Dating in the digital age
The internet and mobile phones have made it much easier to find a date and stay in touch , but digital love is far from straightforward, as Suzanne Harrington explains
Modern love affairs are exhausting. These days, conducting a new relationship -- whether it's a fling or the beginning of a life-long connection -- is akin to being a digital marketing entrepreneur in charge of a new brand: yourself.
You then have to match this brand with the other person's, but make it appear seamless, effortless, natural. Misjudge and they run away screaming. Misinterpret their digital communication and you risk the entire venture collapsing before it begins.
And that's before you even meet.
First, you create your digital self. Now that everyone and her granny are online dating, how do you make yourself stand out? In my case, having funny-coloured hair is convenient shorthand; it repels most men, thereby saving me a lot of time. It acts as a sifter.
Then, once my thumbnail has done its job and made Mr Potential stop scrolling through the bevy of online lovelies, he is further lured by my witty and fascinating profile.
Except everyone else has a witty and fascinating profile too, because we are all wise to the clichés now. Nobody talks about enjoying a cheeky Rioja in front of a blazing log fire any more -- that's so 2005.
Nor do we mention how we like eating out and watching DVDs. Duh. So does everyone.
Equally, we avoid adjectives such as 'bubbly', 'fun' and 'adventurous', and refrain from going on about our white-water-rafting holiday and bungee-jumping for charity. Nobody cares. These days, it's all about nuance.
So anyway. A short introductory email pings in your inbox. Too short -- 'howzit', 'wotcha', 'hiya' -- and it's deleted (if they can't be bothered to write a sentence, what else can't they be bothered to do?)
Ditto too long, which implies a potential stalker with too much time on their hands.
But if you like the initial email, you read the profile. So far, so good. More emails will exchange, chatty and friendly. You deduce the sender is human and decide to meet up.
First, though, you check each other out. You'll already know their age, occupation, star sign, parenting status, politics and things they like doing at weekends, just by reading their online profile.
However, googling your date prior to meeting up is not stalking, it's research. If, like me, you are a journalist, there may be little for your date left to know prior to meeting up, which is why it can be advisable sometimes to withhold surnames until after you have met.
Not that this stopped my current love interest, a digital whizz, from tracking me down online in a matter of seconds, and reading everything I had ever written before we had even exchanged phone numbers, never mind met for a drink.
Which brings us to the phone number stage. You'll exchange mobile numbers, and on your first date text each other 'I'm here!' with a reassuring smiley face or a few cautious 'xxx', once you have reached the appointed bar/café/ area of outstanding natural beauty.
You will allocate each other bonus points for resembling your online photo, so never post a thumbnail that's 10 years and five stone out of date.
Then, if the non-digital chemistry is right and you dig each other's pheromones, your love affair begins for real.
You'll do the normal new relationship stuff -- films, dinners, gigs, days out, nights in -- but it is the time spent apart that proves most time consuming.
Once, secret lovers smuggled notes to each other via sympathetic third parties. They wrote poetry on scented paper and left it in hidden places for each other to find. They pined and languished, and grew feverish with longing as they waited for the next news of their love. They got tuberculosis.
When the phone was invented, they sat by clunky landlines in cold hallways waiting for them to ring, and ran out of change in call boxes so that they only heard the pips instead of their lover's voice.
They wrote each other earnest letters in pen and ink, but even with a first-class stamp, the gratification was very much delayed.
These days, there are no secret lovers. When the internet arrived, love went instant. Which is why we are all so knackered, with gnat-like attention spans -- there are so many ways to emote these days: Facebook, Twitter, Skype, YouTube, Tumblr, Instagram, old-fashioned email and text, all via your smart phone, iPad, laptop, desktop -- even the prehistoric landline.
Your day is punctuated by pings. Ping! A digital photo. Ping! An email. Ping! A link to a soppy poem. Ping! Another text. Ping, ping, ping!
And this doesn't just apply to teenagers. Oh no. This can happen between two middle-aged adults with mortgages, careers, teenage children, man boobs and bingo wings.
