Adventures in romantic commodification

There is a poignant moment in Spike Jonze’s 2013 film Her, when lovelorn protagonist Theodore discovers that the object of his affections has been talking to 8316 other people, and is in love with 641 of those. With a rude shock he realises that the question of ‘being exclusive’ had been broached too late. An apologetic Samantha offers that ‘The heart’s not like a box that gets filled up; it expands in size the more you love.’ A gobsmacked Theodore can only stammer, ‘That doesn’t make any sense. You’re mine or you’re not mine.’ Theodore and Samantha are a most unconventional pairing – the latter being not a living, breathing human but an operating system. And yet, for those of us who have sought love or companionship online, there is something here that might just strike a chord.

The psychology of internet dating can best be described as a kind of schizoid hyper-vigilance, with violent swings of hope and doubt. As Molly Roth reflects in an article on Vox, ‘There have been times when I felt worthless because men seemed to have one eye scanning over my shoulder for someone better.’ In this environment in which connections are swift but commitments uncertain, one begins to despair and obsess over the quantity, quality, and frequency of messages. Dating websites might be very good at creating expectations, but they are not so good at helping you manage them. In the event that a mutual attraction begins to bloom, there is the urge to ‘lock it down’, as it were, and agree to a date where the conversation can be continued offline, despite knowing that the sensible, rational path is to proceed slowly and cautiously, lest your match be of the malicious, shape-shifting kind.

The experience of internet dating can be a steep learning curve, and these days, I’m happy to take my search for a soul mate a little less seriously. And I’m not alone in finding that my OKCupid profile has inadvertently become a conduit for social research. If nothing else, it has allowed me to confirm that humans are hopeless voyeurs, ascribe way too much to surface appearances, and generally will not bother to read any text that accompanies a photo. But there’s no excuse for that really. OKCupid has analysed its vast troves of user data in order to compile a helpful cheat sheet titled ‘Exactly What To Say In A First Message’.  It appears, however, that ‘Rule 2: Avoid Physical Compliments’ is one that a lot of users have trouble getting their head around.

I’ve received the usual boilerplate introductory messages: ‘Your profile makes you seem like a pretty fun and out-there kind of girl.’ (Fun? Really? I seem to recall it containing the word ‘cynical’ and a remark about the ‘corrupt’ economy.) There’s always the charmer who asks, ‘Hey hey, causing any trouble tonight? ;)​’ on the off-chance you might be up for a sleazy late-night chat. But this outlier gets points for originality: ‘Is the colour of your lipstick exactly the same as the colour of the tomatoes you grow in your garden?’

Marie Southard Ospina’s experiment offers a compelling insight into people’s responses to different visual cues. She modelled five different looks on her OKCupid profile, modifying only her make-up and dress, while keeping the location and lighting in each of the photos the same, and leaving her bio information (‘a single paragraph detailing my love of literature and writing, my obsession with Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones and my desire to meet new people and make some friends’) unchanged. The responses ranged from ‘I hope you don’t take this the wrong way, but can I help you somehow?’ (when dressed as a Goth), to ‘you look like you know how to use that body’ (‘Chavette’), to ‘such wife material’ (Classic Vintage). And Molly Roth’s despair at being objectified is one many of us can relate to: ‘sometimes I feel like men imagine a pixelated floating vagina with boobs on the receiving end of their messages’. She made light of this rather disappointing state of affairs by turning the weird messages she received into a series of feminist comics.

With a growing number of apps and websites vying for space in the romantic marketplace, OKCupid is keen to position its ‘brand’ as offering experiences more meaningful and enduring than a short-term hook-up. ‘People who use OKCupid do prioritize love over sex,’ Jimena Almendares, chief product officer at OKCupid, reassures us. A new report released by the company has calculated that ‘the perfect time for sleeping with someone is (between) three to six dates, more in the middle – not in the beginning and not after marriage’, Almendares explains. And yet, many users present a somewhat confused, contradictory picture of what it is they are seeking, which becomes apparent when one digs deeper into their survey responses. Most users are intelligent enough to select ‘No’ when asked ‘Do you feel there are any circumstances in which a person is obligated to have sex with you?’ But when it comes to ‘Do you believe that regular sex is necessary in maintaining a healthy relationship?’ I’m yet to come across male user who disagrees.

