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The book isn’t even out yet, but it’s already achieved Internet infamy — at least for this week.
The Atlantic recently published an excerpt from journalist Dan Slater’s upcoming book. The piece was headlined, “A Million First Dates: How Online Romance Is Threatening Monogamy,” and was accompanied by a series of illustrations showing a scruffy young guy who is more riveted by his online dating service than the women in his real life (surely you can picture the artwork without even seeing it; just imagine any illustration that has ever accompanied an article about video games or porn). It centered around some compelling questions: “What if online dating makes it too easy to meet someone new?” and “What if the prospect of finding an ever-more-compatible mate with the click of a mouse means a future of relationship instability, in which we keep chasing the elusive rabbit around the dating track?”
In the excerpt, Slater doesn’t answer these questions conclusively, but he does give an example of a young man who feels that online dating has encouraged him to play the field, and he quotes a dating site exec who wonders whether the efficiency of Web matchmaking will make marriage “obsolete.” In this day and age, them’s still fighting words, and the Atlantic knew it. The magazine’s website was quick to host a handful of responses to Slater’s piece, as writers all over the Web piled on.
The arguments were varied — that people use dating sites for love, not sex, that the experience of it makes them long even more for commitment, that online dating is not nearly as fun as Slater’s experts suggest, that modern relationships would be done “a service” by reducing the pressure to be monogamous and that Slater relied too heavily on the biased source of online dating executives to support his thesis and failed to include quotes from any women, not to mention queer people. All extremely valid points — but the book itself, “Love in the Time of Algorithms: What Technology Does to Meeting and Mating,” is actually more nuanced, objective, wide-ranging and inclusive.
In the book, Slater writes, “As the world adjusts to the new reality that technology provides, many traditions and taboos surrounding meeting and mating are on their way out, and more will likely fall, replaced by whichever new theories of relationship happiness win out in a marketplace of possibilities that never in history has been so vast,” he continues. “Monogamy is not going away, and neither is infidelity. Rather, it is the way we make sense of these behaviors, the values and labels and portent we place on them, that will evolve.”
He resists making any sweeping predictions (although some of his sources do not): The takeaway from the book isn’t that online dating is necessarily killing monogamy as a whole, but that it is influencing the way, and whether, people pair up, and what those relationships look like, in a multitude of ways. More than anything, Slater sees technology as a healing salve for one of the worst feelings there is: loneliness.
I spoke to Slater by phone about the controversy, the larger points in the book about the pairing of love and tech, and — wait for it — his upcoming nuptials.
Of course we have to start with the controversy over the Atlantic excerpt. What do you think of the criticisms?
Obviously people felt very deeply about it, which I was happy to see. What surprised me was the strength of the emotion, and I think that had partly to do with what I wrote and partly to do with how the Atlantic framed the excerpt — to have monogamy in the title and yet the word “monogamy” appears only once in the article, and in the context of a quote from a guy who runs a dating site for cheaters. The framing changed it from a conversation about how new access to people online seems to affect at least one well-established determinant of commitment, and how that may lead to both better relationships and a decrease in commitment, to a discussion about the demise of monogamy. The Atlantic is a magazine, and it’s no secret that it’s a very provocative one.
The excerpt was a 2,200-word condensing of a 6,500-word chapter from a book, and overall the excerpt was a 40th of the book. I don’t believe that online dating leads to the demise of monogamy; I was making a far narrower point.
In that excerpt you quote the founder of an online dating site as saying, “I often wonder whether matching you up with great people is getting so efficient, and the process so enjoyable, that marriage will become obsolete.” I laughed when I read that because my experience, and the experience of many of my friends, with online dating has been one of supreme frustration and routine disappointment. I can see an argument that online dating actually makes settling and commitment more appealing — you know, anything to get off OKCupid!
Sure. I have a couple of things to say to that; those are all amazing points. The first is that online dating is becoming so ubiquitous and being used by such a large swath of the population that experiences are going to differ radically depending on whom you speak to. With a third of single people using online dating you’re going to hear from people who have as big a variety of experiences just as with anyone who engages in relationships. I try to make this point at the end of the book: Look, saying that online dating is, per se, effective or ineffective would be like saying marriage is universally a good thing or universally a bad thing. It has to do with who you are and where you live and how long you’ve been on a site or which site you’ve been on, and it has to do with luck.
The second thing I’d say is that the people who read the excerpt were saying, “Well, of course these guys are gonna say this, because they want to convey the notion that their sites work so well and they match you up with all sorts of wonderful people, so they’re happy to agree with Slater’s thesis.” In fact, when a wonderful fact checker at the Atlantic called up all those executives and did the normal thing where you paraphrase the quote, there was a fair amount of push-back. They really did not want to be associated with the thesis of the piece. It’s not like those executives were dying to be on the record saying what they said. Probably from a business perspective there is a bit of a conflict for them — obviously they do want to convey the notion that their sites work well, but they’re also very conscious from a P.R. standpoint of dovetailing philosophically and politically with the dominant paradigm of adult life, which is still fairly heavily dating into marriage.
