Not long ago, online dating was a bit embarrassing – an implied concession that you’d exhausted your options among friends, friends of friends, and the children of your parents’ friends “in the real world”.
Today the proliferation of apps such as Tinder, Hinge, Happn and Bumble have made it mainstream even in countries such as the UK, Australia and New Zealand, where there’s no established culture of “dating” at all.
Personally I’m all for it: handwringing over the “death of romance” brought about by these apps often boils down to technophobia or moralising over casual sex, when in fact they help people date outside their immediate circle. If you’ve ever been in a group setting and realised, with no small horror, that everyone present is either your ex or a friend’s ex, you will attest that this is no bad thing.
Plus, the algorithms employed by more formal online services such as OkCupid do a lot of the groundwork of establishing compatibility, pre-empting deal-breakers by asking “Should gay marriage be legal?” and “Does living on a sailboat sound like a good idea?”
As someone who grew up on a sailboat, I’m in favour of every safeguard to prevent me from reliving the experience.
But even outside online dating platforms, it’s easy to register – and solicit – romantic interest on the internet. There is a dance one performs on social media to turn a platonic friendship, acquaintance or even “internet friend” into something more.
Just as a bird of paradise might display his plumage to attract the attention of a potential mate, a man interested in you might like your three-week-old Instagrampost, or send you a direct message (as in, “slides into your DMs”).
I defer, as I often do, to teenagers: experts in the field of online flirtation. A Pew Research Center study from October 2015 said 47% of teenagers aged 13 to 17 had “expressed their attraction” to their crush via social media (55% had done so in person). The quotes from high school students are illustrative.
“If you’re really putting yourself out there, you could comment on their picture with a heart emoji.”
“When I have a crush on someone and I want them to know I go on their page and like a lot of pictures in a row.”
“Like all of them. Like, like, like, like, like, like all the pictures.”
“The main way you’re going to know is when they first say ‘hey’. How many Ys they put on their ‘hey’.”
Several of my own romantic dalliances have been initiated or progressed over social media, particularly Twitter. Allow me to convince you that this is less sad than it sounds: at its best, the platform is like a lively bar – it’s easy to meet like-minded people; you can eavesdrop or join in on others’ conversations; everyone is a bit funnier and more attractive there than they are in daylight.
And from observing banter that’s then gone conspicuously silent as the conversation is moved to private messaging, like a couple who think they’ve very discreetly removed themselves from a house party, I am confident I am not the only one. (Tip: it’s never the people blowing up your timeline with their tedious flirtation who have taken their Twitter friendship to the next level. It’s the people who were.)
You’re more likely to use Instagram and Facebook to investigate crushes in your outer circle of friends, particularly to establish whether they’re single or not. (Another tip: look at photos they’re tagged in, not just those they post – and pay attention to who consistently like their selfies.)
The trick to translating an online flirtation into a real-life date is progressing up the “totem of chat”, to quote the show Girls: the lowest being “Facebook, followed by Gchat, then texting, then email, then phone”. (“Face to face is of course ideal, but it’s not of this time.”) In this case, it might go from liking a photo, to commenting with an emoji, to private messaging, to naming a time and place to meet.
Now, after all that, you’ve got to work out if you actually like them, particularly if you’re meeting for the first time. Some people’s online presences are not representative, which can be a good or a bad thing. Sometimes you meet someone who is as good value online as they are in person: you should hold them tight and never let them go.
Other times it’s painfully obvious that you’re better as internet friends. When you’ve communicated more – and more intimately – with someone over text than you have in person, it can create a gulf that’s awkward to bridge, and sometimes insurmountable.
How do you cast someone back into the internet from whence they came?
You might try “ghosting”: cutting off contact with zero announcement or explanation. According to the experts, it’s “common and not considered particularly impolite … usually a mutual, conscious uncoupling” (“If you start losing juice, they’ll start losing juice”).
I have mixed feelings about it as a tactic, having seen too many hearts broken more by the absence of explanation than the depth of investment, but it’s not an inappropriate course of action after one fireworks-free first meeting.
If you’re too old school or fundamentally decent to disappear entirely, you can get out of this mess the way you got into it: by pushing them back down the totem of chat. Answer missed calls with texts, respond to texts with messages on Twitter or Facebook and, eventually, public posts. They’ll get the idea.