KOSTA: Hello, everyone and welcome to Undesign. I’m your host Kosta Lucas. And thank you so much for joining me on this mammoth pass to untangle the world’s wicked problems and redesign new futures. I know firsthand that we all have so much, we can bring to these challenges. So listen in and see where you fit in as we undesign today’s topic of online dating.
In the U.S. it’s estimated that at least 30% of the population has used dating apps. And in Australia, this number is slightly higher at 35%. Yet despite this large number of people using dating apps, there still seems to be a stigma around online dating. On one hand, some people talk about online dating as if it’s an especially superficial way of meeting someone. That all it takes for you is to swipe right every time you like the look of someone. On the other hand are the horror stories of catfishing, lonely heart scammers and sexual harassment that make it sound like the digital wild wild west.
But when you boil it down, are those the things we are really scared of or is there something more human at play here? Helping us untangle this wicked problem in a special two part episode is our guest, Dr. Lauren Rosewarne. Lauren is a senior lecturer and associate professor in the school of social and political sciences at the University of Melbourne. She currently teaches in the areas of political science and gender studies and writes comments and speaks on a wide variety of topics, including gender, sexuality, politics, public policy, social media, pop culture, and technology. And her works comprised of some awesome titles like sex in public, cheating on the sisterhood and part-time perverts.
In our irreverent but insightful chat, Lauren sets the scene by looking at the state of online dating nowadays, and why the stigma still exists. We then explore whether this stigma comes down to the very real safety concerns that exist online, or is it something else? Well, if my chat with Lauren has anything to go by, it might actually have more to do with a technophobia that seems to be a recurring theme throughout human history when faced with the advent of new technology. If you have ever been unsure about the online dating world then this chat is a great opportunity for you to reflect on your own experiences and compare them to the big picture before you decide for yourself.
KOSTA: Well, Lauren, again, thank you so much for joining us today and taking some time out of your busy schedule to unpack this conversation. We called it undesigning online dating, but based on reading some of your work, it’s really about undesigning the concept of romance, at least in my mind. And why we wanted to reach out to you is because you had quite a prolific set of work in the field of online dating pre pandemic. And I think you’d be a great person to learn from in terms of, what the lay of the land is and what has changed, or if anything, as a result of the pandemic? So I just figured as a starting point, just to give an easy entry point for the listeners in there, how would you describe the current state of play with attitudes toward online dating at the moment?
LAUREN: Well, firstly, thank you very much for having me. It’s lovely to have the opportunity to talk to you. I think that we’re now at a point in our experiences with online dating, where there’s a norm about it, assuming that you are about under 50. I think if you’re over 50 and again, that’s not an age I can scientifically mark. I’m using that largely empirical observations from people around me, but that seems to be the cutoff where for people who are older, there’s still a perception that it’s still a little bit weird. And because they’ve grown up in, they’re not digital natives at that age, they’re not people who grew up within internet, certainly didn’t grow up with social media. Therefore, there’s still a foreignness about it. Now, that doesn’t mean that they’re not using the technology, it’s just that it doesn’t have the same norm that it does for younger people. And I think there’s, I guess what’s the opposite of sliding scale, but the younger you are, the more normal this is as well.
KOSTA: Yeah, interesting.
LAUREN: And research seems to suggest that now it’s the main way people, regardless of age, meet their partner. So, how we define partner, that’s a little bit more complicated because, is a partner someone you sleep with three time? But nonetheless, it’s now the place. Whereas, even a decade ago, that was not the case work, school, church was still your big ones.
KOSTA: Right. Yeah. Okay. And do you think, if we accept that reality that yeah, this is the norm when it comes to dating, do you still feel that there is still a stigma towards it generally? I mean, you alluded to it with a different generational attachment, but would you say it’s still a stigmatized or I don’t know how to describe it if stigma’s the right word, but do you think people still have some very specific ideas of what that involves and what value’s attached to meeting someone online?
LAUREN: Look, if you look at our popular culture and this is something I do a lot of research on in terms of how does the media give us informal education about certain topics, if you look at our popular culture, most movies and television shows aren’t about people meeting full love or sex purposes online. Now, I think that idea influences whether, and I agree with you. I’m not sure stigma is the pinpoint accurate word for this, but there’s still a bit of a perception that meeting your partner online is a little less than. Now that less than could be less romantic, it could be less sweet, or less fatalistic, or serendipitous, whatever word you want. But that there is a perception that there’s something romantic about meeting in a real life setting, paths crossing, the planets aligning. There’s a cultural idea about what a romantic meeting is. That tends not to be you at two o’clock in the morning swiping through photos.
So there is a bit of an idea, our cultural ideas of what idealized love looks like, isn’t that. And I think even though we are doing it and doing it in high numbers, and it’s now the normal way you meet a partner, and look, I think you could liken this to food. If you think about the foods most of us eat, we’re not eating gomme on the regular. And yet that gomme is the idealized in our culture. We’re not romanticizing a slice of pizza. We’re not romanticizing the spaghetti bolognese and I think there’s an element there of, yeah okay, this is how we meet now, but it’s not the gold standard. And if you can get the gold standard, that’s somehow more beautiful.
