The author of "The New Laws of Love" discusses the privatization of intimacy.
Online dating has become a widespread feature of modern social life. In less than two decades, seeking partners through commercial intermediaries went from being a marginal and stigmatized practice to being a common activity. How can we explain this rapid change and what does it tell us about the changing nature of love and sexuality? The answers to these questions are not what we commonly hear. In my book The New Laws of Love. Online Dating and the Privatization of Intimacy (Polity, 2022), I draw on a wide range of empirical sources that challenge what we think we know about online dating, and give us a radically new understanding of who, why, and how people go online to seek sex and love.
“Our mission is to create new connections and bring the world closer together”. The motto of Tinder is encapsulated in this one phrase by CEO Sean Rad, uttered in a 2017 interview with Business Insider.1 Launched in 2012, the online dating platform has since been downloaded millions of times, making for a yearly direct revenue of almost $1.7 billion in 2021.2 Yet it is simply one out of many. Match, Bumble, PlentyofFish, happn, OkCupid, Grindr, HER… Countless numbers of matchmaking platforms have rolled out over the past decades, attracting increasing number of users. A survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2019 showed that 30% of all American adults had already used a dating site or app, which was twice as many as in 2015.3 A similar trend can be observed in many European countries. Online dating is remapping the dating landscape in much of the Western World and beyond. But has it brought the world closer together?
The question of how online dating is changing love and intimacy is a common topic of debate. Answers to this question is commonly sought in the design of the platforms; in their digital nature, in the “swiping” of profiles, and in the ostentatious online self-presentations. These features are surely important to understand the use of dating apps, but they fail to give the bigger picture. By focusing on the most conspicuous aspects of these platforms, one easily misses another, apparently banal but all the more important aspect. Their insularity.
More than anything else, online dating means circumventing our social networks for accessing partners. These platforms operate a clear distinction between the social and the intimate sphere as they allow for meeting partners outside of one’s social networks, and possibly without family and friends knowing about it. In other terms, they make dating more private. This is the true novelty of online dating, and a radical historical shift. Since at least the 19th century, courting and meeting partners have been closely linked to ordinary social activities. People have met their spouse at school, at work, at church, at parties or at other social events, and there has never been a place allotted specifically to courtship. Personal ads and matrimonial agencies are an exception to this rule, but although they have been around for more than 150 years they never made it to the big public. A survey carried out in the United-States in 1992 showed that less than one couple out of a hundred had met through such matchmaking services.4 In comparison, today’s online dating platforms count for the third most common meeting venue in the US.
These commercial platforms are hence “disembedding” dating from ordinary social life, to borrow a term from economist Karl Polanyi.5 Indeed, meeting partners is no longer a social activity, something that takes place in public space, but a solitary practice, that is partly carried out from home. This privatization of dating has profound implications. It is central for explaining both why people resort to these platforms, how they use them and what type of relationships that spring from them. It also raises broader questions about the organization of contemporary social life.
Over the past decades, there has been a profound change in sociability, as shown notably by the General Social Survey carried out in the US between 1972 and 2018. Over the years, the time spent by socializing with neighbors or going to bars has steadily decreased, whereas the time spent in social evenings with friends have been stable and family time has increased. These results point to what sociologist Berry Wellman describes as a domestication and privatization of community life: “rather than being accessible to others in public places, people now overcome their isolation by getting together in each other’s homes or by the private media of the telephone and electronic mail”.6 Conversely, Wellman says, public spaces have become “residual places to pass through, to shop in, or to loiter in isolation” (p. 102). The Covid-19 crisis, and the subsequent lockdowns, have considerably accentuated this trend, and we can expect that the effects on social life will be long lasting. The historical turn from public mingling to private socializing is accelerating.
The rise of online dating is first of all a consequence of this privatizing trend. As social life narrows down and moves inside, the prospect of meeting new people outside of one’s immediate surrounding is increasingly appealing, or even necessary to meet a partner. But rather than creating a new public meeting venue, these platforms make dating more private than ever, transforming it to a highly personal matter. Although it broadens the pool of potential partners, it also makes courting and dating more individual and much more discrete; on the Internet, nobody knows you have a match. Undoubtedly, online dating creates connections, as Tinder proclaims, but rather than bringing the world closer together, it partakes in a broader fragmentation of social life.