Dating companies hope to replace our search for love with a search for better searching
You don’t have to look very hard for the determinism in Dan Slater’s Love in the Time of Algorithms. It’s right in the subtitle: “What Technology Does to Meeting and Mating.” This follows in the tech-pundit tradition of book titles like Clay Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus: How Technology Makes Consumers Into Collaborators and Kevin Kelly’s What Technology Wants, titles which grant anthropomorphic agency to technology, taking us all off the hook for what it has “made” happen. Readers of these books are absolved of having to do anything in particular to address the way technology is developing; they let us kick back and fantasize about how much our lives are going to change while we make no effort to change much of anything. They let us have our status quo and eat it too.
That’s not to say determinism in general is wrong, as a liberal-humanist zealot might have it. But it does run against our casual faith in consumer sovereignty, the belief that our market choices have the power to confer uniqueness upon us. It can seem counterintuitive, almost controversial, to point out in a book meant for the mainstream that technology constrains our autonomy and shapes our possible actions. Still, you don’t have to be Lévi-Strauss to recognize that “meeting and mating” have always been socially organized and that what we find desirable is conditioned by culture. Slater, a former Wall Street Journal reporter and current Fast Company contributor, repackages those banal truisms as vaguely alarming yet exciting developments. “New means of connection are threatening the old paradigm of adult life,” he writes, and much of the book is given over to the titillating possibilities for the new adulthood. Love in the Time of Algorithms invites us to daydream about escaping the prisonhouse of the couple form and the disorienting yet irresistible sexual abundance that online dating has supposedly wrought.
To enable the fantasy, Slater offers the superficially plausible argument — made chiefly by the dating-company CEOs he interviews — that the profusion of potential partners all in one convenient marketplace, a sort of Costco for the libido, has steadily overwhelmed mores developed under conditions of sexual scarcity. When online daters discover this cornucopia of flesh, they cast aside inhibition and commit to serial novelty. This echoes the case made by sociologist Eva Illouz in Cold Intimacies: “Internet dating has introduced to the realm of romantic encounters the principles of mass consumption based on an economy of abundance, endless choice, efficiency, rationalization, selective targeting, and standardization.” With access to such a market only as far away as our phone, how can we resist our inherent urge to go shopping? “How will romantic love hold up in a marketplace of abundance?” Slater asks ominously.
This sort of speculation—which, as many commentators pointed out after Love in the Time of Algorithms was excerpted in The Atlantic, doesn’t hold up especially well against recent marriage and divorce statistics—nonetheless lets readers vicariously enjoy the imagined satisfactions of being on the market for sex without having to undergo the actual misery and alienation of it. And as a bonus, we get to feel morally superior while we fret about how hyper-daters are endangering our sacrosanct romantic values: We’re not like any of Slater’s dubious cast of characters, who have turned the quest for love into a shopping spree.
Though by consumerist ideology, nothing could be more enjoyable than a shopping spree. That ideology is what makes the end-of-monogamy logic seem plausible. What could be better than exercising one’s freedom of choice, over and over again, to get new and exciting things, to have novel experiences tailored especially for our personal delight? But while consumerism promises the opportunity of enjoying novelty, freedom of choice, efficiency, and convenience as pleasures in their own right, dating as an “experiential good” reneges on that promise, if the anecdotal evidence of basically anyone who has ever used an online-dating service is to be trusted.
Actual dating is a collaborative project riven with anxiety, negotiation, and compromise; it is a matter of taking the first tentative feints toward building a collective social unit whose needs will take precedence over one’s petty personal desires. Consuming stories about dating, though, can be a purely solitary affair, with no contingencies to impede the pleasure.
The mission of online-dating CEOs like Sam Yagan of OkCupid and Markus Frind of Plenty of Fish is to convince us that actual dating can and should be more like enjoying a good story; it is entertainment consumption, an individualistic pursuit that takes advantage of the way technology has improved on-demand commerce. Just as CafePress can sell you a customized T-Shirt, why shouldn’t OKCupid aspire to sell you a customized partner? Why not shop for a date when you’re caught in a checkout line or in traffic?
