Aziz Ansari’s Time Magazine piece about love must have pop up in my Twitter timeline about 500 times before I finally clicked on it, with a sigh. I envisioned an unsatisfying Seinfeld-like riff ala “What’s the deal with OK Cupid?”
As it turns out, the piece is well worth reading. Its central thesis isn’t hugely original, but Ansari ties it to the nuances of online dating in interesting ways– particularly the changes from traditional online dating to mobile dating.
At the end is a stark lesson for consumer Web entrepreneurs: The ever-unsatisfied user will always push the pendulum back and forth– from algorithm to more human, from a comprehensive data set to a more limited one, from the world at your fingertips to just give me what’s in my hood. Why? Because technology can never really unlock the instant, magical answers we want when it comes to love, friendship, companionship, and connection. It can only get us slightly closer to it.
Ansari opens the piece talking about how his father opted into an arranged marriage after meeting three girls briefly and picking by sight, and yet Ansari needs multiple apps and an hour to figure out a place to have dinner. He extrapolates this to a world where the bevy of choices available to us via online dating have turned the game into one where a schlub gripes that a gorgeous girl on an online dating app isn’t swipe worthy because she likes the Red Sox.
I’d argue this isn’t just the fault of online dating– online dating is merely the vehicle through which everyday men can live out this fantasy.
Consider the most popular meme in pop culture for a while: The schlubby guy with the hot girl. King of Queens, Still Standing, and every other sitcom of the last decade of its ilk, and nearly every commercial for a consumer packaged good. Even the movie Wall-e. It’s all perpetrated a myth that somehow good-natured schlubby men actually deserve hot wives who will roll their eyes and nag them to be better, but ultimately love them in all their schlubby glory.
Indeed, a lot of Ansari’s argument may be less about a digital generation versus a pre-digital generation, than America vs. the rest of the world. Years ago, I read a New Yorker piece that’s stuck with me ever since about how Americans in particular have an obsessive need to find the absolute best version of something, rather than something that was simply good enough. It goes back to the days of Manifest Destiny, and it renders us incapable of buying something right in front of us, that we can afford, that we like because there’s a fear somewhere deep inside that there might be a better version out there. As American culture takes over global culture like Kudzu it even has an acronym: FOMO.
It could be jars of peanut butter. It could be detergent. It could be pain killers. It could be a mate. You see it in our massive grocery stories that display dozens of different types of the same thing. You see it in the popularity of magazines like Consumer Reports and trends like “showrooming.” You see it in advertisements– constantly citing how their product is better than everyone else, not merely good in and of itself. America is deeply culturally the land of endless opportunities, in a way that other cultures are happy with a product that they love, regardless of whether they might love a competing product more. So much so that we tend to drive ourselves mad.
But what Ansari puts his finger on is the way the evolution of online dating has played a role in this. The ability to think you know the “specs” of what you want in a mate the way you would in an iPhone and plug that into an app and find it…. and largely be disappointed because that’s not really how love and attraction works. Online dating has essentially given us too much of a good thing and the results are telling. While online dating sites brag at how many marriages they enable, overall marriage rates in the US are at historic lows. According to the Time article, the rate of marriages per 1,000 single women dropped almost 60% from 1970 to 2012. “For the first time in history, the typical American now spends more years single than married,” the articles states.
As online dating plays a bigger role in creating marriages, is it as much part of the problem as part of the solution? If it’s that much easier to “order up” a mate, are we deluding ourselves to think the relationship will have the same satisfaction as a hard fought one? There is something to this idea of what we think we want versus what we want. Steve Jobs argued it was his job to tell the customer what he wanted– and there’s that old saw that customers would have wanted faster horses, not a car. If we believe even a tiny bit in the mystery of love and attraction, is it feasible that an algorithm can replace it? Or is it possible that the allure of so many matches at your fingertips one of the things that keeps people from committing?
