Editor's note: What does love in the era of dating apps mean? On Valentine’s Day, we launch an exploration on what it means to be a young millennial on the lookout for love (or sex). From the changing terminology surrounding dating and relationships, to how the endless choices we now have — thanks to Tinder, OKCupid, Hinge et al — have been both a blessing and a bane, here’s looking at love (and coupledom) in 2017.
Act I: Finding, the one, two or...
At the end of December 2016, I was in Kozhikode for a friend's wedding, hanging out with a bunch of late-20-somethings. The conversation drifted towards love and relationships; I asked Rohit if he was single and assured him that if he was not, I could easily set him up on a date. The language Rohit used to describe his current situation had an abnormally high usage of the verb ‘chill’ and ‘it’s cool’ — “I am just hanging out with this girl now, it’s pretty chill and it’s cool,” he said. “I am in a good place, I know how break-ups feel and I am just happy to be in the company of someone that I do not necessarily dislike, it’s not that I am dating her or I am in a relationship. I like her,” he says. Others listening to our conversation chimed in about the various ways in which they experienced love/romance.
The one thing I could glean from that muddy anecdotal conversation with the late-20-somethings was that they (including myself, a millennial product) show an increased self awareness in relationships. There's a teeming vocabulary to describe relationships and measure the depth and width of their love life — in Ann Swidler’s words, love is “profoundly social and cultural”. There is an understanding that love is above all, pure and all-consuming, yet the versions experienced are far from it; that the ideals of love that one grows up with — film, television, popular culture, music — may differ from its actual manifestations in life.
The ways in which we define love — the grammar and syntax — describing the various activities that come under the umbrella of relationships, is expanding.
Netflix and Chilling. Chilling. Hanging out. Just talking. Just friends. More than friends. Friends with benefits. Dating. Going steady. Serious. On a break. Broken up, but dating. Broken up with benefits. Keeping it casual. Flings. Soul mates but can’t be together. Partners. Ghosting. Benching. Tuning. Layby. On-again-off-again.
The scope of this lingo is vast and like any other language, it also evolves. I asked my father if he could describe what these words meant and he couldn’t. I don’t blame him. A new language emerges, older terms reinvent themselves to suit the evolving urban relationships. And these terms are also contested among those who use them, there aren’t any clear definitions.
For 32-year-old Shantayan Bhattacharya, a lawyer from Mumbai, dating is when you meet a person regularly — the relationship quickly evolves into something sexual and there is an expectation of being exclusive, but it is not necessary. “When it does become exclusive, that’s when you’re in a relationship. You know? Boyfriend. Girlfriend?” he added.
The ways in which we define love, its grammar and syntax, is expanding
Illustration: Satwik Gade
By 2020, India will be the youngest country — the median age will be close to 29. In an earlier Firstpost article, it was discussed how online dating has not just penetrated first tier cities but is also how many young adults are forming relationships in tier-two cities. So, what do we have as a result of these applications? What kind of relationships are forming? How are our dating habits keeping up with the current times?
From the looks of it, ‘complicated’ defines almost every aspect of millennial dating.
Akanksha, a 24-year-old event manager, currently maintains a ‘just for benefits’ relationship and is trying to put herself out there on the dating scene. “I met this guy during one of my event management gigs, we really hit it off. So we are now talking and it’s nice,” she says. When I ask her about her friends with benefits situation, she says: “It’s just for fun, without any attachments, I think I can separate the two,” she says confidently. But barely 10 minutes into our conversation, she tells me about her on-again, off-again relationship with a 40-year-old artiste, maintaining her friends with benefits status quo with her ‘friend’ and the pressures of juggling the new man she met. The key takeaway from her anecdote? Deep-seated confusion and an unwillingness to part with pleasure (physical and emotional).
The lingo exists because there are now newer situations evolving that need definition. The greatness of technology also comes at the cost of hyperconnectivity — we never really lose touch with anyone. Relationships linger on our cellphones. Twenty-year-old Shreyashtha is pursuing a Masters’ abroad, but there are relationships on her phone, not long-distance serious relationships but conversations with more than one man that go beyond the scope of ‘friendship’. “I often think I am lingering in this grey area beyond friendship but I don’t know what to call it. I am seeing other guys here, but it’s all very fleeting. Everything is fleeting. It’s nice to have this option of who knows what on the phone,” she says.
Our social contexts’ undercurrents are influenced by technology, sexual liberation, professional ambitions, and in this, there is a fear of vulnerable intimacy. Evolving a vocabulary — a set of terms to describe those varying stages of ‘non-relationships’ becomes a way to legitimise or put a positive spin to that fear. Amare et sapere vix deo conceditur (Even God finds it hard to love and be wise (at the same time).
