I met Aiden in our senior year of high school on an internet forum for prospective college students. I was a debate kid gunning for a prestigious university, hoping to escape my suffocating Ontario suburb. He was a popular Division 1 athlete with a certain Californian coolness.
Aiden and I quickly became entangled in each other’s lives. I adored his quips; he thought I was sweet and caring. Soon, we were spending hours joking and flirting over FaceTime as we pretended to work on our college essays.
The night we submitted our last application, Aiden and I decided to toast to our new venture into adulthood. His microphone, which was pressed against his chest, picked up on every sound he was making. I could hear the sip, the swallow, and his quivering breath. When I closed my eyes, he was right there, sharing this celebratory glass with me.
After our call ended, I tiptoed into my room. Throwing myself into a pillow, I let out a frustrated, primal scream, quiet enough to not disturb my sleeping family, but hopefully loud enough to reach Aiden from the other side of the continent.
Our story isn’t unique. According to a Pew research study on online dating trends in the US, in 2022, 44 per cent of current or recent dating app users prioritised finding a long-term partner. 22 per cent of users reported using dating apps to find new friends, and 40 per cent reported wanting to date casually. For some, platforms like Tinder or Bumble are solely a launchpad to an in-person meetup. In other situations, like ours, people who carry out their relationships online rarely or never meet in person.
Solely dating online leads to a paradoxical tension. On one hand, some studies have found that touch is a vital component of most intimate relationships and can lead to a happier romance. Other experts have argued that online communication fosters strong relationships by helping people with similar interests come together.
According to psychologist Robert Sternberg’s triangular theory of love, the three components that are essential to a successful relationship are intimacy, passion, and commitment. Intimacy encompasses feelings of closeness, connectedness, and bondedness. Passion involves sexual attraction, and commitment leads to shared achievements and plans made with that other person.
While writing this article, I interviewed members of the U of T community and drew on my own experiences to explore the advantages and pitfalls of dating strictly within the digital space.
In love but not in-person
Though the terms are sometimes used interchangeably, it’s important to distinguish e-dating from online dating. Online dating is when people use digital interactions to find and contact one another through the internet; once an initial connection is made, an in-person tryst is arranged for a romantic courtship process to begin. An e-dater, however, is someone who uses internet messages and virtual conversations to carry out an exclusively online relationship.
Digital relationships have been around for decades. In 1965, two Harvard students designed Operation Match, the first computer dating service. Participants answered a 75-question survey about their ideal partner and perfect dates. Once received, their answers were run through a computer to assign six potential love matches, which they’d receive weeks later through the mail.
However, the phenomenon of online dating rose to prominence in the late ’90s, when social spaces first appeared on the internet. In this uncanny rhythm, couples communicated through emails or pic-for-pic swaps — unless you had access to a webcam, in which case, you could try to make out your partner’s blurry, low res visage on MSN. These communication methods led to a reflexive stigma about those who sought partners online. Because adopters of technology were considered to be either shy or ‘sleazy’ at the time, some people assumed that online dating was for sexual predators, ‘nerds,’ the ‘desperate,’ or those who were ‘socially inept.’
Today, polyvalent modes of communication such as voice messaging, video calling, and instant picture sharing have enhanced people’s ability to spend quality time together online, thus enabling them to mimic the intimacy, passion, and commitment that comprise Sternberg’s triangle of love. Apps are also able to mimic traditional dating rituals. For example, platforms such as Spotify and the Netflix Party extension give couples the option to listen to the same music or stream the same movies in real time; with Google’s Arts & Culture collection, they can tour art museums digitally; and they can attend a digital concert with Digital Concert Hall.
Physical touch can also be replicated. Using Bluetooth, gadgets like touch bracelets, cuddle bears, and kiss transfer gadgets can connect to mobile apps. When one person is near their phone with the app running, they can touch their item to trigger their partner’s item to vibrate, move, or light up, no matter the distance.
According to Alexandra Gustafson, a U of T PhD student specializing in the philosophy of love, these imitations of in-person activities indicate that e-dating is “not ultimately satisfactory on its own.”
“We want some kind of physical connection, we want the experience of listening to music with the person, even if we aren’t able to do that in person,” Gustafson told The Varsity. “The fact that we’re looking for ways to replicate the in-person experience in these e-relationships suggests that there’s something missing.”
Can love be online?
If e-dating has proven to be secondary to in-person relationships, why do so many people seek romance in the digital Anthropocene?
