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Love in Pixels: Navigating Valentine’s Day in the Digital Age

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Waterloo chapter.

In a world where pixels replace paper hearts, and emojis express our true feelings, the landscape of love has undergone an insane transformation. The digital age has become an integral part of our romantic journey by reshaping the way we express affection and celebrate special moments. Even Valentine’s Day, dedicated to love and connection, is no exception to this virtual revolution. 

Let’s explore the nuances of celebrating Valentine’s Day in the digital age, examining virtual communication and connection. From the impact of social media and dating apps to the future of online love, we’ll delve into the ways technology is both changing and challenging our romantic experiences. 

Virtual Connections are Real Emotions:

In a 2018 WIRED article titled: “Has Tech Ushered in a Golden Age of Long-Distance Dating?,” Arielle Pardes wrote that she believes we have entered into a “Golden Age of Long-Distance Dating — a time of not-insurmountable geographic barriers and much less fear about falling out of touch.” People are able to look further away too, with plenty of long-distance couples meeting online thanks to the internet. Tinder, which was originally meant to match single people nearby, can now be filtered to look for people in any area you choose. 

You see these stories all the time; people meeting over Discord or Minecraft, or someone “slid into their DMs”, and now they’re in a long-term relationship. There are so many avenues to get to know someone, and fewer people settle for a coffee shop on the corner. But are these stories outliers or trendsetters? Many people make the case that they’re the latter, that social media introduces a new common ground for sharing our lives with one another. So much of our time is spent online that it doesn’t seem that far of a stretch to experience it with someone else. Living in this digital world can also lead to higher levels of self-disclosure. According to an article on Simply Psychology by Saul Mcleod, “Self-disclosure benefits are so powerful that research has found it is linked to better relationship happiness, whereby mates feel a more profound sense of love and commitment.”

Even when a relationship is purely platonic, a specific degree of vulnerability is needed and necessary to build trust. The conversations online tend to be deeper and more meaningful compared to the mundane everyday ones between partners. It’s easier to self-disclose when there is less face-to-face interaction, and the internet tends to discourage “small talk”. You don’t really have time to talk about what you ate for dinner, which makes relationships seem to move faster. A connection is formed more deeply and sooner than two people meeting in person. As therapist and author Emma Reed Turrell says, “You have the opportunity to show up online as yourself, so there’s a real permission that comes for online friendships to automatically self-select the groups you want to follow and be there in ways you want to be there.”

The “Swipe Right” Era:

While dating apps have revolutionized how people make romantic connections, there’s growing evidence that they are on the decline. According to Pew Research Center, in 2019, 23% of U.S. adults say they have gone on a date with someone they first met through a dating site or app. And three in ten adults have just tried using a dating app, not necessarily going on a date. 

On a broad level, most people tend to have more positive experiences than negative experiences on dating apps, with people saying that it is easier to find people through a site than in person. However, recently it has become a bit of a talking point online how dating apps aren’t as popular as they used to be. As of November 2023, the group that owns Match.com, OKCupid, Hinge and Tinder, reported lower-than-expected earning results. Women online often talk about feeling overwhelmed by the hundreds of low-quality matches, while men complain that they rarely get matches or replies. These complaints are partly because of social and political changes in Generation Z but also simply because people aren’t using dating apps as often anymore. The way these apps lend themselves to ghosting and catfishing makes people frustrated with the algorithms promoting these fake accounts for profit. 

“This dissatisfaction could be linked to the algorithms not quite hitting the mark for individual preferences or expectations,” quoted by Newsweek in their article titled “Dating Apps are Struggling, Here’s Why”. Deon Black, a sex educator and dating coach, said, “Insecurity and overwhelm are also playing their part, potentially affecting user engagement and willingness to pay for premium features.”

A lot of dating apps have become more money-hungry than ever and prey on people looking for love. They often show lower-ranking profiles and demand that users pay for closer matches or to be promoted to more people. 

“They’ve reshaped the dynamics of modern romance, making it easier to meet people outside our immediate social circles,” Black said. “However, they’re also responsible for accelerating casual dating and hookup culture, which can lead to negative emotional consequences for some users.”

I think the pandemic had a really big impact on how people use dating apps as well. We went through this incredibly traumatic period of time where everything was inaccessible. It’s obvious why people would rather meet the traditional way; we are scared from the years of uncertainty. Dating apps were one of the only choices during the pandemic when in-person dating had been halted. People also started frequenting dating apps just for online friendships to take up time. I find that people almost seem more grateful for the public spaces available, and it seems like a waste to stay online anymore. We are increasingly looking for genuine connections to fill the COVID size void, connections based on something deeper than a photograph. 

#Relationship Goals – Social Media’s Influence:

Social media makes it a lot easier for people to lie and pretend to be something they aren’t, allowing themselves to stay anonymous and hide behind a screen. It’s also easy to create a picture-perfect version of yourself, and show only that perfection off to the world. Someone can be a completely different person on the internet. They can be that sweet, good, ideal human, but off the phone, it’s a different reality. According to Tanner Eck, in her article titled “Social Media Ruins My Generation’s Perception of Love” on New Tribune: “It is a lot easier to say you are doing well and to put on a show while behind a screen…. This is what absolutely destroys my generation’s perception of love.”

