The Mate Market

Every online dating candidate is visible, in unsparing detail, to every other. The chances of finding the right person now look very high, and the risks of making a mistake vanishingly low. Where once we might have met some hundreds of potential partners during our life, now we can meet millions. Satisfaction guaranteed?
Peter Johnson
8 September 2010

Technology attracts polarised reactions. At one end, techno-optimists will welcome anything that enables new actions or creates new choices. The process by which technologies are developed and disseminated is a path, perhaps the path, by which humankind improves its lot. This view is mostly expressed pragmatically and materialistically: technology is about doing and making things better. (Behind this, though, is an act of faith that doing and making things better is how our species and societies progress.) At the other end, Luddites and conservatives often mistrust or reject technology on principle. They regret the loss of the old ways and they don’t want to make choices or adapt.

Whilst many Luddites are just ignorant and dogmatic, we can’t deny that technology changes us too, and should pause to think and decide about the spiritual and social consequences of technical progress. It’s a challenge the technology cheerleaders, who want us to embrace our new personalities as we might embrace a new gadget, simply don’t understand.

Recently, then, I caught up with a fascinating radio essay by Robert Schurz, a writer, sociologist and practising psychotherapist based in Germany. The subject was online dating. Surveys suggest that in the 20-50 years age bracket, one third of all contacts leading to a relationship are first made online. Many people now spend more time in intimate conversation online than face to face. We are reaching, he concludes, a turning-point in the history of morals: it might be described sociologically as the dissolution of family; psychologically, as an incapacity for long-term relationships; it might also be the final triumph of individualism.

Humans have always had trouble meeting members of the opposite sex. In primitive societies, if incest was prohibited, one needed to go beyond the family unit. Hordes of youths might storm the next village in search of females, hacking the other males to death, or being themselves hacked to death. Online dating, on the other hand, requires no external social event, has few geographical or time constraints, and with sophisticated search offering fast and refined identification of suitable parties, is an incredibly efficient way of getting in touch with people. Our transition from one state to the other is the social history of family and pairing.

A metaphysical notion of the soul-mate is found in Plato’s myth of the perfect, spherical single-sexed double being, which for presuming against the gods was divided into two parts that then wished only to be reunited with their ‘other half’; a union of physical intertwining consummated in a languorous dual death. To relieve them from this fate, Zeus moved the sexual parts from the rear, where they had been in the back-to-back spherical form, to the front, so making heterosexual satisfaction and reproduction possible.

In practice, family standing, wealth, or political circumstances often determined partner choice, which was then concluded by contract. Many early societies permitted polygamy, a simple way of fixing mistakes without awkward separations.

The question of the ‘right’ partner reappeared in early Christian societies. By the fourth century the Church had started to undermine the power of the family and patriarchs by grounding marriage on the love and consent of the couple. But this is not a free choice, since each party is destined to love the person whom God has picked out for this purpose. Since love reflects the divine order, which in the early middle ages also governed the material world, there could be no contradiction between the two.

Bourgeois society undercut the Christian model in two key ways: first, with the idea of the equality of all people and secondly, through secularisation. Marriage from disinterested love requires people to be in principle equal. This increases the number of potential partners vastly, whilst secularisation denies divine predestination and paves the way for civil marriage. The bourgeois acknowledges both instant romantic attachment and complex worldly calculation as permissible foundations of a relationship – the interplay of the two is a constant theme in the literature of the 18th and 19th centuries.

But love at first sight, unguided by providence, can lead to error and tragedy. Love may not spring eternal. This tension between inclination and reason is resolved by the institution of divorce – “till law us do part” – though it took until the twentieth century for the taboo on divorce finally to go. Relationships are now a matter of trial and error. If they don’t work, we can have another go. We see ourselves differently too: singletons on a journey of repeated searching, finding, and leaving.

So what is new about the internet?