Because inside your head, your neural pathways are also going 'ping!' Every time the light on your phone flashes, or your inbox lights up. You're never too old for the thrill of it.
And so your love affair progresses via a series of digital mini-milestones. Hiding your profiles on the dating site where you met is the digital equivalent of professing exclusivity; deleting your profiles entirely is a mutual declaration of going steady.
There is even an option on Facebook for lovers to set up a couples page together, but frankly this is a bit much, no?
Obviously, there are still some couples who meet non-digitally, although these should be regarded as a semi-endangered species.
"It was weird, I didn't know his age or anything," says Laura, who met her new guy at a party. "You forget how much you already know about people from dating sites by the time you finally meet them."
But what if you don't do social networking? This removes a whole layer of preliminary digital communication prior to voice-to-voice, which itself precedes face-to-face.
"I don't 'officially' do any online stuff, but I massively stalk people I fancy on other people's Facebooks -- I believe it's called 'lurking'," says Jessica.
"I don't really meet a lot of men, unless it's face to face. It's as though texting and phoning is the second stage of a relationship these days, so when you don't social network it can seem like you're moving too fast when you expect a phone call."
Meanwhile, you are in the throes of digital love, joyfully emailing each other links to cats falling off buildings and reviews of stuff you've seen together.
But what if the pings stop? What happens if the burgeoning relationship is beset by textus interruptus?
Anxiety happens, that's what. Oh no! What's wrong? It's been six hours since your last communication -- are they losing interest? Dare you ask? Have you reached a level of emotional intimacy where you can email someone to ask them why they haven't emailed you, without sounding like a basket case?
Are you accidentally becoming a deranged stalker?
Because no means no in the digital world too.
"I had one date with a woman -- just a coffee -- and didn't want to see her again," says Mark. "That was a month ago, and she is still contacting me regularly, asking me to meet up.
"First I was polite, then I blocked her online, but unless I change my phone number, I can't block her texts." Yikes.
However, it would be hard to argue that digital communication does anything other than enhance your private life. Okay, not so private, if you are one of those people who constantly updates their Facebook to reflect what's going on in their bedroom.
You may never quite experience the feeling of missing someone, but really, who wants to pine? Pining is for consumptive Romantic poets.
Far better to build and nurture the relationship via a series of digital hugs and kisses, or what therapists call 'strokes' (lots of small positive reinforcements) when you're not in each other's company. It's warm and reassuring, and makes for good communication.
If someone can't be bothered to take a few seconds to connect during the day, I'd run a mile. Just don't overdo it, obviously. This can feel like being harangued, and will finish your love affair off before it's ever had a chance to develop at its own pace. It's about enhancement, not strangulation. But what if you've had a go and it hasn't worked -- how do you exit?
Here's the thing. Using digital communication to break up really is teenage. 'Ur dumpd', or the email equivalent, even with fully formed sentences and proper spelling, is deeply uncool.
Man up and do it face to face. Or, at the very least, on the phone -- although perhaps not Skype, which might be a bit excruciating.
And then what? Your romantic lives together may be in ashes, but you are still digitally entwined. Do you immediately defriend and unfollow?
Doesn't that seem massively childish?
But do you really want to read the tweets of someone who is no longer tweeting sweet nothings to your direct message box? Of course you don't.
In digital life, as in real life, you do what's required to look after yourself, and if that involves clicking 'unfollow', then so be it. A digital detox can cleanse more than your inbox.
Whew. As I said, it's exhausting. But if dating is like this now, what will it be like in another decade? My money is on dating apps that will heat-seek appropriate potentials the minute you walk into a room.
Online dating will continue to become more refined -- perhaps three dimensional, where you can have virtual coffee before you meet face to face.
This will continue to work for us oldies who don't do bars and parties as much as twentysomethings, but stuff such as Grindr -- the geosocial networking app used by gay men to find each other while out and about -- may extend to everyone in the future, if it hasn't already.
Whatever. Because really, how we connect doesn't matter. All that matters is that we do connect, and that we stay connecting and connected.