As you point out in the book, these services actually benefit from customers who don’t settle down and are repeat users. Do you think any of these sites actively try to undercut lasting romance?
No, I don’t. I interviewed a ton of online dating executives in the two years I researched this book, and I didn’t meet anyone who was malevolent in that way. In fact, the industry is filled with largely a lot of good people. Yes, they’re in business to make money, and the way they make money is having people use their sites as often as possible — but then there’s the business reality of once you pair someone off and you are in a sense successful for that person, you have lost a customer. So when sites are designed in ways to be as attractive and useful to people as possible, I don’t think they want to undercut romance, but they do want you as a customer, so that’s where the conflict is for them: We need to be successful but unfortunately in our business being successful means losing customers. They’re not alone in that; there are other industries like this: the pharmaceutical business — if everyone was happy, people who sell drugs for depression would be out of business. If there was peace all around the world, the arms industry would make no money.
All right, on to the larger book: How is it that online dating has gone from something seen as shameful and last-resort to mainstream and acceptable?
There was definitely somewhat of a tipping point. If you talk to online dating executives, they think it happened sometime around 2009 after online dating had been around for about 15 years. That objectively was the year when the population on a lot of dating sites seemed to go way up.
Everyone has a theory about where the stigma came from in the first place and why it’s in the process of dissolving. My own take on it is that you have to go back to the advent of romantic love, which has really only been around for a couple of hundred years. All of a sudden around the 18th century, the popular theory of relationships shifted dramatically to this idea that it’s OK to search out more in a relationship than just financial, ethnic and cultural compatibility. You wanted more, you wanted love, you wanted a soul mate. It became a more amorphous concept, and I think a part of that shift was this idea that we almost by definition needed to be more picky, because it wasn’t just your father has a business partner who has a son and it makes sense for you guys to get together. That was, in a sense, a much easier time because you didn’t have to choose — and then all of a sudden it was no, no, no, you can go off and look for someone on your own.
All the barriers have slowly broken down in the past hundred years, to the point where the entire world, theoretically, is now your dating pool. So you needed to be choosy and your ability to go out and find your mate became something of a reflection back on you, of your ability to be a successful person in the world. When this technology came along that offered to help, I think part of the backlash against it was a bit of insecurity, of saying, “No, I don’t need any help, I can do this search on my own. If I admit I need help from technology or a matchmaker it means I wasn’t able to do it myself.” What’s interesting, paradoxically, is that right in the moment when we theoretically needed help [with matchmaking], we sort of turned away from it. I think that’s what the stigma is from, and that it’s breaking down because online dating is becoming useful. If online dating didn’t work, the stigma would still be there. The more people who use it, the more people who have success with it, the more it can no longer be denied as a valid part of the world.
So, can algorithms predict love? Just how accurate are these dating site metrics?
The reporting that I did seemed to show that there is a level of accuracy and they do seem to be getting better over time. But the question within psychology is whether or not there’s a proven ability to predict compatibility between two people who have never met before. That’s an ability that’s never been shown and yet that’s what dating sites say they can do. I think what the best of dating sites can do at the moment is predict, at least to an extent, the likelihood of two people hitting it off on the first date. And as anyone who’s dated knows, hitting it off on the first date is a far cry from relationship compatibility.
This is the beginning of the industry and the information age where all of this data about us is flowing into databases. As we move forward, psychological science could be potentially advanced as these dating sites accumulate so much data about us and relationships that work and relationships that fail.
Gender-wise, two characters stand out from the book: Jacob and Alexis. They reflect a popular stereotype: He’s happily playing the field and she’s struggling trying to find a guy who will stick around. Was that intentional? Did you find that to be the dominant gender script?
I would shy away a little bit from “dominant gender script,” just because I find gender scripts these days to be so varied and it’s hard to pin down a dominant one. But there was definitely a lot of thought — I interviewed over 100 online daters for the book, and obviously I don’t have 100 online daters in the book, so I put a lot of thought into who I used, and a big part of the decision had to do with how reflective the experiences of the characters are of the rest of the people I interviewed. So, yes, I did find their experiences and their opinions and thoughts reflective of large swaths of people I interviewed for the book.
You went on an online date during the process of writing this book — and it didn’t go too spectacularly. Are you still single?
I am actually engaged and I’m getting married next Friday.
And how did you meet?
I met her in a yoga class, actually — we did not meet online!
The book isn’t just about online dating but how technology is changing the nature of our relationships — you mention everything from the potential for Facebook stalking to AshleyMadison.com. On balance, is technology changing relationships for the better or the worse?
I think it’s for the better. Loneliness is one of the worst things in life and I think it’s one of the biggest sources of unhappiness for people. Technology that can fight that is, per se, a good thing, and of course there’s a downside to every new technology. There’s a downside to the telephone, despite how amazing it’s been. There’s obviously a downside to the text message. But, on balance, I think it’s a good thing. You know, I wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for computer dating.