The Data-Filled Dating Pool

First, there were matchmakers. Then there were personal ads. Now there are dating sites and apps. Big differences in mediums here, but they all involved an algorithmic element of chance, and they still do. In his book, We Are Data, John Cheney-Lippold describes the social and technological phenomenon that is the dating site/app. Sites like OkCupid, Bumble, and Tinder use your personal data to find “love” or sex matches with others’ personal data. OkCupid is one of the most thorough because it prompts the user with an extensive number of survey questions. But even though Tinder and Bumble appear to use “simpler” tactics to find a match, they require the connection to Facebook or Gmail to work.

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Courtesy of OkCupid

 

The online dating version of oneself is a persona, or as Cheney-Lippold describes, “an algorithmic ‘you’ alongside your algorithmic ‘others’” (Cheney-Lippold, 182). Jacques Lacan’s (the French psychoanalyst’s) mirror stage principle can be applied here. Babies reach the mirror stage when they look into a mirror and realize that they’re seeing the

physical form of themselves. But, as Cheney-Lippold argues, “…subject formation also occurs through our encounters with what he calls an ‘introjection’ of language or the internalization of symbolic identification” (Cheney-Lippold, 169-170). This symbolic identification occurs within us every minute we spend chatting with users on dating apps. We whole-heartedly believe that we’re representing ourselves as ourselves, and that others are doing the same. Unfortunately, these personas (whether we realize it or not) have not much to do with the “real you.”

“This data-based courtship cares little if your last name is Casanova or your face can launch an excessive number of ships. Your desirability must be translated into clickable, ratable, ‘matchable’ data” (Cheney-Lippold, 183-184).

 

So, what are the results? I’ve had a lot of personal experience with dating apps. Last fall I lived in London for four months, and in order to meet people, I used Bumble and Tinder. I went on dates with six different young men, and most of these dates were bad. The one “good match” I had (a date that turned into a relationship) was with someone I had literally nothing in common with other than a sense of humor. So, these experiences have convinced me that dating algorithms just don’t work, and simply apply a false amount of “quantitative overconfidence,” as Cheney-Lippold would surmise (Cheney-Lippold, 186).

But then again, there are many successes. My sister and her live-in boyfriend of three years met on OkCupid. My current boyfriend and I met on Tinder. Perhaps these successes simply spawn from a high-frequency of usage on these sites—the more you “match” and chat with users, the more likely you’ll meet someone. But it’s really not that simple.

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Courtesy of Tinder

I said my sister and her boyfriend met on OkCupid, but they actually knew each other before from mutual friends, high schools, bands, etc. Additionally, after my boyfriend and I got to know each other better, we also realized we had an extensive list of common connections and strange coincidences that could have brought us together. For starters, we had two mutual friends on Facebook. He also went to the same college, Berklee, as one of my good friends from high school, though they’d never officially met. He had recorded music at my friend Andrew’s studio in Western Mass (where I’m originally from), and I had recorded music at his friend Tom’s studio in Boston. We had been to some of the same concerts, too. None of this information was provided by us to Tinder.

One of my weirder Internet dating “coincidences” occurred in London, too. I was scrolling through users on Bumble when I stumbled upon a recent Wheaton graduate and friend. I was shocked to find out that he had come to London for ten days for Thanksgiving with his extended British family. We met for a drink to catch up.

Me: Isn’t it so weird that out of the millions of people in London, within the first two days you were here, you showed up on Bumble?

Friend: It’s not a coincidence…

Me: What do you mean?

Friend: It’s all connected—all of your online profiles, email accounts, everything. Duh. It just paired us together because of Facebook.

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Courtesy of Bumble

 

I felt somewhat naïve that I had not considered that these “random” pairings were not so random, and this coincidence was not-so-much of a coincidence. But now, after all of my experiences, it is so glaringly obvious how our algorithms can cross borders within seconds, from Facebook to Tinder, to Gmail, to OKCupid, and produce results in an instant.

 

 

It’s a strange feeling knowing that the Internet is just waiting for people to meet, and that it worked on me, my boyfriend, my sister, her boyfriend, and of course, millions of other users. At the end of the day, these online connections can turn into real relationships. A conscious shift needs to occur, though, when both parties realize that the “person” they were “speaking” with online was really just a warped piece of the person that stands in front of them—simply a mash up of data designed to attract data. What we’re left with, in the physical world, then is hopefully something real.


Works Cited

Cheney-Lippold, John. We Are Data: Algorithms and the Making of Our Digital Selves. New York University Press, 2017.


 

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