Not so long ago we met people in social environments – the pub, club, office, or disco. Locality remained important, as it had been earlier when families would gather at specific seasons and places so that potential partners could be introduced. Just twenty years ago, the only parallel with the internet today was the lonely hearts column in the newspaper. It was widely disseminated, easily accessible, context-free, and, critically, stated a party’s desire for a relationship. The only constraints were limited data and slow search.

The computer age has changed all that. Every candidate is visible, in unsparing detail, to every other. If this is the main criterion, the chances of finding the right person now look immeasurably higher, and the risks of making a mistake vanishingly low. Where once we might have met some hundreds of potential partners during our life, now we can meet millions.

In dating as in countless other areas, the internet has enabled the systematic exercise of rationally determined choice from a vast population of alternatives. The right partner is the one who possesses the optimal combination of physical and psychological characteristics. Our other half will perfectly fit into the jigsaw of our life.

To describe our ideal partner, we first need to know ourselves – wants, preferences, experiences, characters. So on the one hand, the search becomes more difficult as our requirements become more individualised, but on the other, we can now satisfy some very peculiar requests (“Cannibal seeks partner for lunch,” perhaps).

An odd thing about search is that we must first know what we’re looking for. Defining a search means defining what we want and ultimately ourselves. But what if we can’t do that, if we don’t know what we want? As Picasso famously said, “I don’t seek; I find.” Conscious search narrows the perspective, excludes possibilities. If I prefer blondes, I may miss out on a wonderful brunette.

So why are we driven to specify what we want? Well, studies of consumer behaviour show that given only a few alternatives we find it easier to choose and tend to be happier with the choice. It takes a lot of mental effort to choose between many similar items. When the outcome is important, we add to that the fear of ‘acting sub-optimally’, of getting it wrong.

This stress fuels the ever-increasing size and complexity of dating databases and search systems: the promise is to eliminate the risk of error. In practice, though, the opposite happens. Relationships formed online do not on average last long. “Marry in haste, repent at leisure” no longer applies, since behind every choice lie millions of viable alternatives. If it doesn’t work out, I refine my search, buff up my profile, and try again.

Partnerships themselves have changed too. When we are always ‘available’ it is hard to see where loyalty – perhaps a social response to limited choices – fits in. Where there is always a better alternative, there’s little incentive to stay together. Societies that value stability encourage family loyalty. Is online dating, forming and churning relationships, making our societies more volatile? Many factors contribute to rising divorce rates, but we shouldn’t dismiss the tendency to frame relationships as consumer goods.

Not only do we behave like consumers in seeking a partner, but we present ourselves as goods too. “I’m back on the market, checking my market value, making myself look good.” Whilst this is by no means new (“left on the shelf”), it is now all-pervasive. Moreover, in a market, choices and selection criteria have to be accepted without question. Their social or political content, as for example discussed in Peyvand Khorsandi’s recent oD article, are simply irrelevant.

Consumer choice leads to consumer disappointment. Nobody lives up to the advertising. In specifying the man or woman of our dreams, what kind of image do we call up? The more we expect, the deeper our disappointment. And as we define our desired partner in ever greater detail, the less we worry about accommodating our own behaviour to someone else’s wishes. Virtues such as loyalty, faithfulness, and adaptation, which arose as social forms to meet particular social needs, are still valued today, but it’s hard to base a critique of modernity on social virtues that are contingent or relative. More concretely, however, psychotherapists report significant recent rises in the incidence of depression, anxiety, and stress associated with finding a partner. These problems are almost certainly connected with the new ways this is happening and are unlikely to go away by themselves.

The computer age has accelerated the commoditisation of our lives. Everything is measured, calculated, and sorted. The online search for a partner is wholly rational and systematic, notwithstanding it still promises to deliver the love of one’s life – a claim it can never live up to. In the end, this is the paradox of online dating: the continually refined search and self-presentation leave the ideal soul-mate as unattainable as ever. Plus ça change, perhaps, or have we changed more than we think?

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