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The age of Tinder

Why are Maltese still reluctant to embrace online dating?

Photo: Shutterstock

Photo: Shutterstock

It’s been around for a while, and more and more Maltese have started using it. So why are people still loathe to make the ‘confession’ that they are into online dating? Victor Paul Borg shares his experiences.

I met a highly-qualified psychologist on the dating app Tinder, an encounter that made both of us feel rather smug with giddy vindication, this sense of encountering someone given to constant research and intellectual analysis. I could hear the excitement in her outbreaks of garrulousness and see it in her springy gait.

“You do meet interesting people on Tinder,” she said at one point.

You meet people of the same ilk, that’s what has propelled Tinder to unparalleled popularity. For as the trade industry news source Business of Apps put it: “Tinder has become a cultural phenomenon.” The app is available in 196 countries and 40 languages, and it has been estimated to be worth billions. It clocks 800 million swipes and 10 million matches every day. Tinder has become the Facebook of dating.

In Malta it’s not the most popular dating app, but it’s the app that’s favoured by the worldlier, more cultured seekers of romance. And the reason you meet people of the same ilk – culturally, intellectually, socially – is because Tinder is pegged to Facebook, and it brings up prospective matches culled from friends, and friends of friends, of Facebook. This makes it part of another social phenomenon of social media – the echo chamber dynamic – and prospective matches are drawn from circles of circles of friends.

So on that evening I ended up sitting across the table from the psychologist in a touristy eatery in Bugibba, a place chosen in a sense of haste and geographical convenience. In many ways she was typical of the women I got to know on Tinder. Middle-aged (she was forty-four), post marital breakdown, an unsuccessful marriage followed by a relationship that had also ended badly and untimely. Now living alone, life more hectic than before (no division of labour at home) – long hours at work (including part-time afterhours job), house chores, very little time for socialising – a woman lost in a decaying and beleaguered wilderness when it comes to romance.

“They have all got plenty of baggage at our age,” a friend who gave up on Tinder told me. “You feel a sense of excitement, a sense of being in the chase once more in your middle age, but it’s short-lived.”

All of the six women I encountered on Tinder and set up rendezvous with certainly had baggage – so do I. All of them were emotionally spent after unsuccessful marriages, all of them lived alone or with a child, and all of them somehow lonely – that’s why they were on Tinder, holding out in hope, dimmed but not yet out. One was a social worker in her late 30s, director of an organisation (being sparse on details to protect her identity, this being Malta), the only one who hadn’t borne children. We had a common interest in the areas of social work and community psychology. But it was a strain talking to her about personal life, if only because of my childcentredness these days – childless singles in middle-age tend to be whimsical, much given to individualistic fancies.

Photo: ShutterstockPhoto: Shutterstock

Someone I got to know better was a post-secondary school lecturer in her late 50s. She was outspoken, someone who projected a persona that was provocative and risqué, but that was just bluster – she badly wanted a companion, a tonic to her loneliness. She regretted leaving her husband, for she was left, after the initial euphoria of warfare, with nothing but ruination – lonely life, estrangement from children, unable to find the companion that she badly yearned for. I met her twice, first drinking in a bar in Valletta, then she sent me a message in which she said that we sought different things: she wanted someone who could commit and settle in, my approach was more exploratory and untethered.  Another woman I met was an accountant, she had a nine-year-old son and she talked about the court battle with her former husband. It was fascinating listening to the story of her failed marriage in a way, and sobering listening to the bitter, lengthy, useless court battle for custody. We didn’t talk about much else.

And it was the same with a 36-year-old midwife, we talked about our children, both the same age – hers a boy and mine a girl.

I also met an eastern European woman who had a 10-year-old son and lived in Sliema. She was a businesswoman, she ran some kind of chauffeur services in select European cities – Malta was just a base for her. She didn’t seem to have any Maltese friends, or to have developed any roots in the community. I thought that her existence – rootless, a kind of drifter who had only chanced upon Malta after her marriage to an Italian had failed (she wanted to stay in the Mediterranean, but not in Italy, and Malta appealed to her because it was in the Mediterranean and English was widely spoken) – a woman with compatriot friends and a son who mostly spent her time in Sliema  In her messages she always talked about taking her son to ‘the park’, the waterfront ‘park’ in Gżira – a grand name for what is a small, miserable public garden of sorts (‘park’ evokes the expansive green spaces in wetter, larger countries).

“I am interested in you because you are a journalist,” she told me once. “I never met a journalist before.”

All the women I met, and myself too, are part of the demographic that “face a thin market for potential partners” according to American sociologists Michael J. Rosenfeld and Reuben J. Thomas, who conducted a study that was published in the American Sociological Review. Most people in my age-group are taken, tied up in extant marriages, or in longish partnerships. And among those of us who have tumbled out of a broken marriage, a significant percentage is happy to go slow, wary that the peacefulness and aloneness (not loneliness) at home (after the trauma of the breakup) can be threatened by a new partner. I am one of those for whom a new partner can feel like an intrusion; I am rather content wallowing in my reveries, content with having a large bed to myself.

Internet dating is actually most relevant to my demographic, especially because of the barrenness in the field of romance for middle-aged heterosexuals. This is one of the findings of Rosenfeld and Thomas, who write: “The power of Internet search is especially important in identifying potential partners for individuals who face a thin dating market. Gays, lesbians, and middle-aged heterosexuals all face thin dating markets, and these are the groups that are most likely to rely on the Internet to find their partners.”

In the study – Searching for a Mate: The Rise of the Internet as a Social Intermediary – the two sociologists found that the ratio of couples who meet online now equals the ratio who meet in bars, restaurants and other public places. The two sociologists also researched the quality and longevity of relationships formed through online or offline encounters, and they found no difference between the two. They wrote: “Romantic relationships originally formed online are no different in quality than any other relationships, and relationships originally formed online are no more fragile than relationships formed offline during a similar period.”

Still, even as online dating grows in popularity, those who partake remain sheepish, at least in Malta. That may be because of the perception that apps like Tinder are the haunt of those looking for easy, surreptitious pickups, which is manifestly fallacious. It’s also partly because of the lingering assumption that resorting to online dating is for those unable to find partners in real life. And, more significantly, we don’t like to admit that we are searching for someone, and much less openly advertise our availability (which is implicit in online dating). We cherish the fantasy that meeting someone is magical, auspicious even, and online dating takes out much of the mystique. After all, we are attracted to people for a range of complex reasons and signals, and apps like Tinder reduce that complexity to what can be expressed in pictures and algorithmic matchmaking probabilities among circles of circles of online friends. It’s this superficiality – what can be expressed in a picture, so much reliance on the aesthetic – that feeds the impression of Tinder as an app for pickups. It makes dating base and sordid somehow.

“I am new to Tinder,” the highly qualified psychologist told me when I met her. “A friend got me on the app, so this is a kind of experiment.” It’s a rueful refrain I heard from all of my Tinder dates. Perhaps we still prefer to look up to the stars when it comes to matchmaking, prefer even to read the horoscope than sign up to Tinder. But in seeking the magic in romantic encounter (we like to cling to the notion of ‘love at first sight’), we tend to forget that meeting someone has always been rather random, and Tinder has only just increased the kinesis and frequency of that randomness.

This article first appeared in Sunday Circle magazine. Get your copy with The Sunday Times of Malta.

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