The Many Problems With Online Dating's Radical Efficiency

By Peter Ludlow

It makes it too easy to find people, to ditch people, and most importantly, to date people who are similar to us.

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Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn star as a squabbling but affectionate pair of newspaper reporters in 1942's 'Woman of the Year.'" (MGM)

Dan Slater asks whether online dating leads us to value our relationships less and whether that is a problem. I agree that it's a problem, but it isn't the only problem. Or rather, it's just a small part of a bigger problem with online dating. And the problem isn't really just a problem with online dating—it's a problem that extrudes from online markets in general: They lack sufficient friction, and paradoxically this is not a good thing.

A frictionless market is one that puts together buyer and seller without transaction costs. In the real world there is no such thing as a frictionless market, but some markets have more friction than others. Online markets reduce friction drastically in that they make the shopping part laughably easy.

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Let me illustrate this point with an example that has nothing to do with dating. It is a deep dark secret of mine that I used to be a philatelist—yes, you can denigrate that fine hobby by calling it stamp collecting if you wish. I collected certain kinds of 19th-century postal history (mailed envelopes) and I used to enjoy travelling from dealer to dealer digging through bins of musty postal history looking for the items that I collected. And then the Internet happened.

Collecting postal history has gone from a labor of seeking out interesting shops and sales and digging through musty boxes to one of logging on to eBay, typing in a search request (19th-century postal history), and clicking on whatever envelope covers catch my eye. The search process has for all practical purposes become frictionless, and the net result is that it just isn't fun anymore. My collection has been placed in a storage locker. I'm done with it.

Now I realize that the economic language of frictionless markets isn't very romantic, but the fact is that the dating game is a kind of market whether we want to admit it or not. Finding a partner used to be expensive, and the market was inefficient. If you lived in a large city, there were always people looking for partners, but the problem was how to find them. Pick-up bars were imperfect markets to say the very least. Now you go online, select a partner, and you are immediately dating someone who is at least interested in you. Of course online dating is still work, but the emotional labor and risk of failure has been significantly reduced.

Slater picks up on two unintended consequences of a low-friction dating market. First, if it is too easy to find something you just don't value it as much. If diamonds grew on dandelions no one would care about diamonds. The other consequence is that it reduces the cost of moving on to something new. Not only is what you have less valuable, but trading for something new is less expensive as well. Sure, there is the breakup drama, but online dating markets mean you won't have to suffer that drama sitting home watching sad movies; you can find a replacement within days.

I agree that those are two of the problems with online dating markets, but they are really just the tip of the iceberg. Here is another problem that I consider to be more serious. One advantage of inefficient dating markets is that in times of scarcity we sometimes take chances on things we wouldn't otherwise try. In times of plenty, we take the path of least resistence (someone who appears compatible) and we forgo difficult and prima facie implausible pairings. And this is our loss. 1950s romantic comedies turned unlikely pairings into a formula—happenstance throws two unlikely people togetherand the sparks and romance begin. We all understand this kind of romance—it involves the strange chemistry of putting together two people who are, on the face of it, incompatible. Of course online dating services can randomize their matching algorithms to supply unlikely options—but these options are always served against a backdrop in which more likely options are plentiful, easy to obtain, and on the face of it less risky. We need the scarcity to propel us to try the unlikely pairings.

Much of what is valuable in this world is the product of mashing up ideas or music or personalities that are on the face of it incompatible. And the secret is that great chemistry (for example in music) isn't about putting together people who are on the same page—it is about putting together people who are different and making it work. The result is often unexpected and beautiful. So it is with relationships; compatibility is a terrible idea in selecting a partner. It leads to stasis, both for individuals and for relationships and (turning my music example into a metaphor) it leads to music that is predictable and unexciting.

There is a closely related point to be made here. Online markets assume we know what we are looking for, but sometimes we simply don't know what we are looking for until we stumble across it in a search for something else. Let me illustrate this point by another example from my embarrassing hobby of philately—this story explains how I came to collect 19th-century postal history. One day, as I was talking to a stamp dealer and asking him for something he didn't have, he pulled out of folder and of 19th-century envelopes and asked: What do you think of these? Within minutes my hobby and been radically transformed.

My refocused hobby would never have come about in a low-friction market like eBay—I would have never even bothered to look at the postal history section. It wasn't what I thought I was looking for. Inefficient markets are good because they lead us to look at new things and try new things. They help us to expand our horizons.

A final thing: By reducing the cost of finding someone, online dating also makes it too easy to avoid being alone after a relationship fails. Most people don't want to be alone, but a traditional inefficient dating market made this an unavoidable reality for most people. Online dating markets are so low-friction that between-relationship dry periods can quickly evaporate. But while online dating minimizes the heartache periods, minimizing those periods really doesn't do us any favors—we are losing periods of reflection when we might be thinking about what we did right and wrong, how we can improve as individuals, and what we might be open to next time.

Much more could be said about the hidden costs of low-friction dating markets, but I think the general point can be boiled down to a basic point about the paradox of plenty: We often make our greatest discoveries and acquire our greatest treasures when local scarcity compels us to be open to new and better things.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/sexes/archive/2013/01/the-many-problems-with-online-datings-radical-efficiency/266796/