Dating companies would like us to accept that soul-mate serendipity was just a myth, a rationalization fomented by restricted supply that has brainwashed us into thinking we must find “the one” since we won’t get much more. In the enlightened dating future, serendipity will be supplanted by efficient filtering and raw volume, quality will be trumped by quantity. After all, shopping for dates is not especially different from shopping for sweaters, and both can be streamlined. “An easily accessible, rationalized marketplace of relationships: This was the big game-changing difference between online dating and other forms of relationship intermediation,” Slater notes. That’s where a savvy start-up can garner a competitive advantage.
Dating-company CEOs hope we will be happy to regard ourselves as no different from a new tech-enabled streamlined product — as covetable as an iPhone, and as easy to order — and volunteer to enter into relationships turned into disposable goods. As Illouz argues, with online dating, “romantic relations are not only organized within the market, but have themselves become commodities produced on an assembly line to be consumed fast, efficiently, cheaply, and in great abundance.” More, more, more! How do you like it? How do you like it?
Given his business-journalist background, Slater seems more comfortable talking to executives and sketching business models than attempting sociological analysis. He tends to take the executives at their word, accepting as common sense that dating is a marketplace ruled by supply-and-demand curves, “revealed preferences,” the rationalized pursuit of maximized utility, and “liquidity” in potential partners. With the CEOs as his primary guides, Slater gives readers a lesson in the history of freedom: In the past, an artificial scarcity of sex partners due to a dating market overregulated by tradition, societal shame, and familial interference kept us from having the most sex with the most people. “Scarcity would always be the irrefragable regulatory device that — along with religion and moral dogma — would keep the youth in line with certain expectations,” Slater notes. Online dating thus sets us free by “smashing the whole concept of scarcity to pieces,” replacing it with a free market that will more accurately reflect the level of the human demand for sex and intimacy.
This, however, doesn’t entirely correspond with the history of dating services that Slater recounts. While Slater emphasizes that from the start, “computer dating was about more dates, not better dates,” the industry’s origins also reflect how determined singles can be in trying to find stable relationships and marriageable partners in the face of marketized relations and hegemonic consumerism. For some clients, dating services were not an expression of the free-love revolution but part of a backlash against it. These users wanted the traditional path of courtship and the monogamous relationship that modern life in general was compromising. Some dating services catered primarily to this group, selling help for the desperately heteronormative and promising better matches than were available in everyday life, which had seemingly become too atomized and fragmented to supply potential longterm mates the old-fashioned way. But this approach doesn’t scale: The bigger the pool of users, the more it evokes the anomie that this sort of dating-site user wants to escape. Sites like eHarmony and Match.com still target the serious-about-marriage types, but these have become the industry’s dinosaurs, their fee-based business model in the process of being superseded by a free model focused on data collection and advertising.
Traditionally, businesses have thrived on artificial scarcity, even if the tendency of the system as a whole may be to arbitrage away such advantages. Perhaps the most conspicuous example of artificial scarcity’s importance is the desperate scramble to preserve intellectual-property rights over readily duplicable products. In a sense, social mores and attitudes about female purity worked as DRM for dating, restricting supply to protect intimacy’s value.
But just as digitization has disrupted the culture industries, so will it disrupt the search for on-demand relationships, the online-dating CEOs believe. A new post-scarcity business model is in order: Like Google and Facebook, a successful online company going forward will need to rely on targeted advertising and on capturing user behavior to convert into exploitable labor.
To this end, free dating sites aim to keep you using the site as long as possible and, under the guise of helping you find what you want, get you to contribute as much information as possible to their data bases. This makes their ad space more valuable and targetable and gives them product to sell to Big Data. Even though, as Slater notes, the sites know that matching would-be daters on the basis of profile compatibility isn’t especially effective, they continue to tout its potential so they can gather more data.
Comprehensive personality profiles may not help you find a simpatico lover, but advertisers still fervently believe they can help you find products you can love. Of Plenty of Fish, Slater writes, “With so many people providing so much personal information, all kinds of advertisers, from book publishers to tobacco addiction remedies, loved the opportunity for targeted marketing.” The sites also deploy liberal amounts of gamification as bait for users, giving them, for example, additional access or nominal rewards in return for answering intrusive personal questions or rating dates. This makes plain that dating-site users are not clients so much as workers who produce themselves and others as indexable data. Some entrepreneurs dream of taking this to its logical conclusion with frictionless dating services, for which users would allow information to be collected automatically from their phones.
