Online Dating in a Digital Age

Online Dating in a Digital Age

By: Laura Wescott

This article is part of the Fall 2021 Magazine Issue Series. Read the full issue here.

People were making “personal ads” in the newspaper as far back as 1685. There are records of dating profiles in magazines and newspapers as recently as the 1990s, when dating sites had already started gaining traction. People have always been seeking to make connections with those they’ve yet to meet. The easiest way to do that these days is far and away dating apps, but this doesn’t mean they’re easy to navigate. 

The first computer-actualized matchmaking service was a class project at Stanford in 1959 called “Happy Families Planning Services.” In 1964, Joan Ball started the first commercially run, computer-generated matchmaking company in England, which predates the first American program, “Operation Match,” by a whole year. At this time, there weren’t any preconceived notions or stigma surrounding computer-assisted matchmaking.

Digital dating was quite a niche habit for a long time. The first glimmer of legitimacy came in 1998 when “You’ve Got Mail” starring Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks hit the silver screen, and popularity only grew as digital dating profiles progressed from home computers to pockets with the release of the iPhone in 2007 and the app store in 2008. But it wasn’t until the release of Tinder in 2012 that online dating was revolutionized. Tinder’s signature swipe-to-like approach made the process fast and easy. It became so popular that during America’s 2016 presidential election, one of the Democratic campaign slogans encouraged voters to “swipe right for Hillary.”

Now, there are over 1,500 dating apps to choose from. Many dating apps have different niches to help an interested individual pick a platform, but this isn’t to say any reigns supreme. Tinder is a solid option for those who aren’t sure what they’re looking for, since it is considered somewhat of the dating app baseline, with over 100 million downloads according to the Google Play Store. Many college students think Tinder is exclusively for hookups, but couples who met on the app beg to differ. 

Bumble is a good dating app for women who want to make the first move because its unique system requires those who identify as female to get more of the immediate power and message first, but this system falls apart for same-sex and gender nonconforming pairings. Hinge is a new popular platform to start looking for a more serious relationship. Grindr is strictly used by the LGBTQ+ community and is the largest and most popular mobile app of its kind.

If these apps prove to be too big an ocean, there are plenty of specific apps for different niches. Woman looking for another woman? Try HER. Looking for someone in a particular faith group? Try Christian Mingle, JSwipe or muzmatch. Farmers looking for others in your farming community? (Yes, that specific) Try Farmers Only. Or there are apps like The League or Luxy, the latter of which problematically claimed to be “Tinder, minus the poor people.”

Those unsure of the right place to start should be as forthcoming with their interests and intentions as possible before picking a platform and be ready to be patient no matter which they choose. Since dating apps are the new norm, college students in 2021 know this better than anyone, but online dating is actually widespread amongst every generation. 50% of college students use dating apps, according to the Pew Research Center, while 30% of Americans have used dating apps at some point in their life, according to a survey of the general population. It is more likely for older generations to use dating apps more seriously, but all demographics have their successes and failures.

Online dating is certainly widespread, but so are malicious users perusing the internet. For a generation of kids told not to talk to strangers online, ignoring that advice with apps like Tinder can lead to some unpleasant experiences. Sadly, this is the norm for online dating, especially for women. 

Sienna Gable, a junior at Michigan State University, said, “So many guys would message me only interested in nudes.” She went on to share tales of homophobia and other disturbing behavior, including an instance that forced her to take legal action.

Gable was in an admittedly bad place when she started using Tinder and Bumble, and her experiences on the apps only made things worse. “My advice would definitely be to be confident in yourself before downloading, because it can be a scary place if you aren’t comfortable with yourself, and also being confident will help you weed out the creeps,” said Gable.

Jada Jenkins, a MSU senior, gave a similar testimony. “Most guys won’t tell you if they have a felony, if they’re drunk drivers; sometimes they’ll even lie about age. From my experience, I’ve had boring dates and okay-ish dates, but I’ve also had dates that put my life in danger, and it’s a little scary to think back on now.” 

Jenkins had some positive experiences but also said, “The downside of online dating is not really knowing who they are until you meet in person, and that’s a really scary thought. You don’t really get to see a person’s personality until you see them in real life because social media can only reveal so much.” 

“In all honesty, while the experiences have been somewhat unpleasant, I’ve learned so much about instinct and self-worth, so I’m grateful,” Jenkins said. “This isn’t saying don’t try online dating, but just to be careful about who you choose to meet up with and watch out for red flags.”

Dating apps can have such a bad reputation that some people refuse to use them at all, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t success stories. Lon and Sheila Hambrice, who have been married for over two years now, met on an app called Coffee Meets Bagel. While Sheila was skeptical of dating apps, Lon was not. Lon had been trying to meet his perfect match for years, and Sheila matched with Lon only four days after downloading the app.

“I have only EVER been on exactly one date from online dating and it was Lon,” Sheila said. “We met each other and then we both discussed it and immediately canceled our other dates that we had previously set up. I think that is unusual to do and even more unusual to go exclusive like that and verbally say it to each other on the first date, but we both knew we hit it off right away. We met at a pub at nine o’clock after my kids had been put to bed, and we were there until it closed and the staff were kicking us out.”

As a woman, Sheila said she had rules for herself when meeting strangers online that Lon didn’t have to deal with. “Someone always knew where I was. Public places only. The guy was not to know where I lived and couldn’t pick me up or drop me off.”

Sheila also had her kids to worry about. “For me, I had the added challenge of needing to schedule childcare for my two super-young children prior to going on any dates. So, I definitely wanted to vet someone carefully before I was willing to invest money into childcare and time away.” Thankfully, Lon bonded with Sheila’s little ones. Now, Sheila and Lon are expecting a baby of their own.