KOSTA: Wow. I actually didn’t think of it like that where it becomes, like you said before, like a sliding scale of like here’s the most optimum way to meet someone. Here’s the least optimum way, online dating sits between those two points of the spectrum at different places for different people, I guess. So the idea that online dating’s like, oh, out of necessity or maybe actually this is something I’d love to-
LAUREN: Or at least out of default, in a sense. But there are a lot of reasons why people use it and I think that there are obvious reasons in terms of the appeals. But that the idea of you not actually actively looking and yet finding love, there’s this element there of a romantic idea that, love will somehow find me, rather than me having to insert technology and the market into this search, I guess you could call it.
KOSTA: Yeah. Right. So it’s almost like technology provides this at once. It bridges the gap and it also creates another one because it’s something you use to meet whatever emotional or personal need you might have. So that’s-
LAUREN: Absolutely. And that’s the history of our relationship as humans with technology. I mean, if you think of social media particularly, it’s underscored by this idea that it has helped us communicate much, much, much more easily. Now, whether that’s a good thing to be able to stay in touch with people you went to primary school with, that’s open for debate. But-
KOSTA: Of course.
LAUREN: … it’s currently a tool for communication and connectivity, but there is, and there always has been this perception of technology being somehow dehumanizing. And if you think of the history of sci-fi and horror films, there’s often an element that what happens where humans get too close to technology leads to something negative, that there is something that we become less human when our relationship with technology is too strong. And that’s, I think you could feed that into other kinds of, think about how we’ve demonized, not so much now, but historically demonized, for example, nerds in popular culture. There’s this perception that they’re robotic. This idea that they speak like robots or they act like robots.
And there’s this idea that we seem to know culturally what it means to be human and therefore something too close and affinity with machines is dehumanizing, which is obviously incredibly ridiculous given that we’re all online for all of our waking hours now. But there’s still that legacy idea that we don’t want to become too much like machine. And look, I saw this in terms of when I wrote a book on masturbation a few years ago and was looking at how sex toys for example, were presented in popular culture. It’s the same thing. There’s this idea that it’s a machine and that you are somehow now having sex with a machine as opposed to some self love. And that again, I think is part of this, that there’s a technophobia that rears its head at weird times.
KOSTA: That just sparked a thought in that. Do you think some of our mistrust or our apprehension towards these things and this technophobia. If you’re using sex toys as an example, if I had to scan my brain and think about movies, I’ve seen where that’s factored in as a plot point. There’s almost this judgment about people who use it and the partners of people who use it. So do you think some of that technophobia is that it’s filling a gap that humans feel like they should be able to fulfill and so-
LAUREN: Oh, yeah absolutely. But there’s also the bigger thing of the idea that if you are masturbating in any sense, using your fingers or using a toy, that there is an idea that this is a substandard substitute. You’re doing this because you’re basically unfuckable. If you were desirable in this culture, you’d get a partner, you’d get a partner rather than having to resort to this. Also, I think you make a point there about what happens to the partner of the person who’s, let’s say using a sex toy. In my book on masturbation, I talk about that, how in these scenes of masturbation, it’s often a way to emasculate a partner. And that feeds into research that actually talks about men feeling a little bit emasculated if his partner is also, let’s say it’s a female partner using a vibrator during sex. There’s an element there of, I should be able to take care of all of your needs. What’s this for? And again, that idea of somehow being jealous of it, inanimate it’s not the right word, because clearly it is animated.
KOSTA: It’s animated.
LAUREN: A non-human entity in the bed, we’ll call it.
KOSTA: Yeah, gosh, to be honest, that’s actually really blown my mind thinking of it like that. Because I mean, I draw parallels from my own area of research, my research background is actually in extremism and polarization. I’ve been in that space for quite some time. And the interplay that technology has on people’s decisions to form relationships. In this context, we’re talking about dating apps. In my context, we’re talking about using social media to join extremist groups or to be mentored by extremists ideologues and things like that. Quite often, the technology is blamed for facilitating people meeting a need they would have, even if that technology didn’t exist. It’s more that it’s made these things possible and within our reach. I can see a huge parallel.
LAUREN: Yeah. This is the heart of media studies research about powerful effects and this perception that has gone back to the earliest days of radio, that somehow this technology can corrupt people. Think about now debates you have or you hear from radical feminists who talk about pornography as a corrupted influence and leading men to rape. Well, that might be viable if rapes suddenly started with the rise of internet pornography, but we’ve had rape throughout history. And I often talk about this, I teach a sexual politics course at the university and I often talk about the famous Ted Bundy quote just before he was executed, he said, “Pornography made me do it.” And so many people have clutched onto that as though, ah, he wouldn’t have done it if it wasn’t for the pornography, why are we listening to the words of a psychopath?