Given the expected value of our personal data, the sites have every incentive to prevent you from finding a steady partner so you will keep feeding them information. Slater concedes that “to varying degrees,” the dating companies “want satisfied daters. But they also spend their days focused on maximizing nonromantic metrics, such as ‘customer acquisition,’ ‘conversion rates,’ and ‘lifetime value.’ ” Justin Parfitt, a “dating entrepreneur” Slater quotes, uses less euphemistic language: “They’re thinking, ‘Let’s keep this fucker coming back, and let’s not worry about whether he’s successful.’ ”
To facilitate the shift in emphasis to data collection — and obfuscate the poorly aligned incentives between dating sites and their users — online dating, Slater reports, is rebranding itself as “social discovery.” Dating is just a specialized subset of the potential market for facilitating introductions. Social discovery denotes a kind of commodified serendipity that emphasizes the joy of users’ perpetually meeting people on the basis of a wide variety of ever-shifting interests — that is, opportunistically consuming them for their novelty.
For the dating companies to thrive, we all need to learn to want to date forever, which seems a more tolerable proposition if it’s called “socializing” instead. This mirrors the transition in online social networking, from Friendster, which was explicitly meant for dating, to Facebook, which is famously meant for whatever, as long as you stay logged in.
With Facebook’s introduction of Graph Search, social discovery and social networking converge. A search engine for Facebook’s proprietary data trove and a boon to stalkers and other agents of lateral surveillance, Graph Search, among other things, lets users query specific interests and see which people listed as “single” share them. Users’ queries to Graph Search will permit Facebook to collect another layer of associative data to enrich the value of what they have, revealing new ways to group users for marketers.
Though sometimes claims are made for its increased “relevance,” Graph’s sort of social search is not much of a rival for impersonal search engines like Google, which draw from a much larger database to address common queries. Instead, social search is meant to be pleasurable in its own right, for its own sake, an expression of undiluted curiosity. It offers all the discoveries of “sociability” without the nuisance of having to reciprocate with the people you are investigating.
The data-based business model, if we accept Slater’s account, is an inevitability. Technology is changing “meeting and mating” not by changing our values but by driving specific entrepreneurial opportunities that can’t be neglected. As far as capitalism is concerned, this is the purpose of technological innovation: to make new business models possible and improve the efficiency of markets.“Taking the long view,” Slater remarks in his conclusion, “anything that inhibits efficiency is likely to lose out.” What technology wants, if you believe in tech entrepreneurs’ vision of the world, is to better match buyers and sellers to allow more exchanges, more rapidly. More, more, more! Any improvement to human flourishing is incidental.
But efficiency is a law only with respect to capitalist competition; it doesn’t inherently govern human desire, and it’s certainly not technology’s inescapable telos. The point of life is not simply to get more done, no matter what Lifehacker says. Slater himself notes that technology is “neutral.” But the companies he profiles aren’t: They must eradicate competitors and sustain profitability, open new markets and dominate them. Otherwise they will be sacrificed on the altar of creative destruction. Consumer behavior is not determined by technology, but corporate behavior may be.
When technology permits new areas of human life to be commodified and subsumed, entrepreneurs and CEOs have no choice but to try to drag human behavior in their direction. Here is where ideology really gets cranked up, and technological determinism is used as a cudgel to beat the recalcitrant into compliance. “Conventions should be revised to conform with the behavior enabled by technology,” Slater concludes from his many discussions with dating-company CEOs, which unearthed such opinions as these: “Most of the rest of society is willing to date for lots of reasons besides dating-into-relationships-into-permanence,” says Noel Biederman, CEO of Ashley Madison, a site for married people looking to cheat. “As an entrepreneur, part of my responsibility to society is to help it evolve, the way an artist does.” Greg Blatt, the CEO of IAC/InterActive Corp., the parent company of Match and OkCupid, tells Slater, “You can say online dating is simply changing people’s ideas about whether commitment itself is a life value.” A 2012 Barron’s profile of Blatt notes that he “has immersed himself in the details of both Match.com and IAC’s search units, both big cash generators.”
