The Age of the Algorithm

Written and Photographed by Elizabeth Donohue

Published by Blush Magazine

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“The other night I went on the worst Tinder date of my life.” I was recapping my night to my best friend, partially horrified and partially amused. “He harassed the Uber driver there, hit on the girl next to me, then kept insisting that I meet his mom. I had to leave.” Exhausted, I looked at my friend and asked her, “Why do we keep doing this to ourselves?”

“What do you mean?”

“Why do we keep online dating; putting our hearts on the line with absolute strangers from the internet?”

She looked at me and simply replied, “I don’t want to stop going on Tinder dates because it gives me great Twitter content.” She shrugged.

Sure, going on Tinder dates made for great stories, but I couldn’t believe that that was everyone’s purpose for using dating apps. I mean, it’s easy to come to the conclusion that romance is dead, replaced by casual hook-ups. Say goodbye to the ancient gesture of roses sweeping you off your feet; say hello to swipes and super-likes blowing up your feed. Chivalry is dead and technology is very much alive.

It made me wonder—in what other ways has technology changed our expectations of love and sex? The clichéd consensus among older generations is that millennials regard relationships as easy to obtain and easy to dispose of. But I don’t think that’s true. I just think that romance has upgraded and taken a new platform, leaving a few bugs and glitches for us to figure out. With the world at our fingertips, how do we settle on one singular person? Can an algorithm determine what makes two people soulmates? Has technology desensitized our brains so that we can no longer experience love?

Our Expectations of Love and Sex

Technology has accelerated our lives in so many ways: the way we order food, clothes, cars, and communicate with friends and colleagues. Can you imagine a world without Uber, Postmates, Poshmark or Venmo? Technology has also accelerated the rate at which we meet someone and hop into bed with them as well. Dating apps have allowed for the normalization of hook-up culture as a push-back to the concepts and boundaries of traditional relationships.

Studies have found that adults are settling down much later in life than previous generations. According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s findings in 2017, the average age of marriage for women is around 28, and for men, around 30. This differs drastically from the 1920s, when both sexes were typically married by the age of 22. What’s changed since then? Technology. Technology has offered us freedom in our own personal pursuits and careers, as well as the way that we perceive sex, love, commitment. Social media and dating apps have made it possible for us to visualize the amount of potential partners there are. And if you live in New York City, you realize there are a lot of potential partners out there.

Love in the Age of Algorithm

Online dating has become a $3 billion industry. Wouldn’t it be nice to create the perfect person? Mix and match their physical and personality traits? While you can’t (yet) build your own soulmate, dating apps come pretty close.

How does the dating app algorithm actually work? Well, there are two types of ways to collect data for match-making. All dating sites use individualistic data in order to form their matches. Bumble, Hinge, Tinder, Coffee Meets Bagel, Badoo, J-Date… the list goes on. This data is based on values, characteristics, religion—even mutual Facebook friends—all qualities and quantities that can be gathered and analyzed within a survey. The other form of data collection is called couple-level data, which is much harder to quantify. Couple-level data analyzes the way that two people interact, taking into consideration quality of banter, laughter, charisma, and rapport between two individuals. As you can imagine, it is nearly impossible for a computer to read the emotions and chemical reactions between two people who, for lack of a better term, “just click.”

Deciding which apps to join is daunting enough, but then imagining the millions people on them is seriously stressful. Interestingly enough, scientists have discovered that more may not mean better, in this case. “The Paradox of Choice” theory states that humans can embrace around five to nine different choices before the brain goes into cognitive overload and leaves a person feeling overwhelmed and choice-less.

Shopping for a Date

Whether we like it or not, humans have created consumer models for everything, including love. When was the last time you stepped into a Forever 21? Doesn’t the plethora of rayon, spandex, and polyester make you feel anxious? How are you supposed to pick one singular item to buy when there are thousands of affordable and functional items, just waiting to be discovered? The amount of times I have left Forever 21 feeling worse-off and empty-handed is almost equivalent to the amount of times I have opened—and closed—my dating apps out of sheer defeat. Society has branded within our brains the idea that dating is just like finding that perfect pair of jeans. Somewhere, there’s a hunk of denim built to hug your butt in all the right places, and the same goes for a significant other. You shouldn’t worry about whether you meet that significant other in line at a coffee shop, or online on Match.com.

Where Do We Go From Here?

The truth is, an algorithm can’t determine the spark between two individuals. The best algorithm is your own brain. An app can’t tell you who your soulmate is, but it can introduce you to people in your area, who, may very well be your soulmate. If you’re looking for a guy who likes eating Hot Pockets while watching The Office, then, one of these apps can most likely help you find him. My best advice for you is to think of these apps and sites as introductory tools to new people. I’m very aware that navigating the virtual world with your heart on your sleeve can seem scary, hopeless, and unnatural. However, sometimes reality and technology connect in very strange and amusing ways, which lead me to believe that romance and technology can coincide with each other.

One rainy Friday afternoon, while sitting on the F train (probably thinking about Hot Pockets and The Office) I noticed the person across from me staring intently. I ignored him, until moments later, I looked down at my iPhone and received a message on Bumble that read, “Hey, this might be weird if I’m wrong, but, am I sitting across from you on the F-train?”