Online dating sites tell us a lot about the construction of not just online but offline identities: about who we are and how we wish to be perceived.
It was rare, once upon a time, to use an online dating site to find a partner. It was half creepy, half sad – like putting yourself up for sale, the last one left on the shelf. The same went for the non-technical version of online dating: Lonely Hearts ads.
Now internet dating is mainstream. People shop for partners like they shop on Amazon: read the reviews, check out other options, “if you like this woman, you might also like…” In fact, I’m amazed Amazon don’t yet offer the service. One click, and the partner of your dreams arrives at your door with free two-day shipping.
The rise in popularity and social acceptance of internet dating sites has been steep since its inception in 1986 with an online bulletin board known as Matchmaker. Now there are countless dating sites, from huge, industrial, global online dating factories such as Plentyoffish.com with 8 billion page views per month, to niche markets such as JDate for Jews, Ave Maria Singles for Catholic marriage seekers and even Cupidtino for Apple, Inc. fans. Match.com and Zoosk are the biggest in the US, while Meetic tops the online dating charts in Europe.
Most internet dating sites have either an advertising or freemium business model and enhanced features such as a “chemistry predictor” algorithm and “needs assessment” generator. Wacky ideas, such as DNA testing to predict the compatibility of potential partners before you have even met, is offered by sites such as GenePartner.com. Although, as the New York Times recently reported, most of these “scientific” approaches to matchmaking don’t match the hype.
Internet dating makes sense
On the face of it, internet dating makes sense. It’s a lot safer than hanging around a bar hoping to be struck by lightening, and a lot more efficient than joining all the local social and sports clubs in the hope of finding a single man or woman with whom you can get on.
And a lot more productive than promising undying love to the man you met on vacation, who lives inconveniently on the next continent.
If it’s too good to be true…
Due to their intensely personal nature, however, internet dating sites are hot with issues of identity and credibility. How do I know that the person I am considering meeting for a date is who he says he is? How do I know that his picture is a recent, accurate one – that he hasn’t put on 30 pounds and a full set of facial hair since the photo was taken?
How do I know he’s not married and just looking for a bit of fun on the side? (There is actually a site dedicated to this: the controversial Ashley Madison.)
More seriously, how do I know that he is not a rapist, a madman, a kidnapper? How do I know that the pretty Thai girl I’m planning to meet is not an imported sex slave operating under duress? When the Skout app pings me to let me know other Skout users are in the neighborhood, should I pursue?
Trust and credibility in online dating
Concerns about the credibility of internet dating profiles has spawned some interesting ideas. Hitch.me uses LinkedIn profiles rather than separate user-created profiles, on the grounds that business-minded people will appreciate reading a potential partner’s CV rather than his favorite hobbies – and because, the site alleges, “Everyone trusts LinkedIn….There are countless online dating platforms that vouch to be safe and secure but in reality are filled with scammers, sex offenders and not so classy people.”
As the TRUE.com Member Code of Ethics admits, “we can’t guarantee that criminals can’t get on our site.” They do, however, “guarantee that they’ll be sorry they did. Our Member Safety team vigorously pursues individuals who misrepresent themselves on our website.” In its “vigorous” attitude to telling the truth about one’s identity and past, TRUE may be an exception that proves the rule in the world of online dating.
Constructing an identity on any social networking site is a struggle, since most of us do not have one single identity. We have multiple identities which shift and change according to who we are interacting with – close friends, friends from previous homes and lives, casual acquaintances, family, colleagues, potential employers, the public – and these identities change over time.
That is part of the problem behind Facebook – it can never mimic our offline identities closely enough. (See Huthinson, Luke, “Coolness and Embellishment in Identity Formation on Facebook” para 4.)
And if we know that potential partners will be scrutinizing our profiles, we’ll be even more careful about how we present ourselves. I personally am not glamorous or a particularly sharp dresser, but I’ll be tempted to post a photo of myself in nice clothes and a bit of make-up. Or should I emphasize my sporty nature by listing my outdoorsy hobbies? Or should I try to come across as thoughtful and intelligent by listing my favorite pursuits as reading, classical music, piano playing and philosophy?
None of the above points are untrue for me. But to highlight one over another is a conscious decision about how to present my identity online. The anxiety that comes with trying to present a perfect picture of oneself to a potential mate tells us a lot about we are and want to be.