Online dating can be defined as a purposeful form of meeting new people through specifically designed online services. (Barraket and Henry-Waring 2008) It is analogous to the post-modern era of traditional purposeful dating techniques mediated by commercial interests, such as newspaper-based personal advertising and other matchmaking services.

The first online dating websites, such as Web Personals and Match were launched in the mid-90s. In this period, online dating was still considered a taboo. The mainstreaming of online dating can be accredited to media portrayals via movies such as You’ve Got Mail (1998), for example. In the early 2000s, websites like eHarmony and OkCupid made use of questionnaires and bio prompts to help users see who they might be better suited to.

The smartphone era led to the exponential growth of online dating. Apps such as Grindr (2009), a proximity dating app geared toward gay and bisexual men, and Tinder (2012), which popularized proximity dating and the swipe left, swipe right feature created a whole new culture of online dating. (T. Staff, n.d.) It vastly increased a person’s networks creating new opportunities to meet people in a way which couldn’t be done without the online world.

Now that we have established that online services have evolved the dating landscape, it is important to analyse the reasons for the same. This can be done via critical sociological imagination. This involves problematizing based on current societal structures and norms rather than personal beliefs.(Crossman, n.d.a) Note that In all subsequent analyses, demographics in developed nations where infrastructure to enable and sustain online dating on a large scale exists, like US, UK, etc, are considered as the unit of observation.

A few online dating statistics ("Love & Technology: A History," n.d.).
Currently, the percentage is as high as  40% ("How Couples Met,"
n.d.){#fig:label width=”46%”}

What changes in societal norms and structures brought about the boom of online dating? What did it offer that traditional methods couldn’t?

In order to answer this question, we need to understand what these traditional methods are. These include meeting someone through family, a common friend, finding someone in a public place, like a pub, and more along these lines. Basically, the medium of introduction involved a physical entity. In online dating, these physical entities are replaced by commercialised online services. One glaringly obvious impact of the latter is the direct implication of the network society as defined by Manuel Castells(Castells 2000). Participation in the network society increases our connections vastly and this very fact is leveraged by online dating services. This brings down the various barriers present in online dating such as reliance on the third party to facilitate an introduction. The sites are on all the time and you can engage whenever and wherever you want. (Ansari 2015)

How has the perception of dating and romance evolved with the changing structures?

Modern romance can be considered analogous to Daniel Bell’s theory of the paradox of modern consumerist capitalism; i.e., the rising importance to instant self-gratification over the quality of a relationship (Bell, n.d.). In Aziz Ansari’s thorough discussion with senior participants(Ansari 2015) who found romance through the "traditional" means, it was clear that they had a rather pragmatic approach. which is illustrated by the proximity of the places where the romantic partners came from, as well as by the conditions they had to fulfil to be eligible for marriage (job security, family background etc). Modern romance on the other hand tends to enforce a rather hedonistic notion that "a special someone is out there for everyone"(Botiková 2015). Online dating platforms’ discourse that this special someone is just "a few swipes/clicks away" lays the foundation for such an idea. Paradoxically, the combination of high demands and seemingly endless possibilities of choice result in people staying single, yet still full of hope. These platforms rely on garnering a large audience, by providing low entry barriers(Lin, n.d.), to sustain themselves economically. The discourse provided by these platforms are purely out of commercial motives, but these permeate even through existing social structures.

Who are the people who use these services? What sorts of people prevail in this era of online dating?

We can analyse this question from three perspectives - age, gender and sexual orientation.

  • Age - Reports (Smith, n.d.) show an increased participation in almost all age groups, but interestingly, in the age groups of 18-25 and 55-64. This shows that the penetration of online app/website based dating services is through a variety of age groups! This also shows that the well reported stigma behind online dating (Ansari 2015) is decreasing and it’s being widely accepted as the norm in modern romance.

  • Gender - It’s apparent that there are gender gaps prevalent in dating apps, which varies from app to app, country to country, also age group to age group. (Labelle, n.d.) If we dig deeper, we can see that the gender skew is more prevalent in the 18-25 age group. It is this very age group that also shows the highest dating app usage (Smith, n.d.). These gender gaps have also led to the curation of gender favoured dating apps such as Her (Labelle, n.d.). These gender gaps will be analysed more closely in a further section.

