Tuesday, February 19, 2013
The topic of online dating has inexhaustible potential. This article attempts to reach that elusive end point. In a sweeping commentary that touches on the socio-economics of online dating, the technology that enables it and what it means for the future of relationships, the author does not leave much out. However, he is not able to tie the many threads of this topic into a cohesive conclusion.
Early on, he talks about what online dating companies are trying to create, namely "the profusion of potential partners all in one convenient marketplace, a sort of Costco for the libido". And like a customer at Costco who may prefer it over multiple stops at locally owned stores and a farmer's market, the online dater would likely forego the traditional methods of dating and take the path of least resistance. Technology allows for mass personalization; to that end I get coupons in the mail from my nearest big box store that exactly meet my needs. They come in an envelope addressed to me and unlike the mass mailers they once sent out, every last offer is completely relevant to me.
This level of personalization, Horning argues is coming to the online dating world as well "Just as CafePress can sell you a customized T-Shirt, why shouldn’t OKCupid aspire to sell you a customized partner?" From my past experience and that of my friends who have been or currently are active in the online dating world, that goal is aspirational at best. Unlike a person's shopping habits, that can be read, measured and interpreted, their preferences for romantic partner cannot be so easily discerned. Often the person in question does not know, cannot describe what it takes to make them happy and indeed does not want to profiled and served a made to order partner. While OKCupid's analytic horsepower is impressive, it is a little disingenuous to pretend that it is possible to pair someone with a partner perfect for them - algorithmically.
There are many connections made between the traditional business and the online dating market place. Here is one I found interesting. Horning says: "Traditionally, businesses have thrived on artificial scarcity, even if the tendency of the system as a whole may be to arbitrage away such advantages." He ties the idea of artificial scarcity to female purity "In a sense, social mores and attitudes about female purity worked as DRM for dating, restricting supply to protect intimacy’s value." Unfortunately, Horning does not carry this idea forward into his subsequent arguments.
He quotes the Dan Slater, author of Love In The Time of Algorithms, as saying the dating companies “want satisfied daters. But they also spend their days focused on maximizing nonromantic metrics, such as ‘customer acquisition,’ ‘conversion rates,’ and ‘lifetime value.’ ” This reminded me of my friend S who has been dating for a couple of years now and would sooner take a break from dating when things become too complicated than try to settle. Most of her relationships span between one and six months. She is happy with her life as it is and could potentially be classified a "satisfied dater" who would help maximize all those "nonromantic metrics" Slater is referring to.