With the rise in hook-up apps, has online dating lost all taboo?

Having to rely on the Internet for a romantic life was once an embarrassment, but today online dating has become an inevitable part of romance.

One recent survey of people who married between 2005 and 2012 found that one-third had met online. Pew estimates 38 percent of people “single and looking” for a partner in the U.S. have used dating sites or apps, and nearly a quarter of people who date online say they found a partner or spouse through the process. Even Olympic gold medalist Jamie Anderson admitted to using Tinder at the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi this week.

While personal ads in newspapers were never able to transcend their aura of shamefulness, online dating has shrugged off negative impressions in part because of its promise of efficient transparency. Personal ads were one-way solicitations in which the author had no way to affect the kind of responses she or he would get, and so the act was seen as the last refuge of the desperate, so socially incompetent they must resort to flinging open-ended invitations into the inky remnants of the agora. The structure of online dating sites guarantee both pursuer and pursued are visible to one another, both sides submitting on faith to the aphrodisiac of questionnaires, self-flattery, and vacation photos.

Where older generations off-loaded the logic of coupling to fated first meetings or else friends of friends, dating sites have allowed users to become their own muses, creating an idealized self-image and then publicly invoking it as a mating call. Online dating transforms romance into work in the most familiar and reassuring way, entreating its users to feel productive for having added a few new data points into their profile, while trusting that something productive will come from that effort. 

Online dating only takes us further away from ever having to actually be in a relationship, and instead uses the search for a romantic partner as pretext for living happily ever after with their computer.

One PhD candidate in Mathematics at UCLA took online dating to its logical extreme by coding a series of data-harvesting bot accounts on OKCupid in order to meet the ideal girlfriend. He narrowed in on an age range and neighborhoods in Los Angeles he thought his type of person would be most likely to live in, then set about gathering data from tens of thousands of profiles to build an aggregate model of what sorts of qualities these types of women were looking for. He then tailored his profile to be the algorithmic ideal based on this aggregate data, and waited for the OKCupid algorithm to identify him as an ideal match and promote him to exactly the kind of users he wanted. 

The plan worked perfectly in a way, with his profile viewed by 400 women every day, and more than 20 messages coming in daily. In another way the plan was a total disaster, derailing his PhD work for an entire summer with a romantic obsession that led to 88 first dates before finding someone he could realistically begin a relationship with. That volume of people is inefficient by any measure. There is something nightmarish in this account, suggesting that sophisticated math and computer programming, and a profound endurance are necessary pre-requisites to intimate companionship.

Internet dating takes us deeper into this dysfunctional duality of wanting an idealized but unspecific person while feeling pressured to create a persona of one’s own. And the more bad dates we go on, the more it seems it’s our own fault. It’s us who haven’t used the right photos, or didn’t think carefully enough about how our answers would be perceived by the people we really should be with; and so the failures of the system become internalized by its users, drawing them even deeper into itself.

Another notable statistic in Pew’s survey is that 66 percent of “online daters” claim to have actually gone on a date with someone they met through a dating site or app, which means roughly a third of people who use dating sites are content to just use the interface. The pleasure of digital role-play is interrupted by actually having to meet another human being. OKCupid and Tinder are successful not because the facilitate date-making, but because they offer compulsive access to a mechanized distraction where you can perfect yourself bit by bit, feeling your labor affirmed by dreamily suggestive messages that come with no obligation attached.

Online dating only takes us further away from ever having to actually be in a relationship, and instead uses the search for a romantic partner as pretext for living happily ever after with their computer. And since your computer will never shame you for what you do through it, what’s left to be embarrassed about?

Michael Thomsen is Complex's tech columnist. He has written for Slate, The Atlantic, The New Inquiry, NewYorker.com, Billboard, and is author of Levitate the Primate: Handjobs, Internet Dating, and Other Issues for Men. He tweets often at @mike_thomsen.