How close are we to a dating dystopia?
As you may have gathered from the general buzz around the spring’s hottest indie film, Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Lobster gives us a dating dystopia that nips at our own increasingly tech-oriented mingling scene. In fact, many young people may see it as reflective of the app-and-site environment in which they find themselves struggling for connection. The film’s satire focuses on love between people with such superficial similarities as nosebleeds, limps, or nearsightedness, while modern relationships and hookups now frequently stem from things as arbitrary as shared Facebook “likes” and mutual friends (on Tinder), or a common religion (Christian Mingle).
How close are we to The Lobster’s ominously unnamed hotel? I evaluated some of the most common dating websites and apps in comparison on three categories: Matchmaking criteria, atmosphere, and unpleasant side effects.
The Lobster’s Hotel
Matchmaking Criteria: New residents must take the microphone in front of the hotel’s population and describe their “defining characteristic”, whether it be a limp or a winning smile. While some brief interaction and friendship may come from those without a shared feature, there can be no relationship unless the hotel management sees evidence of a commonality. Some residents fake it physically, some emotionally – but it’s not like that ever happens in real life.
Atmosphere: Strict rules and excruciating policies accompany familiar mingling accoutrements like sports, dances, frequent meals, and hot tubs. Oh, and there’s that whole “hunting single people with tranquilizer guns in the woods” thing. Residents are consistently reminded of their remaining time at the hotel and have an awareness of the others’ timelines as well. This singles resort is geared towards generating primal desperation rather than romance.
Unpleasant Side Effects: If you fail to find a partner at the hotel during your stay (which can be elongated by capturing loners in the forest), you are turned into the animal of your choice. This is a pretty dire clause in the contract and something I hope isn’t somewhere in the terms and conditions of Tinder because I sure didn’t read them.
Matchmaking Criteria: Tinder will show you shared Facebook “likes” that you and your potential matchee picked back when you first made your Facebook page in 2007. These are listed under “interests” but mostly serve as “real person alerts”, cutting through the spam accounts to find people that, like you, also wantonly clicked on the official It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia Facebook page. You also get a big space for descriptions that nobody really fills out (and if they do, it’s usually with either a joke or something that belies their insanity) and any shared friends you may have. The friends can be key. That’s real life knocking at the door right there, no matter how much you’d like to escape from it. Plus someone that knows Jeremy from work wouldn’t murder you, right? Not like someone that DIDN’T know Jeremy from work. But when the chips are down and the drinks are in (which is when I find most people swipe on Tinder), it all comes down to the pictures. Do you each think the other is attractive? Good, you’ve both swiped right. The hard part is over.
Atmosphere: Extremely casual, some might say off-puttingly so. Nobody’s looking for extreme commitment and honestly, most people barely seem like they’re looking for anything beyond a conversation. This is entry-level, free-to-play online dating. You can start conversations with a built-in GIF library – this is for fun and everyone knows it.
Unpleasant Side Effects: Casualness means a lack of accountability. People can unmatch with a touch of a button and never hear from you again. The skeeziest dude at the bar is ten times worse when you can’t throw your drink in his face. The confidence to spout a trashy line is much easier when you’re typing it on your phone rather than saying it in public to an attractive stranger. Aside from housing the refuse oozing out the pores of our patriarchy, the easy freedom and low barrier of entry (zero) means Tinder is full of oddballs. Fetishists, nomads, and people looking for a drug dealer are as common as someone looking for a drink and a nice conversation. But if you can tough it out and know what to look for, it’s possible to have fun.
Christian Mingle/JDate/Faith-Based Dating Sites
Matchmaking Criteria: These niche faith-based dating sites are all owned by the same company, Spark Networks, Inc., which will definitely be the harbinger of our Lobsteresque dating downfall if they have their say. Right? Well, aside from the commodification of something that’s been going on for millennia (people meeting through their faith), these sites have a lot more going for them than something as superficial as Tinder. Sure you might like the same TV shows, but you can’t guarantee your hot match shares your values. JDate guarantees (well, alleges) that your potential partner comes from the same culture and/or upbringing, which is much better than you both being cute and drunk on Tinder at 2:30 AM on a Tuesday (although if you can both be cute and drunk on Christian Mingle at 2:30 AM on a Tuesday, it probably doesn’t hurt).
Atmosphere: ChristianMingle partners with like-minded sites like DailyBibleVerse.com to give its users a welcoming online environment that just happens to look exactly like the Facebook feed of anyone who grew up south of the Mason-Dixon. The sites offer everything from chat and forums to event listings and dating advice, with customer service standing-by. This is serious, pay-for-play business. A basic one month membership costs $36.99. You can pay for longer to reduce your price but that’s already some serious investment. You can also get a premium membership that’s exactly the same as the regular, but you’re ranked higher in searches and have a nice shiny highlight showing that you’re not afraid to pay for love, damn it.
Unpleasant Side Effects: Many non-believers join the corresponding sites, which seems to defeat their entire purpose, in order to find a nice Jewish girl or a nice Christian man. That’s just one more lie the internet makes easier, only this time you’re paying a subscription fee for the privilege of sussing out the truly faithful. But you can now report creepy people, even if they might still lie about everything from their income level to height.
I didn’t cover eHarmony or Match.com because most of these sites are all derivative of the same formula: paying for a questionnaire and then hoping to see someone between the Venn diagram of both sane and attractive that positions you the same way. Bumble and Grindr, Tinder alternatives that respectively only allow the female to message first or are exclusively for men seeking men, may have their own user interface flavors but the substance remains the same.
Online dating isn’t really online dating. It’s online finding, online meeting. It’s Google for desire. The main differences between The Lobster and our reality is the sophistication of our search algorithm and the desperation of our searchers. The residents in The Lobster’s hotel don’t desire companionship out of loneliness or a latent biological need to continue their line, but out of pure self-preservation. The dark fairy tale shows a very demented child’s fears about love, that it might only be based on arbitrary qualities and lies – a social construct forced upon us.
The reality is a little more tolerable. Many of our lives have escaped to the virtual. We work there, interact with friends and co-workers, pay the bills, order things we don’t need. The “internet of me” is upon us, advertising algorithms already deduce our shopping patterns and Google remembers what we like. It’s almost natural that these should extend into our romantic lives. It’s certainly already affected our social lives, just look at the various echo chambers and circlejerks on social media. The worst problem with dating apps and sites isn’t their arbitrary matchmaking, it’s that it encourages people to act antisocially without risk. You can make small talk all you like online, but you’ll still have to make it work in the real world.