan Morrison asks if dating sites and apps have doomed modern romance
This is a typical date from the not-too-distant future: a young man (K) and a young woman (A) go on a date to a café/bar. They both have smart-pads with them and share clips and messages friends have sent. Their friends are watching the live feed and comment on how good-looking, sharp and well-matched A and K are. The date starts with 200 friends online and the numbers start to rise. Friends make suggestions – ‘move in closer’, ‘touch his hand’. Their dating site, too, is giving them ratings from live-voter viewing. ‘Look, we’ve got 2000 followers,’ A says to K. ‘Quick, say something romantic.’ K struggles to make conversation. ‘So, you like neo punk.’ ‘Yeah,’ replies A. ‘And you’re into burlesque’ – ‘Yeah.’ Flirting is hard as they both already know that they share the same interests in films, music, TV, politics and sport. This was, after all, why they were algorithmically selected for each other by the dating site in the first place (other factors included body size, ethnicity and religious and sexual preferences). K asks his online friends to suggest jokes. One hundred suggestions flood in and he shares them with A. Somehow this wasn’t very funny. She then worries whether she finds K attractive. Did the algorithms get it wrong? A asks her friends to vote: ‘Do I fancy him?’ K and A focus on their voting stats. They attempt to please their followers – it is, after all, these followers who will decide whether they should go back to his or hers later and consummate, an act that too will be filmed and shared online, with K and A rated ‘hot’ or ‘not’. At their table, wordless now, K and A sit back and wait for the results. They’re disappointed that so many viewers dropped out. Their friends must have chosen to watch another online date out of the hundreds of thousands available.
This might sound like a futuristic dystopia, but the technologies required are already here: they just have to be merged. Dating sites are now huge (with 66% of Americans dating online) and have changed from the pot-luck system they started out with. Sites like Match.com, eHarmony and OkCupid all now compile questionnaire data to make algorithmic pre-selections for your partners, editing out people that don’t match your type. Bang goes the possibility of a chance encounter with someone from a different earnings bracket or background – one of the former requirements of the ‘thunderbolt’ of romantic love, and of the phenomenon of ‘opposites attract’.
Online dating used to be a slightly sordid, secretive adventure, but now it’s gone ‘social’ with sites like Badoo, Matchmaker and Gelato that merge dating with all the chummy tools of Facebook. Gelato uses the Friendfeed system to harvest info from your accounts with Flickr, Twitter, Netflix, LastFM, Amazon and others to ‘give potential matches a good impression of the type of person you are instead of reading a profile that you created especially for the purpose of online dating’. On Badoo and Plentyoffish, you are also invited to rate users’ pics as a ‘yes’, ‘no’ or ‘maybe’ for a potential meet, and this accumulated data creates a social dating hierarchy – a development from the many ‘rate my friends’ sites where amassed data creates a top 100. Down, a new app (formerly called Bang with Friends) matches you ‘with friends of friends by hotness’. Your hotness score is based on the number of people who rate your profile, or maybe just your pic. There’s a downside to this: the socially challenged, the millions of solitary online users who have permitted total strangers to decide that they are unattractive and unworthy of affection or attention. Your future love life is not in your hands: witness mysinglefriend.com, where your online chums write your dating profile for you. ‘If you like horror films, heated political chat and cozy nights in, then our chum Alfie could be the man of your dreams!’
The allure of the sexual is that it is anti-social, but yet the impossible hybrid of social networking and promiscuity has already happened with sites like Fuckbook and XBiz, where users rate people they want to – and already have – had sex with. Even swinging sites, formerly bastions of the clandestine, now use peer reviews. ‘Jim is hot and hung, but has problems with halitosis.’
Social network dating is becoming what arranged marriages once were, with algorithms and peer pressure replacing oppressive family structures. All that is required for the fully monitored and rated date to become a reality is for Snapchat to merge with dating and peer-rating sites and to share video feeds and data. It will happen. (Snapchat is currently worth $3 billion and has turned down a merger with Facebook, playing for better offers.)
Thanks to the net, privacy and mystery – the other essential ingredients for love and lust – are dying out fast. At the far extreme, if you desire an anonymous, secret encounter, there are apps for that: Grindr for gay men, and a vast array of hetero-smartphone variables. Tinder, Blendr and Swoon all use GPS to hook you up with ‘availables’ in your locality. Such apps flourish among those with secret IDs, the promiscuous, the curious and the adulterous, but their days are numbered as governments move towards banning the use of fake IDs. Anyway, since these apps function through GPS, your every move is being mapped, possibly by the NSA and the CIA. Witness the telling tale of the man who used a site like Grindr and had accidentally permitted his social media sites to link into it, so every time he went cruising for outdoor sex it was announced on Facebook and Twitter. ‘Terry is in Rouken Glen Park.’ Data which then found its way into the hands of his partner, his employers and the police.
Love and lust die when everything is transparent. The internet is replacing the mysteries of seduction with socialised surveillance. So what is left for the arts of amour in the age of Big Data, now that we get everything we want at the touch of a button and share ourselves so publicly that our inner lives cease to exist? There is one radical solution that might yet save us, one that is unthinkable in an era in which we believe technological progress is the only answer: become a Luddite in the name of love – turn off your smartphone, stupid.