February 18, 2003


Posted by Arcane Gazebo at February 18, 2003 10:48 PM I discovered yesterday that The New Republic posted a Valentine's Day rant on their website. Now, I'm all in favor of ranting about Valentine's Day, and this one started out well enough, but then the author proceeds to say some bizarre things. Note that the site requires free registration; I'm sure the conservatives in the audience will be reluctant to give their e-mail address to a left-wing hive of scum and villainy like TNR so I'll quote liberally (heh) from the article.

The author, one Michelle Cottle, is railing against what she calls "super-efficient methods of mate-location, such as Internet dating, speed dating, or dating coaches". (Note the admission that these methods are super-efficient - I'll get to that.) She's not overtly objecting to these methods themselves (though I think there is some implicit disdain); what she discusses are the attitudes people have about them. Most of the article, in fact, is devoted to a complaint about the most common reason given for using such services:
While sociologist types offer a number of reasons for the change in dating patterns and attitudes--people are marrying later, women have more life choices, dating has fallen out of vogue in college--the individuals who use these new services overwhelmingly give the same reasons: They're far too busy for regular dating.

On the surface this seems like a very hip, modern explanation for employing services that might once have been (unfairly) regarded as the last bastion of losers. After all, nothing makes you seem more important today than being an overworked career guy/gal with two cell phones pressed to your head and a Blackberry strapped to your belt at all hours of the night. But, really. Too busy to date? Or even meet people? Please. How long can it take to introduce yourself to some hot young thing at the office, the gym (somehow time-strapped singles are able to make that Tuesday cycling class), or the corner deli for God's sake? And, let's face it, if you don't have time to pause for the occasional getting-to-know-you frappucino, maybe you shouldn't be in a relationship at this stage of your life. In fact, a little more alone time might be just the thing to help you decide what really matters in life.
So far this makes a lot of sense to me. This excuse about being too busy to meet people really is bogus, which is why I avoid using it. If I spend all my time in lab that's a choice I'm making, and if I'm willing to devote some of that time to a relationship instead I should be willing to devote it to meeting people in the first place. So I don't think this is a real excuse, but I think people give it (as Cottle says) because there's a stigma attached to using these services, and they feel a need to justify it. Anyway, the article continues like this for another paragraph, but then she says something very strange.
All of which would be okay if people went into these things with realistic expectations, meaning that they approached the search for a mate much like they would the search for a good personal assistant.
What? I certainly agree that realistic expectations are important, but how do they validate the "I'm too busy" line? Don't relationships take time and effort regardless of how you approach the search? She makes a very strong point earlier and then weakens it with this line. And it gets worse.
If what you seek is the most efficient way to locate someone who shares your basic values and has the same practical aims for a relationship (financial security, kids, occasional S&M, whatever), then these time-saving services could work like modern day marriage brokers. But listening to people talk about finding their dream girl online or experiencing that intangible spark during their third speed-date encounter, you gotta assume most of them fall into that huge pool of Americans hell-bent on finding their One True Love. Time crunches aside, we remain a hopelessly romantic people: USA Today reports that 87 percent of young folk expect to find their "soul mate" when the time is right. That they're only prepared to spend 30 minutes a week cruising the web for that special someone doesn't strike them as problematic.
Yes, the "soul mate" attitude is an unrealistic one to have when using Internet dating services. But it's equally unrealistic for traditional approaches! I could just as easily say, "That they're expecting to encounter that special someone by chance at the gym or the deli doesn't strike them as problematic." This point is totally unrelated to modern vs. traditional approaches to dating.

Just to hammer home the point of how generally unrealistic this soul mate idea is, let's look at the numbers. A soul mate is supposed to be a rare and special thing, so let's assume that the colloquial phrase "one in a million" accurately describes the probability that any given soul is a mate. Then I have about 6,000 soul mates in the world, and 6 in the San Francisco Bay Area. Of course this is just counting souls; we haven't taken into account the physical body they inhabit. I have a few reasonable criteria there: the soul should be female, and roughly my age: let's say an age bracket that spans 10% of the female population. Suddenly there's only a 30% chance that I find a soul mate if I check every female in the SF Bay Area. And then what are the odds she's available? And a non-smoker, and physically fit? Once I start throwing in the requirements for a girlfriend in addition to being a soul mate, it's clear I'm not going to meet her by talking to girls at the gym.