KOSTA: I was just going to say that.
LAUREN: So surprising that of all the time we’re to dismiss him as a clearly severely ill person certainly. But when he says that, it’s clarity. And I often think about that quote because I think it encapsulates people want to blame something for bad humans or even bad relationships. And if we loop it back to our conversation, this is a theme in film and TV presentations where you’ll have one character introduce another, “Well, that’s Celia’s boyfriend from the internet.” And that is a bit of a character indictment. Because again, if you are from the internet as though the internet is a geographic place, you are somehow less trustworthy.
And the media love to talk about this and I often get interviewed about this in terms of, is it more likely that you’re going to meet someone who’s duplicitous online and catfishing is obviously one of those big points of discussion in recent years. Again, it wasn’t as though people didn’t lie to you in a bar, if you met them there. It wasn’t like pubs were doing ID checks in terms of getting a background check of people for a criminal record. It’s just that the volume of people we’re encountering online is so much higher that your instances of meeting someone dodgy is higher simply because you’re going through more interactions.
KOSTA: Yeah. And your chances of meeting the volume of people proportionately, you’re bound to meet people that operate in bad faith or operate really cruelly. Like when I was preparing for this interview, I was just skimming over some recent literature and articles. And I had to open up a new tab every night every time I came across a new term of how people have been duped online or like really cruel practices. My knowledge as far as catfishing, which I still struggle to remember why it’s called catfishing. I have to look that up every year. But there are all these new terms like pigging, was one I came across the other day and I was like what on earth is that? And it’s just like, man, the capacity for cruelty for me anyway, stands out so much. But is it because of that dehumanizing element that I think technology can bring sometimes. But I reflect back on what you said around people have been cruel to each other since the dawn of time, this isn’t necessarily a new thing.
LAUREN: Yeah and this is how I often think about the internet, in terms of the internet doesn’t do anything entirely new as related to people. What it does do is take all those desires that people have, be it wanting to keep in touch with people, wanting to meet people for sex, wanting to do research, wanting to watch movies. Whatever it might be that humans have wanted to do, it provides us a means to do it faster, cheaper, and more easily than we could offline. And I think that I can’t see the technology being responsible itself for stirring in us new desires. Now, you could say, well, hang on, I never knew about X, Y, Z fetish before I went online and then it turned me on. Sure. But people have been exposed to things that accidentally aroused them or surprisingly aroused them since the dawn of time.
It’s not as though, it’s suddenly… Because if it was that clear cut, if it was just that the internet showed you something and it turned you on or it showed you something and it made you do it, why is it only certain things as opposed to the 95,000 images and content that we’re exposed to online, why do we only say, oh, it’s the internet pornography that is the responsible for our bad behavior as opposed to all the feel good stories? Why aren’t we doing more acts of charity or all these other things that we’re also exposed to? It’s a very odd, but I mean, humans have always done it. Why is it for example, that we perceive violent videos or violent movies to disproportionately impact behavior? As opposed to, okay, well, why aren’t we influenced by Christmas films disproportionately? Why is it that we have that skew tool? But think about it though, in terms of time.
The amount of time people spend watching pornography let’s say is going to be so much less than the news. Why isn’t the news making us, anyway. That’s just that idea of a skew in terms of balance, as related to the why the internet, while I don’t think the internet is doing anything that we weren’t doing offline, it’s making it easier to do it and to scale it up. So we feel someone who wants to prey upon people. It’s much harder to do that in real life because you’re going to have to show your face. So one of the big perks of the internet is the ability to be anonymous. Think about how many different things be it scamming, even internet dating early stages, recruitment for terrorism, you name it, cyber bullying, trolling, being able to hide your identity is such a boon, but it also means you can recreate a new identity every single time you want to do something nefarious.
Which means it’s also much easier to avoid any legal consequence but also this is one of those things, and catfishing is a perfect illustration of this. There is no law in Australia specifically addressing catfishing. So you’ve also got this idea of the law often been a number of literal years behind how the technology is being used.
KOSTA: Yeah, I guess on that, just using that as a springboard then Lauren, I mean, because we’ve talked about the role of technology in just people as a means for people to meet some personal ends or whether that’s personal, social connections, intimacy, whatever it is. How do dating apps specifically, do you think, affect our ability to date or to perceive romance generally?
LAUREN: So look, I think that it brings in, and this is one of the… If you want to see it as a somewhat, I feel I’m going to make it sound negative. And it isn’t a negative idea if you’re contrasting it purely with that serendipitous notion of two people meeting across a crowded room in real life. If we contrast with that, it looks negative but nonetheless. I think we’ve got some commercial aspects to it in the sense that first thing it puts people in a position of having to out themselves as looking for love. Now, on one hand that is really advantageous in a culture that has become rightly more sensitive around issues of sexual harassment and unwanted advances. If you are putting yourself out there as looking, you are already dealing with other people who are in that same space for the same reasons. It doesn’t mean there won’t be harassment but it means that at least you know what you are there for.
