DC in OC: Technology and Identity Preferencing

by ursavoice

Denny Chan
J.D. Candidate 2012, UCI Law


    Online dating websites and smartphone applications (“apps”) have exploded in popularity, as our generation becomes increasingly tech-savvy. A number of my friends regularly find dates online; a few have even found long-term, stable relationships with websites like Match.com, OkCupid.com, etc. Some of these online tools are tailored to specific identities. Take, for example, J-Date for Jews and Grindr for gay men. As positive as it is to have sites and apps dedicated to certain communities to meet one another, online tools offer a great point of entry to reignite a conversation about identity preferencing.

    Many dating and hook-up tools—whether online sites or smartphone apps—have spaces where users can write a short blurb about themselves. Because the space is a free write, comments run the gamut. Too often, these free-write spaces, which generally are not subject to any level of monitoring, become the sites of explicit hierarchies. If I earned a penny every time I came across, “Into white masc [sic] guys,” I would probably be able to treat the Inaugural class to coffee from the coffee cart. This form of explicit identity preferencing should be immediately suspect. I imagine at least two defenses to it, both of which I find unhelpful. The first set of arguments I call the “hook-up” defenses: one could claim that hook-ups are casual and therefore not particularly meaningful, and that maybe some of these hook-up apps do not feature the cream of the crop of American society (think, “Oh, that’s just people on Craigslist…” and lack generalizable value. The second set of arguments offer more fatalistic and autonomous explanations: people will always have preferences, and we should not cover them up; we should let people hook-up with whomever they want.

    Allowing this uncomfortable behavior because of the casual nature of the encounter is unsatisfying. If hook-ups are more casual, doesn’t this actually militate in favor of their significance? I contend that the relaxed vibe of hook-ups mean that people actually feel freer to express themselves and say what might otherwise be called into question on political correctness grounds. Separately, some people take hook-ups very seriously and would not hook-up with people who they might be in longer-term, serious relationships with, and so the reliability of the hook-up data is still powerful. Finally, the cream of the crop argument does not account for the fact that whatever moral character judgments we may place on people looking for convenient hook-ups, their thoughts and actions are still data from which we can make some observations.

    The second host of explanations is also unacceptable because they do not grapple with the underlying potentially problematic nature of this preferencing. I agree that people should have the autonomy to hook-up and have encounters with whomever they want. But, if the preferencing happens along identity lines, it is critical to flesh out on what grounds these preferences arise. If they are based on racialized notions and a particularized performance of identity, this strikes me as unhealthy. If the preference has other origins, maybe I would find it less offensive. The failure to grapple with this potentially harmful nature of this preferencing means the problem goes undetected. I agree that in our world of social constructions, preferences will continue to exist, but I also find it highly unlikely that other users will message problematic users to engage them in a longer conversation. In other words, the dialogue that might answer some of my concerns fails to happen, and the “into white masc guys” user never questions his preferences or contextualizes them in a bigger system of subordination.

    Realistically, what this means is that the onus falls on us—those who identify as progressive and engaged in a fight against antisubordination—to have these conversations in the hopes that identity preferencers will begin to question their own assumptions.