  • Sexual Orientation - Online dating has seen immense success in proliferating through "thin markets"(Ansari 2015; “Swiping Right: How Smartphones Changed Relationships,” n.d.). These thin markets include the LGBT community, where statistics have shown that nearly 70% of LGBT couples meet online. This because these apps provide for a ‘safe space to meet’ (coverit, n.d.). The traditional dating methods, like meeting at bars, nightclubs etc, for the LGBT community poses big barriers in the form of hate crimes, discrimination, etc (Geller, n.d.). Online services offer a safer and discreet way of meeting romantic interests. They also provide a more personalised view of potential partners as they offer filters based on sexual orientation. This serves as an important point of analysis as these apps are playing an important role in shaping queer communities.

The rest of the article will include analyses of online dating under the lenses of social spaces, social relations and social institutions. I will then connect these by using the sociological concept of prosumption as the basis for permeation of the technology of online dating in this digital society.

Body As A Digital Space

The human body has long been a site of quantification. Our experiences on digital platforms have created seemless, individualised embodiments of ourselves through enhanced forms of quantification facilitated by digital media. Online dating services too have a role in how human embodiment is configured and represented online.

The basic requirement of dating apps is the creation of a profile. For example, Tinder, the most popular dating app in the market, requires a user to create a profile by adding a few photos and adding an optional self-descriptive text (Tinder, n.d.). The user also has to enable location services and select an age range. This profile forms the basis for digitised embodiment. Users are shown profiles which match their selection criteria, and presents them in a seemingly random order. Other popular apps such as Hinge have a more detailed profile setup where the user has the option to add "conversation initiators" in addition to adding pictures. An important fact to note here is that the swipe-based matching applications are much more widely used than apps such as Hinge (“Most Popular Online Dating Apps in the United States as of September 2019, by Audience Size,” n.d.). One common aspect in all sorts of dating apps is that it establishes a "self-other continuum" as the app takes in a user’s data (the profile) and presents to the user, potential matches. This kind of a simplified model of human embodiment can result in a coarse representation of the individual, which provides a limited and often skewed perspective (Boyd 2001, 2003). Deception plays a key role in online dating. eHarmony statistics show that 53% of online daters lie on their profile. The fact that these deceptions are possible creates a paradox of disembodiment because what’s being shown may not even be a true subjection being portrayed to us. The regularizing factor to this, however, is the fact that the environment of dating applications is geared towards potential romance.(Ward 2016; Monica Anderson and Turner, n.d.) Despite this, the lack of accountability and a lack of ‘fear of rejection’(Derek A. Kreager and Yu 2015) results in undesirable activities on these platforms (Monica Anderson and Turner, n.d.). These factors reduces the users’ trust on these services, creating a gap in the self-other continuum.

It’s been well documented that physical proximity between people still remains an important factor even in online dating(Barraket and Henry-Waring 2008). Dating apps keep track of the user’s location information to ensure that potential matches are shown in the proximity of their location. This is possible because we carry our phones wherever we go! Thus, there also is a place-space continuum created by online dating platforms. This ubiquity also enforces a cybernetic experience because of the role the virtual space has imposed on our physical lives.

Online dating can be viewed as a space in which embodied experiences resulting in the formation of intimacies is mediated between the virtual and the physical space(Barraket and Henry-Waring 2008). The permeation of digital media in this very intimate matter of our lives is a true example of digital cyborg assemblages that are thriving in the digital society (Lupton 2014). The role of initiation which was either face-to-face confrontation at a public place or the medium of a common friend has been replaced by the digital dating application. Other forms of intimacies, such as sexual relations, romantic dates etc, have also been permeated by the digital medium, in the form of sexting, virtual dates, etc, something which is becoming increasingly prevalent in these times of lockdown. These permeations of the digital sphere into the physical sphere form the basis for digital cyborg assemblages and the cybernetic posthuman.

Online Dating Under The Lens of Gender

There is a significant amount of discourse on gender equality and the mediation of gender roles as an outcome of ICTs and digital platforms(Green and Singleton 2013). Under these conditions, analysing gendered technologies such as online dating is critical to explain how gender roles have evolved in the post-feminist, digital age.

Stereotypes - There is a notion that online dating has made it a level field for gender roles by mediation(Deng, n.d.a), however, the data shows that traditional gender roles are still alive and well, albeit, in an analogous form(Byager, n.d.). Traditional gender roles dictate that men are generally socialized toward valuing, being involved in multiple sexual relationships, and playing an active role in sexual encounters, while women are expected to value a more passive sexual role and to invest in committed relationships(Tolman, Striepe, and Harmon 2003). We can clearly see parallels to this as studies have shown that men send more messages to women, and men are also more likely to initiate conversation. Furthermore, when a woman initiates conversation, their response rate drops(Millward, n.d.; Deng, n.d.b). Attractiveness too plays a major role, as even a man at the highest attractive percentile barely receives the number of messages almost all women get(Ansari 2015). This shows that age old traditional notions about gender roles are reinforced rather than mediated by online dating applications. Men play out the role of seekers, and women cautiously choose who they prefer to ‘match’ with amidst the vast pool of seekers.