It’s not like LinkedIn where you’re there for a professional pursuit, we’re here for love or sex. So you are already outing yourself, but that idea of putting yourself out there and now because of lockdowns sure, but also the reality of how people meet now, this perception of the only game in town, it is that. So if you are going to go into this platform and put yourself out there, now you start to have to stare in aspects of the market, such as self-branding, how are you positioning yourself in this crowded marketplace? How do you get chosen amongst this sea of other faces? What do I need to do to put my best foot forward? Now you could argue, weren’t we always doing that offline? And this is certainly one of those arguments when people say, oh, has online dating made us more shallow?
Well, if you’re endlessly swiping through faces and making judgment, sure. But we’ve done that since time immemorial as well. We’ve always judged people in how they look. It’s again, an issue of volume. I think there are other aspects of the market that get stirred into this conversation, for example, because you are dealing with volume in online dating in a way that you never could offline. You are able to be more cavalier about this. You’re able to for example, be more choosy, you’re able to exit. And this is where you see these concepts like ghosting, et cetera. You’re able to leave unpleasant or even just lackluster exchanges without any of the politeness expected if you’ve met at work say, or at school, because your paths aren’t going to cross with this person again.
So I think there’s a whole lot of things that the other aspect, in terms of, I said cavalier, but being disposable and exiting and unpleasant or unsatisfactory relationship, but it also means upgrading this perception. Well, I can always go back on the technology and do better than my current partner. And that idea of being left and someone returning to the platform looking for better, I think that’s encouraged by the technology because you know that there’s this endless supply out there.
KOSTA: Yeah. It’s literally like one of the most recession proof business models I can think of in some ways.
LAUREN: Well, and this is something I wrote about because arguably, if these dating platforms actually helped you find the one, their business opportunities are relatively limited because if you found the one through their magical algorithms, you’d be coupled off and two by two onto the earth and everyone would be happy. That’s not how it works though. The business model is they want you to keep using those apps or that platform. And particularly ones that have a membership model. They want you to stay as a paying customer.
KOSTA: Yeah, again, I just can’t help, but see some of the parallels in just the spaces I’ve worked in terms of, and for me, it raises this deeper question of like should technology, how do I phrase this? Because we talk about algorithmic recommendations a lot when we’re talking whether it’s terrorism or romance, about feeding us content that we are apparently always looking for anyway. Where’s the balance in terms of is it good to fulfill every single urge that you have? But where do you find that balance between people’s freedom to choose these things and to decide for themselves, versus making it an endless supplier that we become addicted to in some way? Does that make sense?
LAUREN: Yeah. And when you said that, the first thing that came to mind was that adage, if you ask someone if they’re happy, they cease to be. So that argument that as soon as you ask people, “Is your relationship good?” You not only put plant the seeds of doubt, but you also encourage the idea of, well, there are many more fish in the sea and you don’t need to work on your current relationship. You can actually just find someone better, more easy, et cetera. And I think that aspect has really been one of those influences on dating life, in the sense that if you look at people pre social media, now there’s lots of reasons why divorce was less likely 30 or 40 years ago. But the fact that’s now more common is because advances that women have made in terms of being able to leave unsatisfactory relationships because they’re economically stable but also because it’s okay to want more.
But that wanting more has the technology and the volume of possibilities out there meant that rather than working on this union, instead we just say, oh, look, let’s throw in the towel and go and look for something else. Has it made, and look, I don’t actually think there’s a right or wrong answer there because on one hand, it’s the idea, well, you shouldn’t be flogging a dead horse. If the relationship is gone, it’s gone. On the other hand though, is there an element there of the grass is always greener, which is very much in line with consumer. One of my areas of research interest is advertising. Advertising works by saying to you, your life is insufficient without this product. But as soon as you buy the product, you are then realizing it didn’t actually solve everything. And then I see the next data and it’s a hamster wheel, buy, feel dissatisfaction, buy and again, feel dissatisfied.
And that idea if you apply it to anything but online dating particularly, there is this element where culturally we are taught when you find your partner, the one, your life is going to be perfect. And in reality, it is not possible for that to be the case because we could talk about the psychology, but the reality is one person is never enough to fulfill all your needs as a human. That’s why we have other people in our life. The shopping list mentality that people often go into online dating with. And some of these platforms actually encourage it, loves dogs, barrets for whatever football team, et cetera, et cetera. You go into this system already identifying what it is you want in a partner, with that idea that once I meet them, all the puzzle pieces will fit. When in fact, obviously life is a lot more than just the person you are with.
KOSTA: Right. Wow. Lauren, just given the fact that you’ve been quite prolific in this space even before the pandemic, is there any other color you can bring to the situation like midst or post pandemic depending on where you are? What if anything, since you started working or researching this space, what has changed over the last two years? We’re hearing about dating apps being the busiest they’ve ever been during lockdowns and also being sources of public health communications as a way to get people to stem transmission of a virus or whatever it is. Have there been any surprising changes, or developments, or just anything notable that you can share?
