Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Love in the Information Age

And think not you can
Direct the course of love,
For love,
If it finds you worthy,
Directs your course.

-Khalil Gibran

Our world is changing; the velocity of ideas is accelerating.  It's hard to keep up with all the innovations sometimes. Yet, occasionally, the oldest technologies are the most potent.

Last week, I wrote a true letter for the first time in ages.  It's one of those arts that is quickly dying,  particularly missives to the objects of our affection.  In an age of instant communication, it doesnt seem very efficient to put pen to paper and trust an antiquated mail system to deliver a message.  But there is something timeless about the act.

Churchill the Charmer
When my sister and brother-in-law were first married, Nick was deployed to Iraq for nearly 18 months.  And while they had email and occasionally a connection good enough for Skype, they still composed handwritten notes to each other.  Upon returning home, the Army managed to lose the trunk that held those heartfelt letters from home - it was nothing short of devastating for them.  Losing a batch of emails just isnt the same.

There is something ethereal about pouring your soul onto paper.  The ink blots, crossed out words, smashed in additions; all part of a revelation that is more than mere turns of phrase.  It takes an act of concentration not common to our easily distracted modern minds.  Once inked, a phrase cannot merely be deleted and re-written.  Determined diligence must be employed.  It is almost a sacred act these days to devote time to such an effort.  (For those of you men who could use some tips, The Art of Manliness has some very useful guidance...)

I think a lot of us, when getting the mail, somewhere deep inside, still harbor some small bit of hope for a letter in chickenscratch addressed just to them.  The anticipation of walking from the mailbox inside, wondering what it holds.  The act of tearing the top off, reaching inside, and feeling stationary between the forefinger and thumb, then scanning those initial loops of cursive. Simply sublime.

Prospero, the Economist blog on books, art and culture, has a marvelous piece on the power of the pen.  It being Valentines Day, the review is on a book of historical love letters, but the sentiments conveyed are unalterable across time and culture.  Heartbreak, unending distance, passionate discourse between intertwined souls, all elements that bind the human experience together.

Letters of Note, predictably, features a missive between Anne Lindberg and her husband Charles.  

But to get to that stage of being committed enough to actually send a letter, you've first got to find the right person.  In ages past, friends, parents, and priests took care of this.  Today's age relies increasingly upon the Wild West of internet dating.

Both The Modern Matchmakers and The Dubious Science of Online Dating explore this phenomena.  Unsurprisingly, the marketing claims of the major sites falls short.    The study both articles reference basically confirm a lot of what we already know, and amplify some of the more interesting elements of behavioral economics.

The most interesting element is in the area of choice.  It makes sense to assume that a wider pool means better options, thus better results.  But as the Economist notes:
The difficulty of choosing from abundance seems to apply to choice of people, too. Dr Finkel could find no study which addressed the question directly, in the context of internet dating. But speed-dating once again provided an answer. Here, he found studies which showed that when faced with abundant choice, people pay less attention to characteristics that require thinking and conversation to evaluate (occupational status and level of education, for example) and more to matters physical. Choice, in other words, dulls the critical faculties.
Anybody who has spent time on places like Match.com, eHarmony or OkCupid knows that the first thing that goes out the window is actually reading the profile.  Looks matter when you've got 376 profiles that meet your search criteria.  And while Malcolm Gladwell may still claim that the instant "blink" of an initial decision is best, in the online dating world, it hardly seems sufficient.  

Despite unsubstantiated claims of success, going through dating sites is a fascinating psychological look into human sexuality -- or at least what people think they want and apparently look for.  Again, though, the data for knowing what we want is not good:  In studies on speed dating, "people's stated preferences at the beginning of the process do not well match the characteristics of the individuals they actually like."

Each of the sites seems to have their own demographic.  And while much of this is anecdotal from discussions with friends, I think the stereotypes are accurate.  Match is for the hookup crowd.  eHarmony is for the marriage minded folks. OkCupid, while the most fascinating of them all, is for the anything-goes clique.  And I mean eh-ne-thing. 

Wait, People Lie About Things on Dating Profiles?
That said, OkCupid has incredibly insightful relationship metrics on their blog, OkTrends.  It's certainly not for the prudish to read, but at least its honest.  They've basically culled all the data from the myriad of questions their patrons have answered, and come up with eye opening stats.  This is what happens when nerds like me think about dating.  I spent more time reading through that thing than I did actually looking through potential matches during my online dating days.  Its the perfect social experiment.  No doubt its what Facebook is doing with everything we post, but they don't share it.

So, while we try to plan everything out, and fit love into our brilliant ten year plan, even the internet age doesn't make things any easier.  Especially if you're an educated woman trying to find an equally matched man.   As with everything in life, a willingness to be adaptable and open to unexpected situations creates the most opportunities. Even if that involves ending up in a place you never expected.  It's also best if you know how to communicate in elegant prose on that old standby, the printed letter.  

Sometimes one person is worth the upending of our entire world.  It's just a matter of figuring out who.  That will never be quantified by algorithms or academic studies. 

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