Fiction : Reflections on how the dating culture is changing
Phil had never thought he would end up alone. Ever since humanity had ostensibly solved the problem of dating with technology, it looked from the outside to be a breeze. All the couples he knew had met on dating apps, right? Well, not Julie and Andrew. The rest of his friends were single though. Did they find it just as tough? They talked a lot about how they navigated the apps, all the weirdos and the creeps, yet he never actually saw any of them in long term committed relationships. They were waiting for the ‘perfect one’. The one that could ‘tolerate them at their worst, because then they would deserve them at their best’. You know, the one that worked out, had healthy relationships with his parents, that wasn’t really really good looking, but good looking ‘enough’. The one that was romantic, but not always, and was serious, but also playful. Who lived nearby, and liked eating Sushi. And he had to love dogs too. When Phil really thought about it, he figured there were probably a handful of people like this. Weren’t there?
He looked up from his phone and smiled. He sat at a Starbucks, the chair opposite him empty. He had thrown the smile at the elderly gentleman behind the counter, performing his daily ablutions of cleaning the coffee machine and sweeping the floors all in the backdrop of the smooth jazz filling the now emptying store. It was almost closing time.
“Hey…. I’m really sorry, I don’t think I can come today, it’s my friends birthday just realised! haha”.
Phil took a moment to respond, crafting a witty yet not too witty statement, but failing :
“haha don’t worry, we can schedule another time, I had something come up too”.
He sees the three dots that indicate the other person is typing. Whoever thought of that idea was a real psychopath he thinks. The dots disappear. Then reappear. Then disappear. This happens another two more times, as Phil sits waiting patiently. Imagine if in real life people had responding dots he wonders. Conversations would last forever as both parties try to find the ‘correct’ way to say what they want to say. To craft the message so it isn’t too pointed, but just pointed enough. He sees the dots reappear one last time, before the screen navigates to the home page of the app, and a popup appear : “Sorry, that conversation does not exist”. A trace of disappointment lingers on his mind, but vanishes quickly like a passing ghost.
Later that day, Phil is lying on his bed, swiping. He doesn’t give it much thought. It had become a pavlovian response by now, a default reaction to the bubbling up of any signs of loneliness.
Left : too tall
Left : too far away
Left : sounds too basic
Left : looks slightly off
Left : …. Not right
He thinks maybe that his expectations are too high. But with online dating, those expectations could be met, right? There seemed to be an infinite supply of fodder for him to peruse, to make 5-second judgements on. He implicitly accepted that other people were doing the same to him. The arc of a life filled with love, suffering, loss and gain compressed into the span of a heartbeat. Left or Right. Never mind the fact that companies were also mining vast amounts of data on him. Data that let them know when he felt lonely, horny, where he lived, his occupation, his preferences. Who knew what they used that data for exactly? But that was an uncomfortable unspoken norm now. The paradox of privacy. We all want privacy, but we give all of our data willingly. He accepted it like most of humanity. Everyone was on these dating apps. What was the alternative? And so it continued. Phil lost in a trance, the biochemical algorithm controlled but the artificial algorithm. A temporary salve to a growing problem. It was only when he managed to put the phone down, that the background dissatisfaction reared its ugly head. And when it became too strong, Phil knew exactly where to go back to.
A few days later, Julie and Andrew invite Phil over for dinner. Their place was a small apartment located on the outskirts of the City, quieter than most places. A rustic feel, with wooden floors, large glass windows and high ceilings. He loved their place because it was filled with the aroma of worn books.
The evening flowed smoothly, with food, wine and good conversation ran free. He particularly enjoyed the conversations. Julie and Andrew had the policy where phones were kept at the front door, and only looked on in emergencies. Therefore they could either sit in silence, or discuss. Phil had found at other gatherings, once the small talk inevitably fizzled out, both parties pulled out their black rectangle to connect to the information highway. He wondered if this was out of anxiety, boredom or both. But at Julie and Andrews, they were adamant about technology, often preferring paper books, records and journals. They weren’t luddites particularly, just concerned about the faster pace of technology. Phil felt this too. The conversation moved onto dating.
