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 third piece 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 dating, and more.
A couple years ago, the Wall Street Journal published a provocative article on how texting turns us into teenagers. Following fights with her husband, a wife would send him blank text messages to create an air of mystery and score a callback. Other power plays included replying “who is this?” when you receive a text from someone you know, and having a friend text you repeatedly when you’re out on a date in order to paint a picture of popularity.
One 23-year-old woman admitted to this crazy scheme: She would write texts to new boyfriends while pretending to be drunk, saying earnest things but spelling words wrong and mentioning her drunkenness. If the guy responded in a gentlemanly fashion (“I like you too. Why don’t we talk tomorrow?”), then he passed her test. If he tried to take advantage of her drunken state (“Why don’t I stop over later?”), he’s dead in the water. The Journal coined such behavior “bluffting.”
Anyone who dates today knows that the world of relationship technology extends far beyond online-dating sites. Even for relationships that begin offline, things like Facebook, Twitter, text messages, and even Google – which gives us loads of information about someone before meeting them in person – all function as potent forms of relationship mediation, for better and worse, often for worse.
Chapter eight of my book, Love in the Time of Algorithms, is titled “Knowledge Is Sour: How Too Much Information Turns Us Into That Kind of Girlfriend.” I follow the dating travails of Dara, a 28 year-old documentary filmmaker in San Francisco. Dara and her friends notice a common cycle to San Francisco’s dating scene: meet online, go on a date, become Facebook friends with the love interest, go on a few more dates, and then try to figure out whether a relationship exists by checking back at the dating site (did he take his profile down?), scouring Facebook for signs of competition, or, even less ideal, clocking his response time to text messages.
They found this sleuthing and stalking as addictive as it was crazy-making. Watching their potential boyfriends’ lives unfold on Facebook, without any context besides the photos and status updates they could see, made them paranoid and turned them into “that kind of girlfriend,” the one who is overly jealous and searching for signs that her significant other thinks only of her.
At first, Dara decided the solution to this madness was to adopt a strategy she called “hot-and-wanted.” It entailed posting Facebook pictures of herself doing fun things, featuring flirtatious comments on her wall from guys, and generally exuding the image of a fantastic life. It took a couple of lonely weeks for Dara to learn that “hot-and-wanted” worked not at all.
Don’t worry – Dara winds up happily paired in the end. But first she had to learn that all the Facebook-stalking and bluffting in the world wouldn’t change the fact that, while new relationships can be discovered online, trust and loyalty are established IRL over time. A deep connection is never based on how well or poorly someone manipulates texts and images on a screen, but on how he or she behaves offline.
In other words, want to build a solid relationship once you’ve met someone great? Then back away from the screen.