Last week I came across few sweet-sounding, eye-pleasing 40 second online dating advertisements wherein beautiful girls in skirts and sneakers, ripped denims and aesthetic backdrops were lying on the couch, swiping on their iPhones while men in shorts and t-shirts, denim jackets, speaking polished English and riding gear cycles, grabbed their smartphones to text, and to Facetime and look for the perfect MATCH!
There’s no doubt in the fact that online dating has revolutionised love and the way it was perceived ten years ago. As the industry grew, a new set of vocabulary started growing around it, brand new terms to describe relationships. Meanwhile, there is also a whole debate on how online dating has mechanised love and reduced humans to commodities. Nonetheless many people see it as a new avenue in the quest for love, friendship and companionship.
I feel, it’s easy to find love today, or at least a cuddle buddy to Netflix and chill with, or having someone to talk to or hook up with or just go on a coffee date with, it’s easier. But the question is how many of us can ‘afford’ the love that the Internet provides or venture into how online dating pans out? How many of us can pay for a coffee at a bistro? How many Indians have a subscription to Netflix? How many can afford to book a room? How many Indians own a smart phone in the first place?
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Online dating has tried to become more inclusive with time, you see the advertisements, there are same sex couples chatting on a coffee date and cute men flirting on Facetime and meeting for a movie. Advertisements breaking stereotypes of colourism and racism. It’s beautiful and wholesome. However the aspect this article will attempt to focus on is the degree of inclusivity in online dating, who comes under the umbrella of love in the online dating language? How many advertisements talk about inter-faith love? How many match-making ads show love that transcends class and caste structures? Perhaps, love knows no boundaries but love does have conditions in the online realm.
The problem lies in the way multi-national companies blindly homogenise cultures across nations, looking past the locational diversities and the role of local politics in defining something as significant as love. In a heterogenous society like India where people have diverse and overlapping identities of class, caste and religion, how does one love without boundaries, even in online dating set-ups? Is it possible to set aside these shadowing identities that make us, and define a part of who we are and whom we are supposed to love? Especially at a time when the state is blatantly invading our lives in the shield of religion and tracking us through the Internet, restraining our right to speak, to live and to love. At such a time, discourses on caste, class and religion become excruciatingly important.
How are these discourses going to start, and by whom? In the last decade, social media has emerged as a new means of protest and activism and has come to play a significant role in defining the political climate in India. Social networking sites, especially Instagram and Facebook, have surpassed all other means of online platforms. However, there also seems to have emerged a distinct culture on the Internet: a culture that exclusively caters the middle-class millennial dreams. A lot of artistes, dancers, illustrators, fashion enthusiasts, models and influencers have found new means to grow and express themselves to a wider audience through these platforms.
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It has also led to the growth of a peculiar trend, what I call the “snob culture”. It’s widely prevalent on Instagram: the pressure of looking a certain way, wearing certain clothes, having gadgets of a certain brand, clicking pictures that look a certain way, the pressure of appearing polished and humbly privileged to the world and there’s no one we can blame for it. There is a frightening commonality, a definite homogenisation of individuals and the way they perceive themselves and look at others.
There’s a terrifying loss of individualism, of seeking a certain idea of love, and interest for someone based on their online personality that is consciously fabricated and isn’t completely unaltered. This is the kind of love that doesn’t transcend boundaries of class, with quality and caste being at the base of class-based stratifications in a society like India. This class-caste division was evident in the widespread hate for Tiktok users before it was banned in India. It was a classic example of an extremely classist outrage in the name of “quality content” against decentralisation of power and accessibility to technology in the hands of people who were always supposed to function at the mercy of the privileged and uphold the unequal status-quo. Also, in the recent incident of how ‘Baba ka Dhaba’ was brought to spotlight, one realises that the Indian middle class is compassionate and kind until the act of kindness is bestowed upon someone below their social rank and to the point that they do not cross the socio-economic rank that they are supposed to be in.
Similarly, there is a tint of classism in the way online dating apps function in India. The consumer base covers a sub section of the upper half of the social ladder. These platforms cater to a handful of Indians, mostly in their 20s, coming from a spectrum of middle class to upper class backgrounds. There is a process through which new age dating functions, a structure purely born out of convenience that can’t work without some degree of privilege.
Sid, a 24-year-old heterosexual man who works for a MNC in Hyderabad and comes from an upper middle-class family says that he looks for a good bio, a vibe that matches his, the way one looks at the front camera and a good Spotify playlist. He prefers meeting at cafés for friendly dates. If the equation is of a more serious kind, pubs or hotel room are mutually decided upon.
K, a 22-year-old heterosexual woman who comes from an upper middle-class family in Delhi says that she looks for someone who is funny and shares the same interests as her. She considers the person’s sense of fashion and background location before swiping right. She too prefers meeting at a café for the first date.
Perhaps, without one’s realisation, in the online dating realm, privilege does play a part in defining who you chose to even talk to in the first place. The first impression is majorly based on one’s clothes, the way they present themselves online, how they write on their profile, their taste in music, their schooling and where they come from. Things that are a consequence of opportunity and access to resources, and may differ based on the socio-economic background one has been brought up in.
26-year-old Guru who doesn’t have a phone and works as a part time gardener in a high-end locality in Bhubaneswar doesn’t know what Tinder is. “I had a smartphone but it got stolen, I don’t have the money to buy another. I have to repay a loan of three lakhs that we look for my sister’s treatment.” Guru has a Masters degree in Chemistry from a local college in Odisha and worked as a plumber in Bengaluru before he lost his job because of the pandemic.
In a country that is recklessly moving towards a highly privatised and digital mode of development, a system that plans to serve only a handful, on making their lives better, with no consideration for those who fall at the bottom of the hierarchy, how does one not notice the gap in online dating, in this specific case, that is so remarkably visible and closely interlinked with one’s upbringing.
Madhavendra, a 20-year-old heterosexual man from a middle-class family feels that we subconsciously evaluate someone’s economic viability before deciding to swipe on them online.
“Material wealth, i.e. phones and clothes, the way they dress and if they have photos from places abroad, the quality of their bio says a lot about what kind of schooling they’ve had,” says Madhavendra on being asked on how does he know if someone he meets on an online dating app is of the same social class as him.
Shatakshi, a Master’s scholar at the University of Delhi, feels that caste and class affect and dictates almost every part of our lives, including online dating. “I don’t think caste or class goes out of the window when I swipe, it would be naïve to think so. Caste and class are ingrained and I’ve become very conscious and guilty of it,” she says.
Only 24% of Indians have a smartphone as India buckles up to becoming a digitally advanced country. A country where over 220 million people sustain on an expenditure of less than Rs32 per day and 800 million people are considered poor with no proper roof over their head, who will digitalisation and highspeed internet serve?
In the wake of the pandemic, a huge part of the world has been shifted online, which includes the structure of online dating and it doesn’t seem like there’s any looking back from here. Moving from meeting in cafes and hotel rooms to Facetime and zoom dates with high-speed internet and a room just to oneself, online dating seems to thrive on nothing but privilege. At a juncture like this, where most things one needs are only accessible based on their place in the privilege graph, we need to ask, how affordable love is in 2020?
As I write, a line from a Bumble ad rings in my head, “2020 is not the year for love, but it’s also the year we can’t do without it”. Wrapped in a warm blanket as I sip my hot cup of cappuccino, I can’t help but think to myself and smirk.
Featured image source: NTDaily