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Why Online Dating is Like Window Shopping for Humans

Sreedeep |
Like all consumption, user profiles on dating apps reflect the anxiety of acquisition, leaving people to interact in a completely new but inhuman, unresponsive and non-obligatory way.
Online Dating

Image Courtesy: Flickr.Com

I don’t usually love window shopping and I am here shopping humans. Aren’t you?”

Online dating is like browsing in a thrift store. You are looking but you aren’t excited about it.”

These are glimpses of how two people describe themselves on popular dating apps. Their descriptions reflect the consumerist self, readily available on the virtual shelves of dating apps. The individual on these apps is a lucrative well-packaged ‘thing’, made available through the app. The apps want us to summarise our approach to the one we aspire for, but as briefly as possible. After all, onlookers do not have much time. There are too many profiles, too many ‘options’ and limited attention spans.

So, a few images must reveal our chosen ‘look’, for which we consciously pose like models and celebs. Such projection through images and texts is like advertising copy: We make a profile and short biography that can read like a pick-up line. No wonder a user sarcastically says, “Even getting into dating apps requires a resume.”

Do these images and texts reveal us? Or a curated self who borrows or memorises the language of appearances and advertisements? We only know dating apps put us in window-shopping mode. We relentlessly shop, hop, hunt, chase, and swipe at other humans, conceiving and displaying ourselves like commodities. We find the self objectifying itself. The operative principles of choice-making on dating apps are very similar to shopping. The visual and textual aesthetics of projecting oneself speaks the language of the commodity world. Dating apps are quite similar to thrift stores, which provide exciting and arousing choices to flirt with regularly.

Still we are spoilt for choice. Flattering the self and flirting open up limitless options and glorify the chase. We choose and chase images, angles, objects, spaces, people, activities and desires to display the (un)real us—the self we curate without the mediation of a photographer, advertiser, or PR manager. After years of dependence on visual experts, we have regained the effortless agency to click, edit, display and discard our images. The thrill of consumption and comments are felt live through screen-mediated sensations of pointing, clicking, swiping, tapping, and zooming. The impatient world of gestures rejects or selects with finger gestures. Degrading or politically incorrect it may appear, but that is how it is.

The thrill of consumption, earlier confined to the material world, defines the aesthetics of making choices through left or right swipes. A user compares herself with a commodity, writing: “I am Maggi Hot & Sweet Tomato Chilli Sauce… I’m the peanut butter you have longed for… I’m different.” Another says, “I am the frienchiest fry. My nickname is Gillette coz I’m the best a man can get.” A commodity metaphor is also used to express a preference for a serious relationship: “If u are looking for a casual conversation, plz talk to Alexa.”

Seeking stability on a casual platform seems ironic, but one user still writes, “Since the relationship-seekers are actually seeking ‘something casual’, I am intrigued by what the ‘something casual’ folks want.”

The globalised commodity world is about offering a multiplicity of choices. Even the craving for permanence resonates with the commodity ethic, as a user says, “...men who meet one day and behave like a customer next day, stay away”. Another confesses, “Marketer by profession, but still haven’t found the one to sell my heart to.” And one voices the agony of having to sit on the shelf: “I am unconsumed in the consumerist world.”

Such depictions indicate the tendency to see oneself and potential matches as a commodity, akin to a perpetual date with images, their descriptions and assessments. Since profiles and comments may or may not materialise into meetings, the self must get portrayed as a thing to be (consum)mated, unapologetically and unabashedly window-shopped. Proclamations such as “An old-school soul stuck in a new-age app” or “Love at first swipe” abound, but the opposite camp responds: “Swipe right if you understand that polyamory is not your way to cheat your partner or demand sex from me.”

Irrespective of preferences or relationship status, the projection of the curated self on virtual platforms is nothing less than a continuously addictive cultural project. Like body-building, image-building takes time and effort. It is a strategy of impression management to gain attention, even by sexualising the self. Simultaneously visual and performative, it is obsessive and self-consuming by design.

Boredom Boom, Estranged Strangers

Lusted by many, loved by none.”

Like other consumption habits, advertising the self on dating apps is an anxious and acquisitive process. It is endless and perpetually in the making and has no room for contentment. Like beauty, wealth and ambition, options can always get better or even better—hopes of upgradation fuel the engines of fantasy and act as incentives. To desire, use, and then feel exhausted is a typical consumerist condition. It holds the market afloat. The commodity culture cannot be celebrated unless the deep desire for newness is pampered endlessly. Excitement for the ‘new’ and ‘improved’ is built upon the boredom with the old and existing. Besides, boredom is not only a necessary condition but an obvious consequence of being on dating apps.