LAUREN: Look, a couple of things. One of the things that struck me and I made this comment in an interview early into the pandemic was, there’s probably never been a time in human history that was as well equipped for a lockdown and for a pandemic is now. I don’t mean that in a cynical way, but the idea that we’re so versed in this technology, that we were able to adapt so much of our lives to be done, be it socializing or working online, means we were quite equipped to cope. Could you imagine what this would’ve been like without the internet? The idea, I’m in Melbourne-
KOSTA: I literally can’t.
LAUREN: No, I’m in Melbourne and this is what, my 27,000th year in lockdown, but I live on my own. How on earth would I have gotten through this period if I didn’t… Yeah. Okay. We could say, well, you could be on the phone. I’m an elder millennial. I can’t be talking on the phone. So there’s that aspect to it I think as well that the technology has helped us get through this period. So therefore, first dates, for example, happening on Zoom or Skype, I think is one of the, you could argue actually, benefits of this in a sense. I think that will even stay even once life goes back to normal because I think you could argue, well, let’s just meet a person first in a five minute Zoom, if there’s a spark, great. But I don’t want to waste putting shoes on for this or paying for a beer or whatever, if the spark isn’t there. And we know that’s the case with people where you often have an instant attraction or at least an instant [inaudible 00:28:44], not going anywhere with that. And that’s perhaps a good screening exercise.
And I think another aspect of this that I think maybe not surprised me because I wrote about this in my book was the concept of dating online as recreation, in the sense of meeting and matching with people and exchanging messages and phone calls potentially, and never actually doing anything more than that. And I think for a lot of people, particularly those in lockdown, this has been a way to do socializing, a way to feel connected with the outside world and meet new people with a low investment. Now, how much time people spend doing that? I can imagine that if you have no other social commitments, which is the case if you’ve been in a long lockdown, there’s an element of feeling like I’m still doing stuff. I’m still able to feel desirable, even if I’m wearing the same pair of pyjamas I’ve worn for six months.
KOSTA: Right. So it becomes a facilitator and a technology is a facilitator in a whole other way, in that way.
LAUREN: But the actual act of swiping and exchanging message is becoming the hobby itself. Because I think we often think about online dating as a kind of end game, be it end game in finding my mate or end game in finding someone to have sex with for an evening. But the idea of simply the dating itself being the recreation, I definitely think that was happening before COVID. And as I said, I wrote about it. But I think during COVID, when there has been such a [inaudible] of other kinds of recreation that has taken an even bigger role in some people’s lives.
KOSTA: That’s a very interesting point actually, the scarcity of other sorts of things to do.
LAUREN: I’m not going anywhere.
KOSTA: Yeah, no one’s going anywhere. Literally, that would take up so much more space and-
LAUREN: And also your market is bigger because there’s lots of more people on these platforms in exactly the same position as well.
KOSTA: Man. Well, I think this is a good time to start looking towards the future and I think what this means for people using these apps potentially. I guess from your vantage point right now, what does the future of online dating look like, will traditional versus online dating, will that be a meaningful distinction do you think? What are your bold predictions, I guess, if you have any?
LAUREN: Look, I think you’re going to see micro level changes like for example, the notion of doing more of your initial dating via video. I think that’s going to hold a lot of appeal for people particularly given that, I mean that said, even when I say that the other flip side of that coin though is, are people going to seek out more opportunities to leave their homes and be more social? So while I think that, that works as a really good screening device, people may have felt so cooped up that they’ll literally date anybody just to get out of the house. But I think, look, that idea of whether we are going to have that traditional pre-internet dating model in contrast with online dating, now look, I think that’s slowly going to, not only as it has been fading, but go away entirely. And that’s going to be because we are not going to have a generation anymore alive who knew a time before this technology.
So I think, there’ll always be people who don’t meet online because you’re human and you get attracted to the person you’re sitting in a classroom if we ever go back to the classroom, or in a workplace setting, et cetera. You’re still going to feel attraction towards other people. So, a more organic meeting is going to happen, but that idea of online dating and putting yourself out there being a default, I think that’s just going to be increasingly more normal. Now, then we stir in things like certainly, there is a bit of a perception that people feel a little bit jaded by this technology. But for example, it’s a lot of work for low payoff that you can spend lots and lots and lots of hours and get nothing. And that it almost becomes its own part-time job.
And while I think that might be individual perceptions of why they might leave the technology, be it for a little bit or for a long while, I don’t think that that’s going to be the perception for everybody. Because it’s just the fact that it’s just so easy. It’s like saying, Netflix, where we go back to Netflix posting us CDs or DVDs because we get sick of the… I can’t think of any example where we’ve had technology that has improved our life in terms of cheapness and ease and then gone back to how things were. I mean, it just doesn’t work that way. I can… Go on.
