Cellular Cruising for Casual Sex
By Justin Hall, Wed Apr 21 23:00:00 GMT 2004

Have our chances of "hooking up" been augmented by mobile devices? A talk with sociologists and historians about technologies of dating and their effects on human desire.

Are mobile phones likely to contribute to any long-term changes in the way humans practice courtship and the pleasure of partnering? As a flood of dating and matchmaking sites jostle to introduce us to more people, faster, will that lead to a proliferation of promiscuity? A pressing issue with potential for prurience - I looked to sociologists and historians for sober insights.

From Front Porch to Back Seat

University of New Mexico American Studies Professor Beth Bailey wrote From Front Porch to Back Seat, a book describing the major evolution of U.S. courting between the 1920s and the 1960s. Dating, a uniquely urban phenomenon, had largely replaced more traditional forms of courtship by the 1920s, according to Bailey. From the text: "Dating moved courtship into the public world, relocating it from the family parlors and community events to restaurants theaters and dance halls. At the same time, it removed couples from the implied supervision of the private sphere - from the watchful eyes of family and local community - to the anonymity of the public sphere." Within that context of free-floating dates, people who had previously only met potential mates in the context of church, family or local community were now participating in mass culture together: enjoying theater, cinema, dancehalls or amusement parks. Mobility, autonomy - it sounds like the mobile phone revolution. But these changes were fuelled by the popularization of the automobile, a technology that had a huge impact on human relationships.

Cars were the tools that kids could use to leave Bailey's "watchful eyes of family and local community" to share intimate time. According to Bruce Dorsey, a Professor of History at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, "The car allows travel between spaces, and it can be its own space." Mobile devices continue this evolution, presenting a private space for communication separate from physical location. Similar to Dorsey remark about the car, the mobile internet is both its own space, and it can be used to form connections between people in real space.

Please, Computer, Help me Find the People around Me.

Social network and dating sites on the desktop internet are steadily migrating into mobile space. These services promise to leverage buddy lists and extensive personal profiles into something like machine prediction of social interactions, or rather machine matchmaking. Fill out enough information, the theory goes, and you'll be findable by the soul mate search engine. Location adds some spice to this odd mix. By carrying your internet dating terminal around with you, you're more potentially available all the time, and especially available to the people around you.

Fancy a Tooth?

Confronted with the capacity to meet people in the moment, some folks think immediately of turgid liaisons. A mini-phenomenon emerged early in 2004, as dozens of Brits spoke eagerly of "Toothing." Toothing involves sending out random horny queries to nearby people over short-range Bluetooth-based messaging. Early Toothing tales involved heavy panting and open blouses in commuter rail water closets.

What an exciting proposition! Without having to unzip my fly, I can wave my phone around to show that I'm ready for something randy. And so everyone with a mobile phone might be a possible candidate for some kind of particular tryst! I'm in the mood for a hug from a buxom lady - let's see if there's any nearby.

That fantasy might break down along gender lines, ie, the LoveGetty problem where more men subscribe than women, and all you see are blinking blue dots all around you. And there are questions of safety for women as well. How can we use technology to properly filter these kinds of physical exchanges, and invite both shy and bold to add themselves to the pool of potential players?

Social Mores?

Perhaps most people wouldn't want to use their phones to coordinate play with strangers. Nalini Kotamraju is a PhD candidate at UC Berkely, a sociologist specializing in the everyday uses of information technology. In her ethnographic studies with teenagers from the United Kingdom and the United States, she observed that people primarily communicate with people they already know, from pre-mobile circumstances. The bulk of people's relationships come from their class, their schooling, their established social group. Mobility has not immediately disrupted those patterns, she asserts.

New technologies like mobile phones and their ever-evolving communications applications present new modes of interaction, new ways of courtship, she acknowledges, but within the existing framework of social mores. And social mores take a long time to evolve.

Speaking by phone from her San Francisco apartment, Kotamraju didn't see how trolling for strangers with your mobile device is any different than trolling for strangers at a bar. I argued that you can be quite specific with technology - specific about the characteristics of the person you want to meet, and specific about the acts you want to perform. Well, she argued, you could probably cruise a bar that caters to that crowd, or those behaviors. She continued: sociologists would resist saying the technology-enabled space of mobile dating is all that revolutionary if it's just reproducing an existing real world space.

Well, I replied, I can be trolling in the bar, and trolling online - at the same time! I've doubled my odds, maybe tripled them - I'm passively advertising myself in multiple venues. And doesn't that make it more likely that I'll have more trysts?

That begs the core question, she said: what happens when meeting strangers for quick hook-ups is easy. "Mobility does introduce a new component," she muses, "Before on a dating site, you're sending out messages and waiting for a reply. What if you shorten that time? I'm around the corner, and wearing a red shirt." What happens, she argues, is not clear cut: "What's technologically possible is not necessarily socially desirable."

Bondage Bounded Populations

If mobile devices make it easier and more convenient to have random short-term intimate encounters with relative strangers, will a great number of people want to do that? We'll have to look back in twenty years to see if this sort of thing is happening, I remarked. Sorry, Kotamraju laughed, sociologists might not be useful then either: "Casual hook-ups are one of the things that sociologists have done the poorest job with. We just don't know enough about casual sex."

Andrew Fiore doesn't necessarily know a lot about casual sex either, but he has been observing trends in online dating. Fiore is studying personals sites in the Sociable Media Group at MIT. I caught him on the phone in Boston just days before he was to host an academic workgroup on online dating in Vienna. He believes that online dating sites offer "a higher hit rate in a somewhat bounded population." Fiore lists off a few of the unique criteria on dating sites, like those that cater to potential Indian dating partners: fields for selecting your caste and specific skin tone.

Success in bounded populations would seem to be an argument against an open channel for advertising sexual availability on mobile devices. If caste and skin tone are mixed in with sexual preference, location, and mood, it's hard to believe most people would ever find a random stranger for furtive touching during the morning commute. Perhaps it will be a duel between specificity and urgency, fueled by all that people are willing to say in non-face-to-face flirting.

Undoubtedly, millions of experiments in human hooking up over mobile devices are taking place around the globe today. Until these result in a widely accepted protocol for moment-to-moment mobile meeting, we'll probably have to continue to lift our heads from our phones to see about getting some immediate action.

After signing up for 28 separate online dating sites, writer Justin Hall now practices location-based dating with his mobile device from the privacy of his home in Oakland California. His adventures are chronicled on Links.net.