Crossposted from my blog, See Elegance.
Imagine you want to improve your performance at some task, hobby or a job. You get offered a choice of two courses:
Course A is really vague and undefined, with no clear program. You don't get graded on your performance, but it's broadcasted to your community so everyone can silently judge you every time you fail. Your early choices are locked in, and you can't radically change your approach without raising many eyebrows. And it's long.
Course B, in contrast, offers clear performance indicators, tight feedback loops and sensible intermediate milestones. You wouldn't become a master on day 1, but you get told what are you doing wrong and what do you need to improve. You could play with different approaches to the problem and get no lasting judgement if something goes wrong. "Move fast and break things" works here.
There's no catch here, course B is obviously better. And that's why online dating is superior to trying to date IRL.
Let me explain. A lot of my online and offline friends who don't have much romantic experience are avoiding online dating like a plague. I remember the time when my particle physicist friend visited me in France and lamented his lack of romantic life. Yet when I suggested him to install an online dating app, he became incredibly anxious and refused to have anything to do with it. Even after I asked him for his phone and installed Tinder on it, he was on edge so much that he threw his phone across the table the first time he received a notification about a match.
When I ask these friends how they imagine IRL dating, I don't get a very defined response. There's some vague notion of "meeting someone at school/work/hobby" and "developing a relationship". This may sound wonderful, but to me it seems that this approach is fraught with difficulties – especially so for novices on the romantic battlegrounds.
The overarching motif here is that attempting to date people you already know IRL is a minefield in more than one sense.
Minefields are poor teachers. When you step on a mine, you don't learn much from your failure unless you're already experienced. Sure, you messed up somewhere, but was it a wrong footstep, a mine with a different target detection mechanism, or a special stealth mine impervious to metal detectors? You don't know, and the lessons from previous encounters often don't translate to next ones. Similarly, when you get rejected by your classmate or colleague, you often don't get any idea why they rejected you and what you could've done better. Was it the clothes you wear? The smell of your breath? The wording of your confession? Or you're just not her type? You know that this particular situation didn't work, but it doesn't help you much with future similar situations.
To provide a complementary analogy, let's visualize online dating as a dating playground.
Playgrounds are excellent teachers. Playground tests your skills individually, so you can isolate the weak one and work on it. Imagine an obstacle course through various playground equipment. You fall off monkey bars? Need to work on grip strength. Throw up at the merry-go-round? Poor balance, and so on.
Similarly, online dating consists of many separate stages, and your success rate on each one gives you information about your skills. Not enough matches? Bad photos. Many matches but few replies? Poor opening message. A lot of texting but few dates? Subpar date planning, and so on. By finding a bottleneck in your online dating experience and focusing on improving it, you will see results much quicker than by blindly trying random stuff in the hopes of solving all your problems at once.
Minefields can hurt you badly or even kill you. Figuratively, so can attempts to flirt with students or coworkers, especially when power dynamics are concerned. Even if you don't get ousted for sexual harassment, your social standing in your community might be ruined by one clumsy flirting attempt.
Playgrounds are designed to minimize damage. Sure, you can get injured or even die if you're careless or unlucky, but the chance of this happening is vastly smaller than dying on a minefield. Dating strangers has a much higher threshold for disaster, and with a couple of modifications (not revealing your place of work and social media) you can make it even safer for yourself.
Minefields take a lot of time and care to traverse. Dating IRL, you're forced to lock in your attention on one person at a time, and you have only one chance to impress them. This causes a lot of people to spend years trying to intuit when is the best time for a confession, behave unnecessarily safe because of the fear of rejection, and force themselves into so-called "friendzones" that waste huge amounts of time with slim chances of success.
Playgrounds are quick and straightforward. Dating online, you can just follow a series of steps until you either get what you want or get rejected. Learning from online dates is like living in a groundhog day – everyone can become a master if they have a chance to relive the same event multiple times and find an optimal sequence of actions, and "the first date with a stranger" is one of such events.
Crossing minefields is stressful. Trying to arrange a perfect opportunity to ask out your friend is an anxiety-inducing prospect, and figuring out how best to do it will lead to massive overthinking that will hurt your prospects even more. I'd save a lot of nerves if I started online dating much earlier rather than clinging to my "friend" from university.
Playgrounds are fun. I enjoy meeting new attractive people, hearing their recommendations on places to visit, foods to try and media to consume. Doing activities for the first time together is always fresh. The people I meet are more diverse than my regular circle of friends because I'm not constrained by my previous community. Just because I'm a STEM PhD doesn't mean everyone I date will be PhDs, or even STEM – I've been on dates with entrepreneurs, artists and models, and had fun with all of them.
So is avoiding online dating all that sensible? For an inexperienced dater, I would argue that it is not. There's just no other alternative that can reliably bring you up to speed on good dating practices. Besides, there are probably not that many dateable people at your school, job or hobby – certainly fewer than there are people on dating apps. And nowadays, most people in the US meet through online dating, so it must be working in some way for the majority.
And what happened with my physicist friend? Well, next week after I installed the app on his phone and took some photos of him with my camera, he went on a date with a girl in Paris and had, as he reported to me, "a lot of his firsts". He's been dating for four years and is currently dating his second girlfriend. Seems like online dating might be useful after all.