Fortunately I'm the cooly rational type and not the hopeless romantic type, so I'm just looking for compatible women. And those seem to be a dime a dozen; there were at least one or two in my small high school, and at least one or two in my small, mostly male college. The odds of meeting one are actually pretty good; the tricky part is figuring out whether a given woman is compatible. Presumably this sort of attitude is what Cottle means by "realistic expectations", but it's orthogonal to any argument about online dating; it applies equally to meeting people in meatspace.

Ok, so I've got my realistic expectations, and I've got my free time dedicated to meeting women. Do I buy a gym membership or a DSL line? Cottle doesn't actually say explicitly. But here's a hint:
My hope is that the folks using these time-saving services to find Mr. Right aren't really "too busy." Maybe they're too shy or too nerdy or too fat/bald/loud/afraid of rejection to feel comfortable meeting people all the usual ways and assume that "too busy" sounds less pathetic.
Basically, she hopes that people using online dating et al. are losers rather than just too busy! That's not a very nice sentiment. It also implicitly assumes that there's no sensible reason to use these services unless there's something wrong with you. She admits that they're more efficient, but then in the final paragraph tries to cast this efficiency as a bad thing, since being too busy is bad. But the "too busy" excuse is an aspect of the users of these services, while efficiency is an aspect of the services themselves - they're totally separate. Maybe I'm not too busy, but I still value efficiency. Maybe my time does have some value, and if I can spend less time meeting women without sacrificing effectiveness, I can spend that time doing something else I enjoy.

With that in mind, let's consider one of Cottle's underlying assumptions: that online dating, speed dating, etc. are highly efficient. I'm not entirely sure this is the case. In physics terms, we want to consider signal strength and signal-to-noise ratio. How many compatible women with reciprocal interest do I meet, and how many other women do I meet in the process? There are obvious problems with each. In the case of online dating, one can skim through a lot of profiles quickly, or set up search criteria that pick out the profiles that match those minimum criteria. This vastly improves signal-to-noise. But falsifying one's appearance online is trivially easy, if not in one's long-term interest. (Anything else can also be a lie, but this is true in meatspace as well.) Additionally people give a different impression writing online than they do in person, and ultimately the in-person interaction is what's important. Finally, the fact that one's selection has increased goes along with one's competition increasing - and for males, this occurs in an unfavorable proportion. The attractive women who post a profile online are going to get messages from men who are more attractive than you. You'd better learn to market yourself well, or the whole exercise is a waste of time and money.

On the other hand, suppose I use Cottle's apparently preferred method and hang out in Cafe Strada. Certainly I'll be able to evaluate physical attractiveness right away. (We all like to say we're not shallow, but of course this is important.) On the other hand, the overwhelming majority of the women I see will be unavailable. Even some of the single ones just want to drink their coffee and not be bothered. If I'm lucky enough to get one to talk to me, now I have to be clever and witty and engaging, all on the fly and without knowing anything about the person. This method really is more difficult and has a lower signal-to-noise ratio, so Cottle should at least make some effort to convince us that this is preferred.

Maybe the solution is to take ballroom dancing lessons. An old fashioned form of speed dating, I guess, assuming one changes partners with relative frequency. Tags:


Ballrom dancing is actually a lot of fun. I did a course here, and if you can DDR, you can easily do ballroom. And it also opens up some great movie options such as Strictly Ballroom, Shall We Dance (Japanese film), and stuff like that.

Posted by: Anonymous | February 19, 2003 7:22 AM

Ballroom dancing! oops

Ummm....but what if you decide to go ballroom dancing, and the girl who conned you to go with her in the first place stands you up?

So basically what you are saying is that there are some girls who satisfy your boundary conditions, and fewer who are compatible with your function. (teehee)

I remember hearing that somewhere else....

Posted by: Anonymous | February 22, 2003 5:40 PM
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