The social spaces and shallow faces of dating in the digital world
I examine my face, a fixed oval with a glossy forehead and chin, smiling amidst a glaring flash. My left-hand rests on my hip, and my right arm drapes over my friend’s shoulder. Not perfect, but this one will have to do.
Choosing a photo for my online dating profile was more difficult than I like to admit. What did my profile say about me? How much information was I willing to reveal? More importantly, how did I want to present myself? I felt pressure to find a “perfect” photo, but with only a second to leave an impression, no photo felt good enough. I settled for the least disagreeable photo I could find. In it I’m wearing a simple black dress and smiling with two other friends. My freshly minted Bumble profile read, “I’m writing an article about online dating for work.”
I used work as an unoriginal excuse for dabbling with a dating app for the first time, but I won’t lie—I was morbidly curious. Yet, when the first profile popped up and I had to decide which direction to swipe, my mind dissented from itself, vacillating between curiosity and repulsion. I was uneasy, but what exactly was I repulsed by? Dating apps and modern romance unsettle me, (relationships are complicated enough without technology), but I never understood why—not until I plunged into the depths of a virtual world where only single people (hopefully) reside.
A not so virtual world of superficial experiences
“It’s no different than approaching someone in a bar,” my friend countered when I explained my apprehension with dating apps. “It’s all based on looks.”
My friend had a point about superficial attraction and subconscious evaluations—but she wasn’t completely right. We’re all capable of shallow behavior, but online dating is wildly different than approaching a stranger at a bar. While technology doesn’t change the superficiality of people, it does enable us to indulge in it. After half a day of dating app shenanigans, I realized two perturbing aspects of online dating: the calculated act of self-presentation when creating a profile and the carelessness with which we regard other humans when swiping "yes or no."
While technology doesn’t change the superficiality of people, it does enable us to indulge in it.
Self-presentation and expectation creation
Most people tend to create portfolios that portray their best self. If your intention is to attract someone, it’s natural to want to look your best. You wouldn’t choose a photo where you have a leaf of spinach between two incisor teeth, or one where your cheeks are red and your eyes unfocused from too many drinks. That is, unless you’re an untamable creature who roams the earth doing whatever they please, in which case, bravo.
Choosing a photo was difficult because I hated the idea that I was presenting a simplistic, shallow profile of myself to be judged in a span of a few seconds. On the flip side, it enabled me to indulge in narcissistic behavior, like spending time searching through photos I thought I looked best in, or suddenly having the urge to take a better photo of myself that would boost my profile. The carefully crafted online encounter I created felt both misrepresentative and misleading.
All encounters (online or not) might be looks-based, but when you happen to meet a stranger in a coffee shop or a bar, you have zero expectations of who they are as a person. Online dating, however, gives much more context than a face, allowing for expectations and opinions to form before meeting. Expectations that either we project on others, or expectations we hope to set through the profiles we carefully craft.
All encounters (online or not) might be looks-based, but when you happen to meet a stranger in a coffee shop or a bar, you have zero expectations of who they are as a person.
A lot can be discerned from photos, and apps like Bumble give you the option to reveal information like where you went to school and where you work. There’s even room for a personal statement. As a result, I had preconceived notions of people based on their profiles, and I was primed to view each person through the lens of my own expectations.
Whenever I matched with someone, I went back and reviewed their profile. There was one guy who had a photo of himself surfing, a photo at a baseball game, and a photo of him with what looked to be his family. Without ever meeting, I already had a watercolor portrait of this guy painted for me, all thanks to Bumble. I had pinned him as the friendly, family-oriented, outdoorsy type. I had expectations of what he would be like before I even had a digital conversation with him—expectations that he helped create. That’s why choosing a photo for my own profile was so hard. I felt like I was trying to create a perfect version of myself when the reality is, I have faults, just like everybody else.
The modern-day sightseer
The objective reality of any individual I came across on the dating app was obscured by how they presented themselves, or by how I perceived their online profile and vice versa. In Walker Percy’s, The Loss of the Creature, he explores the idea that objective reality is obscured and lost to systems of education and classification, or in other words, our expectations.
Percy uses the Grand Canyon as an example in which the modern-day sightseer only sees the canyon through the expectation that has already formed in their mind. The sightseer in Percy’s article doesn’t appreciate the Grand Canyon on its own merit, the sightseer regards it based on a pre-existing image or review, whether it be from a postcard, a similiar experience, or a fellow friend—or in the case of today, Google Earth and Yelp.
Expectation creation is a dangerous game. A person’s happiness usually depends on their expectations, not the conditions. Whether we mean to or not, we appreciate something based on how well or poorly it conforms to our pre-existing perception.
I deleted my Bumble account before I could meet the surfer guy, but if we met I would have had to deconstruct the expectation he had created online. I can only imagine what expectation I would have had to live up to, or not live up to.
Percy’s solution to expectation creation is to go off the beaten path. In the case of the Grand Canyon, it would mean going somewhere that is untouched, or somewhere you have no preconceived ideas of. In the case of online dating, it would mean meeting someone without having context of who they are. For instance, approaching a stranger in a coffee shop or a bar.
Yet, this solution isn’t always possible, or even ideal. Online dating does have its benefits: 66 percent of people who use dating sites have actually gone out with someone they met online. Percy’s second and more reasonable solution is to simply be prepared to enter a struggle to recover the individual—to deconstruct any preconceived notions or expectations.
As a result of self-presentation and expectation creation, we objectify ourselves. We put what we think is the best version of ourselves on display for browsing—similar to online shopping, or how one might check Yelp reviews before buying a product. Does it have good reviews? Or, in the case of Bumble, do we have mutual friends?
We put what we think is the best version of ourselves on display for browsing—similar to online shopping, or how one might check Yelp reviews before buying a product.
After I chose my profile picture, I couldn’t help but think, “So this is what it’s like to reduce myself to a two-dimensional profile meant for perusing.” I pushed the thought away and began my first foray into Bumble. I took my time at first, carefully considering each individual. The blue-eyed guy pictured hiking with his black lab seemed fun, but his smile was a little off. Was he socially awkward? Do I swipe right in interest or left and turn him down? Maybe he already swiped left on me and I’m having an internal debate for no reason.
Then, a subtle shift happened. I stopped having inner debates and I started to go through people’s photos more quickly. My fingers began to skate, swipe, and swirl across my phone with unwavering recklessness. I spent less time considering the actual individual, and before I knew it I was swiping after seeing a face for less than one second. I was desensitized to the process—to the person behind the actual photo. The blue-eyed guy with his dog became nothing more than an option amongst a sea of other options.
A twinge of sadness perforated my good mood when I realized that I was just as guilty of online shopping—of browsing through people like they were different styles of pants. I prefer skinny jeans that cuff a little above the ankle, not the loose boyfriend fit, but thanks.
Social spaces and shallow faces
Technology heavily affects our social interactions and it’s a space we have to learn to navigate as more and more people use dating apps. Online dating profiles are shallow, two-dimensional depictions of who we actually are as people, and they only widen the space for us to cross in order to form a real connection; the ability to swipe through profiles has never made humans seem more disposable.
The next time you swipe or chat with someone online, take a moment to remember that person is more than their two-dimensional profile. Otherwise, we risk devaluing human interactions with a simple swipe.