Technically Dating: A Q&A with Jim Brown on Romance in the Digital World

By Tom McLaughlin

Over the past decade, online dating has become a common, fast, and efficient way to connect with a potential mate. A Valentine’s Day celebration could include swiping right or sending a winking emoji as much as the traditional flowers, chocolates, and a romantic dinner.

So, for better or worse, how have digital technologies changed what dating and romance looks like today?

To get to the heart of the matter, we checked in with Jim Brown, director of the Digital Studies Center and an associate professor of English at Rutgers University–Camden.

Brown says that today’s first date conversation may actually be the second date conversation of 10 years ago.

For starters, how has the ever-important first date changed in the digital world?

The first date is traditionally understood as the time when we get to know someone, and when we investigate their biography, such as where they grew up, siblings, and basic interests. We even see this idea of the first date in films and literature; it’s a fairly established cultural commonplace. But it’s interesting to consider how this first date experience changes given that we likely have access to a lot of information about a person prior to that first date.

So if we already know personal details about our date, such as their profession, family, and hometown, does that mean the ice-breaker conversation is a thing of the past?

In some sense, we could argue that this makes for a more interesting first date, since it’s not as much about finding out the basic facts about someone; we can move on to the second-level questions, since we already know some of the basics. Maybe today’s first date conversation is actually the second date conversation of 10 years ago.

How do people use digital technologies to their advantage in constructing and presenting images of who they are?

As a rhetorician who studies the digital, it always fascinates me how we present our identities in these digital spaces. These profiles are arguments; they are attempts to reveal what we want to reveal or to persuade people that we are interesting and worthy of time and attention.

Importantly, that’s not actually all that different from what we’ve always done when it comes to dating. People are always careful about how they present themselves. Research by the Pew Center indicates that significant numbers of people have sought help from friends when making decisions about their profile. Again, this is part of what we’ve always done.

Brown says that, rather than merely speeding up our choices, computer systems are trying to predict what we want based on data that we have provided.

Dating sites and mobile apps use computers to help us make decisions, such as preselecting potential mates. What are the consequences of machines helping us to make romantic decisions?

We provide information about ourselves, our likes and dislikes, and then software is designed to try to make decisions based on that information. However, given that much of these decisions are driven by machine learning algorithms, they will often do things that we don’t expect, things that are over and beyond what we intend for them to do.

What or who gets filtered out in this decision-making process? What kind of person might we never meet or interact with if we rely on an algorithm to help us sift and sort profiles?

Can you give me an example of this?

For instance, imagine filling out a survey that says you’re open to dating people regardless of their political beliefs. But then as you’re looking at data profiles and determining who you are interested in, the algorithm begins to learn that you are expressing an interest in those who identify differently politically than you. There’s a chance that the algorithm will then take that information and start to use it when recommending people or profiles.

Essentially, these systems might be just as interested in what we do – what we click or how we swipe – as what we say – the answer to that questionnaire.

So these technologies are actually doing more than just help us speed up our decision-making?

Rather than just making certain activities faster and more efficient – for instance, sifting through 1,000 dating profiles to find everyone who is within two miles of my home – these systems are doing something else: They are trying to predict what we want based on data that we have provided.

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