Millennials aren’t exactly strangers to socializing online, and the more we do it, the more normal and acceptable it gets, and that extends to dating and making romantic connections. OKCupid, plentyoffish, Match.com, jdate, eharmony, and even Craigslist.
What was once the recourse of the desperate and the ugly has become pedestrian. Meeting people online can seem like it skips some of the hurdles of face to face interaction. You’ve either been matched by a computer for compatibility, or met on a forum for people with similar interests, or picked each other from a photo. Without the uncomfortable and self-consciousness inducing problem of facing people physically, you are free to get right down to the business of bearing your soul. Is that soul bearing love?
There’s a sense of destiny in being told you are right for someone else, rather than taking your shot with someone you see around. And there is a comfort in having everything important about a person summed up in a few sentences. But until people meet in real life, and try to get along in our frustrating, mundane world, the connection between them is hypothetical, a step above fantasy.
It’s easy to see the appeal. Rather than fish around your social circle for likely prospects, then destroy said social circle when said prospects go bad, you can take a route that is both DIY and private, and comfortably similar to the "frequently bought together" links on Amazon.
Of course, that comfort may be a bit of a trap, since scientists and psychologists are not necessarily on board with the way on-line dating sites make their matches. Regardless of scientific opinion, the sense is that there is an on-line dating niche for everyone. You can be matched based on the most specific levels of detail, or find you match from a particular group. This can be a good thing. Skip right past all those people who are not into what you are into. There’s a catch, of course, and it really should have a name. Let’s call it the imaginary relationship. It’s when an online relationship (no meeting in person yet) appears deep and meaningful, but is absolutely never going to migrate to the real world. As in this person’s experience:
“After two weeks of this, this guy is basically my boyfriend in my mind. At the time, it didn't seem strange that we hadn't hung out yet, since we were too busy pouring our hearts and souls into Gmail. Finally one day I was like 'Hey, let's talk on the phone' and he was like 'oh um ok' and gave me his number and then we had a weird awkward conversation at the end of which I was like 'So do you want to get dinner later this week, it's time to hang out!' and he was like 'Yeah definitely, why don't you e-mail with me with a time and place' and I sent him this sad sad sad stupid e-mail that was like 'I want to take you to my favorite diner! Let's meet Thursday at 6!' and I never heard from him ever again.”
Don’t worry, she got wise to the BS, and moved on.
But why do millennials jump in so quickly? Being used to being online is part of it. Online chatting is the norm for us, and using the internet to make intimate connections with strangers is just another handy service it can provide. Plus, trusting science to do the heavy lifting can feel comforting. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I get the sense that we millennials are a somewhat skittish and self-conscious lot. Having a scientific “authority” (those algorithms aren’t really purported to work too well) give you some pointers on who to talk to can be a much needed source of confidence. Or, it can be source of insecurity when they match you with terrifyingly awful people.
Being on the internet can feel like bypassing what is extraneous about daily life; the line ups, the painful small talk, gusts of wind blowing your newspaper closed when you are in the middle of an article. However, those inconveniences are to a very real degree, and never more so than in a relationship, real life. Life is more than feelings, it’s whether you do the dishes regularly, the way you approach work, where you like to eat. On the internet, those seemingly trivial details don’t matter, because you never have to react to them. And that’s how seemingly perfect internet matches turn into real world staring contests and awkward escapes from coffee shops, restaurants, and subway rides.