“So Phil, how’s that date you told us about?”
“Ah man, that sucks, I wouldn’t want to be dating in this environment” he joked.
“What do you think is wrong exactly? I know you are Julie met straight out of college right?”
“Yeh, I think I lucked out, we met whilst bouldering actually. I saw her from the corner of my eye, and then kept stealing glances. We eventually worked our way round to each other, and both got stuck on this horrific V5 climb. That led to conversation, and then I guess a spark. The rest is history as they say”.
“That sounds like a movie, how often does that happen haha”
“I think it happens more than you think Phil! I’m sure all those dating apps let you see loads of people, but you miss out on a lot of the small clues that you only get in real life. The little stares, the nervous laughter, the fact that you know nothing about this person apart from the fact that you like their look. You want to find out more. It’s not just all laid out in the dating app, then the inevitable ask and leap forward either to be rejected or accepted, you can’t replicate that 100% on an app”.
Phil nods his head. “I do agree to be honest. The process is tiring”.
“Sure, it lets you actively look for people, but I’ve heard some horrific statistics, people literally swiping on thousands, to get a few responses and then maybe 1-2 dates”
“It’s a winner take all economy unfortunately. When you can’t communicate your personality that well, looks are the differentiator”
“People have such high expectations. They want a perfect human from the get go. I think people have forgotten that a relationship doesn’t come fully built, it has to be made and strengthened over time”
Julie chips in : “it’s a tough balance though. You won’t necessarily meet many people in real life who are looking for a date or a partner. Everyone is busy with jobs, family etc, who even looks in real life any more? Everyone is just on apps, its easier right Phil? I don’t know if everyone can meet in real life like we did!”
Andrew pauses. “But easier isn’t always better. Having it quicker, and with less difficulty I think takes away something. You know that ability to ‘hit’ on people subtly. To practice building that chemistry. You don’t get any of that in pixels, especially over text. And pretty much everyone met in real life first before 2010”.
Phil thinks. “What about finding a perfect match?”
“Doesn’t exist. At most, relationships are a compromise. Two strangers, becoming friends and lovers, and then sacrificing daily. You don’t want to have no interests or spark, but the idea that you have a list of ‘criteria’ you are looking for in advance especially on apps, it’s too high-minded. I think everyone needs to slightly lower their expectations. Is the person kind? Do they have a job they love? Do you have some shared values and goals? I think those are probably the most important. It’s hard to gauge these on apps”.
Phil agreed. “But when everyone is on these apps, the environment changes for everyone”
“Then just walk away. I love that quote, when you find yourself on the side of the majority, that a time to pause and reflect. Just quit, join a club, talk to random people, ask and be rejected in real life, that’s my advice to you Phil”.
Phil was on the bus driving home from Julie and Andrew’s. The sun was setting and the sky was littered with small clouds reflecting a pink hue onto the normally dull urban landscape and imbuing it with a newfound vigour. He had deleted the app two stops back, and now just sat, talking in his surroundings, learning to be comfortable with boredom. He noticed all the people on the bus. An elderly lady sitting at the front holding her groceries, reading a novel and occasionally pensively staring out at the world beyond the glass windows. A middle-aged businessman, likely working late, lost in the glowing rectangle below.
Phil thought about what Andrew said. Perhaps easier wasn’t always better. You inevitably lost certain things that you couldn’t put your finger on. It was an internal conflict he had been feeling more and more, how can you use technology and adjust to the faster pace, but without being left behind? To know the crowd, but not stand with the crowd.
The bus stopped, and the man got off. Phil normally wouldn’t even be paying attention to these small things, but now he resolved to. He wished maybe a beautiful young woman would get on the bus, and magically strike up a conversation, but that of course did not happen. But maybe it could. He sat the rest of the journey in silence, thinking about all the possible futures that could be.