1985: Marian, an unmarried 25-year-old resident of Chicago, felt lonely one evening. Hoping to meet Mr. Right (or at least Mr. Right Now), she showered, did her hair, put on makeup and slipped into her slinky black dress. Then she walked downstairs from her second-floor apartment, hailed a cab, and took an expensive ride to a singles bar several miles away. At the club, she bought herself a couple of overpriced drinks and waited for a decent looking man to display interest in her. Several men offered to buy her a drink, but none of them was her type. Eventually, dejected and depressed, she left the bar and went home.
2015: Marian, an unmarried 25-year-old resident of Chicago, felt lonely one evening. She pushed some popcorn into the microwave and logged on to her Tinder smartphone app. She noticed a couple of cute guys right away. She swiped their profiles to indicate interest, and before her kernels had popped she was texting with one of them. Twenty minutes later he arrived at her doorstep, happy to share her popcorn, a movie, and a little bit more. No hours of preparation, no expensive cab ride or overpriced drinks, no parade of losers, and no disappointment at the end of the night.
In the examples above, the 2015 version of Marian benefited greatly from digital technology and its ongoing elimination of the barriers to romance and sexuality that once existed. For her, the Internet transformed the backyard dating pond of yesteryear into an ocean of digital opportunity. So instead of wasting her night, modern-day Marian quickly and easily located the (semi-intimate) connection she was looking for. And she is hardly alone in her approach. These days, practically everyone who's interested in meeting a potential romantic or sexual partner is online. Men and women, gay and straight, young and old -- they are all searching for someone, and they're nearly always conducting that search in the digital universe.
The trend toward online romance began in the early 1990s with AOL chatrooms and "bulletin boards" like Craigslist. Digital dating got "official" in 1995 when Match.com launched the first-ever online dating service. Soon thereafter, literally hundreds competitors hit the Net, and by 2005 sites like Match and eHarmony were BIG business. Or so we thought.
Nowadays the dating websites that dominated the mid-2000s are antiquated small potatoes. In fact, the online romance and sex scenes didn't fully take flight until 2009 with the advent of dating and hookup apps. The first of these was Grindr, geared toward gay men seeking sex and/or romance (but mostly sex). Almost immediately the app went wild, and within a few short months the market space was littered with knockoffs geared toward every demographic imaginable. These days, whatever it is that you're looking for, there's an app that will help you find it. And an astounding number of people are taking advantage. For instance, Tinder, a relative latecomer to the scene (launched in August 2012), has more than 50 million users, and they're swiping at other members' profiles 1.5 billion times per day. (That's billion, not million, and day, not year.)
Of course, some people (mostly older folks) are less than thrilled with this development. Essentially, they worry that this increasingly easy access to romantic stimulation is cheapening the product, creating a "faux intimacy" that benefits nobody. As psychologist Dorree Lynn says, "It's easier to hop into bed than have a relationship." She feels that "communication skills, genuine communication skills, which means face-to-face communication, are quickly going by the wayside." In other words, she worries that digital technology is providing people with a watered-down version of intimacy that ultimately prevents the formation of genuinely deep connections.
What Dr. Lynn and other doomsayers fail to understand is that the paradigm for "genuinely deep connections" has shifted. Thanks to digital technologies, modern daters, whether they are looking for something casual or serious, have learned to meet, flirt, date and eventually mate differently than their predecessors.
For many digital daters, especially those under the age of 30, a couple of nicely worded texts can be every bit as alluring as a smoothly delivered in-person pickup line, and a racy sext can be every bit as arousing as a surreptitious hand placed lightly on the knee or thigh. More importantly, after the first date, things like text messages, video chats, and even mutual online video gaming can be fun and meaningful ways to further the relationship -- every bit as effective as face-to-face flirting, dating, and hanging out. And let's be perfectly honest: If people didn't like these new ways of connecting, they wouldn't be so popular!
The simple truth is that digital-age dating and sexuality is not the same as pre-Internet dating and sexuality. Nevertheless, people still manage to meet, date and fall in love. They're just traveling a different pathway to get there. For some, like Dr. Lynn, this can be a scary proposition. In fact, older adults, particularly those who came of age pre-Internet, nearly always prefer a more traditional approach to dating -- or at least a blended approach where they meet online (via Match, eHarmony, and the like) but then go old-school with chatty phone calls and dates that take place in restaurants, theaters and similar in-the-flesh venues. The younger generation, however, has evolved, incorporating digital devices and communications into their lives, including their romantic lives, in ways that are both ubiquitous and perfectly healthy -- even if their elders don't understand them.