Mixed messages in online dating game

Kelly Yang says dating the old-fashioned way - faceto face - was a lot less hazardous than today's minefield of tweets and emoticons

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 18 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 11 November, 2013, 12:25pm

Thank God I am no longer in the dating world. I can say with 100 per cent confidence that neither my husband nor I would make it if we were. What was once a simple guessing game of "will he call, won't he?" has now become a full-blown mind match filled with complex emoticons, confusing WhatsApp messages, and online profile pictures that are anything but accurate.

It's mayhem out there, my single friends tell me. In my day, you'd go on a date, then wait for that person to call you again. If he was interested, he'd call. If he wasn't, he wouldn't. Within a week, you'd quickly figure out which of the two camps he was in.

Now, it's anyone's guess what people are really thinking. A thumbs up emoticon? That could mean, "Come here, baby", or "Don't even think about it, you unattractive co-worker". If you go out with someone and they "poke" you on Facebook a few days later, instead of calling, is this a good sign, or a bad one? What if he Skypes but then suddenly logs off? Were you just dumped by IM?

I remember when sites like match.com first came out. Technology was a great beacon of hope; it was supposed to make the dating process easier, more efficient and more pleasant. Now, 20 years later, the consensus seems to be that it has only made it more confusing. Websites like OkCupid, PlentyOfFish and Grindr give users quick access to a wide range of dating options. In China, dating site jiayuan.com currently has 100 million users. As popular as online dating is, technology has also altered our expectations for the worse.

Instead of buying a girl breakfast after spending the night, these days, a retweet seems to suffice. A friend said he texted a girl just as he was going to the gym. Forty-five minutes into his workout, he checked his phone. He had received no less than 10 WhatsApp messages from the girl. The first was nice, but they got progressively angrier. Somehow, in less than an hour, the relationship had gone from pleasant to hostile, without him uttering a single word.

Technology combined with dating can make people go crazy in other ways, too. I know people who, after one meeting, will stalk their date online. Like a detective, they will mine tweets, status updates, Gchat and WhatsApp status for any and all signs that their date wasn't in fact "too busy to call".

Last month, The New York Times reported on adults breaking up or almost breaking up because they had sent their partners the wrong "emoji", the more elaborate cousins of emoticons that include icons like a woman dancing or an ice cream sundae with a cherry on top. Sending an emoji of a monkey sniggering can be cute to friends but catastrophic to a love interest. One wrong tap and it could all be over.

As people the world over continue to pore over online profiles, trying to decipher what people really mean when they say "adventurous and bold" (are they talking about mountaineering or sex?), many pine for the days when love meant two people getting to know each other over a real ice cream sundae, with no monkeys to be seen for miles.

Kelly Yang is the founder of The Kelly Yang Project, an after-school programme for children in Hong Kong. She is a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, and Harvard Law School.