The lingo exists because there are now newer situations evolving that need definition.
Act II: Love in the time of plenty — crippling anxiety from choice in the post-romance era
“So? What came out of the date?” I ask. “Nothing, same old. I don’t think it was a date, I got tired and went home,” says Saranya, 28. There is a ennui that plagues her, and usually our conversations over weekly dinners and weekend brunches. On the table is her phone, which has been buzzing for the entirety of our meeting. “I am so sick of Tinder, I keep swiping and swiping and swiping, it’s never-ending and I haven’t actually gone out on a single date in the last three months,” she wails.
Saranya belongs to the growing pool of urban Indian young adults who access the internet on their mobile devices and she is one of the six million singles in India who use dating websites and applications. Research also suggests that India is in fact a fertile market for online dating. So, essentially six million young adults in the urban (almost post-industrial) society have rejected the restrictions of arranged marriage (here, essentially a smaller pool of mating prospects) to maximise their freedom — freedom to do what they would like, because we are not a part of a generation that has to ‘settle’ or be ‘okay with something’ or be happy with something that’s just good enough. It has to be the best. “It is a great way to meet women who you would never meet otherwise. There is an increased diversity. I can go on a date with a film editor or a lawyer,” says Ashim Malhotra, who has been on more than a dozen dates since 2014.
Online dating applications might have various unique algorithms, but the underlying principle is that of providing a wide set of choices to the users.
The conversation now has moved on from talking about young Indians embracing online dating, shedding stigma around meeting mates on the Internet, to the resulting pandemonium that excessive choice creates — the peculiar anxiety that inhabits the post-romance era.
Online dating applications might have various unique algorithms, but the underlying principle is that of providing a wide set of choices to the users. There are various ways in which one can apply filters to create the best range. On Tinder, it’s age and distance. On OkCupid, it’s age, distance and a variety of personality similarities. Hinge is about exploring one’s online social networks — friends of friends (of friends, of friends and so on). But the pool is still vast, especially compared to the choices one is presented with in real life.
Mohan Shankar, 27, has a date set up for every Friday of the month. Yet he spends his Sundays scrolling through OkCupid, Tinder and Hinge. “I do want to find ‘the one’, but how do I know which one is the one? I always wonder if I am missing out on someone else. Does it make me a bad person?” he asks. 'Fear of missing out' is a very real concept in millennial dating. Choice is a great thing; it can be empowering, but it can also foster uncertainty.
Famed psychologist Barry Shwartz calls it an explosion of choices, and with that he says, comes anxiety in making decisions. And the decision-making is especially crippling when we are hopeful of achieving specific outcomes and anxious about the the ‘infinite’ choice that is available to us if we end up not making that decision. This is perhaps the same anxiety that Saranya is facing. Schwartz says that people, when faced with choice, tend to go by the logic of imagining in terms of missed opportunities, instead of evaluating a particular choice’s merits. Ashim, cognisant of the benefits of the wider pool, said, “the choice is overwhelming in the sense that you always have the temptation to look out for something better, even when you are with someone”. Aziz Ansari, comedian-actor-author in his funny and insightful Modern Romance, says that the internet is unhelpful, though it might appear otherwise. “It doesn’t simply help us find the best thing out there; it has helped to produce the idea that there is a best thing and, if we search hard enough, we can find it. And in turn there are a whole bunch of inferior things that we’d be foolish to choose,” he writes.
The ideal scenario is still chancing upon the love of your life in person. But leading busier lives means that there is very little chance that the ideal scenario gets realised. Online dating is marketed as the perfect fix for the busy, young millennial. A 31-year-old single colleague told me how the ‘real-life’ dating pool has shrunk over the years — “most of my friends are married now, there isn’t enough time to socialise after work, I only have time to sleep. So the only possible place I can find a date is at work — and that’s never going to happen — or online.” She isn’t alone in the way she thinks. A ‘typical Indian’ works at least 55 hours per week, according to researchers, leaving little to no time for a meaningful personal life. So in exceedingly busy lives, how do people make meaningful connections on the internet or dating apps? Patience becomes an uncommon virtue and everything is available for scrutiny. So while there may be an increased self awareness in putting oneself out there on the dating scene, there is also an increased disenchantment with the excess of choice that we were seeking in the first place.
“How many times can I say something witty or talk about where I am from, what I do?” asks Ravikiran Suresh, expressing his apparent displeasure with online dating. The 29-year-old journalist has made a decision to seek a partner through his parents. “I know, I should be embarrassed. But, f*** it, I am not. I get lonely and I want a life-partner and I’ve come to the conclusion that I should just suck it up and go in for the arranged marriage,” he says. Ravikiran has dated extensively — sometimes for sex and sometimes in search of love, but it’s eluded him.