These apps signify the kind of boredom and urban estrangement that reels in reclusive citizens. It facilitates interaction between potential strangers. One user reflects, “On my way to get another tattoo. I’ll get bored in a month, I know.” Another says, “I am here because I am bored with the city, not because my marriage sucks” (raising the doubt she is implying the opposite). The familiar urban aloofness of a consumerist city is encapsulated well by a profile that reads: “Honestly, I am here because I can’t wake up another day to a notification from just Big Basket.”

A range of schisms are presented blatantly in user biographies:

I am bored badly. Someone drag me out of this boredom.”

I am totally faking this smile. Everything sucks. Please go away.”

If it is ironic to read ‘please go away’ on a social-networking platform, it is much more apparent that a virtual platform cannot resolve loneliness. But it is not a coincidence that the popularity of dating apps surged during the Covid-19 pandemic, which pulled the curtains down on social gatherings. The aggravated loneliness of solo urban dwellers in those months called for new patterns of online courtship. After all, meeting, greeting, romancing, seducing, are human needs that grocery and social media notifications cannot satisfy.

Doubting App Potential and Staying Dissatisfied

It’s fun to be here because I am a sucker for disappointment. And what’s a better place for that other than a dating app,” writes a user.

Feeling perpetually dissatisfied, to despair and doubt, are consumerist conditions. There must be sufficient feelings of inadequacy in order to catalyse more consumption. So, doubting the potential of dating apps or criticising the options they provide is quite common—it is what sustains consumerism, since consumers often consume while condemning. One user perfectly scripts this bipolarity: “Not expecting anything much... Lowering expectations goes well with dating apps.”

The cynicism gains momentum when a user declares: “If you laugh at this, we’ll get along: capitalist appropriation of my identity and sense of worth gauged through the lens of hallowed construct.” At times, disregard for the app is soaked in love for commodities or commodification of the body, as when a user suggests: “Screw this! Let’s just elope and home brew red wine, bake pizzas, and recruit new members every weekend”.

Unbearable Lightness of Interaction

Do not have any expectations. I may delete the app sporadically.”

While our relationship with the material and the visual world still retain some tangibility, interactions with individuals on dating apps have taken ephemeral and casualness to a different level. Even while swiping left and right at humans, one is unsure if these profiles exist or how many are fake. That doubt can only be resolved if profiles match by some strange and unknown algorithmic logic and a conversation begins.

A few exchanges do not assure sustained conversations, nor a meeting, now or later. One user may block the other, uninstall the app or stop replying with or without reason. There’s no way to trace the person unless phone numbers or further details were exchanged. There are no obligations, so nothing can be taken for granted. Even after meeting in person, users could remain erratic and unresponsive. They may ‘ghost’ us for a while or forever. We cannot hold it against the individual—such is the unbearable lightness of the communication on a virtual dating app. To each other, humans are un-trackable commodities with no bills, customer care or guarantees.

It is essential to acknowledge that human beings have never interacted in such an inhuman, unresponsive and non-obligatory manner. Such erratic modes of communication must be considered a decisive transformation in sociability. It is one thing to enter into discord or dispute, then fall apart or snap communication with someone. It is another thing to disappear after “hi” or amidst a civil conversation that did not offend. Conversational ethics that have driven communication in workplaces, neighbourhoods, and public places for centuries do not govern or guide interactions on dating apps. Here, the users end conversations or stop replying without notice. Dating apps take answer-ability and accountability out of human interaction. The exchanges are so anonymous, casual and whimsical by design that they feel simulated.

Over the last three decades, texting removed the need for immediacy in responses. Meeting or calling someone imposes a liability to acknowledge the human presence on the other end of the phone. Texting legitimised delayed responses or not replying at all. While trying to protect privacy, choice and freedom, dating apps legitimise prolonged silences, sudden disappearances, or being shown the entire cold shoulder. We remain self-consumed as we consume each other arbitrarily. We swipe left or right based on images and descriptions but ultimately consume uncertainty.

You may take a chance and play this game, but it is as aimless, as one bio accepts, “You’re probably coming across my profile just for once, so swipe right. Bios can wait.” And another remark sums up the pointlessness of any self-description: “Emotions are deceptive, so are bios.”

There is no hypothesis, no fixed trajectory or timeline, no conclusion, no seriousness; just a vague possibility—like throwing stones in the dark.

The author is a sociologist with Shiv Nadar University and author of Consumerist Encounters: Flirting with Things and Images. The views are personal.

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