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Love at first swipe? The wild world of digital dating
In this day and age, digital love may be the Twenty20 avatar with many takers, and classic love may be a version not found easily. But Aakash Aggarwal thinks one should swipe cards, not love
The problem with love today is that it is available in all customised sizes and can be ordered online when required. While it is convenient, fast, and easy, it doesn’t have the original flavour. Digital dating has short-circuited the process as the experience of human bonding before the date is simply not required
ASL? Do you remember this ubiquitous question in yearning-for-love chat rooms in the early years of Internet in India? With cyber café rooms filled like DTC buses, Internet prices still high, the speed agonisingly slow, teenagers flocked to dingy rooms with dilapidated desktop computers with money in the wallet and hope in the heart. It was as if someone had opened a world hitherto unknown to them. It was a passage towards love — anybody could enter this anonymous, faceless, voiceless world and try their luck.
There were the ‘one-to-many’ — those who liked to enter common chat rooms and attempted to chat with an entire group at once; ‘any-to-any’ — those who kept inviting anyone who cared to listen to private chats; ‘one-to-one’ — those who logged in each day to chat with the same person at the same time; and the ‘many-to-one’ — those who tasked themselves to play fastest finger first across multiple private chat rooms. Yet another category was the ‘fun-to-none’ — those who disguised themselves as Salman Khan or Tom Cruise or changed their gender or their age — who just wanted to mess with others. All in all, there was something for everyone.
Apart from horrendous e-mail usernames, such as GoldenHeartPrince_83 and Sweet_AngelDoll89, the other big gift from this age was creeps. The creeps who didn’t have a voice in the earlier age of missed calls on landlines despite the user IDs, now had a (fake) face and a (fake) voice. Everything from “I am in a big problem and I need your urgent help. Send me Rs 5,000 now” to “Send me noode pix babz”. It was a new experience, this one, and it had its ups and downs.
Cut to the WhatsApp age. With random dudes sending you “Gm baby” (gm meaning good morning), to your Pammi aunty sending you the recipe of chhole bhature, to your boss asking where you are, to you stalking your ex-girlfriend and wondering why she’s online at 2.30 am — WhatsApp unleashed connectivity like it was never known.
The points I wish to make are that technology has changed how we meet people, how we interact with people and how we (dis)like them in a way that wasn’t known to us; the age of being disconnected is long gone; and creeps existed in every era and will continue to exist. Where does that leave love?
Literature, whether you are a student of it like me or not, had defined a certain idea of love in our heads. Remember Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem, ‘Love’s Philosophy’?
“The fountains mingle with the river
And the rivers with the ocean,
The winds of heaven mix forever
With a sweet emotion;
Nothing in the world is single;
All things by a law divine
In one spirit meet and mingle.
Why not I with thine?
See the mountains kiss high heaven
And the waves clasp one another;
No sister-flower would be forgiven
If it disdained its brother;
And the sunlight clasps the earth
And the moonbeams kiss the sea:
What is all this sweet work worth
If thou kiss not me?”
The love, the longing and the desperate need for human contact by your loved one — that’s the love we have read about and wanted to experience. If that is too high brow for you, then there is Bollywood to the rescue. Madhuri Dixit, in all her glorious youth, dancing to music every other minute in the musical, Dil To Pagal Hai (1997), says: “Kahin na kahin, koi na koi mere liye banaya gaya hai ... aur kabhi na kabhi main usse zaroor miloongi”. When you actually see your loved one, your heart sounds like the guitar (Dekha jo tujhe yaar/dil mein baje guitar) à la Riteish Deshmukh in Apna Sapna Money Money (2006). Or more recently, Dhanush in Raanjhanaa (2013), where love happens at first sight when he exclaims: “Namaaz mein woh thi, par laga dua humaari manzoor ho gayi.” Through all these romantic movies, you are in love with the idea of falling in love.
When you first look at someone and it feels different. When you slowly start figuring out that this person means more than others. Stolen glances and unsaid words — the time when you can think of nothing else. Those first few meetings where you don’t know what to say. Those days when you speak for hours but still feel that a lot is left to be said. This time — the beautiful time of falling in love and ensuing courtship — many of us know love as this. But it has changed in the age of digital dating.
In an age where commitment has been replaced by availability and Mr Right has been shown the door for Mr Right Now, longing for companionship and the human need to be desired has taken a dreaded form. Dare to Date on Channel V has transformed courtship to a game challenge. MTV Splitsvilla has ensured that the priceless gift of love is put on the backburner for a more prized cash prize. And now Shilpa Shetty is all set to host Amazon Prime’s show on blind dating, Hear Me. Love Me., where she will send a young woman on three dates in a single day. For the impatient, open to change, brittle to criticism individual, these shows, and apps such as Tinder, present a new twisted idea of love.
