Of the many things that assured the success of You, Netflix’s latest blockbuster show about a man’s obsessive fixation on a woman he meets - Penn Badgley’s eerily perfect turn as the captivatingly charming creeper Joe Goldberg, the textbook rom-com cinematography, the conflicting and disturbing blend of violence and romance - it was what it exposed about modern dating and the ways in which we connect with each other that gripped many viewers.
In the first episode, Joe meets Beck, a lovable young writer played by Elizabeth Lail, and promptly learns where she works, where she lives and a rake of personal details gleaned from just her social media profiles. When he shows up on her doorstep, watching her go about her life through the window, a collective sense of horror settled in.
"Could that happen to me?"
Online dating is a topic of impassioned and sometimes morbid fascination for many reasons, but none is so engrossing as the fact that it is constantly evolving.
Some assumptions persist. According to Nicola Fox Hamilton, a cyberpsychology researcher and lecturer in the Institute of Art, Design and Technology, Dun Laoghaire, there’s a belief that digital natives - those born after 1980 and who grew up using some kind of information technology - are getting up to all kinds of murky and suspect activities online.
"But young people tend to be more technologically savvy than older people", Fox Hamilton says. "I’d say the most at-risk group in terms of online dating or fraud might be older people, actually. I think they might be a little bit less aware of the kind of risks that might occur."
She says that while romance scams still occur - people misrepresenting themselves as someone else online - according to research, "it tends to be middle aged women who are most at risk of that".
Naturally, this is as younger people have grown up around social media, they intuitively know their boundaries when it comes to sharing details online. Long before Bumble and Tinder streamlined dating into a series of well-calculated questions and answers, we cut our teeth on messaging boards like Omegle, MSN and Bebo. We trialled how much to share and learned from errors, and for the most part … we turned out okay.
Of course, there are horrific and disturbing instances of abuse and violence to come out of social media use, but they are fewer and farther between. If we use a geotag on an Instagram photo of our morning coffee, it’s because we want to share that part of our day. Lessons are more easily passed on, too, such as asking people whether they want to be tagged in a photo on Facebook before uploading it to your page. The more we have brought social media into our lives, the more ways we have learned to safeguard ourselves and others from harm.
When it comes to the practicalities of online dating, Fox Hamilton says, "most people are aware that if you are going to go meet someone for a first date, you should probably meet somewhere public, not go to somebody’s house or hotel room to meet them because something to be concerned about is your safety and to make sure the person is who they said they were."
The real concern she sees in online dating is much more pernicious, a force that undermines even the savviest of us. It is also why so many viewers were wooed by You’s dreamy, murderous protagonist, even as he stalked his partner and worked to keep her isolated.
"One thing that has come up from the research", Fox Hamilton explains, "is that a lot of people are persuaded to go against their better judgement and to go to somewhere private when they don’t particularly want to. That’s a big red flag that they may have other reasons for meeting you, that they may want to sexually assault somebody."
Why do you keep seeing the guy who won’t introduce you to his friends or family? Why do you stay with a woman who tries to separate you from your friends? It turns out it doesn’t take a soft-focus lens or a dashing smile to con you into a dangerous situation when dating. All it takes, says Fox Hamilton, is the complex workings of human psychology.
"We have these cognitive biases, and a number of them come into play. So if we make a decision about something, if we get a phishing email and it looks official, we’ve kind of made the decision that it’s official. If we see a profile on online dating and it looks really nice and attractive, we’ve made that decision that it is nice and attractive.
"And we have a tendency as humans to prefer information that backs up decisions that we’ve already made, so we ignore red flags."
But dating today seems to turn on a central paradox, that to nab yourself a partner you must be open and adept at marketing yourself over an app, but also withhold enough information to maintain some mystique. Fox Hamilton says this serves the purpose of maintaining some safety, as well, saying that not disclosing where you work, live or what your number is for a while is ideal.
"But I think you can share something about who are as a person, what kind of person, without undermining your safety. The kinds of things you’re interested in, your values, those kinds of things."
"My recommendation with dating apps and dating sites in general is to communicate enough that you get a sense of the person, or at least you think you have a sense of the person."
"Then arrange to meet relatively quickly, within probably a week or two, in a public place for something coffee on a Saturday afternoon. If it goes well, you can continue and go for dinner, but if it doesn’t you can get out of there quite quickly."
