Internet dating and Lacan

There’s this dating website. A dating website that seems to have taken hold on near about every second person I know. It has been more than a couple of occasions now, where a friend has told me wide eyed and excited that they have a date. “A date!” I cry, “How wonderful! How delightfully and charmingly American! Where did you meet?” the reply, invariably, is delivered in sheepish tone, with shuffling feet and possible irony. “It’s this website… Okcupid… Have you heard of it?” To which I can only offer a knowing nod and wry smile because, yes, I do know it. I have more than dallied with it myself.

Okcupid is one of the most popular dating websites currently available. You take tests, build a profile, and peruse others people pages. The site links you up with people who have answered lifestyle questions in the same way as you, and who have mentioned similar interests. You are granted awards based on your personality in relation to other people, for example, a politics award for being more political than the average user, or a literary award for being more literary. There are various personality based tests that tempt the procrastinator in us all, and flatter the ego. There are lots, and lots, of selfies taken in bedrooms. And there are lots, and lots, of users.

Until a recent encounter, I myself have been floating around on that site for a while now, occasionally chatting to someone, or taking a test when bored. But never really giving it any real time or energy. A very good friend of mine however, has been a pathological Okcupid user. In the last few months, he has been in a relationship with 4 women. They all start with an unusual intensity. The initial emails quickly become instant messaging, then phone conversations at all hours of the day, and then long Skype calls. The women are generally not close enough geographically to visit without a deal of planning, and so the relationship is mostly played out over the internet.

He gets to know their personality through his computer modem, and no face is connected to the voice held close to his ear. Each time he gushes incessantly about how lovely they are, how clever, how pretty, how perfect. Each time, the presence of reality has shredded the seeming perfection that was created online. Yet he has returned again and again to the internet, and to Okcupid, as a means in which to meet people.

Having recently had my own flutter on the Okcupid gambling machine, its pull has become somewhat more understandable to me. The website perpetuates a particular form of delusion we all engage in. Namely, that the qualities we list as being desirable in our potential mates are the things we are actually attracted to. I think to an extent, we all have certain things we tell each ourselves we desire. That we are looking for someone with a certain level of education for example, or for someone who has read this book and likes that movie. On a website such as Okcupid, it is possible to pop such qualities into a search engine, and find a plethora of potential mates just waiting to be messaged. It is these verbalisations of desire that Okcupid works with.  Of course, it cannot process the raw qualia of human attraction.

For this reason I think Okcupid and its contemporaries are fundamentally flawed. Human beings are actually not very good at knowing what it is they want. The users of Okcupid may fill out its many questionnaires and tests with a particular notion of themselves and the person they are looking for. But the realities of that user can never really be translated, their desires never truly transferred.

The intangible and unplaceable qualities that draw us to people are not the ones we are necessarily aware of. The smell of someone for example, is a hugely important element when it comes to attraction, and one that largely works on a subconscious level. So while we may believe we were initially drawn to our partner because they had a good haircut and liked Doctor Who other more covert factors, such as smell, are acutely important. There is also that ‘j’ne se quois’, which can lead you to fancying someone who is not conventionally attractive at all. Online, it is easy to dismiss those who do not fit your usual aesthetic type, because there is no way of gauging the potential for chemistry in a virtual environment.

The other main problem I have found with Okcupid relates largely to my friends experiences, and has something of a Lacanian feel. It pertains to Desire vs Reality. Lacan theorised that in the process of desire, melancholy occurred not when desire is frustrated (such as the frustration of one’s ‘l’objet petit a’ existing behind a computer screen) but when desire is forced to interact with reality, and we are faced with the disappointment of the real.

The object continues, but the cause of our desire has withdrawn. Over and over again, my friend was caught up in the creation of an ideal lover. The somewhat painful sweetness of their inaccessibility only heightened the experience, as the object of his adoration was always just quite out of reach. Everything circled around the pulsating interplay of desire and reality, as both parties constructed particular versions of their internet loves. Then when the time came to meet, and the interplay was removed from the realm of the internet,  reality destroyed the desire and thus the relationship(s). But the intoxicating intensity of an online love always blotted out the consequential melancholy, and so the cycle continued. The headiness of a frustrated love can be hard to beat.

Lacan poses for his Okcupid profile picture

So I have been left with more than mixed feelings when it comes to the world of internet dating. I understand that it allows people to communicate with others in a way which can be less intimidating, and seemingly more straightforward. You want an earnest brunette who listens to Tunng and works in media? Just type those key words in and find a choice of dream girl/boys with varying match levels and geographical locations.