Harassment - According to biological evolution, men have massive amounts of testosterone coursing through their bodies, pushing and driving them toward sexual expression based on physical desire whereas women’s sexual desires come from the mind(Watson, n.d.). These gender characteristics are morphed even in online dating platforms. According to statistics by Pew(Monica Anderson and Turner, n.d.), women, especially in the 18-34 age range, face an increased amount of sexual harassment on these platforms. This can be attributed to the fact that there is virtually no accountability on these platforms. Users can remain virtually anonymous while messaging their matches, and thus can easily get away with their actions, as the most that can happen is their account getting blocked. Also, the psychological costs(Rachel Dinh and Yasseri 2018) (such as fear of rejection) involved is vastly reduced. These factors combined with the established biological notion for men result in the creation of a space where new forms of online sexual harassment can thrive online.

These stereotypes aren’t just implicit in nature. Dating sites like eHarmony, for example, provides tips for users when creating their dating profile with certain distinctions made between the tips for men and those for women that reinforces traditional gender roles. The eHarmony staff recommend both genders to post multiple photos, however men are told to so others can "get a sense of who [they] are,"(eHarmony Staff, n.d.a) whereas women should post multiple photos because men want to "check [them] out"(eHarmony Staff, n.d.b). Thus, propagation of gender stereotypes also lies in the economic interests of these platform providers.

The gender gap in usage can also be attributed to the above analyses, as women are overwhelmed with matches and harassment leading to discontentment(Monica Anderson and Turner, n.d.). The skewed gender gap makes the situation even worse as the involvement of men remains the same, thus further increasing the amount of messages women get. Hence, I argue that mediation of gender roles in online dating is merely a myth; rather gender roles are getting further polarised due to reduced barriers of accountability and skewed gender participation introduced by these spaces resulting in the permeation and advancements of stereotypes in the form of harassment.

These technologies are "technologies without guarantees", as they introduce new capacities, by leveling the romantic playing field for women(Deng, n.d.a), while aggravating existing tensions in a different space as we have seen. The notion that "The more things change, the more they stay the same" is very appropriate under the lens of gender(Chaudhuri 2020).

Dating Platforms As A Sharing Economy

We have seen that dating platforms provide the service of enabling people connect to people they are interested in and allowing them to develop a romance. A vast majority of these applications are free to use, despite which they are thriving economically and forming a fast growing industry(“Dating Services,” n.d.). Thus, it is important to analyse how the commercial interests of these platforms permeate through the construction of romance.

Although dating applications are free to use, how do they make money? This can be analysed by viewing these platforms as a sharing economy. So, what is a sharing economy?

Investopedia defines sharing economy as "an economic model defined as a peer-to-peer (P2P) based activity of acquiring, providing, or sharing access to goods and services that is often facilitated by a community-based on-line platform"(Chappelow, n.d.; Irving, n.d.). According to Tom Slee(Slee 2015), there are four aspects to a sharing economy :

  • they are peer-to-peer platforms that provide a service of merely connecting end users

  • they depend heavily on reviews and rating systems in order to regulate the service

  • they turn users into micro-entrepreneurs

  • they take a non-market phenomenon powered by human relationships and turn them into a market exchange

Dating applications indeed enable two users to connect, and offer nothing more than that, making it purely P2P. They don’t curate or manage dates, they only provide the connection. This philosophy employed by online dating platforms has many consequences. As seen in the earlier section, there is a huge amount of sexual harassment on these platforms, particularly against women users. This is because of the laissez-faire approach taken by these profit-seeking technologies which results in their denial of any responsibility through the idea that their platform is merely the service, not the end “product” people seek by engaging in it — a date(Irving, n.d.).

