Chapter 9: New Media & Communication

9.5 Online Dating 

A significant part of human social life is organized around who we form lasting romantic relationships with. The online world, once idealized as a place of anonymity and separation from offline life, now has networks devoted to replicating offline life online, and building networks of relationships. These interconnected relationships are what experts really mean when we talk about social networks, which sociologists began studying decades before online social networking sites existed.

A cellular phone number in one study represented a new layer of intimacy. Does it still?

In a 2014 article entitled From Facebook to Cell Calls, Yang and coauthors found that college students progressed through layers of electronic intimacy – different media chosen as benchmarks in the progression of a romantic relationship. When they were interested in someone, they began by connecting with a “crush” through Facebook, which allowed the “crush” to see who their admirer’s friends were and how the admirer looked, communicated, and behaved. The next layer was instant messaging – direct communication, but not as direct as the use of one’s “digits” or cellular connection. After instant messaging, they moved to the more intimate sanctum of text messaging. The final step was a face-to-face meeting. Overall this sequence of media they used followed a pattern: they began by performing in front of and viewing one another’s social networks, they then moved into more direct one-on-one communication before meeting in person.

Data in the above study was likely collected in 2011 or 2012. So what might people like the participants in Yang and coauthors’ study be doing to find romance now, five years later? College students today may be using some different platforms in their pursuit of new connections than the students in Yang et al’s study; Instagram is likely high on the list.

However, it is also likely that at least some of the pursuit of romantic interests that happened through different media in the past is now consolidating in online dating sites. ​The Pew Research Center published a report in 2016 about the growing number of Americans who have used online dating. They found that online dating usage by those aged 18-24 has nearly tripled since 2013 and usage by those aged 55-64 has doubled; other age groups’ use has increased as well.

Online dating apps afford the presentation of ourselves to prospective friends, partners, mates, and hookups. On these apps, users’ imagery and self-description tend to be idealized, sometimes to the point of deception. Apps such as have been developed around the desire for more honesty in online dating, but their market share has not been spectacular. It seems upfront honesty is not the best way to gather a public of potential lovers.

Do dating apps also follow the sequence found in Yang and coauthors’ study, moving from social and tribal to direct connection? That depends. Some apps leave out learning about someone’s social connections, relying instead on complex algorithms to calculate who might be a good match – even if scientific evidence does not show that these algorithms work. Others just speed through the sequence by facilitating immediate direct connection, and in some cases, quick sex. Some use the language of sociality like “tribe” and some connect you to matches through your social networks.

But we humans and our cultural norms still determine a great deal of how dating apps are used. Just as bias affects algorithms across the web, bias has been found to tip the scales on dating sites in favor of white men, to the detriment of groups including black women and Asian men. Sites and apps follow our leads as much as we follow theirs. And apps only go so far; dating apps today function more like online shopping than like relationship formation of the past. In the BBC Horizon film How to Find Love Online, the romance-focused anthropologist Dr. Helen Fisher says they are better called “Introduction services,” with the act of dating and the final vetting before it still conducted in person.

Mobile Dating Apps 

Mobile apps are particularly influential in the world of online dating today. One of the pioneers was Grindr, a gay dating app. Bae, an up and coming site branded “for black singles,” was recently acquired by a company aiming to make it global. Her caters to queer women.

And then there is Tinderthe most popular in the US (although not the world) at the time of this writing, which has taken the heterosexual dating world by storm. There are many critiques of Tinder’s effect on heterosexual dating, however, including studies finding that it favors men’s usage norms over women’s. Tinder faces strong competition from numerous competitors for the US market, however, including a direct challenge – with a grudge – from a Tinder cofounder’s site, Bumble, discussed more next.

The Paradox of Choice 

Some scientists and users are critical of online dating apps because of the wide selection they provide. As Aziz Ansari points out in this podcast episode, and in this article, for some people dating once meant choosing from an extremely small selection of people. He and the podcast host cite studies finding a paradox of choice, psychologist Barry Schwartz’s theory that the more selection we have, the less likely we are to choose something and feel satisfied with our choice – whether it is a partner or a jar of jam. And today? Thanks to these apps, users get exposed to a lot more jam.

Young Romance: Many have blamed Tinder for a terrible modern dating culture​ that leaves young women dissatisfied.

Many in the article linked above, including Sales, have charged that Tinder encourages a culture of harassment of women. That may be in part because the culture within the company has been the site of harassment. Tinder co-founder Whitney Wolfe left Tinder in 2014 after being sexually harassed there, received a settlement, and started Bumble. For users in big cities, it is possible to swipe almost infinitely through prospects for dating and potential sex. As my friend Mary Franklin Harvin describes it, it gives “an air of disposability” to people. Nancy Jo Sales’ Vanity Fair article on Tinder goes further, claiming women have fewer orgasms in the numbers-game exchanges Tinder facilitates – and in these situations with so little intimacy or rapport for feedback, men do not learn the skills to be good lovers.

But online dating sites, like most technologies, depend on humans to use them and shape their norms. To end with a ray of hope for those who feel they have to use Tinder, artists like Audrey JonesMatt Starr, and Jarrod Allen use Tinder to make art. If nothing else, they remind us that humans can choose to use platforms in new ways – even if using them differently than the crowd can be lonely.

Key Takeaways

  1. CMC has changed throughout the years to allow for more interaction and communication online.
  2. Synchronous and asynchronous communication allows for different methods of communication.
  3. We use online platforms to create identifies for ourselves in the online environment.
  4. Nonverbal cues are typically missing from online interactions.
  5. New media affect interpersonal relationships, as conceptions of relationships are influenced by new points of connection such as “being Facebook friends.” While some people have critiqued social media for lessening the importance of face-to-face interaction, some communication scholars have found that online networks provide important opportunities to stay connected, receive emotional support, and broaden our perspectives in ways that traditional offline networks do not.
  6. Online dating has offers opportunities for us to meet others but also comes with many challenges



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