Dating sites know that their product typically reveals to users that they don’t really know what they want in a partner, even when they can try to specify it with Sahara-level granularity. The sites’ wager is that these frustrating experiences, combined with a sense that there is nonetheless no “convenient” alternative to them, will lead to a willingness to instead trust what the sites’ algorithms tell us about who we should be interested in, based on the behavior it has recorded and the questions we’ve volunteered or refused to answer. This is how, at the level of the most basic yearning for human companionship, consumerism can potentially fuse with a neoliberalist ethos, eliciting a flexible consumer who can desire whatever’s required and accept that yearning as authentic. If that means hundreds of first dates, then so be it.
As unpalatable as that regime sounds, the online-dating sites and, as they hop on the social-discovery bandwagon, the social-media companies will continue to try to sell us on how much “control” online interactivity and filtering affords us, and how superior this is to the bad old days, when you had to rely on context and community to verify potential beaux. Slater seems impressed by this pitch, declaring that “the measure of power that [online connecting] abdicates to the user is unprecedented” and trumpeting the “choice and control provided by these revolutionary means.” But the only way to become empowered by this form of control is to accede to being controlled on a higher level. To capitalize on convenience and autonomy in a consumer marketplace, we must first allow our desires to be commodified and suppress the desires that don’t lend themselves to commodification. We have to permit more intrusive surveillance to enjoy the supposed benefits of customization. We have to buy into a quantity-over-quality ethos for aspects of life where it has never made any sense, like intimacy.
The promise of control is part of tech companies’ assault on our desire for stability, just as the supposed surplus of options in the market acts as pressure to keep consuming more and faster, so as to not miss out on technology’s chief bounty. But novelty is not an intrinsic desire. The abundance on dating sites doesn’t accommodate users but instead disciplines them in the fun morality, which Baudrillard described in The Consumer Society:
Modern man spends less and less of his life in production within work and more and more of it in the production and continual innovation of his own needs and well-being. He must constantly see to it that all his potentialities, all his consumer capacities are mobilized. If he forgets to do so, he will be gently and insistently reminded that he has no right not to be happy…
You have to try everything, for consumerist man is haunted by the fear of “missing” something, some form of enjoyment or other. It is no longer desire, or even “taste,” or a specific inclination that are at stake, but a generalized curiosity, driven by a vague sense of unease—it is the “fun morality” or the imperative to enjoy oneself, to exploit to the full one’s potential for thrills, pleasure or gratification.
This morality, if you accept Deleuze’s argument in “Postscript on the Societies of Control,” is a more effective means of social control that the traditional modes of discipline associated with normative family values.
So to resist the dating sites’ ideological offensive one can’t simply embrace monogamy and tout the durability of traditional mores. That simply blocks the new control mechanism with the old one. A retreat to the couple form is not a solution to consumerism. But neither is accedence to a view of encounters and relationships as individualized experiential goods. For online dating sites, the optimal customer is an oversexed solipsist addicted to novelty. But interacting with the sites doesn’t have to be a matter of sitting alone at your computer (or staring into a phone) and attenuating your personal predilections as if they came entirely from within and existed independently of social relations. Instead, it can be a confrontation with how little we know about ourselves and how we might aspire to be sure of even less.
Consumerism prompts us to pretend we can have desires in a vacuum, that we are sovereign in our choices and aware of all the viable possibilities and in control of our access to them. But if anything, desire for other people reveals vulnerability; it exposes how fragile and malleable the structures are that hold our everyday routines together. We meet someone who makes a mess of it all.
Dating sites do what they can to distort the pursuit of love, turn it into a process of self-nichification as pseudo-self-discovery, but they can’t entirely eliminate the volatility that comes when strangers are brought together with the intent of being strangers no longer. This alone makes the sites potential reservoirs of resistance, of troubling and revivifying otherness, of necessary self-dismantling. As disillusioning as these encounters can be, they still open the potential for an escape into unpredictable kinds of solidarity from the vulnerability of loneliness.