Watching American sitcoms like How I Met your Mother or Two and a Half Men, I have often marveled at the concept of picking up girls at the bar. You go to a happening bar. You like a girl. You buy her a drink. The next moment you are talking and more often than not, end up going home with that girl. I often wished that this existed in India too. But what I found in India can be compared to the time when the party ends and the lights come on. Where those who had to rush have already left, those who found love have gone, and the only ones who remain are those who can’t move because of being drunk or those who want to hunt the ones weakened by alcohol.
The problem with love today, like ready-to-eat fast food, is that it is now available in all customised sizes and can be ordered online when required. While it is convenient, fast and easy, it doesn’t have the original flavour. And this has led to several kinds of problems.
Don’t get me wrong, I do not mean that love in the 21st century must be defined by 15th century standards. I only lament the fact that the essence of love seems to have been compromised. Here are the problems that I feel exist in the age of digital dating:
Unsafe: There are times when you just want someone to be there for you. After a rough day, you wish you got a hug. After a long day at the office, you wish you had a loved one to go home to. Feeling sidelined and useless, you long for someone who can value you. This loneliness makes us desperate for approval. This desperation sometimes leads us into a trap. There is the example of UK-based Anna Rowe, who took to Tinder to find love. Imagine her happiness when not only did she find the perfect partner, but he was none other than Kal Ho Na Ho’s “Saif Ali Khan”. He promised her marriage, addressed her as his “future wife” in his messages and met her on several occasions. Before you start hating Chhote Nawab, let me tell you that the person in question was an imposter who had put up Saif Ali Khan’s picture as his display photo and was a married man and a father too!
Temporary: I am all for easy access to many suitors and I have no judgment for those who decide to get intimate early. But what about those whose single point objective is to “hook up” using digital platforms? You don’t know the person for any reasonable time, you are not sure of the kind of person he/she is, but you are keen to get on the riding bandwagon. Result? You find yourself in an intimate relationship with someone who will move on, swiping right on the next profile as soon as they get what they want.
Human bonding: Why don’t parents allow kids to play online cricket instead of the real sport in the playground? This is because a virtual experience, no matter how HD it is, cannot replace the skills you learn on ground. Remember the Netherfield Ball in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice? Or the prom in F.R.I.E.N.D.S (1994-2004)? These ‘mixers’ opened you up to the challenge of speaking to the other gender. For being wanted at the ball, you need sophistication, poise, and charm. For asking someone out for prom, you had to muster up the courage to go ask someone as well as open yourself up to rejection. Both ‘models’ have their own issues, but the point that I am making is human interaction vs virtual selection. Digital dating has short-circuited the process as the experience of human bonding before the date is simply not required.
Self-esteem: If you’ve watched the very popular and dark 13 Reasons Why (2017) on Netflix, you probably know what a cruel place high school can be. Low self-esteem and feeling left out along with a feeling that the world is out to get her, the beautiful and ambitious Hannah Baker takes the shocking decision of ending her life. Studies have proven that digital dating apps are directly linked to the way you feel about yourself. According to a study conducted by the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, women use the dating app Tinder for a kind of self-assertion of their looks and appearance.
Heartbreak: People remember their first crush with the same intensity of remembering the first time they got their hearts broken. There is something about heartbreak: There is just no good way to break up. It stings and people react to it in different ways. Lots of tears, sad songs on loop, sleep, alcohol, or crazy partying — the ways people express themselves are many. But eventually, heartbreak teaches you something. As you lie in your bed at night, thinking about what went wrong, the wheels of some sort of a cathartic refreshment start turning. But digital dating has taken away this pain too. By short circuiting the process, you simply go back to swiping right on more profiles. The learning that heartbreak once gave us seems all but extinct.
There will be many who will argue that they found love online on a dating app like Tinder. Then there are those who are married and continue to be on Tinder just for fun. Another group of people will want to tell me that when you can find your life partner on Shaadi.com or Bharatmatrimony.com, then why not find a date online? The whole online experience — from Amazon.com getting you gifts, to Uber getting you a cab, to BigBasket.com getting you groceries — was made to make the process easier, faster, and convenient. So, what is so wrong with getting a date online?
To all those who say this, I would point you to science fiction. If you were a kid who lived through the 2000s, it may be a good experience to pick up a magazine from that time that talks about the future — in the 2000s, we were supposed to have flying cars, a helipad on every roof, driverless cars, robots that can replace humans and many more. If you look around today, some of it has been achieved. We do have driverless cars from Google and Artificial Intelligence (AI) is on way to making robots replace humans in many activities. In many ways, science fiction has predicted the future. Yet, if you read any science fiction story or novel, the story is not about this futuristic technology: Flying cars do the same job that our cars do — transport, and laser guns do the same job that guns do — shoot. The technology is improved and futuristic in these stories, but the stories centre around the same human emotions: Greed, jealousy, hatred, love etc.
As long as digital dating is improving the experience and making love possible for many, it is something that we should cherish. But the moment it threatens to replace the idea of love and cheats the process to make it about love-at-a-click, it should set alarm bells ringing.
The writer is a movie lover, a diehard romantic, and a communications professional
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