Sexually sated but dead inside: That's the takeaway from Nancy Jo Sales's completely depressing portrait of online-dating users in the September issue of Vanity Fair. Titled "Tinder And The Dawn Of The 'Dating Apocalypse," the article described young daters compulsively swiping over reams of candidates and racking up "Tinderellas" whose names weren't worth memorizing.
"With this unlimited access to sex partners, people are gorging. That's why it's not intimate. You could call it a kind of psychosexual obesity," Sex at Dawn author Christopher Ryan opined about the current dating climate.
As with most matters technological, the article was deafeningly alarmist (predictably, management at Tinder went ballistic). But the visual of daters "overeating" till they're stuffed and anesthetized is a lasting one. While they're less doom-and-gloom in their outlook, comedian Aziz Ansari and New York University sociologist Eric Klinenberg also voice concern about the sexually gluttonous digital-hookup era in their new book Modern Romance.
It's now undeniable that among a certain cross-section of young and attractive hetero daters, the abundance of sexual options provided by apps such as Tinder has stoked apathy and callousness, nuking whatever was left of courtship. Ansari and Klinenberg wanted to trace the ways technology has changed every aspect of dating, from the initial ask to breaking up: They conducted hundreds of interviews and focus groups around the world, built a Reddit research forum and tapped prominent thinkers, including anthropologist Helen Fisher and psychologist Sherry Turkle.
"The new dating technology offers you an endless supply of novelty," Klinenberg said in an interview from Chicago. "You're continually given new options, new choices, new faces. We met people who were going on Tinder on their way to first dates with people they met on Tinder. People who were leaving the table in the middle of a first date to go to the bathroom and see if they had any messages on OkCupid."
So what are the risks of Tinder gorging, or "boom-boom-boom-swipe," as a young man in Sales's piece put it? Short term, tech is emboldening daters to be more rude in their intimate exchanges, says Klinenberg (longer-term, he says it's too soon to tell). Therapist and author Esther Perel has argued that Tinder is turning dating into consumerism, with users psychologically crippled by too much choice. The promise that someone better could be out there creates "chronic displeasure" and Tinder's offer of instant sexual gratification kills a deeper cultivation of desire. "You skip all of the hard parts, the pacing," Perel tweeted this week.
Surveying research from Modern Romance, I spoke with Klinenberg to find out how people can avoid gorging themselves into indifference on their travels through online dating. It's useful advice for singles looking beyond the boom-boom-boom swipe.
Take a second look
Anyone can spot good looks – a person's "unique value" takes longer to suss out. These are the distinctive qualities that make another person truly engaging, according to University of Texas psychologists Paul Eastwick and Lucy Hunt. Discovering someone's unique value means investing beyond the first impressions that we rely on when we "serially first date," Ansari writes. It can involve literally willing yourself on to a second date.
"The things that attract us to people in a meaningful way lie beneath the skin and we don't really learn about those characteristics until we spend real time with people," Klinenberg says. "We find that people are too quick to swipe through their options and not give that new person a chance to show what makes them interesting."
Say no to S-bucks
Once people stop swiping and actually meet in person, there's a certain lethargy that can set in with repeated "30-minute résumé exchanges over lattes," Klinenberg says. "You're unlikely to fall for someone when they're telling you the same story that they've told 50 other people in a boring setting."
Psychologists and sociologists have long stressed that doing novel and exciting things in "stimulating environments" can bring out the best in people and give them a truer sense of each other. In what Ansari has dubbed the "Monster Truck Rally" theory of dating, Stanford sociologist Robb Willer describes in Modern Romance how his friends took first dates out to the rowdy, car-crushing competitions.
"It was funny, out of the ordinary and interesting," Klinenberg says. "It sparked conversations that they might not otherwise have and proved to be fun."
(I preferred the guy who took his unsuspecting date out to an alpaca farm. Warm and fuzzy.)
Ditch the perfectionism
Sadly, most people never make it out to the alpaca farm: Thanks to a seemingly limitless buffet of options online, daters are taking expectations to new and ridiculous heights. Ansari describes an "I need the best" mentality that eventually becomes debilitating.
"Many people have a hard time dealing with the imperfections of the new person they've met because they know there are thousands of potential options," Klinenberg says. "We're punishing ourselves because we spend so much time searching for an ideal person who doesn't exist and not enough time actually getting to know what people have to offer."
Klinenberg tells the story of an "average-looking white guy" who rejected a woman because she was a Red Sox fan. "He would scroll through his inbox on OkCupid and he was turning away attractive, intelligent, educated, fun-looking women for the silliest of reasons. These are women who, 30 years ago, if they had even looked at him in a bar, he would have gone crazy with happiness."
Oh, the humanity
Ansari and Klinenberg stress this above all else: Singles need to stop treating others as "bubbles" on their smartphone screens, avatars who it's okay to treat like crap. It's time to focus on the people they have in front of them.
"We urge people to realize we have two selves: a phone self and a real-world self. The things that our phone self does have real implications for our real-world self," Klinenberg says. "We're reminding people to remember there's a flesh-and-blood human being with real feelings just like you on the other side of the screen. We'd all be better off if we found a way to remember the human side of the technology."