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The Paradox of Online Dating

December 1, 2014

Four Harvard Alumni with degrees in mathematics and a passion to create something new. What should they do? According to some, the best path is to create one of the most popular online study guides in the world, SparkNotes. But when that's acquired by another corporation, the next endeavor might as well be the most popular online dating site to date, OkCupid. In an interview with The Verge, OkCupid co-founder Christian Rudder explains how "the Internet's supposed to connect us, but it actually disconnects everybody" because many online platforms like Snapchat and Facebook increase the amount of time we spend glued to our devices. But he thinks dating sites prove an exception, because "it's meant to increase the amount of [interactions in the material world]". There's a lot of truth to that: the service isn't successful if people almost never actually meet up and form relationships in the real world. So online dating sites such as OkCupid and match.com are unique, in that they're digital entities that exist across both the ethereal, online world and the reality. I think it's because of this that online dating brings out one particular oddity in our culture.

Online dating services like OkCupid are somewhat of a social paradox, and give us an odd insight to one of our cultures' quirks.

If there's any obvious difference between the processes of finding a partner in "real life" and doing so online, it's the amount of information we give out initially about ourselves, or the openness that we have to the world. In almost all, if not all, circumstances of online dating, the whole process begins by your divulging to the Internet everything from the most apparent traits to tiny details about who you are. As a result, you're presenting yourself rather openly to the world. In contrast, most relationships in the material world begin with neither side really knowing too much about the other. It's in due process that people get to know each other deeply. So even though the result is the same, when we approach it online, we go about in a fundamentally different way than how we think about it in the material world. Something about the fact that we are not directly communicating with people, face-to-face, allows us to be less self-conscious of ourselves online. But switch to the material world, and as if someone flipped a universal mental switch, we go right back to surrounding ourselves with the air of nervousness.

As I talked about in a previous post, we generally have a rather irrational tendency to avoid "awkward" social interactions, which somewhat hinders communication between each other. But for some reason, we seem to be less so online; we share more content, voice our thoughts more freely, and have more conversations with other people, and this is almost universal among the many digital ways of talking to others. So is it that, contrary to the common belief, the Internet is actually making us more social? Is it leading us to open up more to others? You could certainly make a very strong case for it.

Is it that, contrary to the common belief, the Internet is actually making us more social?

If you compare relationships that started online to those that started in more traditional ways*, I think you'll see a rather stark contrast, at least at the beginning, on how open or closed people are to each other. It's not inherently a bad thing for people to start out a little ... Nervous, for lack of a better word. But I think there is merit to interacting with people in general more openly. Oddly enought, online dating sites allow that to a greater extent than many real-world situations, and I'd be willing to bet that many relationships benefit from this initial openness.

So the question arises: why aren't we as open in the real world? Undoubtedly there are thousands of factors that all play a role, but if I had to pick one out, I'd probably attribute it to the less personal nature of online communication. When we're talking to or listening to people directly, there's always immediate feedback, and there's always at least one person sitting right in fron of you, reminding you that someone is listening and comprehending what's coming out of your mouth. Even though much of online communication works the same way, I think we perceive it differently. If we comment on a post or thread, or upload a video blog, there are those same people, still comprehending and responding to what you say, but at least from my point of view, saying something on the Internet feels closer to shouting something into a bottomless void than having a conversation with people. I think that impersonal nature of sharing things online allows us to be more open.

At the same time, communication is essential to any relationship. So if we see that we can be more open online, I think we can benefit hugely from being just as open in the material world. As always, force-fitting one mindset into a different situation in the name of adoption doesn't always work out perfectly, but a more confident conversation in relationships of any kind wouldn't hurt. In a world where being social can also mean sitting alone in a quiet room, I think a more open attitude in relationships is one thing we can take away from the social paradox of online dating.


* Not that I'm claiming to have done so explicitly....