I was 14 when my family got its first home computer, back in 1997. I used it primarily as a research tool to keep up with entertainment and the news, and although I’d heard of online dating, I thought of it as a fringe part of the Internet for the lonely and unloved. Since then, online dating has become much more normalized in mainstream culture, with many sites (like Match.com, eHarmony.com, OKCupid,com, etc) popping up and essentially defining modern dating. I can’t speak for anyone else but I can think of at least ten of my friends off the top of my head who have met their partners online and no one really bats an eye anymore (people closer to my age may remember the shifty, vaguely judgmental side-eyes that usually came with an admission that you had an online dating profile).
Me, I’ve been partnered since 2010 so although I participated in dating sites, I have very little experience with social media platforms dedicated to online dating. Apps like Tinder, Twine and Grindr were either non-existent or hadn’t yet proliferated the way they have now, and registering for my profile on PlentyOfFish.com seems rather quaint in comparison: It’s a testament to how quickly the culture changed that only 5 years later, filling out a profile on a dating site versus an app is almost low-fi, a beta experience of the Internet if you will. At the risk of being “that guy,” I have to say that modern dating in the era of social media and instant gratification is, well, kind of scary to me.
Consider this situation: Back in 2010 I agreed to go on a date (dinner and a movie) with someone I met over PlentyOfFish.com. We’ll call him Michael. Based on his profile, Michael was well-spoken, handsome, independent and had a clever sense of humor. A few back-and-forth emails over a week and we had a date planned, which came and went without much fanfare or fireworks (let’s just say our date’s best moment was when I realized both of just wanted to go home, separately). I found Michael dull at best and vaguely menacing at worst.
A few days later, while recounting this lame date to a friend of mine who was also on the site, Michael’s past came up. Turns out my friend knew Michael, and confided in me that Michael had a very disturbing run-in with the authorities over some alleged domestic abuse in his previous relationship that ended up ruining his career in the medical profession. I’ll spare the more disturbing details, but suffice to say it involved significant bloodshed and intimidation tactics that would make the CIA uncomfortable. Shaken but relieved that I had dodged a bullet, I put the incident away in my head and moved on.
A few weeks later, I began receiving middle-of-the-night phone calls from an unidentified number just around the same time that Michael began texting me a lot, after weeks of no contact. His messages would vary from innocuous to downright hostile, and I’ll confess I didn’t take it very seriously despite what I knew about him. I decided not to respond to any of them (in effect ghosting him) and they gradually decreased in volume until they stopped altogether, and I never saw or heard from him again. I couldn’t help but think of Michael over the weekend when a girl friend of mine excitedly told me she had set up a Tinder profile, showed me how the instant chat works, and how easy it is to find a Tinder user’s Facebook profile and do a little bit of light stalking. I thought to myself, golly, if it’s that easy for us to do it to them then it must be easy for them to do it to us. What if I had a Tinder profile circa 2010 (had the app existed) when I met Michael? How would I have managed the situation? My friend explained to me that it’s easy to block someone, but didn’t have much an answer to my follow-up question: What if someone just creates a new profile and keeps bothering you?
I decided to do some research into how modern folks are fielding the lack of anonymity in the social media era when dating online, and what I found was… well, perplexing. Distressing yet unsurprising, most of the online entries I found on the subject were from women reporting harassment from spurned men. It seems that not many of these apps are equipped to deal with harassment, and alternatively that many online users are unable to react to sexual and romantic rejection with anything but over-the-top harassment.
Moreover, many women reported receiving an excessive amount of unsolicited sexual advances online and, frustrated by the lack of clear guidelines on acceptable use of the app, have turned to online shaming as a resource to fight back. Online presences like www.straightwhiteboystexting.tumblr.com or Reddit channels like CreepyPms and NiceGuys, among others, are inundated with women posting screen-caps of various interactions that made them uncomfortable or downright scared for their safety. Now, this isn’t meant to set up a gendered argument or comment on gender behaviors at all, I just noticed a lot more uncomfortable women than men. It’s actually become so common that women are even writing articles giving advice both to other women setting up dating profiles and to the men reading them on how to avoid being a creeper.
It made me really wonder about Michael: Despite my ghosting him, he still persisted to some degree even though all he could do was call and text me (I had declined to give him my full name and had put my Facebook on lockdown), and even though I never took the bait it still took a while for him to move on. How scary would it have been if this had been over Tinder, for instance, where he could message me and be notified that I’d read his messages, create a new profile for the sake of bothering me, finding out personal information about me through Facebook or LinkedIn, etc? Or what if he used dummy accounts on social media to solicit information about me from any of my friends on Facebook, or my Twitter account, or Instagram, or Tumblr, etc?
In her article “What Impact Has Social Media Truly Had On Society,” Jenny Q. Ta wrote “If you are a victim of cyber bullying, do not take it lying down, but try to take appropriate legal action against the attacker.” However, the Internet is full of scary stories of dating app users who find themselves at the mercy of aggressive users with few clear and enforceable guidelines on social media harassment. For instance, Twitter debuted in 2006 but it’s only now in 2015 that it’s enforcing a harassment prevention strategy to protect its users as much as it can without violating freedom of speech laws. How can you “not take it lying down” when you literally have no legal case? Being a jerk is not illegal, and proving an online harassment case is difficult at best.
I don’t pretend to have an answer regarding what should be done here, if anything can be done at all. I suppose one can make the argument that dating apps in the social media era are a “buyer beware” situation at best, but that reeks of victim blaming. What should be done to protect users? Is there anything preventative that can be done, or does a user have to wait to be harassed before something can be done? If you’re a dating app user, how do you stay safe?