There Are Other Fish in the Database

In today’s class, while attempting to decipher the term “phatic communication” brought about by Vincent Miller, I couldn’t help but recognize a rather large paradox. With our “flattened” means of socializing,  our online society of phatic communicators greatly challenges the goals of online dating.

“From Single to Soulmate: Get Deeply Matched with singles based on 29 Dimensions.” This is the opening tagline for eHarmony, the “#1 Trusted Singles Online Dating Site (More Than Personals!).” Without venturing any further into the site, I can already examine the fact that eHarmony is attempting to get people to pay to input their personality traits into this database that, if Miller is right, stands for a backwards attempt at meaningful relationships. If we can’t even justify our relationships with our Facebook friends, how can we even begin to provide a foundation for something deeper?

Our discussion today revolved around the fact that most of our social interactions online are purely out of etiquette. These “for-show” friendships we seem to have on Facebook  represent phatic communication in the sense that we are merely adding numbers to our social lives, without gaining insight about their past, or perhaps even their present. By having a face online, your profile is constantly available to the world. Professor Stenger said it best, “You are present, without being present.”

This does not mean that you are constantly interacting with others, you are simply one more number to add to a society of individuals who are different, but the same. By dividing people into various categories – Male, Christian, White, Straight, Ages 24-36, etc. – it is taking one’s characteristics and sorting them into a generic prototype. So, while it seems your individuality is being represented on your profile, there are millions out there who are just like you.

OkCupid, eHarmony’s free counterpart has a tagline in their About section that says, “OkCupid is the fastest-growing online dating site. We use math to get you dates.” This I found very interesting. It is as if they are marketing specifically toward this paradox of phatic communication developing into some kind of romance.

And finally, features a line that says, “Who’s on Your neighbors, coworkers, and more!” What intrigued me the most about this particular marketing stunt bears the very evidence of our phatic communicative world. This line is inspiring those who find their neighbors and coworkers appealing to trace them “by chance,” in an online community to connect you to the girl next door. So, instead of venturing over to the next cubicle, there is an online alternative.

Miller says, “Phatic messages are not intended to carry information or substance for the receiver, but instead concern the process of communication.” If the goal on Facebook is to have a lot of friends in order to achieve a certain social standing, that obviously follows these rules of phatic messaging. However, presumably the goal for online dating (despite a wide variety) is typically to find one person, therefore your number of “connections” seems obsolete. Also, in which case, having more connections is possibly even harmful to your “social status” or online dating “desirability.”

I’ve never experienced online dating, so let me be clear that these are all assumptions. It seems to me that the phatic communicative world in which we spend most of our time (even when we aren’t actually there), is harmful to the goals of online dating. Since the selling points of these particular sites are about finding the “one,” how does one achieve this goal when every aspect of the interface is generalizing and manipulating every reality of our existence?

Miller, Vincent. “New Media, Networking and Phatic Culture.” Convergence 14.4 (2008): 387-400. Web. 23 September 2013

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