KOSTA: Can I just throw in an example here?
LAUREN: Oh, absolutely.
KOSTA: What about books? In that books have become this, not that there’s been like a complete reversal of Kindle technology, but I feel like books now, to have a paperback book, I just feel like people put way more effort into like physical books and it’s like to own a physical book is actually you get something maybe different than you would from getting something on Kindle. I don’t know. That’s the only example I could think of that maybe.
LAUREN: But my counter to that would be the rise of book platforms such as audible. So I think that like with online dating, you’ll always have two tracks in society. It won’t be everyone will be on board, but it’s not as though for example, eBooks have gone away. For example in nonfiction and academic books, because academic books are so expensive, it’s such a norm for… And libraries, for example, I often think of the University of Melbourne Library where I’m based where the library is so full of books. It’s slowly literally sinking into the ground. Now, you’re looking at a number of universities overseas that are moving away from physical libraries to eBook. So I think, not to say your point was wrong, but more so it’s often two things happening at the same time.
KOSTA: Yeah, absolutely.
LAUREN: For example, we’re going to have online dating, but you’ll also see for example, I think a resurgence of things like speed dating. And other kinds of mixes and things that have come in and out of fashion that I think will cater to an audience who they might be the people who do both as well, online dating as well as someone who goes to speed dating, or as well as someone who goes to a mixer or whatever it might have been, or a desperate and dateless ball. I think that you often see this, as I said, I do a lot of research on the main hearing, when you look at trends in popular culture, let’s say, think about a time where films were quite risque. And it’s like, well, they were not the only films being made at that same time. There’s often some threat of popular culture that’s going down the dark and gritty path, and others that are still making the same films that we’ve been watching for 100 years.
KOSTA: Yeah, indeed. Wow. Yeah, no, I totally hear you there as well. And it’s like it doesn’t necessarily have to be either or it’s just like, actually you might see a multi-track system develop and maybe our social stories evolve or the stories we tell as a society, I should say, evolve along with these different ways of meeting those needs, I guess. Just more of a multiplicity than like a-
LAUREN: But also think about it as well in terms of, let’s say, applying for a job. You might look at seek.com. You also might direct call somebody and you also might do this and that idea of a number of, what is it? Pot’s on the fire, I think will be applied to our dating life as well, because we don’t have those same rituals around courtship that we once did historically. I think people have a lot more liberty to be able to go down a number of paths simultaneously getting to that destination, whatever that might be for you.
KOSTA: Great. Well, I’ve got maybe three, hopefully brief-ish questions-
LAUREN: That’s all right.
KOSTA: … in mind. So I guess the first question, just to, because we talked about the generational shift, and how that seems to be quite a big factor in attitudes, towards using technology to date and to meet people on the background of technophobia as a phenomenon, throughout history with every technological development from the printing press to the internet. Is your prediction that with this generational shift and just with the much of time that the attitude towards online dating will shift along with it? Or do you think there is something maybe deeply human is the only way I can put it, that will still feel some resistance or apprehension towards this technology?
LAUREN: I’m not sure it’ll be apprehension. Because I think that the horse is bolted in the sense that the smartphone thing is going to… Just think about, and right now it’s something on my mind in terms of proving vaccination status, the assumption is that everyone has a smartphone. So that idea culturally of assuming everyone’s on board with that, we’re not even pausing to think who are the people who aren’t going to have a smartphone. And I’ll tell you who are those people without a smartphone, my grandmother who’s 93. But that is a very fast declining population in terms. So this assumption that everyone’s going to be using this technology, I think once we are doing ever more of our social interactions online, I think you start to take away the we’ll use the word stigma because we don’t have a better one around these things.
So I just think, for example, I’ve never in my life paid a bill in person. I’ve always done my bill paying online. And I look at my dad who, and my dad’s I think 65, he’s only recently stopped going to the post office to pay his bills. And he said to me, “But I like talking to the people in the post office.” Well, COVID forced him to actually find, oh, my God, there’s BPAY. But that idea of people assuming that or referencing a real life interaction, I think that’s then a decline. And you can see that in so many areas, from the rise of online shopping, to paying bills online, to all those things that we are now using the technology for. So I think the idea of meeting people that way has lost its stigma and will increasingly lose its stigma, because we are doing so many other social interactions online as well.
And not even just those interpersonal, oh, sorry, the ones that lack a person for example, paying a bill where you’re not dealing with a person online, but exchanges you might have on Twitter, or Facebook, or Instagram, you are constantly interacting with people you don’t know online. So there’s an element there of normalizing relationships that don’t take the human flesh form that they do offline. I think the other aspect to that though, or at least the limitation is we cannot ignore the Western literature or pop culture cannon. We are baptized in a sea of films, and books, and cartoons and you name it of things that have presented us an idealized form of love. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m pretty sure there is no Disney cartoon of two people who find love online.
