"But how can you live and have no story to tell?" Fyodor Dostoevsky
"True romance consisted of three pints of Stones Bitter for courage, then a quick fumble in a bus shelter to the twang of knicker elastic."
'Ghosting', 'cat-fishing', 'pigging' and 'orbiting' — I learnt a whole new language over dinner this week.
Being our wedding anniversary, we had a few friends over, including a single young man lamenting a lack of romance. The conversation soon turned to dating-apps, as I'm schooled in a world hidden from me by marriage.
After some cajoling, our guest allowed me access to his Bumble app. He may yet come to regret this. Greeting me was a bevvy of young ladies, who laid out their wares in seeking Mr Right — 'all done in the best possible taste'.
This realm is new to me. Back in my youth, before the marvels of the Internet, all dating came limited by geography, your circle of friends and clumsy social skills. Gone are the days of 'My mate Sharon fancies you' or taking the lonely walk unto a group of ladies to make your introduction. Shortly followed by a quick retreat, with my feathers on fire and confidence dented.
My chat-up lines are now redundant. Such classics as 'You don't sweat much for a fat lass,' — a dance floor favourite — is consigned to the dustbin of love. True romance consisted of three pints of Stones Bitter for courage, then a quick fumble in a bus shelter to the twang of knicker elastic. Don't disparage it; this is East Yorkshire in the late 1970s. Halcyon days.
The pool of available potential-partners always faced constraints. Early humans married their immediate neighbours. Then the horse and bicycle increased the range, as did trains and the internal combustion engine. These days the whole planet is within reach. In the USA, 39 per cent of married couples met online.
So, how does it work? Well, you upload a photograph or photographs accompanied by a brief profile of likes and dislikes. The app suggests potential dates and the user swipes left or right. Left sends to person into a loveless wilderness to await their next turn: the system doesn't let them know you've rejected them. Swiping right places them on a list for further exploration, assuming they also give you a right swipe. It's a mutual thing.
Within a minute, I'd swiped through 20 plus ladies, adding five to the 'possible' list. My dinner guest would await their response, if any, then seek to engage through WhatsApp. If that went well, they'd set up a meeting and take it from there. He admitted having ten plus such dates, one of which produced an ongoing liaison.
I'm ambivalent. Sure, it offered a lot of choices. Yet, I have a distinctly uneasy feeling this is a cattle market. My younger guests disagreed. 'What's the difference between ogling girls in a disco and making a move?' Fair question.
I suppose the industrial scale, the algorithms learning your preferences, and the brutal dismissing based on a photograph caused my discomfort.
Many of the images flashed up by Bumble benefited from photoshopping, as all the people had flawless skin. Does this artificial inflation of looks create false expectations? Of course, all the ladies presented themselves in their best.
In truth, the real sorting would come later. In that sense, you could argue all the dating app does is create choice and a rapid turnover. But, we know that more choice is not always healthy. Still, my doubts linger.
Because algorithms pick up likes, the app soon learns to send you a specific type as it seeks to home in on the perfect match. Again, this struck me as sinister. Along the way, a whole range of possible incredible partners gets swept aside because the computer says 'No'.
During my small venture in the app, it did throw up two ladies who didn't appear to fit the pattern I'd followed. Perhaps a random element is at work.
How about the language of dating apps? 'Ghosting' is the practice of ignoring people, causing them profound stress. In response, a cottage industry evolved around gently letting people down from an encounter that didn't work out.
I guess it was inevitable that someone would adopt the apps to the cruel game of 'pigging'. For the uninitiated, 'pigging' refers to the hideous practice (instigated by mostly immature young men) of asking women out as a joke or a prank. The term comes from the fact that the woman in question is unattractive and/or overweight. To be fair, this practice evolved before online dating apps even existed.
Meanwhile, 'cat-fishing', involves creating a false identity to compromise or harm someone. There is evidence that 'cat-fishing' produces profound psychological damage for victims and caused suicides. False identities existed before the Internet; the apps put the activity on steroids.
The most sinister activity driven by dating apps must be 'orbiting'. Anna Lovine coined the term 'orbiting' for situations when your ex watches your online activities and may seek to re-engage. Again, I suppose this is the Internet equal of the unhinged ex-partner hanging around outside your house. All a bit problematic.
Meanwhile, there is an unbroken truth hovering in the background of the dating game. Males tend to marry down and across their social status. On the other hand, females seek out partners who are equal or higher in rank. Thus, by default, high-status women find themselves with a smaller pool of potential partners. For these ladies, dating apps provide a ready solution by doing the sorting.
Dating apps aren't for everyone; they remove that first-encounter spark when the total person suddenly engages you. The instant judgemental swiping still strikes me as harsh. Have we conferred marketplace dynamics and a numbers game on a profoundly important human interaction? Thus, the feeling persists, that there is something creepy about the whole business.
Walter De Havilland was one of the last of the colonial coppers. He served 35 years in the Royal Hong Kong Police and Hong Kong Police Force. He's long retired.