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Natural history of the present

Valentine’s day in the modern world

St Valentine’s day caught our household by surprise this morning. My daughter, the only family member who shows even a flicker of interest, loves what we call “Balance-time day” because it comes with free license to generate and dispense cards. And nothing is as important as making and giving cards.

Rather than buy in to saccharine cards, over-priced bouquets and chock-full restaurants on a school night, the rest of the family like to bunker down and wait for the red, white and pink tide to subside. Fair to say, we’d rather submit to an hour-long concert by a community recorder ensemble, including improvisations and a piece the ensemble wrote themselves. Not that that is an option this year.

But I’ve been wondering: does the practice of secret admirers sending cards to one another exist anymore, outside the craft-intensive world of grade school? Particularly as I’m currently researching how the internet is changing the ways in which people meet and find one another for romance, sex, marriage or more transactional arrangements.

Last week’s column about the Facebook app Bang with Friends is now far and away the most read piece I have written for The Conversation. I’m sure that is because of the high-level conceptual discussion of how any new technology shifts the balance of power in the dating and mating game.

Bang with Friends is somewhat unusual, however, because in order to find out if you and a friend are “Down to Bang” (in BWF terms), you need to be Facebook Friends with them first. And for many people, the biggest obstacle remains finding people whose personalities, looks and agendas are even slightly compatible.

Little more than a decade ago, folks who wanted to meet “someone” and found their daily lives weren’t bringing them into contact with many “someones” of the right type, would turn to the singles advertisements of the newspaper classifieds. Profiles would be scoured, letters written and, very occasionally, short and disappointing episodes of dating broke out. Classified singles ads presented such a laborious, cumbersome and more-miss-than-hit experience that they earned a reputation as the refuge of the near-terminally desperate.

The Internet changed so much of that. The speed and capacity for interaction from a safe distance allowed Internet dating to shrug off the sad pathos that usually engulfed classified lonely hearts columns. So much so, that the Internet matchmaking economy has diversified profoundly.

Here are few of the kinds of sites available at the moment:

  • There’s a whole world of sites that connect people in search of sex. The market dynamics of these sites are way more complicated for those seeking heterosexual sex, usually because of a supply-side shortfall. Sites like Grindr that specialise in conencting gay and bisexual men work much better.

  • Dating sites on which users browse one another’s profiles. These started off as Internet-ready adaptations of the old Classified singles ads. But they’ve rapidly evolved thanks to sophisticated matching algorithms. Check out the TEDEd video below in which Christian Rudder, founder of the very successful site, explains their matching algorithm.

  • Some sites specialise in the long-game. Television watchers will be familiar with eHarmony, which gathers an enormous amount of information in the interests of matching partners for long-term compatibility.

  • If you already have a long-term partner, but are looking to supplement it with a little short-term action, then you’ve probably noticed the ads for Ashley Maddison. I have to admire their advertising people for the sheer audacity of their slogan: “Life is Short. Have an Affair”.

  • Rating sites in which visitors rate photographs. Most famous is probably HOT or NOT in which raters make a quick binary choice about the hotness or notness of each photograph.

  • Some derivatives of the hotness rating sites make slightly more nuanced matches, often drawing on information in user’s Facebook profiles. If a user in your neighbourhood sees your pic an wishes to meet you, and you, independently do the same, then the site provides a chance to message one another. Leaders in this area include the iPhone apps Tinder and Let’s Date.

  • For those who think conversation is more important than 2-D hotness, last September saw the Australian launch of 7pm anywhere, a site that projects itself as “the funnest way to meet new people”. It seeks to take the confected resume out of the process and replace it with a measure of spontaneity. Women get assigned to three men, to whom they ask questions. Both questions and responses occur under time limits and at the end the woman chooses whether to chat with the guy she feels she connected with best. The site runs one night a week from 7-9pm.

  • Some people like their arrangements a bit more transactional in nature, but not as short-term or as busy as an escort-client relationship. No surprise that there are match-makers of this type as well. and offer this kind of service. Parties willing to provide a regular “allowance” can sign up to be “sugar daddies” or “sugar mommies”. Others can sign up seeking such an allowance or simply to be spoiled and pampered. These sites suffer a sex ratio problem, too: one warns that they have more than 100 male wanna-be-het-sugarbabies for every sugarmommy.

Ex Intertheweb semper aliquid novi ?

All of this is new. And none of it is. People find ways to find other people and negotaite what they want. The Internet simply amplifies and revives ancient themes - boy seeks girl, man seeks man, couple seeks other couples, bright young thing seeks wealthy benefactor. But it does provide the kind of privacy and anonymity that make it safer and quicker to establish interest and the terms of engagement.

Privacy and anonymity of this kind raise their own dangers. As do the massive increase in the pool of possible partners that legitimate users might find, and victims that the less benign users might exploit.

The new mating markets these sites set up also change the nature of the game. Heterosexual men, most of whom have traditionally found it harder to elicit interest than have straight women, usually far outnumber women on these sites. Girls often get far more attention than most men, who get ignored. The internet may, in fact, not be the equaliser that geeky men hoped it might become. And the most eligible men might be taking a greater share of the attention than they ever did in real life.

Internet-facilitated romance, sex and even long-term relationships have come a long way beyond the point where technophobes could shrug them off and say “get a life”. The net is part of our social lives, the way market-days, social clubs, dances, concerts and discos used to be.

P.S. I’ve only scratched at this topic. I’d love to know about other sites and the ways in which they’ve changed the ways in which people connect.

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