So that idea of that very long history of romanticized media, I think will always mean, because that doesn’t go away just because we get distance from it. people still name Wizard of Oz as a favorite film and it was made in 1939. So that idea of the influence of these films and books, that doesn’t go away with the passing of time. So I think you’ll see that two track thing. Yes, it’ll become increasingly normal, increasingly without the stigma that we had in the ’90s and early two 2000s but I still think it will continue to be contrasted with that idea of a more romanticized, real life meeting. The meet cute where we bump and crash into each other at the laundromat and fire-
KOSTA: At the laundromat, yeah.
LAUREN: Or a lift that gets stuck or whatever it might be. There’s still an element there of that being more real because somehow divine intervention occurred.
KOSTA: And I guess, because I’ve got one quote from one of your great thought pieces that I read before, and it really stuck out to me where you say, I don’t have a monkey, see monkey do view, nonetheless film and TV certainly have a role in helping shape our thinking about social behaviors. And that seems to be the undercurrent of what we’re talking about here. It’s like, while it’s not a prescriptive A to B type of influence on people’s attitudes towards it, we’re so saturated by stories about this topic as it is. It’s hard not to internalize some of that into our own expectations in some way. Is that correct?
LAUREN: Yeah. I think when you were saying that, I was also thinking of just how increasingly, that idea of online, offline persona perception, that’s gone now because we’re always online. And I think that there’s just again, this concept of volume as well, but yes our cultural ideas of norms, I mean, I’ll get interviewed by a journalist who let’s say, I’m 41. So let’s say, 25 years old, a digital native in the sense that they grew up with the technology, whereas I got it at 16 or 15. They’ll still ask about life before, they’ll still do that contrast in that question as though there’s still this idea of there being something a little bit foreign and topical about this. And you see this and I watch a lot of true crime and news. And even in news reporting, they’ll often say what their search history was as though this is somehow revealing.
And this dates back, and this is where this topic first became or got put on my agenda as I remember being at home and the Columbine massacre had happened. And I was, I think, 19 at the time, and I was watching all of the coverage. And in that coverage, there was constant reference to the two perpetrators enjoying online gaming. No one mentioned that they liked dating, lasagna, or patting dogs, or watching perfect match. They just kept repeating this online gaming thing. And that has not gone away, even though we are decades removed from that time, there’s still this idea that there’s something a little and the reason I’m mentioning that is that constant repetition. When you do that, when you repeat that narrative, when you plant the seed of that there’s something that you should at least think about their online dating history or their online gaming history.
Planting the idea that there’s something, you’re planting the idea culturally, that there is at least reason to be suspicious about that. And that then doesn’t go away because the next generation of journalists have looked at what’s gone before and there’s a normalizing factor there. And look, this isn’t entirely Columbine specific. I mean the coverage of Port Arthur, the perpetrator was again mentioned, he really liked violent videos. And that constant repetition of there being some malevolent media involved in bad behavior, that won’t go away because society loves outsourcing responsibility for human action. And therefore, I think that will always be a little bit of people’s apprehension or at least lack of complete, fully wholehearted embrace of online dating because of that idea that there’s some third hand in this, if you like, this idea of media in this case technology.
KOSTA: I love that because again, I just see the resonance in the work that I am normally doing, where it’s just like, it’s not like a Charles Manson helter skelter situation, where you listen to a song and you think the Beatles are telling you to incite a race war. We forget about the tons of drugs that guy was probably doing across with all the trauma he would’ve had and all the multitude of circumstances that made Charles Manson the beast that he was.
LAUREN: As opposed to acting as though one thing is a trigger, it is light switch fashion.
KOSTA: Yes, exactly. And on the topic of gaming as well, we’ve got a guest in one of our other episodes where we’re specifically talking about the impact of gaming and radicalization as well. Because again, that’s a topic and a conversation that’s evolved. But again, this idea of the influences that we imbibe just by existing and the things we intentionally take on seems to be this recurring tension, or just these two factors that are happening simultaneously. So that’s really cool.
LAUREN: Well, and I think I have a student writing a PhD on online radicalization. So it’s a topic I’ve also been thinking about. And I think that’s one of those interesting things where people talk, this concept of top down versus bottom up recruitment. As though, oh, it was some, let’s say roguey mom who convinced someone over to the dark side, as opposed to they actively might have been looking up these YouTube videos in a self radicalization way. And that’s really hard to understand culturally, because we always like to blame it on some external force as opposed to some people actually seek out this stuff. And yes, we could look at all the different social factors that put them in that position of Googling it two o’clock in the morning on their own. But nonetheless, these aren’t as clear cut as we like to make out.
KOSTA: Absolutely. On that note, Lauren, I guess just one last parting question, because this has been so endlessly fascinating and I love drawing the parallels between so many other conversations we have, and boiling it down to those essence of like, well, we’re just trying to meet our personal psychosocial needs a lot of the time.
LAUREN: That are universal as well as you mention, everyone wants or I shouldn’t say everyone, nearly everybody wants love, and sex, and social interaction.
