There Is No Difference Between Online and ‘Real-Life’ Dating

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According to a Pew Research study of online dating, one in ten American adults — and more than one in three who are “single and looking” — have used dating websites and apps. Two thirds of online daters have gone on IRL dates with their matches, up from 43 percent in 2005. Pew’s statistics have been used, alternately, to prove that online dating is growing and that it will soon be obsolete. Why the confusion?

It’d be easy to blame the irrepressible creativity of insta-pundits. But the truth is likely buried deeper in Pew’s online dating statistics. As Americans increasingly use digital tools in all phases of their relationships — from meeting to dating to committing to breaking up — “online dating” is no longer a separate genre of romance. It’s not an experiment we perform, but a behavior integral to the creation and maintenance of modern relationships.

Though most adults have never used a dating website, 30 percent of those who dated sometime in the last decade admit to using social media to research potential dates. One in five have asked someone on a first date online. Though only one in three “single and looking” adults use dating websites, half have used the Internet to flirt. Functionally, I’d say the difference between meeting a man on and meeting him at a party then aggressively stalking his social-media profiles before tracking down his e-mail address to request a date is pretty minor.

Photo: Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project

The line between online and IRL online dating is so porous that some couples disagree on the genesis of their relationship. I have a female friend who says she met her boyfriend through a series of longing gazes between the shelves of a bookstore, and on a subway car hours later. But her boyfriend says they met online: Since they never spoke, he got in touch by placing an ad in Craigslist’s Missed Connections. A different friend once approached a man at a bar and said, “I know you from OkCupid.” As an opener, that line has some serious creep potential, but he recognized her from her profile, too. (She’s also pretty endearing.) They ended up sharing a drink.

After some initial discomfort with the idea of “meeting online,” my Missed Connections friend no longer cares whether her relationship began in person or on a screen. Her reluctance is understandable, though: Though 29 percent of adults know someone who found a long-term partner online, Pew found that 21 percent still believe “people who use online dating are desperate.” Thirteen percent of people who actually use dating websites also think the practice is “desperate.”

Photo: Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project

The desperation statistic is why Slate’s Amanda Hess used to argue that online-dating websites will soon be obsolete, though as On the Media’s P.J. Vogt points out, “Can’t something be seen as a little sad and still be pretty popular? Like, for instance, dating in real life?” In a world with a new Bridget Jones novel, let us not forget that singletons self-describing as desperate is a celebrated tradition. If the opposite of desperation is nonchalance, then online dating and its clinical algorithms are probably more desperate than, say, a pair of beautiful strangers locking eyes across a crowded subway. But it’s not necessarily more desperate than hiring a matchmaker, attending singles mixers, or replying to personal ads. (Personal ads are now considered romantic precisely because they’re obsolete. Once the medium is sufficiently old-fashioned, brazen love-begging becomes romantic again.) The occasional need to seek mates outside one’s daily routine and social circle has always existed.

By empowering everyone to find and stay in touch with lovers who, in another age, might have fallen out of reach, the Internet can turn anyone into an “online dater.” One in five social-media users between the ages of 18 and 29 have friended or followed someone “specifically because someone suggested they might like to date that person.” One in four adults has used the Internet to facilitate a long-distance relationship — so “desperate” are they to cling to existing relationships, geography be damned. After a relationship ends, 48 percent of twentysomethings admit to “checking up on” exes’ social-media profiles. (“Implicit finding: the other 53 percent are lying,” The Atlantic deadpans.) And when exes sneak onto their screens against their will, 36 percent of the same age groups resorts to un-friending or blocking.

Photo: Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project

Hess argues that the surge in Facebook-integrated dating apps like Tinder are “a stopgap solution wedged between the online dating ghettos and the full integration of the Internet into our romantic lives.” I would argue that we’re basically already there, and the new normal includes dating apps and websites. “Full integration” between one’s social, professional, and romantic lives has never been the norm for everyone. But meeting a suitor online is no longer an isolated novelty: It’s a behavior with analogs in every other part of modern romance, from meeting to wooing to breaking up. Pew’s survey finds one in six Americans have dumped someone by text, e-mail, or “other online message.” Though I shudder at the thought of, say, a SnapChat breakup, I don’t doubt that it’s been done. It could be the Post-it note breakup of our time.

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We All Date Online, Whether We Admit It or Not