Navigating Relationships in the Digital Age

This article originally appeared in Critic Magazine. Illustration by Daniel Blackball.

We Tweet, we Snapchat, we’re friends on Facebook and, hell, we even match on Tinder – but where has that left us? Navigating the social media swamp isn’t easy, and that raises the question: has technology really been helping or is it hindering our romantic pursuits?

The concept of dating is not a modern invention. Rewind some 300 years and you’ll find the pages of freshly minted newspapers and magazines littered with the personal ads of desperate and dateless bachelors in search of an agreeable wife. With society at the time believing that anyone over the age of 21 should be happily married, these “matrimonial services,” as they were called, were a desperate man’s last bid and were surprisingly undemanding. Like right out of the pages of a Jane Austen novel they usually went something along these lines: first stating the approximate age of the Gentleman in question and rumours of his possessing a great estate, then going on to detail what fortune a young Gentlewoman must possess if she hopes to secure an agreement. A rather delightful example continues on to say that after a very specific nine days of wonder and laughter (now commonly referred to as the “honeymoon period” or “the time you leave your lifeproof case on your new iPhone before abandoning it”), the two “elderly persons” should have reason to believe that the advertisement was successful. If that doesn’t scream true love, then I don’t know what will.

In more recent times, most of our anecdotal evidence for personal advertisement-style dating is painfully reminiscent of the particularly down-on-his-luck Seymour, from the cult-classic graphic-novel and film Ghost World. Seymour places an advertisement in the lonely-hearts column of a small-town newspaper, hoping to rekindle a spark with a missed connection. Two angst-riddled “outcast” friends decide, in a fit of boredom, to respond to the advert and watch Seymour’s despair at the realisation he’s been stood up. After witnessing these events, feeling some guilt and pity, the two girls follow him to his apartment building and attempt to strike up a conversation. Fiction aside, nowadays most of us are only privy to the personal advertisements of the busty blondes and brunettes offering exclusive paid access to X-rated fun in the classified section of newspapers like the ODT – if, indeed, any of us still pick up newspapers.

The rise of Internet accessibility in the 90s – along with the popularity of the somewhat morally-ambiguous 1998 romantic comedy You’ve Got Mail – meant it was only a matter of time before online dating became popular among unhappy, lonely singles in possession of an Internet connection. While we were all privy to the relentless warnings about serial killers and perverts lurking in Yahoo chat rooms, the concept of a successful cyber-relationship was kept alive by determined, and potentially misguided, tales of “a friend of a friend that met someone online and now they’re happily married, with kids!” In even more recent times, people no longer had to enter a chat room and risk potential harassment to find love. Instead they could sign up to a multitude of rapidly replicating dating-specific websites, promising a soul mate and the sound of wedding bells in the not-so-distant future.

As a “full-figured” individual with what I can only imagine is not the most conventionally attractive visage – not to mention a reasonably high level of social anxiety – it will come as no surprise to you that I have dipped my toes in the proverbial waters of online dating. I have had a catalogue of experience across a number of sites, the most notable being the ever-popular NZDating – the slightly more charming, if not (at the very least) safer alternative to OKCupid. For the sake of quality entertainment I logged back into my NZDating profile (even I’m embarrassed to be a member) and scrolled through the messages. While there was evidence that actual intelligent conversation occurred, most of the correspondence consisted of the pre-set greetings: “:) Hey, I’m into the same things as you!” And the ever enticing: “Keen for a Fuck, Babe?” – sometimes accompanied by a dick-pic. I will never forget the time a guy I apparently knew “In Real Life” messaged me, refused to tell me anything about who he was, besides the fact that we were Facebook friends, and implored me to play in my old band again. To this very day I have no idea who that was, so if by some strange coincidence you are reading this, anon: TELL ME WHO YOU ARE!

