Among older people, internet dating can be seen as dangerous or desperate. Among younger people, it has become the taken-for-granted way to meet new people, because so much of their social life is online anyway. The media pounce on every case of ‘romance fraud’, or where a relationship initiated online ended badly. So there is supporting evidence for almost any perspective you choose on internet dating, whether good, bad, or indifferent.
Meeting new friends and/or lovers via websites on the internet is most popular, and highly concentrated, among young people, especially unmarried singles. Tinder is the most extreme addition to the repertoire. It shows you photos of men and women in your vicinity, who you might like the look of enough to respond with a YES, rather than a NO to an immediate date – with the potential for a spontaneous sexual encounter. Grindr is the equivalent website for gay men, which established the idea of spontaneous sexual adventures via the internet.
Beyond this, there is a huge array of websites catering to every social group and specialist taste: wine-lovers, sports-lovers, religious groups, people with socialist values, all the way to the classic match-making firms that help people find and meet a like-minded spouse.
Paradoxically, internet dating is most valuable to the older age groups who are least likely to use it. Unlike young singles, they cannot readily meet new partners by hanging out in bars or visiting noisy nightclubs – even if they have the stamina for dancing all night. Internet websites provide the modern meeting place for social groups that are thin on the ground, geographically dispersed, hard to identify by age or looks alone.
This new technology is having a huge impact on social life, on how men and women meet partners, on courtship in the 21st century. Some of the impacts are less desirable than others.
‘Romance fraud’ introduces a new variety of conman. In one case [in November 2015], a London businesswoman in her forties was conned out of £1.6 million in ‘loans’ by two smooth-talking Nigerian men who she met via a dating website. Between them, they persuaded her she was in love with a handsome man who was also madly in love with her – but needed money.
On the positive side, older divorced and widowed people are using internet dating to find and meet second marriage partners, developing good relationships with people far beyond their own narrow social circle.
Internet dating facilitates new adventures, with strangers, who may be from different cultures, religions, races or social classes. By definition, this requires good social skills, and good judgement – as you cannot rely on neighbourhood gossip to know the character of the people you meet.
However, the key impact of internet dating seems to be the replacement of a ‘romantic’ courtship perspective of seduction with a utilitarian shopping mentality in relationships. People make up shopping lists of the characteristics of their ideal partner – and start to feel entitled to have this delivered to them, nicely wrapped, at no cost to themselves, because they have paid website fees. They forget that they need to present themselves with charm or humour in order to seduce potential dates. My book, The New Rules: Internet Dating, Playfairs and Erotic Power, explores the experiences of people using the new dating websites. I found the least successful players in this adult playground were those with a shopping list of their requirements for a partner. They often rejected anyone who did not comply with the complete list. More open-minded and adventurous players were more successful. People who had not forgotten old-fashioned styles of politeness, courtesy and courtship were the most successful of all, attracting the greatest choice of partner.
Finally, looks count in the age of digital photography that makes everyone visible everywhere. Women do best here, because they invest more effort in their appearance, and in carefully-calculated styles of clothing. Men have to make up their deficits with other things – such as generous entertainment. So the first step in internet dating is to get a flattering photo. Without that, nothing will happen. Some people go so far as to engage an internet dating coach, the new profession that helps older people come to terms with the demands and processes of new technology in social life.
Catherine Hakim is the author of The New Rules: Internet Dating, Playfairs, and Erotic Power, Gibson Square.