Reviews and rating systems form a crucial part in the sharing economy(Ravenelle 2016). These systems enable platforms to determine which users are more ‘desirable’ so that they can show up in the swipee’s queue of profiles. Tinder’s algorithm, for example, uses a variety of factors based on a user’s ‘production’ on the app to assign a ‘score’ to each user(“Tinder’s Algorithm – How It Determines Who Gets to See Your Profile & What You Can Do About It.” n.d.). However, there is a difference between Tinder’s rating system and those of other sharing economies like eBay and Airbnb. Tinder’s rating systems are private as opposed to the typical public ratings based ‘hands-off’ regulation. But the purpose remains the same, that is, to ensure that a user has a good experience on the platform, and to ‘weed out’ users based on his/her production as well as the interactions other users have with his/her profile on the platform.

The success of a user on these applications depends on the investment they put in making their profiles, regularly participating, and interacting with connections (or matches); a concept that is coined as ‘dating capital’(Irving, n.d.). This is where the concept of impression management, which forms a vital part in a sharing economy, comes in(Ravenelle 2016). Users market themselves through their profiles to attract ‘customers’. This bears a resemblance to human capital, where an investor seeks to maximise the return on an asset where we ourselves are the asset. Foucault describes human capital as a theory under which the worker “appears as a sort of enterprise for himself”. This concept can easily be extended to dating platforms where people who invest enormous amounts of time, energy and resources into their own human capital, learn to present themselves as available and desirable. The creation of such a capitalist market space in the space of dating results in uneven outcomes and users thinking in economical terms. The difference between dating platforms and traditional sharing economies is that the economy for users is not money, but the number of matches, likes, messages etc. Thus, the dating space has been quantified into a capital-based market place where we have to put in huge ‘investments’ on ourselves to get an appropriate ‘return’.

The Sharing Economy model aims to find an aspect of human relationships that can be re-conceptualised as a problem of exchange and replace it with an algorithm-driven market. This is exactly what dating platforms do. They took the problem of people trying to search for a companion and converted it into a market phenomenon where the value that is traded is dating capital and desirability. In this way, a romantic relationship is re-modeled into a competitive ‘free’ market.

The way these applications make money in the created sharing economy is by providing a few paid features(Deutsch, n.d.) which give users a sense that buying these will give them a competitive edge in the market. Thus, these platforms rely heavily on participation on the platforms and ensuring the ‘free’ market space stays competitive for all users without them losing hope. A direct implication of this is that people are always on the look out for ‘something better’. This results in fleeting relationships as people feel don’t stay content with what they have. Trust plays an important role in a sharing economy, but establishing trust on a sharing economy without public ratings is hard; rather, it becomes a thriving place for scammers. This can be easily seen, as people are facing an increasing amount sexual harassment on these platforms.

Prosumption in Online Dating

We can notice a common theme in all the topics discussed so far. Users play a key role as they not only consume the services of these platforms, but also produce data. This is the concept of prosumption. The most obvious way users do so is by creating their digital identities and participating in the network of daters. The means in which we participate in the network include not just the creation of a profile but also ‘liking’ potential matches, sending messages, etc. The network can sustain itself in this seemingly laissez-faire manner only because of users’ production on these networks.

An analysis of user data collected also reveals trends which are usually written off by the hype and other forms of discourse by the platforms. One such analysis includes the permeation of gender stereotypes in online dating (discussed earlier). Dating applications such as Bumble, where girls have to send the first message, arise in the market in order to provide an alternative and expose such trends(Krieg, n.d.).

Prosumption also forms the basis of a sharing economy. Our investments (production) on the app dictate our return (in the form of likes, matches, messages). Thus, by merely producing data, users also end up acquiring a sense of capital (dating capital), a sense of emotional ‘rich’ness of sorts. The basis for algorithmic regulation is in user data. Tinder’s algorithm, for example, uses a rich variety of user data to determine a ‘score’ for each user (“Tinder’s Algorithm – How It Determines Who Gets to See Your Profile & What You Can Do About It.” n.d.). Thus, the invisible hand of the free market is, in reality, a deterministic algorithm, making the so called free market not so free after all. These applications also use user data for ‘targeted advertising’(Duportail, n.d.); one of the most important sources of revenue for such ‘free’ applications. This brings back the Marxist notion of alienation from the product of our labour; our data(Comor 2010; Groote, n.d.).

This article aims to dig deeper into the so called Gemeinschaft community(Crossman, n.d.b) created by dating platforms. A human phenomenon which is so vital to our existence has now been commodified and turned into a market which is marred by mistrust. The focus has shifted from romance to accumulating dating capital to gain a perception of richness which in turn results in new forms of gender inequality as well as increased polarisation of even the present gender stereotypes. In a methodological sociological approach, we have seen the deeper implications of online dating and its impact on diverse actors in this digital society.


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