20-somethings and late-20-somethings might have loosened the rigid structure of an Indian lifestyle — which promotes values of marriage quite vociferously — by moving away from living a ‘checkbox’ life. It still drives many towards choosing quickly. Here, the resultant confusion, unhappiness from the vast array of choice in the dating pool can push millennials into escaping into a comfortable space of fewer choices, hoping to make the best of that situation.
Act III: Modern Love — Hyperconnectivity and the death of ‘magical’ romance
Slovaj Zizek, Slovenian philosopher, polemicist and satirist has bemoaned online dating, calling it a “procedure” that relies on “self-commodification,” “...what is missing here is what Freud called der einzige Zug, that singular pull which instantly makes me like or dislike the other,” he writes. Is there really then something that ails us? “No,” declares Gautam Iyer, 32. “Sure, there is a lot of choice, but I don’t want to have a pessimistic view of what ails us. We have more choice in everything today, from television channels, clothes, online media platforms. In every sphere and it’s inevitable that it has influenced and crept into romantic relationships as well.”
Gautam relays how the lead up to an initial attraction is easier — “I crush on about three Facebook profiles per day now,” he laughs. And, it’s only fair, most of us go to great lengths to tailor our online profiles to appear a certain way — they aren’t a raw manifestation of ourselves, but a carefully thought out and carved out extension of our personhood. “It’s the perfectly shaped mannequin of a person, what goes on behind is not something that you see. You have a certain image of the person and if I want to be set-up, our first reactions are — what can I find out about him/her before meeting him/her?” he adds.
Illustration: Satwik Gade
In exceedingly busy lives, how do people make meaningful connections on the internet or dating apps?
Studies conducted by Pauline Maclaren on online dating showed how marketplace values become evident in how users market themselves and in the Tinder/OkCupid and post-Tinder/OkCupid era, Facebook profiles are a way we can elicit particular types of emotions from those who ‘Facebook-stalk’ us. “Too much expectation and anticipation can lead to an anti-climax when one is finally confronted with the potential object of one’s affections,” the study found.
Zygmut Bauman compared finding love online to “shopping for partners”, “browsing through pages of a mail-order catalogue,” — there is a certain rationality and irrationality in how many urban millennials look at love/process of finding love. Raveena Sharma, 27, is working her way up the corporate ladder. She works close to 12 hours a day, sometimes even more and has high ambitions for her 30th birthday. “I don’t usually have much time to date, but on weekends, I find myself browsing through profiles on Facebook, a cute friend on a friend’s wall and his friend. I see their posts and I think about how funny and perfect sounding they are and then I go back to my work life. It might sound absurd and slightly ‘mental’ but these small insignificant imaginary gratifications are enough, whether or not I do something about it,” she says.
Vanity Fair published an ominous article a few years ago when Tinder was fresh, it was appropriately titled, The Dating Apocalypse. Most articles have been quick to put the blame of a “deteriorating” relationship/romance landscape on the emergence of dating apps, but I don’t think that the applications have killed romance, they are just the responses to the problems that have emerged: we have busier lives, self-sacrifice and careers have taken precedence and it’s easier to find sexual gratification, love doesn’t necessarily appear to be lacking.
Dating and its related technology isn’t the problem, our myopic use of it is.
So is our romantic landscape in shambles?
“I would like it if I could go on a date and actually give it an honest shot. Sounds easy right? I don’t think it is,” moans Sudhakar Murthy from Hyderabad. “I think our generation thinks too much and feels less. Or maybe the excessive thinking is preventing us from feeling,” he adds.
“I hate that everyone thinks of online dating and emergence of apps as some sort of negative thing. Where did we meet people before anyway? Not at bars or pubs... I personally love it; yes it can be exhausting, but isn’t choice what we want anyway?” asks 24-year-old Sneha Majumdar.
Questioning the state of romantic landscapes can fall into the trap of unnecessarily glorifying the past or the old and decrying the new. Obviously, if more people are on dating apps, it’s because they exist and because they are easy to use and the act of actively finding someone to date can keep happening through our phones than leaving it to chance (of getting invited to brunches, friends’ birthday parties or other social gatherings). In a way, embracing technology to pursue romance has made us self-aware individuals. We are excessively specific about who we want to date, because this individual must match the our flawless mannequin on social media.
Dating and its related technology isn’t the problem, our myopic use of it is. Our eagerness to fall quite easily and quite deliberately into its trappings is what’s causing the ennui that my generation complains about.
In 2017, what is it that then perhaps we do with the self-awareness towards forming more fulfilling relationships? As 28-year-old Siddhesh Kamat tells me, “We should feel so lucky to not be constrained by the expectations of marriage. If a good thing hits you in the face, take notice and stop thinking about the next good thing.".