Every generation has some kind of childhood hallmark they reflect upon with a sense of nostalgia. For me, growing up in the 90s, it was a time of incredible technological advances. Reasonably sized cell phones invaded pockets and purses, Super Mario went 3D and the Internet slowly trickled into most households, bringing a whole new level of connectivity between people around the world.
Of course, as a child, the implications of new computing technologies were of little concern. I was more interested in the evolution of the video game industry – my PlayStation was arguably my most cherished possession. Games like Crash Bandicoot and Jet Moto series captivated my attention in the early days of these systems and I only became more enthralled with the world of gaming after discovering my first Final Fantasy, Final Fantasy VII.
Constant gaming created a psyche of somewhat anti-social behavior, which still seems to have some lingering effects. I was always more interested in console gaming than the computer until middle school when a sudden exposure to a much larger social environment manifested an anxiety stemming from some fundamental need to fit in. Eventually, this interest balance would shift.
Making friends seemed nearly impossible. It didn’t help being an outsider in my core academic classes – an accelerated program called PAL – with a group of kids who mostly already knew each other. Then there was the fact that I was (and still am) weird, fidgety and made animal noises.
I remained distant and somewhat unlikable until the end of my first year when several trial-and-error attempts at socialization finally yielded a few new friends. Eventually, this led to the exchange of information such as phone numbers and more importantly, AIM screen names.
Finding ways to Socialize as the Weird Kid
Being aware that I was a self-conscious fat kid with a bad haircut didn’t help my already anti-social disposition. However, by using the AOL Instant Messaging (AIM) service, I suddenly found myself able to communicate in a slightly less awkward manner.
Early on, the ability to chat was limited to AOL subscribers, requiring an eternity for your obnoxious dial-up modem to connect to the Internet (and a potential ass whoopin’ if you got caught doing it after bedtime). Once connected, hearing “You got mail!” forwarding superstitious chain mails so your crush would talk to you and seeing which friends were active on the Buddy List produced somewhat of a rush. AIM eventually created a stand-alone client so when households ditched AOL in favor of DSL or cable Internet, myself and other preteens could still carry on with our trivial conversations.
Even though I didn’t realize (or care) at the time, AIM was fairly remarkable from a couple of standpoints. On the back-end, it didn’t function exactly like most modern VoIP messengers do today as it utilized a former proprietary protocol called OSCAR to handle the P2P service. Despite falling outside what most would consider a “VoIP protocol” by today’s standards, it did accomplish real time messaging and presence awareness.
These features created a few interesting revelations for the emerging market and users alike. The appeal of real time chat became hard to ignore so the underlying technology improved such that it is now a major component in most of our daily lives. Presence awareness proved it qualifies a double-edged sword – sure, it’s helpful when you’re on the receiving end of an important message or when you really need to contact a colleague who never listens to voicemail. Yet, it also leads to undesirable behavior, especially when you’re inclined to barrage some cutie with “hey, what’s up?!” or winky faces the moment their handle appears as active.
Segway to Online Dating
Chat apps and other online mediums helped me break into a social territory I would have not otherwise explored. By holding conversations with a few people online without acting strange or putting my foot in my mouth, I eventually became more apt at socializing in real life. Though I never became a “cool kid,” I found myself able to somewhat blend in with what I considered normal.
Despite being articulate in times when fancy word crafting is required, I was still never bold enough to actually talk my way into a date. I remember getting a few phone numbers in my yearbook the end of my eighth grade year and asking my much more charming friends what this implied. My best friend to this day insisted I put the numbers to use. And I did – every conversation was riddled with long, awkward pauses, occasionally broken when something dumb would roll off my tongue.
These odd mannerisms didn’t resolve until the last couple of years at high school when I found myself able to talk with girls in real life and even convince a couple of them to hang out with me outside of school grounds. Online chatting had gone to the wayside for me even though others were still using AIM or some other chat app. Fun fact: it was around this time in the mid-2000s AOL first implemented true VoIP with the AIM Phoneline service and also when social media adoption accelerated. I moved to Florida after graduating high school, disrupting my social life so I remained isolated for some time until I made my first social network profile.
The Forthcoming of Modern Online Dating
If you were to Google the history of online dating, you’ll find some sources get way deeper than modern tools we expect to see in the context of web-based dating. I feel like Myspace was truly the first contemporary platform, despite Friendster launching a year prior. Two complete strangers could befriend each other within the platform and possibly engage in a real life interaction, chemistry permitting.
Myspace was quite elaborate for the time, surpassing the capabilities of other social networking sites during the era. Clusters of servers and switches, both physical and virtual, handled the many processes required for the site such as the HTML heavy profiles, onsite music, content delivery (thanks largely in part to Equinix) among other processes. Unlike a chatroom or a messaging app, the site opened the doors to a new form of digital interaction.
After going on a hiatus concerning the pursuit of my degree and being holed up in Lenscrafter’s lab making eyewear, my social life completely eroded to a point that paralleled my childhood. Outside of the occasional house party, my social life included Call of Duty, hanging out with my roommate and occasional adventures out of town to hang out with friends attending Purdue, Ball State or IU Bloomington.
My interests still heavily revolved around gaming and an emerging hobby of making noise with a guitar. Other gamers, especially girls, were hard to find considering everyone was doing the same as me; they were in front of a screen somewhere, eating snacks and avoiding fresh air. But thanks to Myspace, with enough lurking, I’d discover girls with similar interests, befriend that person and strike up a conversation with the built in messenger without doing something strange like I would in a face-to-face scenario.
