"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Internet Dating–Is It Too Efficient?

A friend of mine found his current partner through an online dating service.  He had done his homework, and found that the particular company he selected had the most sophisticated algorithms for matching people and not surprisingly had a very high success rate.  The trick was the questionnaire.  It required all prospective partners to provide answers to over a hundred questions about appearance, sexual preferences, leisure activities, and favorite movies; but then went beyond those obvious criteria and probed more subtle characteristics – what angers you? frustrates you? How would you respond to rejection, promotion? 

In other words, the company put together a research tool that combined traditional online dating with Myers-Briggs.  The questionnaire would not only enable each prospective partner to provide the basics about a likely complementary relationship, but understood that relationships must also be built on more subtle psycho-social characteristics.  Each customer was urged to add his/her own questions which would narrow the field even more.  My friend asked “What do you think of Oskar Kokoschka?”, seeking out Russian intellectual émigrés and Polish dissidents; but he could easily have asked about DC go-go artists of the 80s or the type of leather lashings preferred during sex.

The arrival of Big Data provides even more opportunity to make a good match. An online dating company can now mine data about the millions of successful matches made and determine much more precisely which characteristics are most important to particular groups.  What are those attributes which attracts men between 45-60? Formerly married men? Longtime bachelors? Professors, plumbers, waitresses? People with very early sexual experience or very late?  The list is endless; but only some attributes are highly correlated with success, so the online dating service can modify its questionnaire, tailor it for a specific clientele, and continue to tweak it as additional  matching results come in. 

In summary, regardless of how unique we think we are, there are millions of people out there just like us, and many of them have looked for and found mates online.  Online services can see exactly what were the key ingredients in successful dating for any particular sub-group and help find the perfect match.

So far so good.  Although online dating seems a bit dry and passionless for many of us of a certain age who forever looked across a crowded room into the eyes of a stranger, walked over to her, excited by her perfume, the devil-may-care flip of her hair, her attitude, her insouciance, her nervous fidgeting with her cigarette; and asked her for a dance.  “Old-fashioned”, say younger people.  It takes so much time and energy to cruise the bars, chat up the long-haired girl admiring the Chagall next to you, or wait for a sweet young thing to drop her handkerchief so you can pick it up and chat.   Besides, in the age of Big Data, why should anyone trust one’s own, highly selective, restrictive, and very personal experiences?  These newcomers to dating have an implicit faith in technology, social networking, and data.  It is their world.

There are some modern and younger critics who do not agree, and Peter Ludlow, writing in The Atlantic (1.7.13) is one.  He first explains the economic theory of ‘frictionless markets’ in which transaction costs are marginal; and suggests that online dating falls into this category.  There is little cost involved in subscribing to a top-flight online dating service, and no penalty if for some reason the match is not a good one.  Within minutes of the “Sorry, I guess this isn’t going to work out” made over coffee, you can be online again:

Now I realize that the economic language of frictionless markets isn't very romantic, but the fact is that the dating game is a kind of market whether we want to admit it or not. Finding a partner used to be expensive, and the market was inefficient. If you lived in a large city, there were always people looking for partners, but the problem was how to find them. Pick-up bars were imperfect markets to say the very least. Now you go online, select a partner, and you are immediately dating someone who is at least interested in you. Of course online dating is still work, but the emotional labor and risk of failure has been significantly reduced.

The problem is that the unpredictability of potential relationships is gone; and it is that very unsuspected nature of intimacy that makes for potent, lasting matches:

1950s romantic comedies turned unlikely pairings into a formula—happenstance throws two unlikely people together and the sparks and romance begin. We all understand this kind of romance—it involves the strange chemistry of putting together two people who are, on the face of it, incompatible.

Much of what is valuable in this world is the product of mashing up ideas or music or personalities that are on the face of it incompatible. And the secret is that great chemistry (for example in music) isn't about putting together people who are on the same page—it is about putting together people who are different and making it work. The result is often unexpected and beautiful. So it is with relationships; compatibility is a terrible idea in selecting a partner. It leads to stasis, both for individuals and for relationships and (turning my music example into a metaphor) it leads to music that is predictable and unexciting.

The best and perhaps most well-known example of this is Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf by Edward Albee.  George and Martha at the beginning of the play appear to be hostile enemies in a life-or-death struggle to humiliate, degrade, and disassemble the other.  Martha is a vixen, a harridan, a harridan; and George is reptilian, cruelly manipulative and as resentful and mean as any man could be.  By the end of the play, they are kneeling together, alone, but realizing that they both need each other desperately and, with hope, can move on to a better life together.  They love each other.

Albee, like Shakespeare, O’Neill, and Faulkner were no fans of family, love, or romance; but they all knew that the family with all its suspicion, jealousy, battles for power and dominance was the crucible within which people gained insight, maturity, and understanding.  Loose, come-and-go, easy relationships where the door was always open would never be ultimately satisfying, for people would cruise from one superficial and undemanding relationship to another without facing both angels and demons.

Returning to the economic model, Ludlow suggests that only in conditions of scarcity (i.e. having to look hard for a mate in the real world) are we willing to take the risks that will offer the possibility of that unexpected chemical brew that will give us the dynamic marriages of George and Martha or Petruchio and Kate (The Taming of the Shrew).  Kate is a frustrated woman in a male-dominated household.  She is a vitally independent and sexual woman who has no idea what she wants but to get out of the stranglehold of her father and her abusive sister.  Petruchio is the last man on earth she would even consider – a Lothario, a supremely confident and arrogant man who wants to control and dominate.  Yet despite her initial reticence and hostility and his facile and dismissive desire to ‘tame’ her for sport, they find each other.  Few marriages work in Shakespeare, but this one does because of its total implausibility.

I doubt that in this electronic age of social networking, Big Data, and Internet Technology, we will ever go back to the Golden Age, where Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy sparred in 40s Hollywood Romances (Woman of the Year 1942). I suspect that only when the power grid goes down, and we must survive without our smartphones, and feel our way by candlelight to the stranger across the crowded room, will we ever return to romance.



  1. If you are interested in seeing what is offered by these dating services you should take a look at the site itself. In general when you look at one of these online dating services you will notice that you need to provide some information about yourself. This general information will need to include your sex, age, and country of origin. Additionally you will need to specify what sort of partner you are looking for.
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  2. Internet dating is really capable, it is an effective and good way to choose a right partner. You guys can chat with people as an anonymous.


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