The disruptive technology of internet dating

[This should probably have gone in last week’s Shame Week…but seeing as it’s Valentine’s Day, here is a post I wrote two years ago about my experience internet dating.]

The phrase ‘disruptive technologies’ usually refers to the way new inventions can completely transform, disrupt and even destroy traditional markets. But it applies not just to markets, but also to communities, conventions, traditions, and traditional ways of feeling, behaving, interacting, and even making love.

Take, for example, the invention of the pill, or the Combined Oral Contraceptive Pill, which was first synthesized from Mexican yams (no, really) in the 1930s, then introduced for married women in the US in 1965 (although not introduced for unmarried women until 1972). Think how incredibly disruptive that new technology was for traditional ways of interacting. Think of the role the humble Mexican yam played in the Sexual Revolution, in free love, in feminism, in the rise of single-occupancy apartments and the decline of the nuclear family.

Perhaps the most disruptive technology is the internet, which has in a few years utterly changed how we communicate, share information, shop, travel, think and love. Since the invention of the Net, human culture has become far faster. It has given us a new word, ‘viral’, to describe the sudden exponential take-up of new ideas, words, technologies and practices.

The speed of disruption was brought to my mind when I went to see The Social Network, which is about Facebook. That’s interesting in itself. They’re already making a movie about Facebook, before it’s even gone public. History is speeding up. The beginning of the film takes us back in time to the origins of Facebook, way back in 2003. The reason Facebook succeeded, the film explained to me, is that its technology isn’t entirely disruptive. In many ways, it ‘fits’ with our evolutionary nature, which is used to living in a small tribe of 100-300 people. Facebook gives us an online version of this tribe, but it rationalizes it, streamlines it, makes it more efficient. It draws on the basic human desire to share information with the tribe, through fireside gossip, songs, music – but it allows the tribe to stretch across space, so that friends who live abroad are still connected to the tribe.

But it also disrupts and transforms ancient social patterns. Where before, our tribal self-presentation (and therefore our status) would have been relatively fixed, in the online tribe, the way we present ourselves is infinitely malleable. That’s the fun of Facebook. It’s a fluid, non-hierarchical tribe, where everyone can present themselves as the Big Chief.

The new virtual tribe brings new anxieties with it. How well do we know the members of our tribe? How much information do we share with them? How real are the ties and bonds of the tribe? Would the members of the tribe take care of us when we fall sick? Everyone has friends who tend to spill their emotional problems onto their status update…is it appropriate? Does the tribe care?

As of last month [ie October 2010], I signed up to another disruptive technology: online dating. Yes, I joined Guardian Soulmates. Kill me now. But it’s actually been quite fun. Compulsive even – although like Facebook there’s an initial burst of enthusiasm that quite rapidly leads to digital ennui.

Like Facebook, users of Soulmates have a profile page, which is their persona, their advertisment, their shop front, where they tell the market why they should go on a date with them: ‘I’m cheeky’, ‘I’m a great cook’, ‘I love to travel’, ‘I study at the LSE’, ‘I’m a successful lawyer’ – it’s funny what people think are their chief selling points. People often list their favourite TV shows. Again, interesting how our taste in TV has become one of our main cultural signifiers. Are you more an HBO or a UK Gold sort of person?

You also write what you want in return – women often seem to want someone to curl up with next to a fire…once again, the old tribal patterns emerge. People also post photos of themselves looking soulful, climbing up Kilimanjaro, running a marathon, surrounded by adoring friends, cradling an enormous cocktail. Pick me…I’m a drunk! One person posted six photos, all of her at other people’s weddings, several with her as the bridesmaid. Want to get married much?

The profiles are often hilarious. One person recorded a voice message in which they spent five minutes simply listing their favourite rock bands in a monotone. ‘Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden, Def Leppard, Queens of the Stone Age’ etc etc. Another person, French, assured visitors to her profile page that she would be their ‘mother, sister, daughter, whore’.

Typos abound: one dater says they don’t want to be ‘partonized’, another says the fact she speaks three languages is ‘intimating’ for many men. Yes, I know, I’m a pedant – and I’m sure the boys’ profiles are just as misspeltt.

I’d actually tried internet dating before, a couple of years ago, but hadn’t had much luck, mainly because I kept on correcting people’s typos. This time, I decided to take a more Machiavellian approach. I noticed there was a ‘popular board’, which listed the top 20 men and the top 20 women on the site, rated according to the speed at which others added them as favourites or sent them messages. So I simply added hundreds of women as favourites (around 200 or so in an hour). About half of them added me as well (reciprocity), and presto, by the end of the day I was right up the popular board. My uncle, a journalist at the Guardian, emailed me bemusedly to tell me my Soulmates photo was on the homepage of the Guardian main-site. Finally, I was among the Olympians! Gatsby, you didn’t need to throw all those parties: you just need to maximise your search engine optimisation.

Suddenly way more people were sending me emails asking to meet up. The number one girl on the female popular board sent me an email, asking me to write to her. Being on the ‘popular board’ had given me what they call ‘social proof’. I had just made the football team, and suddenly the head cheerleader is making eyes at me. We’re herd animals, status animals, but unlike other animals, we can fake being alpha.

The slightly dark side to this manipulation was that I got lots of emails from some of the people I’d added as favourites, excited that I appeared to like them, and interpreting it as significant. These people were then sometimes hurt if I didn’t reply to their email. So I then felt I had to reply to all their emails. I ended up being an agony aunt to women all over the world, firing out tens of emails a day to lonely Bridget Joneses…‘Hey, don’t worry, I’m sure things will turn around, plenty more fish in the sea, just stay positive OK?’

I found the site strangely compulsive. The journalist (or voyeur) in me had to find out who was the person behind the profile page. It was like an advent calendar, where you keep opening the little windows, without ever quite getting to Christmas.  The dates I’ve been on have hardly ever been boring. The word I would use is…weird. There’s a lot of baggage out there. The technology may be cool and efficient, but you’re still dealing with the slow messiness of the human heart.

You hear a lot of sad stories – a woman who gave up her dream of being a dancer because the doctors said she had a back problem and it would leave her paralysed. Ten years later, she found out they were wrong, but by then life had passed her by. Another girl, who was number one on the popular board, told me she had run as an MP. I expected her to be a scary alpha female, but in fact she turned out to be…a witch. I don’t mean an unpleasant woman, I mean a proper, cauldron-stirring, Wicca-worshipping witch. ‘You wouldn’t believe the amount of discrimination we face’, she told me.

Sometimes it all feels a bit too mechanical, a bit too efficient, which is why the title is so genius: ‘Guardian Soulmates’ – as if destiny and the soul can play a role in such a rationalized market. People who’ve met on it, and got married, have to invent stories to enhance the illusion of destiny: ‘His was the very first profile I looked at’ – so they can hold on to the belief that this was MEANT TO BE, and not simply the random accident of an internet algorithm.

After a month, you’re weary, you’ve been on too many dates, you’ve gorged yourself on too much random personal information, you’ve opened too many windows into strangers’ lives, you can’t remember people’s names, you cant remember anything about your date, cant tell if you liked them or not, but it doesn’t matter, because 100 new people have joined, and you promise yourself, just one more window, just one more spin of the wheel, maybe this time, maybe this is the One.