Has dating ever been more awkward and weird than it is right now? Probably not. Back in the olden days, also known as the ’80s, “dating” meant pretty much the same thing to everyone. Two people who liked each other would actually meet, in person, to engage in innocent activities like eating dinner and watching a movie—and possibly other, less innocent activities (but we’ll leave it at that, given that this is our parents we’re talking about).
Today, in the world of Snapchat, Tinder, Grindr, Twitter, Facebook and the rest of it, dating can mean all sorts of things, and sometimes nothing at all. Are we dating if we hook up? If we “talk” every day over text, are we at least involved? If you don’t return my text within five minutes, did you just break up with me? I don’t know and chances are neither do you.
Raised online, millenials have an entirely different world to contend with—one that makes rules and boundaries highly individual and exasperatingly unclear. The onslaught of social technology means there is no standard dating etiquette anymore. And is that ruining your love life, or helping it? The answer may be both.
First, here’s the good news: One-third of the couples married between 2005 and 2012 actually met online, and they're at least slightly less likely to result in marital breakup than those who started offline. So there’s hope.
Part of that equation may be the proliferation of online dating sites, like OkCupid and Match.com. After all, if you spend a fair enough amount of time courting your beloved (or at least your next hook-up) online, then translating those relationships into real-life encounters seems like it should be easy.
But it’s not always that simple. In fact, it can be painfully awful, as evidenced in this video that plays out actual messages culled from online dating sites.
Obviously these are worst-case scenarios, but when the sum total of your humanity is reduced to a carefully edited online profile, it can be difficult to truly engage with other people, and for them to engage with you.
On a recent episode of Raising McCain, host Meghan McCain talked about exactly that. “I just don’t want to be a face on an app with someone saying, ‘Do I want to bang her? Do I not want to bang her?’ ” Considering the Internet makes everyone casually browsable, it’s hard not to feel like you’re being judged and tossed aside with a frightening amount of ease.
McCain investigates the connection between her social life and technology, hypothesizing that romance is dead, as evidenced by the fact that not a single guy has called her in years. “They only text and when they do, I need a goddamn dictionary to understand what he’s actually trying to say to me.”
That cyber distance may be the heart of the problem. While social media can help you stay connected to friends, its shadow side is that it can also erode people’s natural instincts towards empathy and personal accountability. Any number of horror stories from the news can serve as examples—Google “catfishing” and see what pops up. But Louis CK’s recent rant about it is probably the best explanation yet.
When it comes to love, the lesson may very well be that social media can help if it’s used as a bridge to real life, not a replacement for it. At some point, you have to move offline and hang out in person, awkward pauses and all.
Online dating expert, and the founder of Cyberdatingexpert.com, Julie Spira, says that when social media is the starting point for a relationship, it can give users the opportunity to learn a lot about people before they meet, saving them a lot of time. “Use the tools of online to help shorten your search and help cast a wider net, and meet people that you might not meet on a regular basis.”
But she warns that keeping those new connections relegated to the online world, tends to turn them into digital pen-pals, not real life partners. “You still have to have a balance of communicating online, communicating offline on the phone, and communicating IRL—in real life—in person,” she says. “And if you don’t take your relationship from online to offline, you sort of end up in this fantasy world, the fantasy cyber world.”
If you need some motivation, watch Shimi Cohen's short film, The Innovation of Loneliness. In it he explains that when the number of online connections you have is more important than the quality of those connections, and when 140-character messages are given more space in your life than actual, unedited conversations, chances are you’re going to feel terribly lonely. And abject loneliness doesn’t facilitate healthy romantic relationships.
Social media doesn’t have to be the death knell of your social life. When it’s used as stepping stone to a relationship, and not a replacement for one, it can be helpful. (Just ask all those married couples who met online.) So put the phone down at least some of the time. Have actual conversations with the people standing in front of you. The more you make a habit of interacting with the real world, the easier it is to build meaningful romantic relationships within it.