We are a hip and savvy youth.
We call our moms, Facebook our friends, LinkedIn our employers, email our professors and text everyone else.
So the question is, how do we date?
Between 2007 and 2009, 21 percent of heterosexual couples and 61 percent of same-sex couples in the United States met online, according to a study by Michael J. Rosenfeld, an associate professor of sociology at Stanford University.
With such high numbers, it is no longer plausible that online dating is something exclusively for the over-25 community. Even so, the social stigmas of finding a mate online continue to persist.
“You’d be shocked by how many people on campus have OkCupid accounts that they don’t talk about,” said Caitlin Emmons, a fourth-year American studies major at UC Santa Cruz.
Last summer, Emmons joined OkCupid out of curiosity. The disparity in the number of young users she saw on the site with the lack of open conversations about online dating piqued Emmons’ interest, and drove her to conduct academic research. In a paper she wrote on the subject, she found the prevalence of online dating has not removed its social stigma.
“It’s sort of like fight club,” Emmons said. “You don’t tell anyone until they break the rule, and then it’s like, ‘Oh, by the way, I’m doing this.’ And then you find out and there’s this instant discussion about it, but most people are not going to openly admit to it. It’s become more socially acceptable, yet it’s very much a social taboo.”
Jane Pinckard, associate director of the Center for Games and Playable Media at UCSC, said even though there is social taboo surrounding online dating, there is less stigma around it for the youth community now than ever before.
“When I was in my 20s, about 10 years ago, dating sites were still relatively new and it was seen as a last resort. You wouldn’t do it unless you were desperate,” Pinckard said. “Now I feel like it’s more, ‘Oh, OkCupid! That’s fun, I read their blog, it’s kind of funny.’”
OkCupid is the largest dating website in the United States, according to their blog OkTrends. This free site makes its matches through statistical analysis of its members’ answers to site-and user-generated quizzes.
While dating sites are not games, Pinckard said dating sites fit into the playable media mold.
“It’s media that’s for entertainment,” she said. “You can approach it with a playful attitude and it supports and enhances playful behaviors.”
The nonexistent price tag and playful quizzes draw youths to OkCupid’s casual atmosphere.
“I usually describe [OkCupid] as the Google of dating websites,” said Eryca Sender, a 21-year-old Santa Monica City College Student. “Since OkCupid is free, it’s kind of like everyone and not their mother, because that’s not the demographic.”
Still, Pinckard said she is a little surprised younger people are increasing their participation on dating websites.
“I always thought when you’re under 25 it’s easier to [meet people] because … you’re in different classes all the time, you’re meeting different people,” she said. “Once you get a job and you go to the same office with the same people, it gets a little harder.”
The assumption that college is a time of constant socialization and free time is quite common, but arguably highly inaccurate.
“I’m working on four or five different movies right now, and then I have work and classes,” said Tom Smith*, a 22-year-old UCSC student. “I want to talk to girls, but I never have time, so I’ll go 20 minutes online and I’ll meet someone really quick.”
Smith said he doesn’t like the idea that he is someone who needs a dating site to meet women, a classic stigma of using the sites.
“People always say ‘there’s no stigma about online dating,’ but they have to say that because there still is stigma about online dating,” 21-year-old Sender said.
On top of busy schedules, the average 20-something is shouldering debt or other money problems in an increasingly jobless market.
“In a lot of cases, what you see people turning to is romantic validation,” Emmons said. “You go home and turn on your account, and there are three messages waiting for you that have nothing to do with economic situation. They have nothing to do with your classes — it gives you an out.”
Convenience and entertainment are only two of many reasons young people are increasingly joining dating websites.
“I don’t think anyone goes to OkCupid if they’re super happy with their lives,” said Sender, who joined OkCupid after a breakup.
Life-changing events, like breakups or moves, are a common reason people join online dating sites, Emmons said. She said this is because life-changing “trigger events” often create a void in an person’s life. To fill the void, people try to adapt and re-develop their selves.
But what’s different about this online “you” is you become your own creator. With no one else posting on your wall or tagging you in silly photos, you become the auteur and editor of your image, Emmons said. Any responses you get to the profile re-enforce and validate the new self you have created, giving you confidence in your new life state.
For others, the impetus to join isn’t about life-changing events, but stagnancy.
“I was just kind of tired of waiting for something to happen,” said Lizzie Brozek, a 20-year-old student at Sonoma State University. “I felt like I had nothing to lose by trying online dating. The worst that could happen is that nothing would happen, and that was already happening.”
But for some, deciding to join is an act of impulse — or “whiskey,” as Smith said while laughing.
“It’s not a pretty story,” he said. “It was me, drunk, and I made a profile and then the next morning I had messages.”
Just as the reasons for joining vary, the types of relationships sought differ.
“There may still be a little sleazy factor because there are some sites — Match.com and even OkCupid — that are seen as temporary hookup facilitators rather than, ‘I’m just having fun and meeting people to date,’” Pinckard said.
But what sounds like a sleazy relationship to some may sound like an ideal relationship to others.
“There’s still that option to do short-term dating, which is essentially hooking up with a more PC title,” Emmons said.
Although she knows many people find long-term monogamous partners on OkCupid, Emmons said she feels real-life hook-up culture is just as prevalent on the Internet as in real life.
“A lot of people have mapped the college culture onto their OkCupid accounts,” Emmons said.
Cheap pickups are definitely one of the social customs that have made their way onto the Internet.
“I’ll get messages that are definitely form letters,” OkCupid user Sender said. “You can kind of tell when someone sent you and 20 other people the same thing. It’s pretty obvious, and it’s also kind of funny, because they actually think that works.”
She describes a message she received that listed the sender’s attributes and then offered for her to decide whether or not she wanted to fall in love with the sender.
What is her response?
“I blog about it,” Sender said. “I think a lot of people are ashamed of Internet dating, and initially I was, but now I kind of take it at face value and realize it’s more entertainment than actually dating.”
Sender is not alone in using this coping mechanism. Countless blogs and hash-tags have popped up on the Internet discussing the horrors and hilarity of online dating.
In some ways, a bad message is better than no message at all.