Episode 2560 of “Don’t pick on the Internet” or Why We Shouldn’t Really Care if plentyoffish.com Kills the Institution of Marriage

My wife gets Maclean’s magazine. That is to say, she’s a subscriber; I don’t think either one of us actually “gets” it.

The subscription wasn’t her choice – my father-in-law, the story goes, wanted to be the first to send her something with “Dr.” in front of her name, and decided a magazine subscription would fit the bill – but it comes every week or so anyway. I have a lot of time for some of the writers at Maclean’s. I’ve “known” Aaron Wherry for some time* and he’s a smart guy, Paul Wells is very good at what he does and no publication which employs the excellent Jesse Brown can be all bad. They all must cringe, however, at some of the over-simplified analysis and scare-mongering that goes on in their publication’s pages. I am particularly fond of the breed of stories which can be broadly filed under the banner of “The Internet is going to ruin everything.”**

This February 4th piece by Katie Engelhart is a case in point. The cover headline reads “The Catch: Online dating is fast becoming the number one way people meet and get married and that’s bad for marriage.”*** I know Ms. Engelhart most probably didn’t write the headline, and I know much of her piece is actually quite defensible (it should be, seeing as it was, in large part, a lift of this – much more nuanced – piece which ran in the January/February issue of The Atlantic) but I take issue with some of her logic.

More specifically, I think there’s a big problem when she and the headline writers indicate that there is something menacing in the “romantic” (fauxmantic?) marketing pitch made by internet dating companies, The companies who sell us the pseudo-scientific promise of “compatibility” which will allow us to find “the one”. Englehart suggests that this romantic ideal will, when combined with the internet’s ability to eliminate scarcity in dating prospects, reduce our willingness to soldier on when relationships get difficult. This lack of stick-to-itiveness will, in turn, lead to more divorce.

Fine, ok. But why make that point while at the same time romanticizing the idea of scarcity and toil which were the foundations of pre-internet dating? Check out this quote:

Peter Ludlow, a philosophy professor at Northwestern University, recently posited in the Atlantic that the online dating “market” is too “frictionless”—too easy to enter, exit and transact within. This fluidity, he argues, will lead us to undervalue the relationships we end up with. “If diamonds grew on dandelions,” Ludlow writes, “no one would care about diamonds.”

Ludlow likens the experience to his time spent as an amateur stamp collector. For years, he travelled from dealer to dealer, digging through bins for the best finds. But then came the Internet. And eBay. And suddenly it wasn’t fun anymore.

If romantic premises are bad, aren’t they bad in both directions? If the romantic ideal of finding “the one” is bunk, surely we also have to take a look at tired notions of serendipity as well?

You may not like stamp collecting as much because the internet made it “easier.” That’s fine, if you want to struggle and sift, take up archeology. Similarly, it’s completely evident that the internet has changed dating and relationships. People may quit relationships that leave them unsatisfied because they feel that they may have more choice, but a journalist undermines her credibility by suggesting that such a thing is “bad” for marriage. It seems to me that the internet might instead be bad for bad marriages.

But failing to define “bad” is where the piece makes its real intellectual cop-out. Here’s another quote (my emphasis added):

What do we make of this tendency for online daters to quit relationships when the going gets tough? “It’s unknown whether that’s good or bad for society,” (Dan) Slater (the author of one Million First Dates and the Atlantic piece) admits. “On the one hand, it’s good if fewer people feel like they’re stuck in relationships. On the other, evidence is pretty solid that having a stable romantic partner means all kinds of health and wellness benefits.”

To put it another way, the internet is bad for marriage, because there may be more divorce, but if forced to respond to whether or not that is bad…well, we’re not exactly sure.

The Echo of Change Arguments Past

The “change is to be feared” arguments in the article — particularly those regarding lack of friction — remind me a great deal of the arguments that old-school music folks made for years about “young people” and the MP3: “We’ve ruined music,” the argument goes “because kids listen to lossy, low-fidelity recordings on tinny ear buds.”

“Music will never be the same,” the record producer/A&R person/CD manufacturer rants “because kids listen to singles and not albums and they do so on their iPods and computer speakers rather than in front of a big, expensive hi-fi set up”. “Kids won’t value music the way we valued music because they can have all of it, whenever and wherever they want.”

The mistake these cynics make, in my opinion, is mixing up “bad for the established way of doing something” with “bad for the underlying, universal thing which is in no way under threat”.

To put it another way: Bad for stereos isn’t bad for music, it’s bad for stereos. People still want music. Bad for the newspaper business is not bad for journalism, it’s bad for newspapers. People still want journalism. “Bad for marriage” may be “leads to more divorce” but the more interesting question is whether it’s actually bad for us, and our happiness. The change might actually be better for people who are looking to self-actualize and actually find the right relationship.

This isn’t to suggest that every change in technology is value-neutral – technologies all change and influence our worldviews in certain ways – but rather to suggest that the debate should turn to the core values we are, supposedly, trying to protect rather than a simplistic defence of the “package” in which those values are supposedly contained.

To extend the music analogy: ask a teenager if he feels as if he’s getting less out of music – whether it’s inadequately allowing him to define, express and enjoy himself – because his iPod don’t sound as “good” as his dad or grand-dad’s stereo speakers. I would bet that your answer would be a look which indicated that you needed to get your head examined. The MP3 is an example of how the elements of packaging that the teenager values – speed of access, ubiquity of availability and portability – have won out over your ideas of what is important – fidelity, beautiful album art, even cost. You can’t say things are getting worse without defining what you value. You and your teenaged cousin/grandson/paperboy both love music, it’s just that the way of “doing” music has changed.

Unless we support the institution of marriage for marriage sake, the idea of “less” or “different” marriage isn’t bad: it’s just less and/or different. Rather than defending “marriage” we should be thinking about the social environments that allow us to have healthy families and working on building those. To my mind, and as tough as it might be for those attempting to sell magazines, change isn’t always good or bad; sometimes, it’s just change.

Look at the footnotes

*Aaron contributed to my old music blog and we have been Facebook friends since.
**This concept is closely related to, but different from journalism’s famous “Kids these days” theme.
**Red text thoughtfully added by Maclean’s editors. To the credit of the online staff, the headline there reads: “Online dating and the search for true love — or loves: The soulmate search will soon be mobile, transparent and constant.”