My knees aren’t wobbly yet, but this is about the time on any Saturday night when a glaze spreads over my eyes. Tonight, I’m more annoyed than entertained. I’m like a spinning top: where and when I’ll stop, I’m not really sure. I can’t spot one woman I’m interested in talking to. My ego keeps yelling at me, “No way, not good enough,” while my empathy reminds me, “You can’t do that. You know how that would end.” It’s sort of ridiculous when thought about out of context, but I trust my eyes, even if they are vodka-dipped.
An hour later, the top finally stumbles. “So sorry,” I say.
She looks up, smiling ear to ear. “It’s okay.”
I ask, “Have I seen you here before?”
“I don’t think so,” she says.
“Well, hi, my name is Doug.” And just like that I’m spinning again. A twenty-minute conversation ensues—flirting, smiling, laughing, eye contact, and minor touching. Even a kindergartener would know she’s interested. But I can see her friends aren’t too interested in standing around much longer. So I ask, “What’s your number?”
She looks at me, confused. The mood slightly shifts. Suddenly, I feel my first knee wobble of the night.
She asks, “Do you have Instagram?”
“Cool. I’ll follow you now.”
So I give her my Instagram name, and she follows me. “Enjoy the rest of your night,” she says.
“You, too.” I turn to my buddy and tell him the story.
“Yeah, that’s how it goes now,” he responds. “No more numbers. Just exchange Instagrams.”
“So what you’re telling me is...now she just goes home, inspects me, and builds whatever narrative she wants in her head about me?”
Laughing, he mumbles, “Pretty much.”
This was the moment I realized just how effed we are in a digital society when it comes to dating, attraction, and relationships.
What the heck is going on?
That story took place when I’d been single for a month. It’s not like nobody ever gives their number out anymore but I’ve been single for just about a year now, and I’ve seen the situation above play itself out many times. Different outcomes, different people, same scenario. Somewhere over a two-year period, the length of my last relationship, some type of bait-and-switch occurred. Actually, let me correct that. It was already happening three years ago, but it’s just full throttle now. We seem to value online over face-to-face interaction. Why see someone again when you can just look at them online? We can create our own narrative and move on.
I get why we do it. It’s less pressure, it’s easier, and it appeals to our aching desire for certainty. We want to close that cognitive loop as fast as possible. The problem is that the internet is a sea of deception. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out the problems with this, but here’s a big one. It’s almost as if who you are in real life doesn’t matter, and your external, online image matters more.
I’d like to draw on an excerpt from my new book, The Gap, to highlight a big problem with prioritizing the online environment:
DISSONANCE: A lack of harmony between online and offline behavior.
Have you ever thought, “This person is nothing like how they present themselves online?” Or maybe, “I wish the world knew what this person was really like?”
These are kind of crappy things to think, but I’m pretty sure we’ve all been there. Why does this lack of harmony even matter?
Dan Ariely, a behavioral economics professor at Duke University, has conducted some insightful research on dishonesty. Two of his findings seem to provide more insight than any others. First, the further you remove someone from the act of deceit, the more capable they are of being deceitful. Second, people are more susceptible to lying if it stays within boundaries where they can still feel good about themselves. The online environment seems like the perfect setting for the deceitful. The overly certain.
People appear to be more susceptible to cheating, lying, or embellishing online. Why? They’re further removed from communication, and this decreases the pain associated with being deceitful. All while providing a safe zone for people to still feel good about themselves. I mean, everyone else is doing it. So while we might end up going to social media to quickly close that cognitive loop, it’s more than likely you could experience adverse effects. In the end, dissonance creates a magnifying effect on “digital” certainty. A breeding ground for the charlatans, fakes, and frauds. An online environment where you’ll probably wind up frustrated, annoyed, and perhaps even more confused. In 2018, dare I say it? Maybe we should be spending a little more time face to face.
Dissonance presents a big challenge for dating, attraction, and budding relationships. Online profiles likely draw an inaccurate picture of the person you’re seeking. It’s a place where the gap between perception and reality widens instead of closes. How can we rely on that? Like many have documented before, our social media profile is nothing but a highlight reel. But not just any highlight reel—it’s a highlight reel of the person we want to be, not necessarily the person we are.
Two questions that can only be answered face-to-face.
By this point, you might think I’m some disgruntled, angry, single guy who has been jaded by the online landscape. I’m not. Well, maybe a little. But it’s only because of how irrational this whole online > real life thing has become. I willingly enter the battlefield (singles scene.) I take my bumps and bruises like any warrior should—honorably and gracefully. I just want to make a call to arms for people to rely on face-to-face interactions, place a higher value on them, and relish them. There’s nothing more important than face-to-face interaction. Here are two important questions that tell us why.