In the last few years in Silicon Valley, divorce has been as contagious as having kids was a few years ago, at least among people I know. My take on it has been pretty simple: You shouldn’t make lifelong decisions in your 20s. Or, go ahead and make them, but don’t be surprised when they don’t make sense decades later after tremendous personal and professional change. But as Ansari points out, people have been putting off marriage longer and longer and the odds of a marriage lasting are still poor. So much for my theory.
We can debate whether or not Americans spending the majority of their lives single is a “problem.” I’d argue part of the trend is that women feel more empowered and are less likely to rush into bad marriages out of financial need or social pressure. That, to me, is a good thing. But it’s hard to imagine the Internet isn’t also part of the cause since nearly 40% of singles are dating online.
Before LinkedIn, Reid Hoffman built one of the first social media apps, centered around online dating. He ultimately decided online dating was a horrific business because of the constant need for customer acquisition. Best case: Someone meets the love of their life and never comes back. Worst case: They don’t and are disillusioned and don’t come back. That’s why he switched to building a career-oriented social network. Everyone wants to climb a career ladder, so getting a new job doesn’t mean the last one was a failure.
But it hasn’t quite worked that way. This FOMO has enabled online dating to become an obsessive repeat business in the way the early pioneers of the industry couldn’t have imagined.
So much so that there’s a tension in online dating now between two human needs that advance most of the consumer Web: The ability to satisfy FOMO (think comparative shopping, search algorithms) and the need for instant gratification (think Uber.) Sometimes these two are at odds. Seeing every option isn’t necessarily quick. For instance, we don’t agonize over who the best Uber driver might be, we just want a car now. But sometimes these dovetail– Facebook allows you to know everything going on in everyone’s life, to essentially not choose who to stay in touch with. But it also gives you all that instantly.
And online dating turned mobile is tipping more away from FOMO and more towards instant gratification. And Ansari rightly argues that something like Tinder is getting closer to his parents’ arranged marriage. He argues it does so because it limits choices to potential matches nearby. I argue it takes the “thinking” out of the whole thing, and returns it to a gut level of attraction. And that doesn’t mean looks– but that unspoken thing that draws you to someone that you can’t put in an algorithm. The same way Ansari’s dad picked his mom because of her height.
It’s an argument the Tinder founders made when I met with them in LA late last year just before Sean Rad was replaced as CEO. Let me be clear: Descriptions I hear of how male friends of mine “work” Tinder absolutely gross me out. And based on everything I’d ever read about the company, I was expecting a bro’d out culture all about hookups. But Rad actually made a compelling argument for why Tinder was closer to the way we find love in the real world than Match.com. I left the room thinking, theoretically at least, he was onto something deep, even if in practice it had turned extremely shallow.
For better or worse, we make immediate judgements on the way people look. And it’s not just when it comes to dating. If I’m trying to make friends with other moms at preschool or the park, I’ll be drawn to moms based on how they look, dress, and carry themselves. Even, maybe, the car they drive. I am looking for someone fun, who isn’t too uptight or helicopter-y, who I might share a similar parenting philosophy with. And appearance holds a million clues.
If another mom also looks like she got dressed in the dark that morning. If she isn’t embarrassed to wear the clothes her kids picked out for her. If she loves that her son is wearing a tutu over his camo pants. If she has a dirty shirt tail because the entire family uses it as a go-to napkin. If she spends more time on the floor with the kids than sitting on a bench watching them. If her car is as messy as mine. If her kids make her laugh loudly. If any of that, then she’s probably my type of mom. I wish there was a Tinder for moms who regularly frequent the same park, because I have a hard time making mom friends. (Except in reality, of course, pervy men would just hack it into a MILF app. Sigh.)
Most lifelong friends I’ve met, I somehow knew by sight the first time I met them. And I can usually tell if I want to work with someone after about five minutes too. I chalk it up to gut, not shallowness. There are thousands of subtle data points that we take in visually that we can’t really process in our rational brain.
Because the mobile web is largely more about instant gratification than FOMO, Tinder has pushed dating in that direction, and in doing so it’s taken thinking out of dating and attraction. I’m with Ansari– for all the perviness it enables, that’s ultimately a good thing for love. Some things just aren’t solved by an algorithm.
[Illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]