Soft Focus: How Dating Websites Subvert the Romantic Ideal

An advert appears on the television at 1a.m. for a website called onelastfling.com. Soft focus, monochrome images of couples entwined dance around the screen; the narrator dribbles something about ‘discreet relationships’ with ‘like minded people’. No mention of commitment, or marriage, of finding ‘the one’. This shifting ideal, of non-commitment, of transience, is an interesting aspect of postmodern society. It has come to promote an (anti-)ideology in which we are encouraged to explore our own desires in contrast to any moralistic mores we may have previously upheld.

This year we have seen figures of childless women at their highest since 1920, the year of the post-war population dip; simultaneously, more people than ever are using dating websites such as ‘Plenty of Fish’ and ‘Ok Cupid’; the latter of which openly markets itself as ‘The Google of online dating’. What does this imply? Alea iacta est: just as we use Google to both educate and pleasure ourselves, we are now using it to make our major lifestyle choices.

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If you are of a certain age, and happen to bring up dating websites in a social situation, you will usually find one other person has had first-hand experience, or at least knows a friend who has used a dating website. Friends speak of the dates they have been on; one speaks of a guy who she was seriously dating for a couple of months, though at a fair distance. One day he flat-out stopped responding to her communications, and she hasn’t bothered to enquire further. She simply assumed he had found someone new. This isn’t a slant on men; male friends have spoken about women who will happily swap kinky messages (or as they have come to be known, ‘Sexts’) but will scarper at the opportunity to date IRL; it seems, they would rather experience the ‘other’ from the safety of their home.

There are aspects of internet dating which directly, and tragically, oppose one another. The first is this problematic ideal of there being one person in existence who is meant to be with you; ‘The One’. From a female perspective, it is a phrase oft-quoted in the media, from the moment we start reading books, right through to soppy romantic comedies. It is a (frankly ridiculous) fictional ideal that has grown beyond proportion. It is surely scientifically impossible that out of the billions of people in this world, two people are inextricably destined to be together. Nina Power eloquently references this problem in her One-Dimensional Woman:

‘What does this obsession with ‘the one’ mean? (…) The ‘one’ as the transcendent culmination of an entire romantic destiny demonstrates a curious mélange of the sentimental (‘we were always meant to be together!’) and the cynical (if there’s a ‘one’ then the ‘non-ones’ don’t count[).] This strange mix of sentimentality and pragmatism – ideology, if ever there was a definition – reproduces itself seemingly spontaneously, in culture and conversation.’

The other aspect is choice. Reams and reams of choice; thousands, perhaps millions, of attractive men and women linger in this online realm, who at just perhaps a click away, could feature in your life somehow; perhaps for the long term, though more likely for the short term. Although dating websites suggest they are designed to promote the romantic ideal of partnership, of commitment, in fact all of them actively promote the opposite. The option is there to re-instate your profile at any time; browse anonymously, send a quick IM. Some even send congratulatory messages when you receive a certain amount of good ratings. This surely proposes some kind of transitory state in which nothing (or no-one) is ever really good enough.

To find the foundations for this current promotion of surplus desire, we can look back to third wave feminism. In the 1990s women happily shopped and fucked, all the while looking fabulous. Brilliantly, feminism was sold by the media to the masses through the Spice Girls and programs like Sex and the City. Women in advertising campaigns were depicted wolf-whistling men, wearing power suits, drinking diet Coke. At its most confused, we were cheering on Carrie Bradshaw for cheating on her boyfriend and frequently indulging in something which was referred to as ‘retail therapy’. Women realised they could get what they wanted, and more.

In his essay ‘The Implosion of Meaning in the Media’, Jean Baudrillard discusses how the over-consumption of media would effectively result in the implosion of the social. The process of socialization that occurs as a result of the consumption of information, which should result in ‘an excess of wealth and social purpose’, actually results in the inverse: ‘rather than creating communication, it exhausts itself in the act of staging communication. Rather than producing meaning, it exhausts itself in the staging of meaning.’

We can apply this hypothesis to internet networking. By placing ourselves within the online social spectrum, in this case dating websites, we intend to socialise ourselves by joining the masses; swimming through this giant ocean with plenty of other ‘fish’. But the very nature of the internet surely destroys the meaning behind our intentions. The act of scrolling, opening up different profiles and closing them when you realise they’re into something weird like ‘Lindy-hopping’; any sense of our own individuality is lost when another is presented with our information alongside a whole host of other potential datees, perhaps with taglines underneath them suggesting that we are ‘more adventurous!’ or ‘more kinky!’ than the profile you’re currently viewing.

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Likewise your online libidinal stratification is encouraged to tend to all moods you might find yourself in. We don’t always necessarily want the ‘girl next door’ type. Maybe it would be interesting to go on a date with that weird guy who likes Lindy-hopping.

Perhaps the process of elimination deployed when browsing internet sites has leaked into the real. The time we spend arbitrarily clicking through profiles; to meeting someone; to forging a ‘relationship’; to said relationship ending. Only for the process to begin again.

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