Love on the Internet: Dating in the Age of the Profile Image

We used to get drunk or go to prom or have arranged marriages. Who do we owe, for this digital chance at love? How did we earn this?


Online dating is real. The barrier to entry is zero. The social media literacy of the average person is sufficient to make online dating comprehensible. Women and men understand that the risks of looking at profiles, and maybe even meeting one of those people at a bar, are low. In the context of rootless 20-somethings moving around the world, competing for a few jobs in a deteriorating economy, failing constantly to achieve fame or fortune or even happiness, the idea of meeting a stranger for a date or just for sex is increasingly accepted.

The technology has existed for years. Most dating websites are a primitive version of MySpace, designed to encourage anonymous interaction. They are image-centric in the mode of early "hot or not"-style projects. Once a profile is created, the user has a virtually unlimited stream of people to consider. These potential matches can be sorted and filtered in any manner. More importantly, the person you present yourself as can be critically altered. Though many websites require photos (with the same insistence that Facebook requires real names -- it is a corporate mission to value an ideal of truth in communication), other information a user adds doesn't necessarily need to be accurate.

Indeed, what is the point of being a real person on a dating site? How would honesty even be achieved, if it were desirable? A person is not the same as a profile.

The typical procedure: a kind of crisp ordering of cues that lead to a type. "I love to laugh." "Reading, tea, jogging." "Easy going lady." Most people order their dating profiles to conform to an accepted form: a casually-dating college student from California, a bookish professional seeking a long-term partner, a sex-worker in search of clientele. Categories provided by the sites encourage an even flow of meaningless popular responses. None of these profile types describe a person -- at least not a real one. These are descriptions that teach us something about desire. They tell us that desire requires brevity and lack of information. Digital desire specifically requires something close to a completely abstract longing for the sexual image.

The image -- especially that of the main profile -- is the center of this useful deception. The profile image is the first point of contact. The image speaks with a voice of self-promotion. These days, everyone understands advertising. The brutality of the image is accepted. The perversion of the human form -- by Photoshop or simple cropping -- is required.

Desire comes from these images first. Desire is channeled by the user interface of these sites. When we desire an image, we are encouraged to act. Message her! Rate him out of five stars! Wink! Poke! Call-to-action buttons are a sexual code. They begin to change human interaction, to focus desire, to coordinate the online image with the offline relationship. We become accustomed to meeting people on the Internet, because these sites design our lives.

The person who doesn't participate in these new forms (these dating site behaviors) runs the risk of missing out on the market for human attention. Learning new tools for connecting with people can be beneficial. Going beyond the typical use for these sites feels like hacking human desire. The typical forms are a necessary vocabulary -- the rare and cutting edge codes are a new frontier for human interaction.

Imagine creating a perfect dating profile. Imaging catching the eye of the perfect mate -- in a sense, unlocking the key to social happiness. These are astounding opportunities. This is not a certainty. This is a selling point for a website. This is a possibility opened up by the popular understanding of the web's potential. It is not something fundamental to human experience. It is new. These are hypermodern ambitions that did not exist before online dating became mainstream.

'True love' was a construction of Western-style nobility courtship rituals, enhanced by centuries of media, nearly as insubstantial and potent as Coca-Cola's Santa Claus. Which begs the question: What is this new Internet Love? Who made it?

We used to get drunk or go to prom or have arranged marriages. People formed relationships based on family ties, based on proximity, based on debts owed.

Who do we owe, for this digital chance at love? How did we earn this? It's not natural, but it might also be a huge opportunity, something we can't afford to miss out on.