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Why Online Dating Can Feel Like Such an Existential Nightmare

Matchmaking sites have officially surpassed friends and family in the world of dating, injecting modern romance with a dose of radical individualism. Maybe that’s the problem.

My maternal grandparents met through mutual friends at a summer pool party in the suburbs of Detroit shortly after World War II. Thirty years later, their oldest daughter met my dad in Washington, D.C., at the suggestion of a mutual friend from Texas. Forty years after that, when I met my girlfriend in the summer of 2015, one sophisticated algorithm and two rightward swipes did all the work.

My family story also serves as a brief history of romance. Robots are not yet replacing our jobs. But they’re supplanting the role of matchmaker once held by friends and family.

For the past 10 years, the Stanford sociologist Michael Rosenfeld has been compiling data on how couples meet. In almost any other period, this project would have been an excruciating bore. That’s because for centuries, most couples met the same way: They relied on their families and friends to set them up. In sociology-speak, our relationships were “mediated.” In human-speak, your wingman was your dad.

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But dating has changed more in the past two decades than in the previous 2,000 years, thanks to the explosion of matchmaking sites such as Tinder, OKCupid, and Bumble. A 2012 paper co-written by Rosenfeld found that the share of straight couples who met online rose from about zero percent in the mid-1990s to about 20 percent in 2009. For gay couples, the figure soared to nearly 70 percent.

In a new paper awaiting publication, Rosenfeld finds that the online-dating phenomenon shows no signs of abating. According to data collected through 2017, the majority of straight couples now meet online or at bars and restaurants. As the co-authors write in their conclusion, “Internet dating has displaced friends and family [as] key intermediaries.” We used to rely on intimates to screen our future partners. Now that’s work we have to do ourselves, getting by with a little help from our robots.

Last week, I tweeted the main graph from Rosenfeld’s latest, a decision we both mildly regret, because it inundated my mentions and ruined his inbox. “I think I got about 100 media requests over the weekend,” he told me ruefully on the phone when I called him on Monday. (The Atlantic could not secure permission to publish the graph before the paper’s publication in a journal, but you can see it on page 15 here.)

Read: The 5 years that changed dating

I figured my Twitter audience—entirely online, disproportionately young, and intimately familiar with dating sites—would accept the inevitability of online matchmaking. But the most common responses to my post were not hearty cheers. They were lamentations about the spiritual bankruptcy of modern love. Bryan Scott Anderson, for example, suggested that the rise of online dating “may be an illustration of heightened isolation and a diminished sense of belonging within communities.”

It is true, as Rosenfeld’s data show, that online dating has freed young adults from the limitations and biases of their hometowns. But to be free of those old crutches can be both exhilarating and exhausting. As the influence of friends and family has melted away, the burden of finding a partner has been swallowed whole by the individual—at the very moment that expectations of our partners are skyrocketing…[ ]

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