Law in the Internet Society
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Intimacy in the Age of the Internet

-- By AparnaSundaram - 09 Oct 2020


In its infancy, online dating offered the same promise as the internet itself—connection. If you felt constrained by your small town, through the internet you might meet someone from across the country. If you were afraid of approaching a stranger in person, through the internet you could do so from the comfort of your home and through the safety of a screen. Today, there are more online dating platforms than menu items at many restaurants. The most popular dating applications have millions of users worldwide. Online dating has evolved from a mere possibility of the internet age into a behemoth industry in its own right. This evolution has changed our understanding of personhood while preying on our worst inclinations.

I. Stranger Danger: Early Online Dating and Fear of the Catfish

Anonymity on the internet grants freedom and provokes fear. Anonymity allows shy people, for instance, to form connections on their terms in a social environment more accommodating to their needs. On the other hand, anonymity cloaks all sorts of predators. Cautionary tales suggest that a teenager might venture online in pursuit of friendship and find herself lured into a relationship with a much older person. Then there is the danger of the catfish. Have you really found your dream man or woman on the internet or is the person you were speaking to someone else entirely? With the first dating websites came an adjacent industry of do-gooders hoping to uncover such characters, protecting the innocent from conmen and creeps.

As online dating has matured, its mechanisms for tackling this fear have changed. The industry for detecting fake profiles is no longer adjacent to online dating companies but an integral part of their business model, at least as it is advertised. Now, you might sign up for your dating platform through Facebook or link your Instagram account. Both are taken as signals that you are who you are presenting yourself as online. Some platforms, like Bumble, purport to use facial recognition to verify whether a user is real. If you agree to take a picture of yourself when you create your account and Bumble’s technology determines that that picture adequately resembles those on your profile, then you will receive the great gift of a verification mark. These mechanisms suggest that people think to search someone online, and, conversely, to be searchable, is to be safe. A person who links a dating profile to an Instagram account or who agrees to take a selfie for Bumble is more likely to be who they say they are. In this way, personhood has become dangerously intertwined with platform use.

II. Biases and Apathy in Data Processing

Diversity is one of the great draws of the online world. Online, you might date outside your race or socioeconomic status without changing your social network. Online, you can present a gender identity and seek a partner of a gender of your choosing, even if you cannot do so in the place where you live. The promise of online dating is that if you trust the process and allow the platforms to safeguard your secrets, then you can be your real self in ways that the physical world might not allow. Reality, of course, is far from that. Even if you hope to meet people outside your social sphere, a dating application that relies on its algorithm to choose matches for you might be more likely to give you matches of your own ethnicity, for example. And what of your other private information? Perhaps you confide in the application that you are a man seeking to date other men, or that you use hard drugs, or that you are a religious minority. You may not choose to publish that information, but there is no guarantee that the application will not share that information on your behalf. For instance, Grindr, an application serving gay, bi, trans, and queer people was leaking data to advertisers, unbeknownst to its users.

Dating platforms encourage their users to trust them. The more information you give the platform, the better the platform can serve you and the higher your likelihood of finding a partner. Dating platforms also advertise themselves as non-exclusive. Tinder, Bumble, and Hinge, for example, all advertise themselves in slightly different ways, promising to scratch a slightly different itch. People are encouraged to share, not with one platform, but with several, their most private information in the increasingly futile hopes of fostering a connection. These platforms do little to repay the trust granted to them by their users.

Where to Next?

As one dating application, Hinge, puts it, a functional dating application is “designed to be deleted.” Connection forms away from these platforms, not within the confines of their chatting contraptions. Yet, in the end, the only true intimacy formed through online dating happens between the platform and the user. The platform knows your height and your height preferences in a partner. It knows what you like on Facebook, what you post on Instagram, whether you use drugs and if so, which drugs you use. The platform knows if you tend to prefer people of a certain race, education, or socioeconomic background. The unnerving experience of reviewing your data from such a platform would reveal that the platform knows, perhaps better than you yourself, what you like to say to start a conversation and when you are likely to end it. Until people realize that online dating is not at all designed to be deleted, there is the danger that human connection will continue to slip further from our grasp.

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r1 - 09 Oct 2020 - 20:24:30 - AparnaSundaram
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