Marriage counselor, author and CEO of Loves Locket LLP, Jason Slaughter also met his wife online on Slaughter said he has faced no animosity or judgement about meeting his spouse online and has no embarrassment whatsoever about telling people how they met. He even suggested online dating to others “but with caution.”

How Slaughter’s clients meet their partner has no effect on how he does his counseling, “because how you meet is only the beginning. Why you leave or stay is what we teach. Only difference is the choices that are made after.” 

He also wanted to give advice to single people looking for serious relationships, saying, “Don’t date just for entertainment.” Being intentional, especially on dating apps, is important if the user is looking for an actual relationship, but this isn’t always what everyone is seeking with online dating. 

Young adults can sometimes be more concerned with instant gratification and short-term fulfillment than long-term commitment, which makes way for hookup culture. The pervasivity of hookup culture has skyrocketed with the rise of the online dating craze. Swiping apps like Tinder make it so users don’t even have to leave their bed to find someone to join them in it. In college environments, it can seem like everyone’s doing it, creating the perception that sexual escapades are a compulsory part of the college experience. Such escapades more often than not come with emotional, if not physical, consequences. 

It’s certainly true that some people thrive in this casual culture while others avoid it completely, a choice that can lead to some extent of social isolation, especially in college cultures like that of MSU. College hookup culture and binge drinking are inextricably linked, and the combination can lead to a lot of risk. 

Though this dangerous culture is a much more popular feature with younger people, there are still lots of other reasons why college students in particular use these apps. Many people face boredom, especially during a pandemic. Dating apps have become like a game for many people as a fun way to escape their current reality, but this isn’t Temple Run, and people’s feelings could be on the line. Studies done at the University of Amsterdam showed that passing time is the number one reason young adults use dating apps.

There are even drinking games associated with dating apps, urging people to drink when certain bio staples come up in their swiping. Online dating has become such a common part of society that many people have it just because all of their peers do. Tian Hao, a 2021 MSU graduate said, “I only ever downloaded Tinder because my roommate did. I wasn’t even looking for a relationship then; frankly I didn’t even know my own sexual preference then. Like, it was just for something fun to do.”

Apps and sites like this can be semi-addictive because of the serotonin correlated with them. It’s the same phenomena as posting on Instagram to see how many likes the photo will get. People get a little thrill when someone compliments or shows interest in them, no matter the app. Smartphones bring entirely new ways to receive compliments and validation, especially if someone is new to dating apps and unfamiliar about how quickly the tide can turn.

On the flip side, “dating app fatigue” is an entirely different phenomenon. Hao said, “I had Tinder for years. I would date a guy for a few months, I would delete the app and then I would redownload it after things ended up not working out. But each time I redownloaded it, I was just a little more tired of it,” Tao said. “I still have it on my phone, but I haven’t opened it in months. I just don’t feel connections through it like I do when I meet people in real life. Plus, I would never want my parents to find out that this is how I met someone, so I’m hoping to meet someone a different way.”

Despite the social stigma and all the bad stories, many people have abundant, even mind-blowing success. Another inspiring example of success with online dating comes from Gretchen Stormes, who will celebrate her eighth anniversary with husband Reese this fall. Stormes said she met her spouse on Christian Mingle after the site listed them as compatible. 

“We chatted online that night for several hours. He asked for my phone number that night and called me the next day. When I heard his voice, I just knew,” said Stormes. The pair had only used the site for a few months before connecting. They bonded over similar experiences before they officially met about a month later.

“The friendship we had developed over the phone bloomed instantly into romance in person.” said Stormes, who never felt embarrassed about meeting her husband online and has even suggested it to her friends. Her own father was also trying out dating apps around the same time and met his now wife online as well. Years later, Stormes suggested dating apps to her daughter, and she has also found success and is married to a man she met online. This family has three generations of success through dating online. But Stormes wanted it to be clear that in her relationship, they chose to get offline quickly. 

“We only chatted that first time on the app. We went to ’real life’ over the phone the very next day and met in person within a month. I think that saves a lot of potential heartache,” said Stormes.

This was a sentiment that previous couples shared as well. Lon Hambrice also said, “It is annoying because you never know who you will meet since people can be different hiding behind a screen.” 

Especially in the digital age with social media and limited face-to-face contact, people can struggle to make genuine connections. But if someone is really trying to find their person, it’s important not to get discouraged when bad dates occur.

Stormes certainly wouldn’t change her experience for the world, saying, “I believe God used the app to bring us together.”

If you are fated to meet your match through dating apps or if you’re just considering hanging out with some people from the internet, even people who seem fun and normal, one can never be too careful. Follow these tips to stay as safe as possible and to help your date to feel safe as well:

·   Video chat with your date before meeting them

·   Meet somewhere public and don’t accept or offer a ride on the first date

·   Make sure a friend you trust has your location at all times

·   Give that friend a code word you can text them that will alert them to immediately come and get you out

·   Don’t give too much personal info up front

·   Don’t come with expectations, especially for “after” the date

·   No means no. Another other than “Yes!” means no, including uncomfortableness and unsureness. This can and should be applied to everything

·   Stay sober·   Feeling uncomfortable? Leave. You don’t owe anyone anything.

Laura Westcott has a BA in professional writing with a concentration in publishing and editing from Michigan State University. She is an editor, artist, storyteller and published comic book illustrator. In her free time you can find her knitting, bingeing “Schitt’s Creek” over and over again or so enthralled in a book that she hasn’t looked up past the pages in hours. If you’d like to follow her art journey, you can find her @laurasartspace on Instagram.