Dan Slater, a former reporter for The Wall Street Journal, is the author of Love in the Time of Algorithms: What Technology Does to Meeting and Mating. This is the first article in a series he’s writing for HowAboutWe on what technology means for the future of relationships – for sex, intimacy, jealousy, compatibility, love, cross-cultural relationships, the business of online dating, and more.
“How has technology affected our romantic interactions?” asked Aziz Ansari, the comedian and actor, in a recent interview with AV Club. That question, Ansari said, is the seed of his next standup tour. He continued:
In this era, we have more choice than any group of people ever. When you are out at night, anyone in the universe can contact you instantly. Think about how crazy that is compared to even a few decades ago. There was an article I read about a guy who started online dating and went on all these dates. He was in this one relationship, and he said normally, he would have probably moved in with her and likely married her, but because he knew about all the choices he had with online dating, he broke it off and ventured back out to find someone who was a better fit. Shit like that is super-interesting to me.
Shit like that is super-interesting to me too. In fact, the magazine article Ansari refers to is an excerpt from my new book, Love in the Time of Algorithms, which is all about how online-dating and other connective technologies like Facebook and texting are shaping our relationships, for better and worse.
The excerpt came from chapter five, entitled “Better Relationships But More Divorce: What Technology Means for Commitment.” We observe Jacob, a 30-something man in Oregon, as he rides – forgive me – a merry-go-round of brief relationships after realizing, thanks to online dating, how much easier it’s become to discover new people. Jacob finds it liberating, at first: The prospect of relationship failure becomes far less scary or daunting. He feels no need, as he once did, to stick around in relationships that aren’t quite right, to feign commitment to things he doesn’t actually feel committed to.
I chose to use Jacob not because he was unusual, nor even that extreme in his behavior. But rather because his situation reflected a theme that emerged from so many of the 100-plus online daters I interviewed for “Algorithms” – men and women, old and young, gay and straight. In the best cases, online dating had raised the bar for what they considered a good relationship, given them more opportunities to “fail” in substandard relationships, and, ultimately, led them into great, committed relationships. The result, I hypothesize, is captured in the chapter title: better relationships, but also, by definition, more relationship breakup, as online daters adapt to a new reality in which technology has made us all a little more replaceable.
Yes, it’s true that divorce rates are finally leveling off. But it’s also true that marriage rates are at historic lows. Does that mean the committed relationships that are forming are somehow stronger or more considered?
Jacob was interesting to me because I was able to capture him in what appeared to be a middle-ground. This was not a guy who set out to play the field. In fact, he had no history of sleeping around. Prior to online dating, Jacob had spent his twenties in two long-term relationships. He did want commitment, yet by his own admission lacked the experience, or relationship IQ, to get there. The question is whether, when the merry-go-round stops, he’ll be in a better place because of it.