Finding love in the digital age

Randy Hazelton

Posted on February 10, 2014 in Arts & Culture
By Francis Flisiuk

Can apps like Tinder spark an off screen romance?

Whether we care to admit it or not, technology is changing every aspect of our 21st century world and, of course, dating and relationships are not exempt. Single people in the digital age have numerous tools at their disposal for finding love in the form of dating apps like Tinder and Hot or Not. But how often do these interactions lead to real, meaningful relationships? Could that cyber relationship flourish into something off the screen, or will it simply result in the singleton, sitting alone, illuminated by the pale light of a computer screen?

For years there’s been a certain level of social stigma surrounding online dating that has, according to Taryn Grenier, a sophomore marketing major, since diminished.“People used to consider online dating a last resort for those who didn’t have confidence to flirt in person,” said Grenier. Grenier said that her experience with the dating app Tinder has been generally positive. She met someone by using the site with whom she keeps in touch––though she clarified, they’re just friends.

“I definitely think nobody should be ashamed of online dating,” said Grenier. “My friends and I have all tried it.”

So why has the stigma been disappearing in recent years? Well, because there’s an app for that. The normalization and increased accessibility of dating sites and programs like Tinder, Blendr, Grindr, and Hot or Not has made them friendly and fun for users, who according to Grenier, treat them more like a game then actual dating. Tinder for example, which according to the co-founder Justin Mateen garners around 15,000 new downloads each day, has users sign in with their Facebook profiles, allowing their personal information, interests and photos to be automatically synched with their Tinder profiles. Then, in a sleek and easy-to-use interface, users are shown an array of single people that fit their preferences of age, sex and location.

“I think the app is super fun,” said Grenier. “I like how simple it is. I can talk to people whenever I want, wherever I am.”

The game aspect of the app could be attributed to how users operate it: they browse people’s photos based on their preferences and choose whether they deem them attractive or not by simply swiping to the right or left of the screen. Once the app finds a person the user has liked who has also liked them back, a match is made in the form of a message box often with a cute tagline or question to initiate conversation. Then it’s up to the user to steer the conversation toward whatever relationship goals they are trying to achieve.

“Tinder is great practice for texting and communication skills with people of the opposite sex,” said junior economics major Ethan Parker, who downloaded the app after he was referred by a friend who said that it was a good way to meet local girls.

According to Parker, Tinder requires you to make snap-judgements about people solely based on looks, and that this, is actually one of the app’s best features. Tinder creates a place where people can obsess over their looks, boost egos and pass judgement without the terrifying fear of rejection.

“The superficial pairing of people is actually enjoyable. It allows us to put aside emotions, feelings and personal baggage and really just break it down to animalistic selection,” explained Parker.

However, Tinder is not free of controversy. A number of people disapprove of the app’s method of making appearance, and not personality, the driving force that connects people.

Matt Skinner, a sophomore business student, has had the app for several months but has never taken it seriously.

“It’s just really shallow and kind of boring,” said Skinner. “It’s definitely not an alternative to going out into the real world and meeting people.”

While Tinder’s goals are simply to connect people for everything, from casual conversation to an actual physical date, some users like Leah Churchill, a senior music education major, find it hard to shake the notion that it’s nothing more than a “hookup site.” That some users see the site as just a shortcut to sex may stem from the nature of some of the conversations on Tinder, which in Churchill’s opinion are often a bit too vulgar. Tinder never led to any actual dates, for Churchill, because the quality of the conversations were, in her opinion, so poor.

“I found it kind of creepy when guys would message me and either say very little, such as, ‘Hey,’ or the complete opposite with lines like, ‘Do you want to hook up tonight?’” said Churchill.

Such propositions are often the result of the freedom that users have under the anonymity of the site. According to Dr. Maureen Ebben, a lecturer and professor of communication at USM, people are much more likely to type out their true thoughts online and prefer to be in control of communication situations. In short, the anonymity involved in dating on the Internet generally makes people more comfortable.

“In dating situations, there is the potential for rejection, and it can be difficult to put yourself out there,” said Ebben. “But apps like Tinder allow people to strategically represent themselves online.”

According to Ebben, this representation is an aspect of Hypersonal Communication Theory, which states that during online interactions people tend to display the best public image of themselves. When users customize that online profile, deciding how to craft their cyber-selves, Ebben says they are crafting the best image of themselves. This freedom also allows plenty of room for lies and exaggerations, with some online users creating whole new identities for themselves.

Because of the possibility of such dishonesty, Churchill was nervous about actually meeting her potential matches from Tinder. “I was always afraid that they would end up being a totally different person from the description,” said Churchill.

USM alumna Sarah Gelber had the same experience with online dating. She believes that some profiles that users encounter on online dating sites and apps could be pure fantasy.

“People can type anything they want,” said Gelber. “And the way a person looks in a picture isn’t necessarily the way they look in real life.”

But, Gelber said, she’s one of the lucky ones. Her online dating resulted in more than some cyber flirting. “I met my current boyfriend Alex originally on Tinder,” said Gelber. “One of the reasons I gave him a real shot was because my roommate vouched for him. Several months and dates later we made things official.”

Although technology helped Gelber start a relationship, she stressed that virtual interaction should never be a couple’s sole method of communication.

“Face to face interaction is the only real way to get to know someone,” said Gelber. “The sooner you’re able to meet someone in real life, the better.”

Churchill’s perspective was similar. “Dating is supposed to be about people enjoying each other’s company and gradually developing feelings for each other,” she said.

Despite some criticism, no one can deny that technologically-aided flirting is both popular and convenient. How effective this method is for finding love is ultimately up to the users, their communication skills and their judgement. While Tinder makes it possible to start a relationship, it certainly can’t help its users maintain them. According to app users like Grenier and Gelber, when it comes to actually building a relationship, getting to know someone and eventually falling in love, the only things that can help online daters are real, physical experiences.

“Face-to-face interaction is still the gold-standard for human communication,” said Ebben.