1. How does this person make me feel?
This is the most important question when it comes to dating and/or being in a relationship. It’s the one question people should be asking all the time. Nothing else should replace it—definitely not an evaluation of someone’s social media profile.
How someone makes you feel cannot be replicated online, in a world of perception and trickery. But it’s how someone makes you feel that will grow or shrink attraction. Good can turn bad, and bad can turn good. I’m sure we can all recount examples of this from our lives. People can make you feel dead or alive. Inspired or damaged. Wanted or unwanted. Heard or unheard. It baffles me that people either (a) don’t ask this question, or (b) don’t honestly answer it.
This question will lead to many others...How does this person treat other people? Something that will surely impact how they make you feel. How people treat other people is indicative of who they are at their core. It indicates morals and character—two things that always rear their heads in real life. Is this person a good person? Selfish or selfless? Polite or rude? Caring or inattentive? Do they even care about other people? This is how they will treat the people in your life–eventually. Ultimately, how does all of that make you feel?
How does this person look at me? Do they hear me? Does this person make me smile? Laugh? It’s an energy thing. Some people have magnetic energy that pulls you toward them, and others have repellant energy that pushes you away. It’s the most hokey thing you’ll ever hear me say, but I know it’s real. I’ve seen it too many times to discount it. When you’re looking right into someone’s eyes only a few feet away from you, nothing else matters. There’s no wall of followers, likes, and filters to stand behind. It’s in those moments of vulnerability that you’ll truly know how someone makes you feel.
2. Is this person a pretender?
Honestly, I have no clue what’s real online. You can’t even decipher if you’re actually attracted to someone. The editing, apps, filters, and who knows what else all get in the way. I get Instagram direct messages all the time from people trying to sell me followers and likes. Yes, you read that right—it’s ridiculous. Who the heck knows what to believe?
So you’ve got to weed out the pretenders. A pretender is someone who leverages perception and tricks you to get what they want. Your attention. Money. A date. Sex. I don’t know, whatever they want. They make themselves appear to be people they’re not.
We all play pretend to a certain degree. We want to show up in the world how we want the world to view us. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean we are that person. We need more face to face exposure. Face to face, there’s nothing to hide behind. What you see is what you get.
You see, anyone can play pretend. It’s easy and fun. That’s why kids all over the world, left to their own devices, play make-believe for hours and hours. And why people pretend to be people they’re not on Instagram every day. Rich, smart, funny, pretty—there are pretenders of all kinds. Sometimes when I’m on Instagram, I actually think I’m dreaming my way through Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory rather than scrolling through photographs. Makes sense. It’s easier to play pretend online than it is in person. Remember: dissonance. Look, people play pretend in real life, too, but it’s definitely easier to do so online while thinking you’re still taking a moral high ground. Plus, everyone else is doing it.
If all you’re looking for is to have fun, fine, have it. I’ve done it. Enjoy the pretenders. Screw around on Instagram. Play in the chocolate factory. Let your imagination run wild. Trade on perception rather than reality. I’ve made this trade-off countless times in my life. But realize two things:
(1) Each pretender you mess with could have unintended consequences and leave collateral damage. You might even be turning off potential suitors. As a general life rule: any time you say yes to one thing, you say no to many other things. Dating, sleeping around, and relationships are no different.
(2) People play pretend for as long as they need you to believe them. Once they’ve gotten what they want––attention, a date, sex, etc.––there’s no need to play pretend anymore. Unless, of course, they want more of it.
Okay, now what?
Later that night, I crawl into bed. I can’t help but look at her Instagram. Is that even the same person? She looks nothing like the person I just flirted with a couple hours ago. Worse, she seems to be signaling everything that turns me off rather than on. Before you judge me, realize she might be in the same predicament. She might be thinking, Who the hell is this guy? Where is the guy I met?
This leaves both of us in quite the predicament. Dazed and confused. Online or real life—which do we trust? It seems obvious, but it’s not once you’ve experienced it. Instead of remembering our conversation, how we made each other feel in the moment, and eagerly awaiting the next time we’d see each other, we’re now left to piece together a narrative based on abstractions. The story can end before it even gets started. A real-life tragedy.
In a world that’s dominated by likes, followers, and filters, perhaps there’s a more meaningful question we should rely on: as we get closer to someone––do we “like” that person more or less?