The stigma has passed. The future is here.
Last July, Reuters published research stating that 40 million of the 54 million single Americans have turned to online dating and hook-up websites. This isn't all that surprising when you put those numbers in context. A recent study by Socially Aware (the social media update published by Morrison & Foerster) found that 56 percent of Americans have at least one social media profile, up from 24 percent in 2008, and that they spend an average of 7.5 hours per month logged in. Social media and world population data shows that if Facebook were a country, it would be the third largest, with a population nearly twice that of the United States.
The side effects of our ever-increasing reliance on technology to connect with one another include a diminishing of phone conversations and in-person meetings by an average of two hours per month. Phone calls are being replaced by "Sup?" text messages, invitations are sent electronically, and traditional romantic pursuits — like awkwardly asking someone out on a date — are now virtual "winks," e-mail exchanges and maybe an Ecard.
How we meet, date, mate and even marry today typically begins in what is now commonly referred to as "hook-up culture." In January, the New York Times ran an article called "The End of Courtship," defining hook-up culture as "spontaneous, commitment-free romantic flings." These are often initiated on dating and hook-up sites such has OkCupid, Zoosk, PlentyofFish, Grindr and Match.com, just a handful of the 2,500 dating sites available in the U.S., according to Online Dating Magazine. With the prevalence of such sites, it's no wonder that the seeds of one in five relationships are sewn online, and a reported 37 percent of American singles are using these digital catalogues to improve their odds of finding mates.
Navigating technology-driven hook-up culture as a Boomer, Gen-Xer or elder Millennial — those of us who are old enough to remember the more traditional ways — can be frustrating. But it's important to remember that although the tactics have changed, the basics of romance still apply: Everyone loves love, sex is awesome, no one wants to die alone, etc.
"This casual, hook-up mentality isn't a new thing," says Dar "Dr. Dar" Hawks, a Charlotte-based TV personality and relationship, dating and marriage coach whose clients range from 25 to 50. "The '60s were very much about hooking up and casual love, and it's come full circle. The only difference is that now it looks new because we have all of these technological options that fuel it." Dr. Dar believes we overcomplicate the process of dating or finding love. "It's simple," she says, explaining that the common blunders in today's hook-up culture are no different from traditional dating blunders that go back thousands of years.
That got us thinking: Why not look to ancient fables for lessons on how to avoid some of the more mentally and emotionally destructive ways of finding love? We offer several scenarios involving the experiences of real Charlotteans (with names changed, to protect their reps) who have been hooking up online.
The Tortoise and The Hare
In this classic fable, the Hare challenged the Tortoise to a race and failed to pace himself, ultimately burning out before reaching the finish line. The Tortoise, slow and steady, prevailed.
Brian has used several dating sites to search for a romantic connection in Charlotte. One of his biggest complaints is what he calls the "fast-forwarding" effect — an unwillingness among some potential mates to allow a relationship to develop organically. According to Reuters, courtships that begin online last an average of 23 months shorter than traditional relationships. Like the hare in the old fable, Brian's potential partners are in an all-out sprint.
"Too often, girls I meet online want to delete their profiles and have me delete mine after two good dates," Brian says. For those of you who haven't yet ventured into the world of online dating, this is the equivalent of having the DTR (define the relationship) talk — that is, making a mutual decision to take yourself off the market and enter into exclusivity. One rabbit with whom Brian had a single successful phone conversation proceeded to call him every hour for the remainder of the evening, before finally breaking up with his voice mail because he "didn't have enough time for her."
"It takes trial and error to find what works," says Dr. Dar, who stresses the importance of playing the tortoise and moving gradually, so that you don't irritate a potential mate before a relationship heats up. Rushing the process never works, in the digital world or otherwise.
Lesson: Slow and steady wins the race; people who go too fast are likely to crash and burn.
The Wolf in Sheep's Clothing
In order to grant himself access to the flock (and an easy dinner), the Wolf found a discarded sheepskin and disguised himself as one of them.
Mike is currently using Blendr, Match.com and Plenty of Fish to meet women. One nagging recurrence, he says, is that he has been on more dates with married women than single ladies — even though all claimed to be single. "I have dated four married women, and only two of them eventually admitted that they were married," Mike says. "The other two I found out about indirectly, when their husband or child answered the phone."
A University of Wisconsin study found that 81 percent of people lie or misrepresent themselves on their online dating profiles. That number goes down significantly offline. Women tend to lie about their age and weight, whereas men often lie about their height and income, according to a University of Chicago study.
"When meeting online, there is often a false sense of security and comfort because two people have been communicating via e-mail, text message or phone," says Dr. Dar. Singles who have "talked" extensively prior to their first face-to-face meeting feel they already know each to a greater extent than they actually do. "You don't know someone until you have spent considerable time with them in person," Dr. Dar adds.
