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Digital playgrounds: The Jane Austen-dating app seesaw

Sarah Jasem doesn’t know whether to swipe left or right on the Austen fantasy.

Watching period dramas, specifically Jane Austen’s cinematic adaptations, has become as regular of a task as breathing in my household.

This is far from idyllic, however, as following each Austen adaptation, we have a routine crisis regarding what to do about dating apps. Should we redownload? Should we delete? This has led me to believe that Austen’s couples, who find love amidst the socially restrictive landscape of the Georgian gentry, promise something similar to the culture of technologically mediated, digitized dating apps. That is, the ability to forge meaningful, lasting communications with people within a standardized, groomed and mediated landscape. Like a seesaw in this digital playground, the direct connection and weighty relation that each has on the other, is part of a cultural milieu whose seeds have been sown far before this year of increased social distancing and digital dependence.

It would, however, be wrong to say that lockdown hasn’t played a part. Dating app memberships have hit their highest numbers this year and tech companies are working to make their interfaces embody the presence of their users and those they connect with online. Tinder is in the process of incorporating a ‘face to face’ video call option, whilst new international apps like String have people communicate through voice notes instead of texting. Adding to the integration of the digital into our own embodiment are ‘Skin-on interfaces,’ synthetic skin phone cases, and ‘Bond bracelets,’ where couples across the world can send each other a buzz on their wrist to let them know they’re thinking of them. With interfaces like these, the personal becomes woven with the digital, and every emotional sentiment can be expressed through technological extensions.

 The potential for these technologies to trap you in a state of constant availability 24/7 may be why my household leans on Austen’s dramas, where communication is restricted to the occasional ballroom party, chance encounters and painstakingly crafted handwritten letters. Similarly, does the obsession with Austen’s dramas arise because we get to watch people (albeit, white, hetero people), who never would have matched on apps fall in love? Mr. Darcy would have thought ‘Ah, she is tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me!’ and thus would never have met Elizabeth. Additionally, Austen’s often used ‘enemies to lovers,’ trope, based around the recognition of another’s character over time, wouldn’t work if mediated digitally, because Austen’s romantic portrayals aren’t dependent on liking each other first, whereas this is an essential first step with dating apps.

Whilst historical and cultural differences have likely contributed to the comforting nature of Austen’s dramas amidst our digital culture, I think that the reason we see-saw between Austen’s works and dating apps is due to their immense cultural similarities. Hollywood adaptations of Austen are sprinkled with passion through dramatic tension and beautiful actors, which only make her protagonists’ love story more alluring due to the socially restrictive logic of capitalism and commodification that characterises these marriage tales. Impacted by Britain’s industrial Revolution, Adam Smith’s ‘The Wealth of Nations’ was published in 1776, two years after Austen was born. Austen’s marriages are therefore presented as bound to a transactional structure. Women exchange subservience and beauty for a man’s social standing, property and wealth. However, backdropped by a world where marrying your cousin is a valid choice in order to live in stable accommodation, Austen offers her protagonists alternatives, by sowing the seeds of fantasy and allowing romance and autonomy to grow within this restrictive culture of courtship.

The dating app framework also prioritises status, class and character, through short bios, curated images and text etiquette. Like Austen’s work, dating apps too offer a promise of freedom and romantic autonomy within those boundaries. Additionally, the reification of relations, and commodifying communications between people, is demonstrated in the instant transactional qualities of dating apps and Austen’s common yet unfavourable and fast courtships, such as Lydia and Mr. Wickham, or Mr and Mrs Bennet. The user as a commodity is also heightened by the storage of personal data and reduced privacy by apps (akin to Mrs. Bennet spouting your single business to everyone at the party).

The digital landscape and Austen’s middle-class society of rules and regulations both work within stringent boundaries. Whilst Austen provides the possibility of fantasy in her novels, as she sows the seeds for romances that work both against the status quo and favourably within the rather infertile land of restrictive Georgian society, dating apps advertise the digitized landscape as a free field sown with seeds to find the ‘one(s),’ distracting users from their moderated frameworks. These fantasies coincide in the cinematic image of Darcy walking across a hill to Elizabeth in the film’s final act, as the unregulated wild rain resembles the possibility that, despite foggy digital interference and the raining down of other chances and other people, real connections materialize.