In the latest installment of the Atlantic‘s series on our doomed generation (see August’s “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” and May’s “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?”), Dan Slater has just written a sad-sack expose in the February issue about online dating and its threat to monogamy.
The piece, adapted from Slater’s book Love in the Time of Algorithms, and predicated on the antics of a thirtysomething layabout named Jacob, argues that tyranny of choice has paralyzed us when it comes to finding a compatible match.
“At the selection stage, researchers have seen that as the range of options grows larger, mate-seekers are liable to become ‘cognitively overwhelmed,’ and deal with the overload by adopting lazy comparison strategies and examining fewer cues,” writes Slater. “As a result, they are more likely to make careless decisions than they would be if they had fewer options.”
Amid the rapidfire rejection that comes with Internet romance, this is quite a nice theory to hang our hats on. The low second date-retention rate? The constant self-commodification? Flaky people just like Jacob? It’s this confounded technological age! Men knew how to commit before OKCupid!
Like too much of what’s written by middle-aged social theorists about millennials, Slater’s theory rests on the assumption that we’re too overstimulated and digitally desensitized to be productive social creatures.The Internet couldn’t simply be a channel for the exact same connecting, flirting, breaking up, and commiting that men and women have been choosing to go through since we retired our 1950s housewife fantasy. It somehow has to be proof of our desensitization to basic human functions like socializing. Things will never be the same.
I’m not, of course, trying to say that the Internet hasn’t changed dating. No one I know prowling cyberspace for someone—anyone—normal and nice is lost on what a numbers game it’s become. Some are even talking a backlash against Internet dating. What irked me about Slater’s piece was the notion that somehow we’re different. That we’re emotionally stunted by all of our so-called options.
I don’t know anyone who cradles in the arms of OKCupid or Match.com the way that Jacob does. The nicest description I’ve ever heard for any of these sites is, “a good way to meet lots of different people.” More commonly, “grueling” and “depressing.” Sometimes, “character-building.”
The Jacobs of the world—indecisive, noncommital people who serial date well into their adult years—are not a phenomenon of the digital age. Some have always prioritized settling down and matrimony, while others can only commit to endless field-playing. The two have always butted heads. Maybe there’s a faster turnaround now, but the principles remain. Through all of this, disappointment and doubt have always run steady.
But lest we forget, there’s a reason our generation has opted to not jump into lifelong commitments lightly or quickly. We do have more options than we used to. We didn’t choose that route because it was easier and more comfortable, but because we wanted to be ourselves before being someone else’s. I don’t take away a lot of doom and gloom from Slater’s piece, because all it really says is that we’re taking more time to find the right person now. That many of us are still character-building. That’s commitment enough.