Tenderness in Tinder: A philosophical dive into online dating and digital love

The tenderness you find in Tinder should be as much as your recognition of your reality. Illustration by Michelle Chimid, Artist/The Daily Campus.

In the age of the coronavirus, it is preferable to be lovesick rather than medically sick. About half of all singles between 18 and 29 in search for romance or sex have turned to online dating to limit the risk of falling prey to a disease far more calamitous than that of love.  

Love is a natural state that is an essential aspect of the human condition. As an emotion, it is immeasurable and unquantifiable. As a choice, it is nondeterministic. It compels your mind through happiness and heartache, and your body through saliva and sweat. The confusion of its powerful psychogenic compulsion means that throughout history, humanity has sought to precisely and accurately classify love into material existence — whether it be by romantic media narratives, a surplus of discourse on sexual identity or by repression thereof, among other things — to ambiguous consequence.  

The movement of the average youth into the order of adult societal convention may further bring the unadulterated reality of love past the event horizon of experience. However, in this post-industrial Western world, the constructions of love long inculcated by a tribunal society have only recently lost their gavel to a more mysterious judge: that of digital technology. 

The medium is the message. The use of any form of technology is also the use of a communicative philosophy adopted by humanity that changes the way we think. For example, in oral societies characterized by illiteracy and lack of communicative technology, legal disputes are solved not by written law but by oral tradition (such as aphorisms and storytelling) that both disputing parties conclude the case by agreeing upon.  

The television age in the 20th century meant that voters primarily valued not the rhetorical skill of electoral candidates such as Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter, but by traits the television could showcase more effectively than Franklin D. Roosevelt’s radio or Abraham Lincoln’s newspaper ever could, such as their charisma and beauty. It is no coincidence that the candidate voters elected during the television age, Reagan, was once a TV star. So how are messages of the digital mediums of the information age in the 21st century changing us, especially in matters such as love? 

Dating through the digital medium of dating apps differs from history’s traditional methods of courtship. Once mediated by chance social encounters, mutual attraction is now an explicitly orchestrated event born of remote media consumption through online dating. This mutual attraction is governed by profile pages consisting of images and written descriptions that function as referential signifiers of the user’s projection of a desirable self.  

Say, someone’s profile says “looking for the Jim to my Pam”; they are true romantics. Their profile says “here for a good time, not a long time”; they are looking for short-term flings. Their profile features a picture with their friends; they are sociable and well-liked. There is a picture of them volunteering; they are compassionate and active in their community. Another picture is them scantily clad at the beach; they are sexy and they know it.  

The phrase “a picture is worth a thousand words” was coined in the early 20th century, before imagic media would proliferate in the mid-20th century and become the prerequisite of all media in the 21st. Is a picture really worth a thousand words now if we are drowning in said pictures and the words are in drought? 

Where an individual’s romantic value was once promoted through real impressionable social encounters, where an individual’s sexual desirability in the age of industrialism was once artificially promoted through items such as cosmetics or status symbols — these behaviors and products are now delegated to the background of the social media image, and this abstract digital image called a “profile” now serves as desirability’s forefront. The focus of the digital consumer advertising themself as a valuable individual, and the focus of the digital consumer determining whether or not someone is a valuable individual, is not in being, nor owning but seeming: a pastiche, a caricature, a bastardization. 

Before the widespread rise of online dating and during the dawn of the internet as a democratized tool in 2000, the first virtual political convention was held for Germany’s “Green Party” in Baden-Württemberg. Three-hundred and three members of the Green Party were in simulated “attendance” online, with all members identifying as high in computer literacy with regular internet use. The main advantage of the convention’s virtual nature inspired attendees to participate when they normally would not have, as their co-members were not physically present to trigger dysphoric feelings of social anxiety or judgment … or any feelings at all. In fact, complete absence of feeling in favor of the abstract digital image would prove to be the online convention’s downfall, with only one attendee of the 303 saying they preferred the digital simulation over in-person political conventions. With no live communication, there was no small talk, no exorbitant theatrics, no gaffes, no gossip, no fear, no humanity, no love. 

When we turn to online dating, is it truly love that we are looking for, or escape? In the pursuit of digital love, we renounce the material in favor of the simulation. This simulation is orchestrated to keep its lovesick plebeian inhabitants blissfully placated with the bread and circuses of swipes, likes, video dates, direct messages and pretty images. The human desire to escape the void that only love can fill cannot be understated, so we now seek a digital love distinguished from real love by meaningless sensation. This meaningless sensation is made conveniently accessible by high-speed internet and tailored algorithms, engineered to be instantly gratifying — not nourishing — to its starved consumers.  

The meaningless sensation in digital love merely anesthetizes the void’s ache rather than fills it, with diminishing returns as the tolerance for love grows. The first sexual experience for many in Generation Z was taken by internet pornography, so it should come as no surprise that we still share intimate relationships with our digital devices with age and utilize them in the pursuit of other sexual partners online through cybersex.  

Yet, upon the serial escalation of cybersexual activity, the possibility of actual lovemaking will be met with flaccid, dry impotence. Compulsive cybersex parallels itself to junk food or narcotic drugs, marked by temporary pleasure, fruitless craving and at worst, obesity or overdose. This time, it is explicitly rather than implicitly marketed toward fulfilling the love impulse, while simultaneously functioning as an electronic burdizzo in directly neutering its addicts. This is a consequence of the truth that matters of the human condition such as love cannot be commodified or simulated. The focus of digital love advertising itself as real love, and the focus of the digital consumer determining whether or not digital love is real love, is, again, not in being, nor owning, but seeming. 

So here we are, connecting ourselves to the internet so that we can disconnect from our humanity. Here we are, searching for love that seems instead of isthat is a slab of venison from a “meet” market to be quickly eaten and shat out, rather than an intangible bond between minds. Here we are searching for simulacral love that is so perverted by digital technology and divorced from its primeval reality that we are even further away from being able to understand love, let alone experience it for what it truly is.  

But the end of love is not nigh, so long as you live in recognition of the absurdist imbroglio Generation Z is caught in. The digital is like space: metrically expanding, rendering us miniscule in its accelerating vastness, yet we are still in the same room. The gavel has been lost but the case remains. To use the digital powers’ own weapons that seek to detach us, to attach, is an act of heroic rebellion and a feat worthy of recognition. Only after achieving this can you truly appreciate the feeling of heat that has abandoned the LCD screen and metamorphosed into a lover’s breath on your skin, with the sound of the “match” notification replaced by their heartbeat in the night. The tenderness you find in Tinder should be as much as your recognition of your reality. 

(In addition to linked internet sources, this article makes use of the books “Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business” by Neil Postman, “The Society of the Spectacle” by Guy Debord and “Simulacra and Simulation” by Jean Baudrillard as the foundations of its argument regarding online dating.) 

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