Undateable: Some Reflections on Online Dating and the Perversion of Time
Lucas Hilderbrand / University of California, Irvine
Romantic relationships have long been defined in terms of duration: anniversaries, long-term relationships, summer flings, and one-night stands. The courtship experience can likewise be understood as an experience of subjective time: the anticipation of longing, the ecstasy of timelessness during lost weekends, the performance anxiety of keeping it up, or the end of an era marked by a break-up. The concept of temporality has become central to queer theory of late, and while this column does not build from this scholarship directly, the very concept that sexuality is experienced in and across time has informed my own recent reflections on online dating. Here I think through the ways conceptions of past, present, and future interpenetrate, and they ways that the subjective experience of online dating can fuck with one’s sense of time.1
The marketed temporality of online dating is futurity: that, if a user logs in, they will find a partner. The allure of online dating is the belief in a structure of possibility: in this utopia (virtual non-place), you will find the perfect match. Using interfaces of self-representation and algorithms of compatibility, various sites suggest that there is, at least in theory, someone for everyone and that the most efficient way to meet is via database calculations. More than once, I’ve been advised that the only way to meet people is to go online. This mythical structure of possibility suggests that, if you keep searching, you will find someone, but also that there might always be a better match in the future. There’s an illusion of unlimited options and a continued hope that new and better matches will come online. Thus, there’s also a recurrent temptation for deferral.
In my experiences—and those of friends with whom I’ve compared stories—the effect can be one of increasing selectivity, that the implicit promise of inexhaustible and perfect matches can prompt users to reject potential dates for any number of minor flaws, from punctuation errors in messages to pop culture tastes to unflattering angles in profile pics. Such turn-offs repeatedly also reveal the shortcomings of computer matching: regardless of the percentiles calculated based upon surveys of users’ self-defined values, there is no accounting for attraction. No computer can predict chemistry or affect; it can only narrow selection down to often arbitrarily articulated interests or often ill-fitting broad identity categories chosen from a limited range of options in a drop-down menu. The architecture of the profile’s fields frequently pre-determines they ways users can self-represent.2
The process of writing one’s profile is also a process of imagining one’s future readers and writing toward a desired response. Writing a profile is a kind of labor time; I’ve even read profiles that suggest that the author should be paid for writing. Along similar lines, in their song “Personal,” members of The Ballet sing, “Saw you on Gaydar/Your profile was so clever/The references to Baudrillard/Must have taken you forever.”3 Self-representation becomes a calculated investment in future return. For subscription sites, what is paid for is time: monthly fees for access. Messaging drives toward the ultimate goal of arranging a future date. One of the differences between gay and straight online dating, however, is that there seems to be far more fluidity about what form new relationships will take. On the one hand, the technology might more frequently lead to quick hook-ups for gay male users, but for same-sex dating, there’s also far more likelihood that dating sites function as social networking and that relationships facilitate online will actually transition into platonic friendships.
If the draw of online dating is the promise of a future match, the experience is primarily one of the instantaneous and the interminable now. Searching online personals is real-time experience, one that can quickly become rote but nonetheless compulsive, as users click through to the next page of search matches. Browsing at profiles can as often as not be an act of procrastination rather than directed searching. Sites track and tell users when each person is online or when they’ve last logged in; they also indicate if it’s been awhile since a person has been contacted—thus marking undesirability or potential desperation. But there’s also a privileging of the new: new members are promoted on homepages, searches, and auto-messages. Likewise, existing profiles are flagged when they are updated. Thus, there is a logic of planned obsolescence, wherein the new member or the updated profile is preferable to the pre-existing options. The impulse toward instantaneity perhaps counteracts the thoughtful reflection that should perhaps undergird romantic involvement, so that even if you want a long-term relationship, you usually want it to start now. Thus, there’s a contradiction of impulses and expectations.
