The digital world has infiltrated our day-to-day on an unprecedented scale. Despite the incremental clarity people have been experiencing around the issues of maintaining a digital life in the last year, it is undeniable that interpersonal relationships have benefited massively from it. And by virtue, online dating apps have benefitted. Our reliance on virtual means of comfort and connection through screens may be satisfied for now, but what does the future hold for our romantic and sexual relationships?
The first few months of the pandemic’s saga was met with ‘Covid-babies’, ‘covid-divorces’, ‘covid-breakups’. It was clear from the beginning that big decisions were being made during this Global Pause. But why? Perhaps the government dictates have forced us to grasp onto a sense of self-determination? Perhaps the shock-of-the-new has pushed us to put our relationships under a microscope? Or perhaps this Pause and reflection has given people a perfect opportunity to say fuck it, it’s now or never. No longer did we have room, time or energy to wait with bated breath.
In essence: Life.is. too. short.
For dedicated singles, they grasped at (digital) straws to maintain some normality. FaceTime first dates (which reduced the possibility of getting an STD from a stranger to nil); incessant Swiping (even when we knew for a fact, that our match-made-in-heaven would indeed remain out-of-sight/out-of-touch/out-of-mind); and Netflix-partying.
Inevitably, dating apps like Bumble, Tinder and Hinge saw a rise in downloads and a lengthening of conversations with one singular person (Tinder reported a 10-20% increase in chat time in April 2020 compared to February). This has ultimately led to the introduction of new virtual features such as the video chat on both Tinder and Hinge (well done Bumble for being ahead of the curve on this, releasing this feature in 2019) - Plenty of Fish even introduced a 'live' video feature. Not to mention the boom of OnlyFans and the rise in cam-sex… But how are these 'innovative' features actually satisfying our desire for human connection? Will we be seeing a rise in digital relationships in a post-pandemic world?
The Polls are in...
The week before Christmas, we asked PG Instagram followers to answer a poll on the topic of Dating, in-line with our exhibition Swipe Right which explores the humour, the fear and the connection within online dating. Admittedly only 30 people (on average) answered our 5 questions but the results are definitely interesting - for sure representative of the chaos of our feelings towards everything but specifically virtual dating right now.
It is clear that there is a hesitance towards matching the digital world with real-life feelings. More people said they were browsing and that they were losing confidence but they also recognised the potential success of virtual dating.
You've got a match!
We are all experiencing a re-shift in our sense of self; many things (as minor as they may be) are hanging in balance. And yet we still choose to Swipe Away for fun - get that hit of dopamine when the light bounces back and your phone bugs out: ‘You’ve got a match’. It is the same way we use Instagram, in particular, on the daily. Yes, we want to keep updated on what’s going on in the world through our vague acquaintances and influencers we follow but we also want to show that we are active and surviving.
Social media destructs the line between documentary and fantasy - and online dating follows suit. But somehow it feels more like a stab in the back when Tinder is playing with my feelings.
Much like Instagram the apps force us to create a brand for ourselves: we curate our images to show our best face and we write copy to make ourselves sound interesting. Essentially, we become sellable to another human.
We know now that apps play to the beat of the algorithm; even so, the companies still remove themselves from blame. Dating apps in particular set themselves up as a neutral and familiar space – a Safe Space - to chat and to discover what you really rate in your desired partner. But just as we Swipe Right or Left, a piece of ourselves is given to the virtual world. I don’t mean data, that would be a topic for another article, but a large chunk of our wellbeing.
We are continually conflating the real world with the fantasy world and putting our deepest emotions that generate our sense of self in the firing line.
Weighing up risk
And what about now, in 2020?
Having been at the mercy of the virtual world for the last 9 months we have begun to recognise, despite it being a necessary means of access and connection to the outside world, this medium can become a fundamental threat to our sense of self.
But how has this affected our quest to find a partner, whatever that might mean to you?
The risk factor has certainly changed. Since the beginning of the UK’s isolation period, the development of relationships was now being dictated by the main-man in number 10. We were first told to stay home, protect those at risk, don’t meet anyone outside your household. And then we were told if you do have sex please do it in a way that avoids your mouth… Solid advice.
I promise I won’t go into a rant about how the government is incapable and could have avoided the tragedy that we find ourselves in right now but it is fascinating to me how this chaos is being projected onto interpersonal relationships. How do we even begin to weigh up the risk of meeting new people? To isolate and swipe is to become lonely and sad and have a crisis of self. To go out and date is to become riddled with a seemingly uncontrollable virus and also have a crisis of self. So, what do we do?
My answer? Wait it out.
Fight or flight
The post-pandemic liberation will definitely be something to behold. If history is anything to go by, and I’m referring to the post-World War One era (1920-30s), a state of economic, political and medical upheaval which caused cultural confusion over race, gender, and sexual identity led to understanding culture in more fluid terms. Counterintuitively, during this Roaring period, the UK saw a rise in marriage. The value of security, the strengthening of family values, manifested in the aftermath of international economic crisis. This conflicting state of events, I would argue, really does represent our primal instinct of fight or flight (which is backed-up by PG poll results
The digital era is a watershed moment for the value of interpersonal relationships. The success and ubiquity of Tinder and social media in general has demonstrated the developing desire for instant gratification (in digital and IRL spheres)and the rise of polygamy. 2020 has forcefully heightened this awareness and dependence on digital satisfaction.
No matter how you or those around you have been effected during this social, economic, and medical upheaval, our relationships with one another has changed. Once the confusion and shock of this Pandemic Period settles and we are no longer shouting at any footage that pre-dates 2020 Covid rules “TWO METRES”, there will be a lot more clarity on what it is that we really want from dating and relationships.
And if the outcome is going to be a repeat of the brief yet chaotic liberation of the Roaring Twenties, I am in.
Thank you to Zak for talking to me about his own experiences. Read his post from two years ago here: 'Why I Deleted My Tinder and Other Things Besides.'