No stumbling over to someone who looks vaguely interested/interesting in a noisy bar, no straining your alcohol addled mind for an opening line, and no awkward experiences of rejection. If someone doesn’t like you, they’ll just not message back, and there’s nothing lost.

It’s when we move beyond initial contact that problems seem to crop up. Attraction is a slippery character to pin down and can draw you to someone who on paper would seem entirely unsuitable. Vice versa, a person can possess all the physical and mental attributes you think you like, and yet elicit no desire whatsoever. Attraction is not an easy thing to identify without the living breathing, creature of your desire in front of you. We need more than text on a screen and disembodied voices on a phone to successfully work out if we like someone. We need smell, we need body language, we need the presence of facial expressions. It is what we are biologically tuned into, and without it, reality is a ticking time bomb.


7 thoughts on “Internet dating and Lacan

  1. Hmm…

    I have to agree with your sentiments on Desire -v- Reality, but I feel they only apply if you are actively looking for perfection or a specific trait in a potential partner. Human beings don’t actually know what they want and our minds operate largely on the subconscious level. The disappointment only happens if you think along the lines of “I KNOW WHAT I WANT IN A MAN/WOMAN AND I WILL GET IT”.

    Personally, I try to not have expectations. That way you can either be pleasantly surprised (positive outcome) or be ambivalent (neutral outcome). When you bring expectations into the mix, then you are left with having your expectations realised (positive, but not as nice as a happy surprise) or the other person not being all you expected (negative).

    I think this extends to a phenomenon I’ve encountered many a time with my friends and have been on the receiving end of once. Two people meet and get together. One of the pair (usually the woman) will soon start to notice little things that she thinks would be better *this way*. They then start to change their partner to fit their ideal image and in so doing slowly destroy what it was that made their partner attractive in the first place.

  2. It’s true, we do need more than text on a screen and disembodied voices on a phone to successfully work out if we fancy someone. However, we also need more than a pretty face. Asking someone you’ve met briefly in real life out on a date holds just the same potential for disaster than asking someone out via the internet. The plus side is that, even if there’s no spark, chances are you’ll at least have plenty to talk about.

    I agree with Kyrill too – if you’re too specific about what you want then of course you’ll be disappointed. Anyone *looking* for the perfect match will. I always stumble across amazing people by accident and so am rarely disappointed as I’m not really looking for anything truly amazing. I’ve met most of the most wonderful people I know via the internet too. More on Twitter than via OK Cupid though, it has to be said 🙂

  3. I think you are right but the problem – is there a solution? Is that we do not have society which gives enough of a chance to meet, size up, smell, flirt, test fantasy against reality etc except in some work places. Virtual dating puts back some of the distance and anticipation which are exciting and have maybe been lost in modern times.

    • That’s a good point, I suppose virtual dating does re-inject some of the anticipation perhaps lost in modern interactions. Also, beyond places that involve alcohol and akward fumbling, it’s not really easy for people to meet. There are definately benefits to internet dating, and it has arisen to fulfil a need in people. I am curious as to how mainstream it will become.

  4. Yes, online dating asks us to guess who we might be attracted to based on matching trivialities, like favorite music, education level, etc. Which has nothing to do with attraction. But it’s just as arbitrary a method for selection as the methods we use in “real world” dating. An example: if you pick up blokes in bars (at work, in school), the kind of bloke you are likely to meet depends on the kind of bar (work, school) you go to. Most potential mates we can dismiss out of hand by the way they dress, the jobs they have, and, in class-conscious UK, how they talk. Is that more or less superficial than choosing to not reply to a message from someone who likes Lady Gaga? My theory is that attraction is basically random, and all that Okcupid does is (a) throw us into a market where contacting strangers is accepted and encouraged (unlike in normal English society) and (b) provide us with (essentially arbitrary) means of filtering down the masses to a manageable few.

  5. Hi,

    I agree with your assessment of your friend’s situation (and for what it’s worth, am sympathetic to their situation – it’s an easy cycle to fall into). I do wonder whether or not it’ll have a more profound impact on society as a whole, as we’re already at the point where a large minority of people old enough to go exploring and meeting people via the internet, but young enough to perhaps be a lot more naive and less self-aware about precisely this kind of delusion-disappointment pattern.

    I’m sure I fell into that trap myself at a young age – it’s quite easy to do in person, let alone online. And then there’s the fact that, y’know, you might also find out that way that you’re not what you wanted yourself to be, either.

  6. I found this blog through OKcupid and I’ve got to agree. People there do spend a little too much time comparing notes and not enough time actually connecting. It is a pity.

    Nice blog, by the way.

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