As popular as these sites are (NZDating alone boasts 100,000+ members, a mere sneeze compared to its global counterparts Match.com and eHarmony), online dating still remains as society’s dirty little secret – a virtual space frequented only by a plethora of dateless individuals who, despite their best efforts, probably should remain dateless. Traditionally these sites and their users are exposed to a lot of social stigma but what about all of that online dating that happens outside of these designated areas? Strangely enough, outside of the walls of these purpose-built websites, it’s pretty socially acceptable to put yourself out there, be bold, make connections and even flirt playfully in front of an entire internet audience. In fact, prescribing to at least one form of social media is essential to maintaining social connections in the modern age. I once made the mistake excellent decision of retiring my Facebook for a (short) period a year or so ago and the number of times I got “When are you coming?” texts from friends to events I didn’t even know were occurring was enough to make me feel like I didn’t exist. Unsurprisingly, I’m back on Facebook – if only just to lurk voyeuristically and receive invitations to events I plan not to attend.

Sites like Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and Instagram allow you to broadcast a carefully curated personal advertisement to members of your family (at your own peril), close friends and your wider social circle, as well as to any potential suitors. On social media, instead of calling this obvious personal advertisement what it is, it’s referred to as personal branding. But does all of this exposure leave us vulnerable to
potential threats?

We’ve all heard the horror stories, watched the exposes and, in some cases, seen first hand what can happen when you don’t listen to our friend “Madeye” Moody and employ CONSTANT VIGILANCE in cyberspace. Take the documentary Catfish, for example, which proved so popular that MTV had to get in on the action and produced a documentary-cum-reality-cum-web-of-lies show for teen consumption. The film details the budding romance between photographer Nev Schulman and a young woman, Megan, who adds Nev on Facebook after her younger sister Abby sends him a stupendous painting of one of his photos (Come on, alarm bells already team). As their relationship unfolds, Nev appears to become more and more besotted with Megan and it isn’t until she sends clips of her singing cover songs that are clearly poached straight from Youtube that things really start to go awry. After displaying some outstanding investigative skills, Nev discovers that Megan might not actually be who she says she is after all. For the sake of our entertainment – and perhaps in pursuit of critical acclaim – the brother team of subject and director travel to the middle of nowhere to uncover the truth. As it so happens, there is no Megan (surprise!) but her “younger sister” Abby exists – but she can’t paint for shit. The real culprit is the slightly unhinged mother, Angela, who after continuing to lie to Nev eventually gives up the ghost and admits it was all a sham born out of her frustration with having to give up her artistic pursuits after marrying and supporting her husband and his severely disabled adult children. The term Catfish actually comes from Angela’s husband Vince, who likened his wife to the catfish that were put into tanks with cod when they were shipped from Asia to North America to stimulate cod movement and prevent their scales from turning to mush from inactivity. Fantastic analogy aside, it turns out that Nev is a really top guy and to this day still remains friends with Angela on Facebook.

While I’m sure we’re not all as naive as dear Nev – we are the generation that grew up surrounded by this technology, after all – the film is somewhat of a cautionary tale. Whether we’re in search of a friend with benefits, a life partner, a fling or, maybe, just looking for someone to re-watch Sherlock with in your underwear in the wee hours of the weekend mornings, we all still require the assistance of a little personal branding or PR, so we should be cautious and mindful when it comes to revealing our true selves to strangers.

I’m not one to shy away from trends – I have never been ashamed in admitting I’m “online” –but Tinder, which I’m also on (heart me, discerning gentlemen), is a different story. While it’s been great in removing dick-pics from cyber interactions and making technology-assisted dating socially acceptable, it’s also a little shit in its promotion of superficial wankery. I’m from the beauty-is-only-skin-deep school of thought (as most of us non-models are), and even I get trigger-happy when it comes to the romance-denying left swipe. With its strangely addictive quality and its capitalisation on our generation’s desire for instant gratification, it’s no surprise that Tinder and its ilk have soared in popularity.

