How We Date, Online and Off: Notes From the Field

The first rule about dating in the Internet Age is that there are no rules about dating in the Internet Age. (Well, maybe just one.)
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The first rule about dating in the Internet Age is that there are no rules about dating in the Internet Age. (Well, maybe just one.)

Raise your hand if you've ever been confused about whether or not you were "on a date." Put your hand down, you look like an idiot.

This is the second in a series of posts on dating in the Internet age. You can read the first post here.

A recent survey of nearly 2,500+ singles revealed that 69 percent of respondents (aged 18-59) were at least "somewhat confused" about whether a date was actually a date. Think about the myriad reasons of why we date and this makes sense: with so many possible endgames, there's no guarantee that your idea of a date (much less "dating") will align with mine. We (singles? humans?) are terrible at defining what exactly a "date" ought to entail -- and given the age range of respondents, it's clear the confusion isn't limited to millennials.

In life at large as in romance in particular, most of us are in poor form when it comes to setting, clarifying, and managing expectations. Which is why in a room full of strangers, more than half of us have questioned whether we were indeed on an actual "date."

Enter: The Date-Not-Date.
The date-not-date is one of my least favorite things to navigate, but also one of my favorites. You + [mutual friend/new co-worker but in a totally different department/friend's roommate, etc.], partaking in a decidedly datey but also potentially platonic activity (which in San Francisco could really be anything: hikes, bikes, dinner, concert, the works). Is it a date, or isn't it? Did you just ask me out, or was that a harmless suggestion to hang out as friends? If we hang out on a Friday night, does that make it a date? If we don't kiss at the end of this date-not-date, does that mean it wasn't a date, or was I (you?) supposed to give indication that I wanted it to be a date after all? If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?

"Dear person of interest, I would like to take you on a date." Clearer words have never been uttered and rarely are.

The date-not-date demands headspace for interpretation. The date-not-date can be fun or exhausting, depending on what you're looking for -- but you probably haven't clarified that. Some of us love that equal parts murky and delightful friend-not-friend zone; some of us loathe it (but often still hang out there).

If you hate the ambiguity of the date-not-date, there are two ways around it.

#1: If you are the one doing the asking out, clarify it is a date. (Hand to forehead!) If you've been (maybe?) asked out, you could very well swallow your pride and ask if it's a date. But I can see you hemming and hawing already. Likely you won't confirm with potential suitor-friend, in which case there's only one sure-fire way to avoid it:

#2: Stick to online dating. No one's going to "guess" if an OkCupid meet up is a date or not. It's a date. We all know why you're there.

Speaking of online dating: yes, this has changed the way we date. And yes, you should probably give it a go. (I knew you were going to ask.)
Friends, the online dating pool has gotten pretty good. (In some cities, it's really, really good.) This makes sense when you realize that everyone you know is using or has used a dating app recently, and you probably know some pretty cool people. Great! But this also means that you will 100 percent swipe through co-workers on Tinder and exes on OkCupid -- that's a fact. The guy you are currently "dating" (going on dates with?) will show up in your OkCupid matches (online now!) while you are texting him about maybe or maybe not making plans soon. You will recognize people you shouldn't and wonder why. Want a hint as to why that person at that [meetup/bar/cafe/industry event] looks so familiar? That's AdamNYC and James from Tinder, and you're still not interested.

Remember this guy? Still not getting a response.

Welcome to online dating! Congratulations, the world just got smaller.

Once you accept this fact you can move on to the fun part: the actual courtship part (and yes, I think we can call it that). No matter how you first meet your potential suitor, it's the flirting in between that keeps things going. (There are some best practices for optimizing your opening messages for online dating platforms, but that's an entirely different article. Actually, an entire book.) I won't get into conversion funnels and drop-off rates here but let's just say that micro-interactions -- in person and online -- are everything. Though of course, what those look like now are constantly changing, too.

Micro-interactions and Internet foreplay FTW.
Face-to-face, signaling interest in a person is fairly straightforward: all you really have to do is make some sort of physical contact to gauge interest. (I knew there wouldn't be a third date with an OKCupid boy when my gentle arm touch was returned with an all too brotherly-friend-zone-only arm punch.)

Signaling online or via text, and things get more interesting. All those pokes, comments, likes, & retweets? When it comes to dating, they really do start to add up: data scientists at Facebook found that you can actually tell when couples are in the courtship phase based on the frequency of their Facebook interactions.

An anonymous post on Secret. Internet foreplay: it's a thing.

Now think of every other platform we Millennials cruise on and flirting starts to get creative: a LinkedIn request can suddenly come with a wink (oh, the irony!). A post on Secret targeted at your crush may or may not fall into his or her stream (how coy and how bashful!). Suddenly that admittedly seductive playlist of yours on Spotify makes for good flirting fodder, too. And join a potential target's "team" on Jawbone and you've stumbled upon a new use case for the activity-tracking band: turns out sharing our sleeping patterns can be surprisingly intimate... and suggestive.

"Omg you're sharing biorhythms? Hot."

Making a move has never come in so many colors.

More platforms → more room for interpretation.
The downside of all this, you might argue, is that it's a lot harder to even know when you're playing the dating game at all. And you know, it's true that we can't exactly call home about this sort of stuff.

"No Mom, he Snapchatted me -- that's when the photo disappears, but then he liked my Instagram post -- yes those are the photos that stay up forever. Well, technically you could screenshot a Snapchat and keep that forever, so ... Mom? Are you still there?"

Or at least, my mother, bless her soul, certainly won't indulge me in that.

Our Millennial pals -- they know the ropes (ish) and lend a willing ear. We ask our inner circle for advice but hardly gain any real insight: mostly our friends echo what we've already suggested. This is unsurprising when you think about it: we've been priming our friends to see things from our point of view since we first met! Whose side do you think they're going to take?

He said. (What's with the double dashes anyway?)

She said. (I knew we were friends for a reason.)

We (my friends, likely yours too) are 100 percent ridiculous when we talk about dating. Our friends have any number of opinions and preconceptions about what a date should be, who we should date, when, and how.

Does the changing landscape make dating a little more confusing? A bit harder to wrap our heads around? Sure. Does it make dating any less fun? Quite the opposite, I'd wager. Dating today is like a choose your own adventure or game of Mad Libs with your friends: you have no idea where you'll end up, but half the fun is in the telling of the tale. Frankly, I never knew my friends were such good storytellers.

More on why we date (stories, and hypotheses) in part three of this series.

Send your thoughts on dating, not dating, and everything in between to @xsvengoechea.

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