Lesson: On a dating site, looks can be deceiving and intentions unclear.
The Dog and the Shadow
The Dog was carrying a piece of meat home in his mouth. On his way, he crossed a plank over a brook. He looked down and saw his shadow reflected in the water. Thinking it was another dog with a bigger piece of meat, he snapped at the shadow, dropping his own treat, which got swept away by the water, leaving him with no meat at all.
"You have so many people to pull from online, and unlike working physical space in a bar, you can send out 100 emails in one day, and no one is the wiser," says Brian. With so many discreet options, its easy to understand why more and more people, like the Dog, are having a hard time being satisfied with any one piece of meat.
In a study conducted in 2000 at Columbia University, test subjects were given jam samples in order to determine if the number of choices has an effect on the ability to choose. The group given six options purchased more frequently than the group given 24 — 30 percent as opposed to 3 percent. In other words, those given a higher number of options felt less desire to procure any jar at all.
This wishy-washy, noncommittal behavior has a buzzword, FOMO, or fear of missing out. It's growing at epidemic proportions, much to the credit of social and online dating websites. According to a survey by the marketing firm JWT Intelligence, about 40 percent of people from 13 to 67 say social media makes them feel they're missing out on something — or everything. As a result, we have more difficulty today concentrating, making decisions or committing to obligations and relationships because we're anxious about missing out on an opportunity for something "better." Resigning to FOMO is one thing if we're looking for the perfect brand of peanut butter, but it can be crippling when we're looking for a soul mate.
Lesson: Be careful not to lose the real thing by grasping at shadows. Don't let FOMO cause you to lose focus on what's tangible and substantial.
The Crow and the Pitcher
The Crow was thirsty and saw a pitcher containing water. When she reached it, she discovered the water was too low and she couldn't access it to drink it. After trying unsuccessfully to get to the water, she decided to collect stones and drop them, one by one, into the water until it had risen and was within her reach.
"Online dating is not a recipe for getting married. It is a process of trial and error, just like offline dating," says Dr. Dar. Sure, the process involves selecting the appropriate tools, but also defining how you will use them. Although technology playing a role in our romantic lives is pretty much inevitable today, we should be innovative in the ways we use digital tools to achieve our intended outcome. Online dating sites aren't designed to magically grant our relationship wishes (that wouldn't be a sustainable business model) anymore than the pitcher is designed to quench that poor bird's thirst. Strategy and patience are essential.
Finding your niche is one way to customize your online dating experience. It's one of the many "stones" available for you to get your drink on. If you're looking for a Christian mate, go to ChristianMingle; if you want to find that nice Jewish girl, go to JDate, and if you only want an African-American mate, there's AfroRomance. And there are tons more, including Adultfriendfinder (for raunchy encounters) or AshleyMadison (for cheaters). Targeting niche markets simplifies the vetting process for individuals with particular tastes. There are also sites such as Nerve, which allow users to customize the way they interact with other users via enhanced communication options like status updates and opinion boards.
Being creative with the information you use to market yourself online ups your chances for successful interactions, just like those stones raised the Crow's water level. "Honestly, most of the profiles in Charlotte say the exact same thing," Mike complains. "Everyone is tired of playing games, likes to laugh, is nice, loves their family, blahhh..." A departure from the typed equivalent of superficial small talk may attract those who appreciate the same things you do. "Vague adjectives signal 'dull' and appear in far too many profiles. 'I'm a laid-back, easygoing guy...' and such terms are practically meaningless," wrote Nerve dating columnist Caitlin Robinson in a recent article for Men's Fitness. "Even high-strung people often think they're 'laid-back.' Find something more descriptive."
"I've been in this business for more than 10 years, and not much has changed except our willingness to figure out and demand what we want," Dr. Dar says. "We ignore our deal-breakers, or we don't define them at all." These, she says, are our biggest stones. If you prefer a phone call rather than an ambiguous text, say it. If you are only interested in casual sex, don't allow girls to move in with you Thursday through Sunday for marathon dates. If you want children, don't even exchange e-mails with someone who doesn't. Most importantly, if you don't have a good understanding of what your boundaries and deal-breakers are, enlist a professional to help you.
Lesson: Necessity breeds innovation. Technology-driven hook-up culture is the state of the art — time to innovate.
Never before have we had so many different ways to get what we need, whether what we need is a new car or a new mate. The key to finding success in the digital world is to personalize our technology options. "Modern dating rituals and tools aren't going to give you a lifetime solution in pill form, nor are they a rock in your shoe," says Dr. Dar. "Accountability and personal responsibility seem to be missing. We can't blame culture or credit it — we just have to figure out how to use what's available in a way that makes sense for us."
Dr. Dar Hawks hosts a relationship segment on FOX News Rising at 8 a.m. each Friday. For more information, visit www.drdar.com.