With the increasing saturation of sociable media in society, the stigma (or perhaps initial feeling of revulsion) surrounding online dating is beginning to fade. What’s more is that online dating sites have a reached a point of sophistication that self-proclaimed data nerds are even enticed to hack them. In fact, award-winning journalist and digital strategist Amy Webb‘s latest claim to fame is that she has successfully “hacked the system.” After a bad breakup, Webb turned to data to find her prince charming. What she discovered is that the algorithms powering online dating websites match users up based on profile similarities. Thus, to more efficiently find The One, users must “maximize” their online dating profile and shape how others perceive them online.
In many ways, online dating exemplifies the dystopian rhetoric of technological determinism described in Baym’s Personal Connections in the Digital Age. While online dating may expose users to a larger number of people, the individuals users are matched up with are strictly dictated by similar interests and beliefs. If you’re a Republican, how can you imagine yourself getting along with an extremely left-wing partner? If you’re Jewish won’t you eventually run into serious conflicts with an Agnostic? If you enjoy comedies but she put down Silence of the Lambs as her favorite movie will you be able to laugh together? Does the fact that Silence of the Lambs is her favorite movie imply that she is perhaps dark and maniacal? Because of this algorithm, online dating pushes us toward a form of tribalism in which we choose to connect with those whose information speaks to our own identities and preferences. Thus, when users are “matched” on dating sites they are truly just that – matched like one of a pair with someone based on superficial qualities.
Webb’s experience further supports this idea of social tribalism. When looking for potential suitors, Webb’s most important criteria were that his beliefs (“culturally Jewish”) and interests virtually mirror her own. The only way for a user to know these critical details is by interpreting the information given in a profile. Profiles provide the framework for social cues unique to online dating sites. While in unmediated communication social cues are communicated through things like words, tone of voice, clothing, facial expression, and body language, on dating sites they are communicated through answers to questionnaires, drop-down box-selected adjectives, biographies, pictures, and online activity tracking. These unprecedented and sparse social cues frequently bring up the question of whether people will be inclined to lie about themselves online.
Take for example Webb’s online dating profile. When Webb first created her profile she copy and pasted descriptions from her resume into her bio and didn’t put much thought into the photos she uploaded. Instead, she focused her energy on finding someone who might pique her interest. After making five fake male profiles to see what her competitors were like, Webb realized that she had forgotten a critical part of the process – would the men she was looking for like her back? Webb’s investigation concluded with the elements of a successful female online dating profile. The “popular” women on the site had short biographies that were on average 97 words, they used non-specific, optimistic language, responded to messages approximately every 23 hours, and above all, they had great pictures. With these insights at hand, Webb was able to make a “Super Profile” that succeeded in dramatically increasing her popularity on the dating site.
Although Webb presents her case in a very methodical and entertaining way, she fails to address whether these hacks, namely the creation of a Super Profile, lead to deception or false identities. I will use Papacharissi’s findings, Claudia Mitchell’s definition of bricolage, and an analogy to self-grooming to support my argument. As Papacharissi says, “A performance involves the practice of doing, but also the practices of pointing, underscoring, and displaying the act of doing.” This theory can be seen used in everyday life. Perhaps a scholar prides himself in being intelligent. People who come across this scholar wouldn’t instantaneously know that he is intelligent unless there were cues to lead them to believe he is. Seeing that 80% of communication is visual, this scholar would probably think to wear what is considered professorial clothing, wear glasses (typically associated with intelligence), and perhaps carry around a book to display that he is intelligent. Similarly, a woman might think she is beautiful. However, to underscore this she might wear makeup to emphasize a particularly attractive feature such as her eyes or her high cheekbones. If wearing makeup or choosing to dress a certain way are not considered deceptive practices, then I would like to argue that the social cues in an individual’s online repertoire (biography, avatar, signature, page design, cover photo, header image, relationships, etc.) are comparable to the methods through which we express embedded selves.
Whether online or offline, our identities are bricolage – constructed in action, using whatever cultural and life material is at hand. As Claudia Mitchell and Sandra Weber say, “identity construction involves improvising, experimenting, and blending genres” as well as “creating and modifying meanings to suit the context.” The same way we “muck around” with our embodied identities by wearing Lululemon headbands to appear athletic at the yoga studio but also wearing smoky eyeshadow on a date later in the evening to look sexy, we muck around with our disembodied identities by trying profile pictures that make us seem handsome or adding a famous quote to our signature to underscore a more philosophical side.
In this sense, the “hack” Webb teaches us in her TED Talk is something we’ve known all along. Our identities are an ongoing performance, and regardless of whether others (or even ourselves) see us in a way we want them to or not, we have the power to control our personal narratives through various forms of expression until we’re happy with what we see.
– Victoria Caña, @victoriacana