On social media, I constantly see pictures from popular accounts with pictures of extravagant trips, huge bouquets of roses, and extremely expensive jewelry. This is especially prominent on TikTok, where people stitch accounts posting Valentine’s gifts with the statement “This is the bare minimum treatment.” As a result of younger people using things like ‘X’, Instagram and TikTok, they are starting to have the idea in their heads of a flawless partner, and that Valentine’s Day is made for receiving and nothing else.

“Valentine’s Day perpetuates a tyrannical fantasy of what love should look like,” according to Deborah Carr, a professor of sociology at Boston University. “The whole holiday conspires to make people feel that they’re not living up to this standard of lovely romance,” 

Social media tends to make matters worse by expanding public practices of self-performance and concealment. People have these curated online personas and flaunt their relationships online which has changed how we are required to express affection to our partners. There are standards like liking posts, commenting on posts, reposting stories, tagging people etc. There have been several instances of my friends and I seeing someone we know post on Instagram and us immediately thinking they broke up with their boyfriend because he didn’t comment three fire emojis on her recent post. How dumb is that?

According to an Independent article titled “Valentine’s Day is all About Straight People, and They Don’t Even Enjoy It,” Kaan K states they don’t enjoy the media displays of Valentine’s Day because it “pushes society’s ideal of what our relationships “should” look like — heterosexual, monogamous, sexual, romantic. If you don’t have this — whether that’s because you don’t want to or you just don’t — you are considered to be failing in the eyes of a society that pushes us all, inevitably, towards the nuclear family ideal.”

Just like us all, Kaan says they are “fed up of seeing “model couples” on my commute, online, offline, overground, underground… even when I get home and I’m just scrolling through Facebook.”

I think public displays feel too performative, I can barely feel the love behind the posts. A perfectly created photo deck with a perfect match of a caption. Then you peer into their personal life and these cute Valentine’s photos took an hour to be taken and caused three arguments, and they aren’t talking to each other. But thankfully we have these gorgeous photos to remind people that we’RE in love!

Not to sound too negative but I don’t actually think most people mind seeing certain “lovey-dovey” images on their feed, especially during Valentine’s season. Sure, there are occasional feelings of jealousy or insecurity, but I truly never feel angry seeing people in love. I think the fact that we have taken this genuine display and made it a standard is sad. Valentine’s Day shouldn’t be expected and automatic, love shouldn’t be expected and automatic. There is so much more to a strong, healthy relationship than what social media shows you. 

The Future of Digital Love:

The future of digital love is a complex and evolving topic that ties together technology and human emotions. Dating apps are already starting to pitch the idea of using ChatGPT to create user profiles for them to properly represent the person to potential matches. This could potentially avoid the issues with catfishing and algorithms. Though there’s something misleading about these “perfect matches” — do they even exist? Is it possible to have a perfect significant other?

Everyone has probably seen the AI Chatbots by now, AI boyfriends, AI girlfriends, AI fictional-characters-turned-boyfriends. It is all over the internet and is an interesting advancement in the place artificial intelligence has in our lives. These AI Companions truly could be the “perfect” significant other for many people in the future. There is even a program called “Re; Memory” which aims to recreate the mannerisms and words of a loved one who passed away. There are starting to be more and more ways to recreate human connection and give the population experiences that used to be out of our reach. ChatGPT could eventually help you write a human-like love letter to your partner during Valentine’s Day, as I can see this technology getting updates to develop emotional intelligence.

This brings me to the most obvious advancement of digital love, Virtual Reality. As these technologies advance, they could offer immersive and lifelike experiences for people in long-distance relationships for example. Or if another lockdown occurs, it could simulate virtual dates and shared virtual spaces, there’s already virtual museums — why can’t there be virtual coffee shops? My only issue with these are the ethical concerns. As technology becomes more intertwined with romantic relationships, privacy, consent, and protection from exploitation become extremely important. We’re already seeing inappropriate uses of Deep Fake technology to create sexually disturbing content (I’m so sorry Taylor Swift), and I can almost guarantee that the more AI becomes involved in our relationships, the worse the results will be. 

As we wrap up our exploration of “Love in Pixels,” it’s evident that the digital age has left an undeniable mark on the way we experience and celebrate love, especially on Valentine’s Day. The rise of more advanced technology has changed the way couples connect and the way single people seek romantic possibilities. 

Love is not confined to handwritten notes and bad poetry anymore, it now extends into virtual gestures. Social media platforms have become modern-day Cupids, connecting people across long distances and redefining traditional romance. However, as we embrace the opportunities the digital age offers, balance is essential. The spontaneity of human interaction, the warmth of being face-to-face, and physical presence should not be overshadowed by virtual conveniences. Let’s remember that the essence of love doesn’t lie in the medium but in sincerity. Whether through a virtual gif, a heartfelt text message, a handwritten letter, or a good ol’ bear hug — authenticity is what matters in our romantic connections. Happy Valentine’s Day — where love knows no bounds, physical or virtual!

Rhyanna (pronounced Rye-Anne-Uh) is a BSc Psychology student at the University of Waterloo, with a passion for research and writing. After her studies, she hopes to become a psychiatrist, working specifically with children. She started writing poetry in middle school and has been published in the Young Writers of Canada collections and won awards for her creative literature. Since then, she has made it a long term goal to write a poetry collection of her own. Rhyanna loves all things Halloween and shows this adoration by watching horror movies in cozy pajamas, going to themed events, pumpkin carving and planning an incredible costume every year. She also enjoys playing the flute, reading novels, online shopping, and volleyball. When exam season comes around, you can expect to find her in the kitchen baking endless sweet treats to avoid doing any work.