In my first forays on the romantic marketplace, I went in with the misguided intention of toning down the greenie/leftie/pinko/femmo parts of myself that are in fact central to my identity, interests and passions.  It seemed important at the time to appear desirable yet detached, sensitive, yet carefree, more experienced and less nervous than I really was, and it wasn’t the appropriate venue, I felt, to be proclaiming my fervent wish to smash the patriarchy. I’ve often wondered whether relationships that are the product of an online match might be qualitatively different from those that are not. Does the connection feel less ‘natural’, more contrived, less spontaneous? Does having access to all that information about a person up-front mean that the ensuing relationship is potentially fraught with a weightier set of expectations?

Reflecting on a relationship with a 92 per cent match that lasted several months, I felt it was haunted by all the things we did and didn’t say in that first all-important getting-to-know-you exchange. When the uncomfortable political conversation I’d long put off inevitably came, the ‘6 per cent enemy’ part of our match began suddenly to drive a wedge between us. The realisation that there were major gulfs in our thinking about such things as policing, surveillance and the state, was discomfiting.

In an excellent Valentine’s Day piece in Jacobin, Barnaby Lewer frames internet dating as part of a broader project of the financialised self. The constituent parts of our identities, our interests and proclivities are ‘packaged up and sold as asset streams on yet another marketplace that is increasingly coming to resemble the particularities of financial markets,’ suggests Lewer. Not only that, but on entering the romantic marketplace, we are drawn into ‘financial ways of thinking and acting’ in which competition and the pricing of everything become normalised:

Just like the derivatives market, the only way to ensure a ‘successful’ outcome is to continually participate; to trade, to take multiple positions in the market, to hedge your risk, to be constantly active. To only engage in a single conversation with a sole potential suitor is a dangerous game. And so you sit and swipe, and sit and swipe, engaged in an elaborate system of matching, risking, and hedging. And as a result of all this trading the algorithm improves; your chances of a better match improve: ‘So when you head out on an eHarmony date, you know it will give you butterflies not awkward silences.’

Through this lens, OKCupid’s hunger for every last scrap of information about its users makes sense.  Knowing whether you’re willing to share a toothbrush with a partner, whether you read in bed before turning off the light, whether you prefer sex rough or gentle, or a bit of both, can only further enrich the massive portfolio of data that it is able to trade with third-party corporations. It is why co-founder Christian Rudder can boast with such an annoying amount of smug confidence that he is able to ‘lay bare vanities and vulnerabilities that were perhaps until now just shades of truth.’

In these marketised, technologised methods of finding a mate, identities and attachments are something that we sell and are sold, and the illusion of efficiency and simplicity is a compelling one. But love cannot be subjected to Taylorist principles of scientific management, and I think I know why many of us are looking for it in the wrong places. There’s that little part of a person that escapes, that won’t be factored into OKCupid’s exalted algorithm, that cannot be operationalised and commodified by the data miners. It is the essence of a person, what they’re about; that perhaps-indefinable something that distinguishes them. Maybe it can only be gleaned by observing someone in the real world, because it’s something they likely cannot see in themselves. You can’t find it by sifting through their self-descriptions or survey answers on a screen.

It’s that little part that we wait and hope to catch a glimmer of in someone, and then to know.

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Image: Chris Goldberg/Flickr

Meave Noonan

Meave Noonan is a PhD candidate in Sociology at RMIT University.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. “There’s that little part of a person that escapes, that won’t be factored into OKCupid’s exalted algorithm, that cannot be operationalised and commodified by the data miners. It is the essence of a person, what they’re about; that perhaps-indefinable something that distinguishes them.”

    I would like to hope that the “essence” of which you speak is a BIG part of a person, and that we should fight to keep on expanding it, rather than watch it disappear into technological insignificance. Cheers.

    1. I agree completely that we should fight to expand and defend our true selves (if there is such a thing) in the face of commoditising forces.
      I suppose what I’m getting at, (and perhaps why I conceive of the essence of a person as ‘little’ in size) is that I’m trying to suggest a contrast between the way we project ourselves in the public sphere (where bigger is regarded as better) and our more intimate private selves

  2. Online dating sites reduce a person to packaging with an ingredients list, and if you are a woman doing the picking is frowned on, so you sit back and wait, like a packet of cornflakes waiting to be chosen. The whole thing is so dehumanising. The people the site would match you with is never like the type of person you would meet in reality. Besides, they all stink of desperation, which is not a good pheromone to be giving off in any context.

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