Is there still a stigma associated with online dating? Based on the feedback that I received after last week's article, "How to End the Online Dating Stigma," many of you say yes - while others are convinced that the decision to plug your personal stats into eHarmony, JDate, Match.com and their ilk is now as socially acceptable as sending a tweet or checking into Foursquare.
Yet even for those of us who haven't yet embraced the ever-increasing trend towards formalized online dating, the truth is that we're sort of kidding ourselves. We may be holding out against the implication that we need to sign up for one of these sites in order to find love, or that we have no choice but to engage in the Techno-Romance that is shaping our love lives in this post-dating world. But almost all of us are romantically engaging with potential paramours online via the least stigmatized social media outlet out there - Facebook.
Although Facebook revolves around the presupposition of "friendship," insisting on calling everyone from your roommate to your mother to your high school math teacher to that guy you met at a bar your "friend," your Facebook friendships are no less ambiguous than the rest of the relationships that define your post-dating love life. Facebook is one big online party, rife with flirtations, mixed signals, behavioral assumptions and outright Jersey Shore-style creeping. Facebook has all the functionality to be the best, most comprehensive dating site in existence. And by securing new partnerships with explicitly dating-centered companies like MeetMoi, a mobile location-based dating app, Facebook seems to be making the effort to bring a little clarity and purpose to its romantic possibilities.
Ambiguous or...less ambiguous, Facebook is practically an unavoidable player in our love lives these days. How exactly does it factor into our day-to-day romances? In what ways does its functionality compare to those of more explicit online dating sites? And why can't we escape it? Let's break it down, feature-by-feature.
The Friend Request - As we recently explored, the very decision to send a friend request to someone you've just met, romantically-motivated or not, can send a surprisingly clear signal of interest to a new prospect. If you assume that your new "friend" won't read into the fact that you found him or her and would suddenly like to see all their personal photos and keep track of them via Facebook Places, then you're wrong. Many people see friend requesting for what it is - a next step forward in any burgeoning friendship, professional relationship or flirtation. Is a friend request an invasion of privacy? Or a subtle hint, meant to let the requestee know that a real-life, non-Facebook move would be welcomed? Depends on the people and the circumstances. But either way, it's a step forward in the romantic realm of any new interaction.
The Poke - Poking someone on Facebook is roughly the equivalent of winking at someone on OkCupid or sending one of the many possible flirt messages on BlackPeopleMeet.com. Who knows what the hell it means? Consider it a way to jump on a "friend's" radar without actually needing to have something interesting or useful to say. It can be used to communicate, "I'm testing the waters of talking to you further," or, "I can't think of a cute thing to write, so maybe this'll get your attention," or, "Let's face it, I'm a little creepy and I want to holler at you and am one of the last people to use the poke feature as a meaningful tool." It can mean whatever you want it to mean, and take the place of personalized flirtation or interaction. Just another option to flirt with your new - or old - "friend."
The Message - Writing an individualized, private message is a way to establish contact without allowing the entire Facebook community to see it. It's equivalent to, well, writing a private message on a dating site. Want to reconnect with a blast from your past? Looking for a way to tell your new "friend" that you, too, loved Animal Farm?! Eager to throw some cute emoticons into the mix? Sending a message is a great way to initiate an actual e-conversation without having to worry that you'll be publicly ignored or rejected. And somehow, it still feels like less of a "big deal" than sending an actual email.
The Wall Post - Speaking of public interactions, we now come to the wall post - possibly the most charged of the Facebook flirtations. If you want to flirt with someone, then you send them a message. But if you want everyone on Facebook to know that you're flirting with someone, then you write on their wall. Being overtly flirtatious on someone's wall turns up the heat and presents a challenge to other "friends" who may be flirting with him or her as well. You're basically marking your territory. Most dating sites don't seem to have an equivalent option, perhaps because it can create a romantically competitive - as opposed to open - dynamic. Proceed with caution (and some serious cojones).
The Status Update - Oh, the ambiguous comment or 'like' on a "friend's" status update. Here's the post-dating world in action. A way for people to casually check in on each other without appearing overly eager or invested (sort of a "It's not like I was thinking about you, but then your status popped up in my news feed and I just had to comment!" vibe), writing on someone's status is the Facebook equivalent of the non-date. It's not explicitly a romantic move, but it can communicate a not-quite-platonic message or intention. It's an opportunity to flirt, to subtly remind someone that you exist, and to bond over shared interests and witticisms. Become a regular commenter, and you'll soon feel like you know each other and are actually a part of each others' lives! Strange, right?
The Photos - Mom's scrapbook of naked-baby-in-the-tub photos doesn't even compare to all the fascinating (and embarrassing) stuff that you can find in the Photos tab of a Facebook page. Does it look like they're dating someone? Are they actually as good-looking as they appear in their main photo? What kinds of activities do they like to do in their spare time? What are their friends like? Are they big partiers? Are they generally happy and cheerful? Or artistic? Or awkward? Or serious? The secrets of the Photos tab - and the questions that it can answer - are neverending, and much more expansive and revealing than the three or four carefully selected photos that you might find on OkCupid. Facebook certainly wins for comprehensiveness in this category.
Mutual friends - You don't even need to be Facebook friends with someone to see who your mutual friends are! Score. Want some dirt on that guy or girl you just met? Wondering if they're single? Hoping someone can hook you up, or put in a good word for you? Now you instantly know who to call (okay, text).
Facebook Places - In some ways, Facebook Places has the most potential to turn us all into psycho stalkers of our new romantic prospects. The best use of this new feature is to find out what kinds of places your "friend" likes to frequent, or what neighborhoods or weekend outings they prefer, simply as a way to get to know someone better. The worst use? To find out where he or she is and just "happen" to show up there as well. Really, please, don't do that though.
So all of us who think we're too cool for online dating, let's say it together: we are engaging in Techno-Romance, even if we're supposedly opposed to dragging our love lives online. We're not any more sophisticated, or any wiser, than our Nerve.com friends. We just prefer the ambiguity of the post-dating world to the explicitness of more traditional modes of romantic "dating" interactions - even when it's all taking place online.
For more on the post-dating world, check out www.WTFIsUpWithMyLoveLife.com.
Follow Jessica Massa on Twitter: www.twitter.com/jessmassa