Digital Intimacy in the Valley Beyond
What courting in quarantine taught me about the future of relationships
Aside from putting a nice shirt on over sweatpants, prepping for my most recent date was like most dates I’d been on before. Getting past the awkward formality of setting up the Zoom call wasn’t a big deal either. But as soon as my Hinge match, a girl that I had only chatted with for a few days, popped up on my screen, I was in her bedroom — on the first date. Social life in quarantine made it clear that our relationships are never going to be the same.
Staying home during a pandemic is an act of compassion; but dating during a pandemic is an act of survival. When almost everything else in our lives stopped, daters defied the dread by doing whatever we could to close the social distance. We’re social animals, after all. Building relationships is the primary directive of our species.
And for the last 20 years, we’ve tried using tech to help us with those relationships. So far, the result has been that more of our interpersonal interactions (the ones that natural selection refined over generations) are being replaced by words on a screen. We text more than we speak. We like more than we love. And feeling blindsided by our own inventions, we blame them for commoditizing our communications and driving us further into opposite corners of ideologies. We should be asking why, when technology helps us do almost everything else in life, it’s not working well enough for that which is core to our being.
Of course, it’s too soon to tell if virtual relationships, romantic or otherwise, are really any better than what we were trying. But it’s our only option as we are all thrust into history’s greatest social experiment. And like new code in a program, the human algorithm seems to have embraced this new digital literacy without a glitch (mostly — unless you’re a parent homeschooling right now and you hate me for suggesting that the transition has been easy). We’ve proven that these not-so-new technologies can work. They’re definitely functional. Now armed with another set of tools meant to connect us, the question is: what does it take for us to maximize their benefits?
Five minutes into my first virtual date, I realized this was a whole different game. With no distractions, there was an entirely new focus on one another. Somehow even looking at your phone feels much more rude in virtual. So, even as I was embarking on a new conversation, I was wondering what the new virtual decorum looks like.
We know a majority of our communication is non-verbal, something we’ve been missing out on for decades of lifeless chat boxes. Now that we see each other, what are the new rules of body language in a virtual space? Sure, crossed arms are still a sign of defense and hands to the lips may (un)intentionally signal “I wish you would stop talking.” But what does it say when your virtual date never turns off their virtual background? (what are they hiding back there?)
You can see this new digital body language manifesting in professional environments, too. Like what does it mean when a client goes off mute while you’re talking? What are the rules about peeking at notes or Google during an interview? Are students allowed to be visually absent from class? As we morph into avatars on a screen, we’ll need to discern a brand new set of social cues. To build relationships in the future, we’ll need a digital layer to our emotional intelligence: virtual intelligence.
Economy of Love
By our 3rd date, Quarantina and I were recreating classic game nights with the app Houseparty. One of many apps and virtual features booming in the coronaverse.
The social apps of B.C. (Before Covid-19) enabled us to connect with more people than ever. But by design, they let us exceed Dunbar’s number, the ideal number of relationships our monkey brains can handle. At least for now, it’s hard to be virtually intimate with more than 100–150 people. Think of the people whose faces you’ve seen on a screen since the shutdown. That’s your tribe. That’s your natural social network. And we should expect to see more innovations that help facilitate these tight-knit community interactions.
The last recession brought us disruptive ways of doing business. Uber, Airbnb, Venmo: they invented entirely new economies, ways to think about work, assets, space, and money. In the next wave, we can repurpose our tools to fulfill the original promise of the internet, to bring us closer together. If the last era made a business out of our relationships, can this one make relationships our business? Now that we’ve over-indexed so far on satisfying our social desires, can we build businesses that better serve our social needs? What metrics do we need to build an economy of love?
Love isn’t blind
Now that we’ve been dating virtually for a few weeks, I can honestly say that I’ve never grown closer to anyone that I met on a dating site. All without physical touch. Which got me wondering which senses we actually need most to create a bond. And what might change when we’re able to see each other in person?
Netflix’s dating series, Love is Blind, was an experiment that set out to prove that people would be willing to spend the rest of their lives with someone before ever having seen them in person. Couples dated for weeks inside pods where they could only hear the other person before deciding whether or not they would marry them. Of 50 singles, only 5 couples were willing to get engaged. And of those 5 couples, only 2 actually tied the proverbial knot. So the show actually proved that, in most cases, those visual and physical cues programmed into us are essential in establishing a real connection with someone.
The uncomfortable reality is that our physical interactions will never be the same. A consciousness of distance will remain. Dr. Fauci and others have called for the death of the handshake, a symbol of good faith dating back thousands of years. More solutions that minimize our need to put our hands on anything ever again are popping up by the day. And plexiglass barriers will create more borders between us than any walls ever could. A heightened sense of bacterial and infectious possibilities may be with us for generations. So in a touchless world, we’ll need all the closeness we can get. Without physical sensations, we’ll need tech to bolster our other senses, like our ability to see one another.
The Valley Beyond
Maybe this has been my most meaningful online dating experience because I shared a natural chemistry with this wonderful human on the other side of the screen. But I can’t help but think that the circumstances had a lot to do with it. COVID-19 has forced all of us to embrace new vulnerabilities. A visual vulnerability that brought outsiders into our most private spaces. A viral vulnerability that made us worry that we could become the next statistic. A collective vulnerability that prompted an urgency to share our time with loved ones, whether we knew them before or not. Do isolation and vulnerability make it easier to get closer to someone else because they force us to become better acquainted with our own nature? Do they make us better daters?
In this heightened state of self-awareness (“how am I feeling today?” has become both an essential physical assessment, and an existential check in) we’re relying on a suite of digital platforms to help us navigate these vulnerabilities, together. Dating apps have made some adjustment during the pandemic, but are they missing a larger opportunity to play a more important role in developing deeper relationships? If Tinder is an app that celebrates the single life and Hinge is the dating app designed to be deleted, where’s the app that meets somewhere in the middle and helps me both find and foster love? Dating apps today were designed to help us meet IRL, handing us off to other digital tools to fill in the gaps. Rather than being disposable matchmakers, can dating apps play a role in developing emotional, intellectual, and spiritual connections? Is the Hinge-to-Zoom, or Tinder-to-Facetime hand-off inevitable, or could dating apps stick around and be part of the date?
The Valley Beyond, like in HBO’s Westworld, is the unknown world ahead of us. We don’t know what is waiting for us on the other side. But we do know that we want to build this new world better and our digital tools will help us get there. In a world where more relationships begin like mine did, we’ll depend on the digital realm to create emotional bonds as well as efficient connections. But, if things work out, I’ll have to experience these future developments in digital dating vicariously.