KOSTA: I guess, what would you say if dating app companies in particular could do one thing to lower people’s feelings of techno towards online dating. What would you think they could do? And what can we, as consumers of these things, do in the absence of any external intervention as well?
LAUREN: The second part of that question is much easier to answer. The second part is saying that this is something obviously as an academic I’m a bit biased in favor of, but we all need to be media literate. And we also need to understand that, that’s a lifelong commitment. It’s not just something that can be handled in year seven class of how to spot fake news. But in fact, all of us, no matter how educated you are, are susceptible to this. And therefore we constantly need to be both querying our sources, but also just not falling into that trap of re forwarding content that looks sketchy. So even doing due diligence to doing at least Googling, does this actually look right? And that’s something that again, we shouldn’t and people do this, research says people do this all the time, overestimating their ability to detect a rubbish story when in fact all of us are not that good at it.
The other part in terms of how to make these platforms safer or at least how to make these platforms less stigmatized is actually the same answer I’ve got to how do you clean up social media more broadly? But as soon as the words, and as soon as the answer leave my mouth, I’m going to identify why I don’t feel totally comfortable with it, but I feel it’s part of the answer. I think people have to subscribe to these sites with their true identity. Be it supplying identity documentation, et cetera. Because once people do that, once I have to actually prove who I am, that benefit of anonymity where I can control, and abuse, and catfish and whatever it is goes away or at least substantially reduces because your ability to get caught is super easy, but.
And I feel so many problems are corrected culturally, if we have to own our identity when we’re interacting online, but. So one of the chapters of my book on online intimacy, I have a chapter about how the internet is often people’s first foray into different kinds of sexualities. Now that could be on heterosexuality, but it also could be certain sexual fetishes or predilections. So I don’t feel it’s okay to tell a 15, or 17, or 19-year-old, even 25-year-old, who’s just coming to terms with their gay identity or trans identity, that you need to out yourself now, because you are forcing the hand of that kid. And I substitute any identity marker that you might feel-
KOSTA: Is vulnerable or at risk.
LAUREN: Exactly. Yeah. You’re in witness protection. You’re trying to avoid an X, whatever it might be. I don’t want their hand to be forced as they’re coming to terms with this stuff. And nor should they be prevented going online and interacting and meeting people just because of this mandate. Now, you could say, well, there could be a hybrid model where you still have to sign up with all that information, but you could still have a screen name. And perhaps that’s one of the possibilities in a middle ground thing here. But it’s just one of those, and I don’t for a moment think, I don’t imagine that the social media companies and dating companies have had a word about this and they also don’t want to have to be doing the ID, what is a door? They’re-
KOSTA: The verification, yeah.
LAUREN: They don’t want to be doing that. But that idea of limiting people’s ability to be nefarious online through outing their identity, I think has a lot of benefits, but I do see the costs.
KOSTA: Oh, man, what a cracking hot take to end on. That’s such a provocative, but like worthwhile position to put out there. And it sounds like, look, yeah there’s no perfect way to do it. It would need some exploration in investigating with the right people and some talent-
LAUREN: And there’s also this cultural lack of trust. For example, think about the Facebook stuff where if they’ve got my passport or if they’ve got my social security number, or whatever it might be as part of my ID check, do I trust these private companies to hold that much personal information on me as part of my verification? So there are so many different aspects of this that need to be thought through. But often as is always the case with law and policy relating to technology, the horse bolts, and then we scrabble to try and work out.
KOSTA: And a scrum.
LAUREN: Yeah. And in the meantime though, there are often victims and I think that’s the position we find ourselves in now.
KOSTA: That’s very true. Well, Lauren, thank you so much for such a fun illuminating discussion. And you’ve had so much rich insight and certainly given me some new frames to look at some of these collective and individual challenges through which is awesome. Just for our listeners, where can they find you?
LAUREN: www.laurenrosewarne.com. That’s also my Twitter handle as well, Lauren Rosewarne.
KOSTA: Well, we’ll definitely-
LAUREN: Thank you so much for having me.
KOSTA: … put that in the show notes. Look, it’s been an absolute pleasure. I hope it’s been as fun for you as it has for us. And yeah, we appreciate your time. Thanks, Lauren.
LAUREN: Thank you.
KOSTA: You have been listening to Undesign, a series of conversations about the big issues that matter to all of us. Undesign is made possible by the wonderful team at DrawHistory. And if you want to learn more about each guest or each topic, we have curated a suite of resources and reflections for you on our Undesign page at www.drawhistory.com. Thank you to the talented Jimmie Linville for editing and mixing our audio. Special thank you to our guests for joining us and showing us how important we all are in redesigning our wealth’s futures. And last but not least a huge thank you to you, our dear listeners, for joining us on this journey of discovery and hope the future needs you. Make sure you stay on the journey with us by subscribing to Undesign on Apple, Spotify, and wherever else podcasts are available.
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