With Tinder, you are in control. Your romantic fate is not decided upon by a humanless algorithm, so to prevent yourself from looking at your phone on a Sunday morning filled with regret and finding yourself blocking half of your matches, set yourself some rules. My rules are as follows: shirtless pics = casual sex; don’t “like” someone you know unless you are for sure you can deal with the repercussions of a match; no dead animals, but live ones are a plus – and so are witty descriptions; and absolutely no wives/children/recurring female friends. Sometimes I need to remind myself to have fun; I’m always finding myself hovering over the “X” wondering if I’d have anything to talk about with this guy I find incredibly attractive, and the resounding answer is always, “Who cares, like him!” I always Tinder with friends so I can get them addicted, therefore making it more acceptable for me to Tinder in their company – and, holy hell, do I need to limit my drunk Tindering (Beer Goggles is most definitely a thing). From my experience, you can use Tinder equally as well as any other hook-up app or, you know, in-person (with real face-to-face communication!). It’s really up to you what you want to make of it.

Having your nose an inch from a screen in a room filled with similarly positioned people has become a hallmark of our generation. While we all Tweet or Facebook that ONE photo of a trainful of people with their noses in a newspaper to excuse our behaviour, there is no denying that we’re all a little bit addicted to technology. Some of us already rely on the computer-generated algorithm behind dating sites to find love, but what if we were to remove the other person from the equation completely? Our current experience with artificial intelligence is the garbled mess that is Cleverbot, but in the not too distant future we could be faced with the opportunity to interact with humanistic computer programmes. Spike Jonze’s Oscar-nominated film Her proposes just this; an operating system quite simply referred to as OS that is infused with a very real artificial intelligence. Imagine a personal assistant with the processing power of a million personal assistants, give it the power to learn and adapt at a completely unbridled pace and you’ve got the basic concept. The movie’s protagonist Theodore Twombly, an introverted divorced writer purchases the OS on a whim and decides to give it a female voice, the OS dubs herself Samantha and they go on to chat about all aspects of life and love. As their intimacy grows – she is literally an earpiece away from being everywhere and anywhere – so do their feelings of love and a romantic relationship is born.

Spike Jonze’s film could easily be interpreted in numerous ways. The movie seems to question our relationship with technology itself: are we getting too attached; and as our digital interactions increase, will our physical interactions decline; will we end up relying too heavily on our digital relationships and ignore our physical ones? While I find the idea unsettling, I can’t help but think about my own behaviour: engaging and flirtatious online but somewhat distant and awkward in person. Don’t get me wrong, my online presence mimics my actual personality – in an, albeit, restrained form – yet I can’t help but feel I neglect the upkeep of my personal brand in real life.

When we spend a lot of our time interacting with others digitally, a medium in which inflection and tone are dicey at best, so much more is open to interpretation. If that wasn’t hard enough on its own, you also have to grapple with the fact that you have an increasing number of communication channels: Twitter, Facebook, Messenger, Instagram, Tinder and not the least, Snapchat [engage flirting-level 3000]. Even trying to manage, let alone understand, potential relationships across so many mediums can result in a situation of total electronic FUBAR. I can’t help but echo the sentiments of Drew Barrymore’s character in He’s Just Not That Into You when she laments dating in a modern society: “Now, you have to go around and check all of these different portals, just to be rejected by seven different technologies; it’s exhausting.” With so much to process we often find ourselves turning to our family, friends and even the internet for advice; most of which is average at best and abominable at its worst. I swear to God, if I hear the statement “Treat ‘em mean, keep ‘em keen” one more time, I’ll give up on humans completely and enter into a relationship with my iPhone.

But what it all really boils down to is that real life – real relationships and honest, meaningful connections – just aren’t how they are portrayed in the movies. They aren’t crafted by a team of writers and played by knowing actors on half-built sets in derelict Hollywood warehouses. They happen between people, and people are complicated, conflicted and mercurial creatures. What works well on one take may not work well on the next. It’s so easy to get wrapped up in a social media maelstrom; analysing messages, decoding Snapchats and trying to figure out exactly what the hell a match on Tinder really means. So from here on in I’m going to try to relax, unplug – even if it is just for a moment – and remember that our experiences should be measured in enjoyable memories of hanging out with awesome people, not in characters. And if one of you even mentions robot sex, I’m out.

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