The site’s messaging service worked much like email but more than likely made use of IRC. Social networks had yet to incorporate VoIP so everything worked similar to a stripped down Microsoft Exchange server. Unfortunately for those of us who packrat digital content, when Justin Timberlake purchased the site in 2011, a major uprooting of the network caused many of us to lose information.
Even though message archives were wiped in favor of the new music-heavy site, my memories remain. I met several girls, including one wonderful person I dated for an intense year and half. It took roughly a year (also, a haircut and becoming legal age to enter a bar) from the initial message to the first time we actually met in person, outside of the time she purchased glasses from my store.
Actual Online Dating
Not even two years later, a falling out (well, really two falling outs – long story) dissolved the relationship, making a mess on a few different levels. Eventually, after getting back on my feet, communication with an estranged ex-girlfriend living in California resumed and we mused about our romantic lives. I was living in Indianapolis that has a great nightlife scene, that is, unless you’re socially awkward.
She suggested I try Plenty of Fish (or, POF to the elite) as she had been doing the same to meet like-minded individuals or in the very least, people other than the sloppy drunk men who hit on her at whatever bar where she worked. I took her advice, created a profile, installed the app and met up with a coworker to play pool the same night. We congregated at the least popular bar in Indy’s party district, Broad Ripple, and I tell him about my new dating profile.
Despite being a doppelganger in terms of social ineptitude, he pokes fun at my new endeavor. However, having the app installed and being a new user, I gained a lot of attention that I proudly brandished to my now inferior friend. I took frequent breaks to send messages but didn’t manage to generate any solid conversation for about a week.
Even though POF has an app, it’s simply a mobile client for the website. Everything in your profile catalogs into a database where you, as the owner, can edit and others can view from either the website or mobile app. The messaging system also works in much the same way as Myspace – text based messages directly transmit between users and include a bit of visible metadata so you know certain details such as time of delivery.
This produced a few in-person meetups but I lost interest after trying (and successfully) speaking with actual humans outside the Internet. Due to my success, I staved off online dating for about a year. Like all good things, this came to an end and I again found myself scouring the Internet for romance (or something close.)
A relatively new roommate at the time turned my attention towards OkCupid so I created a profile and jumped through the same hoops as I did with Myspace or POF. The site itself has more mechanisms to pair people, which is neat, in addition to a real-time chat service, supplementing the basic messenger. Essentially, this correlates with AIM’s functionality as it is not a true VoIP service but still includes many elements of modern systems.
Today’s Dating Apps and VoIP
I lost interest in online dating for some time after using OkCupid as I only met in person with one highly unlikable gal in the few months of using the service. Instead, I managed to embrace my unique, though strange, characteristics. By effectively communicating on the spot without sputtering or drooling, I established new relationships romantically, professionally and quite simply, made new friends. One of these undertakings (even though Facebook played a role) resulted in a serious relationship for years and a total lifestyle change.
Eventually, this crashed and burned, ultimately placing me back in the single category, yet again. Like myself, I see many others in my age group (late 20s through your mid 30s) in a similar situation. You’ve met plenty (or at least enough) people at bars or parties to know relationships cultivated from these environments are probably not in your best interest. You hopefully have a career or other priorities so hanging out with a prospect all night, especially during the week, usually ends up being more trouble than it’s worth. When you couple all the above with being even a little self-conscious, online dating seems very appealing.
In a nutshell, I decided to join Tinder. This app has become immensely popular over the past couple of years, much of which can be attributed to the simplicity of the product. Based on the setup and usage specs, I could go on forever about the social implications and reflect on the plights my generation as well as younger users, but it seems more appropriate to wrap up this blog with a bit on the technology behind the scenes.
In order to build your base profile, it uses Facebook to read certain information and also SMS information (i.e. a phone number) to supplement authentication. Once this information is gathered it populates a basic profile with information such as your name, age, profession and Facebook interests while keeping other information private.
On the back-end, the application uses a modern VoIP protocol to transmit information over the web. The thing is, the Tinder chat uses an encrypted system to deliver information, which seems to utilize either XMPP or MQTT wrapped in some kind of TLS, although it’s not quite clear exactly what protocol the app employs. Inherently, it’s safe to use, in some respect, though some users certainly want to exploit the system.
Interestingly enough, a significant number or users seem to include both Instagram and Snapchat handles in their profiles. The Instagram app is simply a client connecting to servers used by the service. Snapchat, on the other hand, is a true VoIP app.
The actual transport methods Snapchat uses as far as protocols and codecs are concerned appear a bit shrouded although encryption is implemented from end-to-end, despite a few flaws in the API. The reputation of the app is a little sketchy as not every picture you receive (or send, I suppose) depicts a daily activity appropriate for the public. With that said, I’m single so Snapchat does no wrong in my eye.
Many seem to prefer the anonymity that comes with apps like Tinder as it doesn’t reveal too much about your identity. With that said, I have recognized several people I know in real life, making things interesting (or awkward) when you swipe right on the individual. In several cases, I’ve eventually exchanged phone numbers with someone after talking for a while though a sizable percentage prefer to remain as anonymous as possible until exchanging enough dialogue which is a smart move as there are too many stories of weirdos using these apps – and not the good kind. In these cases, rather than texting or continuing to talk on Tinder, many offer to exchange Kik, WhatsApp and Skype handles.
Ultimately, I don’t take any of this too seriously but it is kind of fun to talk to someone fresh every so often. Maybe something will come of it or maybe not. Either way, it’s fun for now.