The first and most obvious answer is the number of potential options. In 2020, Pew Research Centre found that 49 per cent of American dating app users found it easier to find a partner online who shared their hobbies and interests. You are much more likely to meet someone who likes archive fashion, ambient techno, and Hegel on Discord than at a bar in your hometown — in my case, an Ontario suburb. Some digital spaces, such as Tinder, even allow users to change their location settings, enabling daters to escape the tyranny of proximity.
However, one more personal reason for dating digitally is explained in Helene M. Lawson and Kira Leck’s 2006 study, “Dynamics of Internet Dating.” In their paper, the University of Pittsburgh at Bradford professors write that modern capitalist society encourages interactions between people to be selfish and exploitative. Trust, an integral component in building strong, meaningful connections, has been destroyed, resulting in a society of unattached yet vulnerable people. This loneliness from a lack of friendship, in turn, prompts many people to forge connections on the internet.
Decorporealization, the separation of body and mind, may be part of e-dating’s appeal. With in-person dating, the body is the primary vessel for romance; it is the main way we present ourselves to potential mates, experience attraction, and express intimacy. But for those who do not identify with their bodies, the emphasis on physicality can be mentally challenging and cause feelings of insecurity and anxiety that make it harder for them to date.
The internet offers a metaphysical reprise from corporeality; online, people can escape the horrid trappings of the body and be judged solely by their spirit. The decentralized and democratic nature of the internet offers an escape from the suffocating conditions of reality. As Lawson and Leck wrote, “online setting[s] allows [people] to select which aspects of themselves to reveal to their online companions.”
People now have the radical agency to present themselves however they want — to embody their secretly desired personas — without fear of social reprisal. This ability to separate from our shells enables individuals to finally express themselves freely and authentically. Online dating allows you “to be who you are in a way that’s not determined by your outward appearance,” said Gustafson. “And that can be empowering.”
Reflecting the outside
While the ability to control one’s image and presentation while e-dating can be liberating, in that very same vein, it can also be deceitful. Catfishing is the act of pretending to be someone different to trick or attract other people on social media. In 2020, cybersecurity blog Techsheilder reported 1,054 catfishing reports in Canada, the third-highest global number. Sometimes, however, it’s not different personas that people create; according to the 2008 study, “Separating Fact From Fiction: An Examination of Deceptive Self-Presentation in Online Dating Profiles,” 81 per cent of online daters share information about themselves that contains “deviations” from the truth. The study elaborated that men lied more about their height and weight, and women were more likely to lie about their relationship history and social status.
Gustafson finds this behaviour troubling: “Because you and your partner both have the ability to represent yourselves however you want, you can create an idealized relationship.” But, if both parties are consistently in performance, how authentic is the love that they have created?
As Gustafson said, “One popular theory is that love is the valuing of a person… we value people for their good qualities, their kindness, [and] their funniness.” She added that, when we represent ourselves as having more good qualities than we actually do, or as having solely good qualities, we “may create the conditions for people to fall in love with us.”
“There’s some kind of uncanniness to falling in love with digital personas, because we can present the best version of ourselves,” Gustafson continued. “It’s this very huge abstraction from who we are in real life.” Gustafson explained that, because we can edit our photos and curate our online personas, our realities fade.
This is the common argument against e-dating. In the comment sections of cringe compilations and sardonic Twitter threads, people joke that e-romance is invalid because you cannot fully verify the person on the other side of the screen: what if your partner is a catfish or putting on a skillful act? Hence, e-love is laughed at for being a ridiculous roleplay.
But even in traditional dating, people are never their full, unabashed selves — at least at the beginning of a relationship. We are always mindful and deliberate in revealing different sides of ourselves. For example, you may act differently around your partner than when you are with your family. Or you may behave more sensibly when dating women versus men. Perhaps you wear different clothes and makeup around your crush. The issue of artifice is not exclusive to e-romance; online or in real life, when it comes to social dynamics, everyone crafts a filter of the self, abstractions of the being.
Experiencing ‘real’ love is therefore not dependent on the medium. Essayist Tim Kreider wrote, in his 2013 essay, “I Know What You Think About Me,” that “If we want the rewards of being loved, we have to submit to the mortifying ordeal of being known.” This is a message for both real-life and online daters to consider.
When the college acceptance cycle came around, Aiden committed to Berkeley, while I decided to stay in Toronto. We called it quits before we held hands; yet, for a long time after, I couldn’t utter his name without feeling like my heart would implode.