Why Dating References Should Become The New Norm In Online Dating

Photo by Serena Brown
When deciding on a restaurant to eat at, most of us would look to Google reviews to check the feedback first (4.2 stars or more, and you're good to go). But what if you could do the same thing with the guy you’ve matched with on the apps? Online, women are seeking 'references' for their dates in burgeoning communities dedicated to comping intel on known abusers, manipulators and plain old f-boys.
'Are We Dating The Same Guy?' started as a Facebook group for New Yorkers that allows women to anonymously share warnings about guys they've dated, or request intel on potential suitors. (Effectively, it's a sort of open-source registry for abusers and a-holes alike.) The group has accrued over 60k members in just a couple of months and spawned sister groups in most major US cities (Boston, LA, Austin, etc) and internationally (in London, Sydney, Melbourne and more).
On the surface, the idea of looking up reviews of a person like one would a pizzeria seems somewhat dystopian. But is it really all so surprising, given the culture of disposability and sexual violence that has been percolating on dating apps over the past decade? An Australian survey of nearly 10,000 app users recently revealed the extent to which dating apps are rife with sexual offences. Three-quarters of surveyed users experienced online sexual violence, and one-third reported in-person incidents such as coercion, stealthing and assault. 
Of course, a behaviour needn't be illicit to inflict damage. And if the apps are notorious for anything, it's for bad behaviour; with ghosting and stand-ups becoming mainstays of the e-dating experience. This is all abetted by an interface that's literally designed to make you feel like you're playing a game, one in which the next big trade-up could always be just a swipe away. And while dating apps have vastly expanded our dating pool (which can be a great thing), they've also shed most of the mutual connections that tether us to accountability. For some, this is a major drawback of dating online. But for others, it's the primary appeal. In the same study, nearly half of the victims reported that the abuser either deleted their profile, blocked them, or unmatched them to evade being caught.
It's likely no coincidence that 'Are We Dating the Same Guy?' was founded just a few weeks after 'West Elm Caleb' went viral on Tik Tok. If you're not familiar, 'West Elm Caleb' is a 6'4", twenty-something Brooklynite who works at West Elm furniture. At the start of the year, his Tinder screenshots blew up after multiple women (including some influencers) all shared negative experiences with him on TikTok. The saga unfolded like a sordid jigsaw puzzle being pieced together in real-time, revealing a portrait of a serial dater who manipulated multiple women into sleeping with him before eventually ghosting them all.
Caleb's behaviour, according to those who dated him, was undoubtedly awful, but the backlash against him was extreme. He was completely ripped apart on the platform, with the hashtag #westelmcaleb racking up nearly 100 million views. Caleb is far from the only guy to exhibit shitty dating behaviour. But as internet princess points out, that's exactly why he struck a chord. Everybody has dated a guy like West Elm Caleb. He emerged from the viral narrative as a sort-of composite-sketch softboi; a modern-day everyman who embodied all that internet-age romance had come to represent. The collective outrage was less about the misdoings of one Brooklyn playboy, rather than a mass catharsis of women fed up with the callous, dehumanising landscape of modern dating.
The impact of West Elm Caleb was twofold. It shone a light on the fractured dating dynamics that lay in the wake of the apps' shattered promises of making romance any more straightforward. The saga also underscored the power of the wider community to share intel and compare experiences. If the exploits of one man could reach the entire world, then maybe there could be some recourse to hold exploitative daters accountable in the circles in which they move.
In the decade since dating apps launched, we've simply taken it for granted that we don't know anything about who we're meeting, besides what they tell us. But in the digital panopticon of surveillance that we're constructing day by day, that norm could be shifting. In an e-dating landscape that already commodifies human interactions, perhaps it naturally follows that there exists a space in which we review and evaluate them. After all, that's what would occur in any other marketplace. And at a fundamental level, isn't that what dating apps are?
Despite their drawbacks, e-dating isn't all bad news. Plenty of people have found loving, committed relationships online. "You might find yourself with an empty date card if you solely stick with offline dating," says cyber dating expert and relationship coach Julie Spina. The stats certainly agree — with more people using apps than ever, online dating has eclipsed meeting through friends as the most common way heterosexual (39%) and same-sex (65%) couples meet.
According to Julie, seeking out a 'reference' can be a way to vet your date and feel safer while navigating the digital courtship process. "In a perfect world, everyone should have a friend or family member as a reference, but don't count on it," says Julie. "The most valuable part of dating online is that there are digital tools to help you find information about your date."
Julie recommends doing a little sleuthing online to see if you have some contacts in common. If that comes up nil, that’s okay. "Be bold about asking your date if you can go on a double date, or bring a friend to go on a quick coffee date. If someone is sincere, they will understand your need to feel safe when meeting someone new."
Ultimately, Julie says, it comes down to trusting your instincts. "Trusting your intuition when meeting someone new online is always important, as your gut is usually spot-on. Take that leap of faith, and watch out for someone who doesn't respect your boundaries."
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