Online dating inverts the typical temporal structure of finding and flirting: looking for potential mates, which in the real world takes time, is nearly instantaneous with search engine technologies, but the temporality of interaction, which would be the temporality of looks and conversation in person, unfolds in mediated time full of delays, from the gap in time until someone checks messages to the time it takes to compose a response to the likelihood of waiting for a reply that never comes. Waiting is an age-old experience of dating. Yet, the temporality of online dating is supposed to be one of instantaneity: with online chatting, smart phone apps, and instant email auto-forwards. Thus, the duration of the present is intensified, as the expectation of instant reply can make now feel like forever. Upon subscribing, as with Facebook or other kinds of sites, initial rush of absorption can easily turn into unplanned hours of profile writing (and revising), searching, and messaging. Online dating sites’ frequent email alerts with new matches or, even more maddeningly, anonymous notices that someone has looked at and rated your profile, attempt to drive traffic back to the site with regularity and repetition even after the first blush of excitement. Being on the receiving end of such incessant bot messaging can at times be neurosis-inducing, as it teases the user with both potential mates, reminders of the limited options, and probable rejection. I quickly learned that non-response has come to be an accepted social custom through online dating, and even people with whom one exchanges messages might disappear without explanation. One quickly relearns social mores and customs, which differ online from in-person communication. But the temporality of response also communicates, so that a delayed reply probably suggests limited interest, unless there are apologies indicating otherwise. The present becomes a mix of seeking and waiting.
But through user tracking, sites such as OK Cupid also become repositories of data, which reveal information about our contemporary moment. OK Cupid has released graphs that suggest statistics of self-identification, desire, and perhaps most tellingly, actual messaging behavior. Perhaps OK Cupid is the new Kinsey Report? Yet even here, the allure of quantitative data can tell us little about qualitative matters of affect, desire, and satisfaction.
Online dating has a history. If it is, indeed, the only way to meet people now, by resisting online dating for the better part of a decade, I was behind the times when I eventually began this social experiment. But around the time I first began considering going online, I came across a couple of curious ads for Man-to-Man “gay dating by computer” dating from the late 1960s. The promise of computer technologies to rationally make romantic matches stretches back further than we might expect, to the pre-world wide web days. A 1968 ad that ran in the San Francisco-based magazine Vectors and the New York-based glossy magazine Ciao promises that punch card-era computer matching would be scientifically sound. The ad’s simple line-drawing image curiously, however, retreats from the new media of the mainframe to neo-classical iconography. A year later, the ad’s text was updated to contrast the real and the virtual worlds of cruising: “Forget standing on street corners—being harassed by the authorities—searching through smoky bars—Now! do it—the easy-scientific way.” Already technology was imagined to intervene and make romance efficient and clean; what would potentially be lost were spontaneity and the thrill of transgression. In this new age of dating, time was of the essence: the ad repeatedly urges potential clients, “don’t delay.” This document of new media before new media suggests both that the desire for online dating predates the technology itself and perhaps inverts the ways we imagine the history of invention and the development of social networking.4 But it also promises instantaneity, despite the fact that a mail-order computer service would take longer to process than a street pick-up. Yet, perhaps again the difference was that a rational match was imagined to last, where as a trick would be temporary.
Going even further back, Alan Turing, the homosexual inventor of the computer, wrote of his Automatic Computing Engine in 1947, “the machine must be allowed to have contact with human beings in order that it may adapt itself to their standards.”5 Biographer David Leavitt suggests this sentimental computer science reflected the inventor’s own sense of social isolation and projections of the desire for contact. The history of the computer reveals that it was not only a calculation machine but also one that was always informed by the desire for human connection and the romantic notion of rational matching. The history of technology is always a history of an imagined future, though the ways technology becomes adopted by users often departs from the inventor’s fantasies. The rational and emotional, the quantitative and qualitative are always intertwined. Going online to find sex, love, and companionship is an act of the present with an eye toward the future, but it has unexpected connections to the past.
Please feel free to comment.
- My thinking has been informed by Alexander Chase, Corella Difede, Patrick Keilty, and Shaka McGlotten and their presentations on the recent SCMS panel “The Virtual Life of Queer Sex Publics.” [↩]
- On technological structures and regulation, see Tarleton Gillespie, “The Tales Digital Tools Tell” in New Media [↩]
- The Ballet, “Personal,” Mattachine! (2006). [↩]
- Lisa Gitelman has examined historical aberrations of iterations of the internet before the internet in Always Already New: Media, History, and the Data of Culture (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006). [↩]
- David Leavitt, The Man Who Knew Too Much: Alan Turing and the Invention of the Computer (New York: Norton, 2006), 208. [↩]