"One of the most difficult things for a lot of people who date online is it difficult to get a sense of what that person’s really like. The whole process doesn’t really work well to get an accurate picture of somebody", Fox Hamilton says. This is why most first dates are incredibly disappointing.
Added to this is the constant shift in online dating culture. At a recent lecture in the Science Gallery as part of its Intimacy exhibition, Fox Hamilton spoke of the move from using dating apps solely to find a partner to now also being used as entertainment, as a pleasant and low-risk way to pass the time.
"It’s not that they’re not looking for someone", she adds. "So the two main reasons are casual sex and romance, looking for a partner. Men say casual sex first, romance second, women say romance first, casual sex second. It also is fun and entertaining and get an ego boost sometimes when they match with someone."
This feeds into the larger narrative surrounding social media and its perceived negative effects on us. As with each new and groundbreaking invention of the past, the Internet has been blamed for a myriad of societal changes, from reduced attention span to helping to create a burnout culture that needs help relaxing at the end of the day. But the reality is that very few people experience prolonged and significant negative effects when using social media.
"There’s a tiny, tiny overall negative effect on wellbeing, but it’s as negative as wearing glasses and it’s slightly more negative but only the tiniest bit than eating potatoes", Fox Hamilton explains.
"These headlines are coming from correlations that do exist but are practically meaningless. That’s not to say that some people don’t have problems with social media, but there tends to be other things going on for them as well, such as mental health issues."
Tinder, the app that revolutionised dating when it released in 2013, is also experiencing a shift in how people date, in ways that are entirely organic. "Tinder in some ways encourage people to share less about themselves than traditional online dating sites because people don’t really write very much about themselves. It’s mostly just a few photographs and then you start talking to someone", Fox Hamilton explains.
"In some ways it’s possibly a little more like dating offline where people decide whether they find someone attractive or not, start a conversation and get to know about them that way, not because you have this overwhelming amount of choice, which doesn’t do much for humans. We’re not very good at making decisions."
Considering this, it becomes more difficult to accept the line that online dating and social media at large is a vacuous and slightly risky enterprise, that there is more harm than good to be taken from it and that it fundamentally leaves us in danger of stalkers, as explored in You.
However, much of our caution when it comes to using social media, and especially when dating, is intuitive. Much like dating in-person, the onus falls to us to sniff out any rats and spot red flags. When it comes to how apps like Tinder, Faceboook, Instagram and others are working to keep us safe, Fox Hamilton isn’t convinced they’re pulling their weight.
"I think there should be more onus on them. They’re doing some work to make it a little better, some more so than others, but I think it has to be on us until there comes a day when they’re doing better than they’re doing at the moment."
So, clickbait articles and blockbuster Netflix shows aside, it appears all is not lost when it comes to digital natives and their ability to navigate the world in one piece. Parents, old and young, can rejoice!
And yet, human psychology - the real villain in online dating - is a complex and mostly invisible force. Another cognitive bias, where we think bad things are more likely to happen to other people while good things are more likely to happen to us, means that even if we were devoid of the learned and instinctive ways to stay safe, we might not see the consequences of our actions.
"Someone cyberstalking us or harassing us seems like something that’s definitely not going to happen to us until it does, because it is very rare, for a start", Fox Hamilton explains. "We tend not to hear about all the cases that happen, so it seems even rarer than it is.
"So when we go about our day or go on social media, we assume these things won’t happen to us. Fortunately, it is rare and it’s probably not going to. But if everyone went to bed thinking they were going to be cyber stalked, we would live our lives in a very different way."
Perhaps the horror of You, aside from its conniving and alluring villain, is the knowledge that while none of us expect to be stalked by a shadowy figure at our window, we open metaphorical windows - on Facebook, on Twitter, in the window frames of Instagram - to the world every day. Watching the show is an exercise in self-reflexive schadenfreude, a glimpse into the murkier possibilities of a lifestyle we enjoy so much, every day.
And while Fox Hamilton is unconvinced that it’s likely that "people will change their lives based on the possibility of something very rare happening", there’s little lost in closing a few windows here and there.
Three tips for online safety:
- "It’s important to manage your privacy. Unless you’re trying to collect a lot of followers for a business or speaking out about something, I would probably keep your social media accounts private."
- "When you think about posting, think not just about the people you’re connected to but the people who might see this. If you’re happy for anyone to see it, if you’re happy for your grandmother to see it, then you’re fine."
- "If online dating, be aware that we have a bias to like things related to our initial impressions and to keep an eye out for red flags."