The Sociology of OkCupid

How my social theorist crushes might have talked about online dating

I’m writing this as a follow up to a presentation I (somewhat spontaneously) gave yesterday at BarCamp Boston. The idea was to lead discussion by teaching high-level, basic concepts from a couple of social theorists as a means of segueing into conversation about what online dating means. In this post, too, my goal is to offer a few different jumping-off points for thinking and conversing, rather than to commit to any one particular argument.

I started using OkCupid during my sophomore year at Tufts, back in 2008, out of frustration with the insular nature of the campus. It felt like a secret club: I never spotted anyone I knew in the listings. I mentioned my membership on the site only to a select few (although I was hesitant to confess at all) and was met with either repugnance, well-intended ridicule, or curiosity.

After a summer of a lot of online chatting and one or two in-person meet-ups, I took a hiatus for a few years, rejoining the site the summer after college. This time, I found myself going on a lot more dates, but still, nothing stuck.

As a woman seeking men on the site, I found that it was incredibly easy to dismiss men for the most minuscule “flaws.” Knowing that a whole network of “matches” awaited me with just a few clicks, and knowing that, as a woman, it would be very easy to set up a date whenever I felt like it, I fluttered from date to date, thoroughly enjoying the act of dating and catching a glimpse of someone else’s life, but never feeling compelled to meet anyone a second time.

And yet, I continued browsing. I had become strangely addicted to sifting through profiles, a novel exercise in self-presentation with a purpose. Sure, personal ads have existed for ages, but the format of a personal ad is quite limited compared to OkCupid (or your online dating site of choice, I’m just using OkCupid because it’s the only one I’ve used), which combines photographs, a qualitative profile, an extensive personality quiz, socially-assigned ratings, testimonials, and more. As a recovering sociology major (who will, in truth, never “recover”), I couldn’t help but try to make sense of OkCupid in the language of social theory.

Pierre Bourdieu & the judgment of taste

French theorist Pierre Bourdieu‘s Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste is a bit of a behemoth, but having read every word (with the notes, highlights, and scribbles inside my copy to prove it), I can safely cite it as one of the most perception-altering things I’ve ever read. I think about Pierre Bourdieu almost daily. To summarize the gist of the book, Bourdieu examines how we use taste to figure each other out:

“To the socially recognized hierarchy of the arts, and within each of them, of genres, schools, or periods, corresponds a social hierarchy of the consumers. This predisposes tastes to function as markers of ‘class’.” (2)

Essentially, Bourdieu argues that our tastes comprise cultural capital, the non-financial, social assets that enable advancement between classes.

Pierre Bourdieu, sociologist and serious dialectical heartthrob.

OkCupid’s choice to include an explicit section for book, music, movie and other tastes on their profile pages seems not only to encourage members of the site to list their own tastes, but also to put a heavy emphasis on taste in our search for suitable partners. And yet some of the healthiest relationships I know are between people whose tastes are vastly different.

Nearly-identical tastes seem to be most problematic in moments where small differences between those tastes become evident. Bourdieu highlights this in relation to the bourgeoisie and the petit bourgeoisie, as well as between the petit bourgeoisie and the proletariat. What’s at play here is something akin to Freud’s narcissism of small differences: the idea that more similar groups are more likely to feel greater hostility towards one another:

“I once discussed the phenomenon that is precisely communities with adjoining territories, and related to each other in other ways as well, who are engaged in constant feuds and in ridiculing each other — like the Spaniards and Portuguese, for instance, the North Germans and South Germans, the English and Scotch, and so on. I gave this phenomenon the name of “the narcissism of minor differences”, a name which does not do much to explain it. We can now see that it is a convenient and relatively harmless satisfaction of the inclination to aggression, by means of which cohesion between the members of the community is made easier.” (Freud, Civilization and its Discontents)

Talking about taste can be an easy way to tease out core differences that might make a relationship unfeasible:

“Hence the astonishing harmony of ordinary couples who, often matched initially, progressively match each other by a sort of mutual acculturation. This spontaneous decoding of one habitus by another is the basis of the immediate affinities which orient social encounters, discouraging socially discordant relationships, without those operations having to be formulated other than in the innocent language of likes and dislikes.” (243)

However, I think OkCupid leads us to rely too heavily on taste as a signifier of whether we’d get along with someone, or worse, as a reason to dismiss someone altogether. There could be a lot of reasons for this. Is it simply because it’s listed on our profiles? Is it because we’re so reliant on this information anyway that when it’s so readily available we lean on it even more heavily?

I’ll close off this section on Bourdieu with a quote about self-presentation that segues well into the next couple theories:

“The interest the different classes have in self-presentation, the attention they devote to it, their awareness of the profits it gives and the investment of time, effort, sacrifice and care which they actually put into it, are proportionate to the amount of symbolic profit they can reasonably expect from it.” (202)

Herbert Mead & the social self

One of the biggest personal issues I’ve had with online dating stems from an issue that Herbert Mead summed up pretty well in his essay “The Social Self”:

“The ‘I’ of introspection is the self which enters into social relations with other selves. It is not the ‘I’ that is implied in the fact that one presents himself as a ‘me.’ And the ‘me’ of introspection is the same ‘me’ that is the object of the social conduct of others. One presents himself as acting toward others — in this presentation he is presented in indirect discourse as the subject of the action and is still an object, and the subject of this presentation can never appear immediately in conscious experience. It is the same self who is presented as observing himself, and he affects himself just in so far and only in so far as he can address himself by the means of social stimulation which affect others. The “me” whom he addresses is the “me,” therefore, that is similarly affected by the social conduct of those about him.”

Mead’s argument is that we construct our “self” moment by moment, in accordance with our social situation: the “self” is socially mediated. Therefore, you have good reason to be a bit suspicious of how any person is presenting him or herself to you and you alone, in a completely one-on-one interaction. It’s extremely likely, if not certain, that that person is catering how they act to what they think you would like, especially on a date, where both parties have a certain end goal in mind. This could also, perhaps, be tied to the Pygmalion effect.

That’s not to say there aren’t ways around that. The best way to ameliorate this situation, it seems, would be to bring additional people into the picture. We’re much more able, Mead would suggest, to get a read on people based on how they carry themselves around other people.

In my ideal world, OkCupid wouldn’t be a place to find people to serially go on one-on-one date after one-on-one date with, but instead to arrange intermingling between discrete social groups with an underlying understanding of openness to meeting new people, whether as friends or something more.

After all, it seems like it’s easier to detect a particular spark from someone (thanks Cori [@plainpioneer] and Tom [@tomcatkitteh] for the enlivening chat about this at BarCamp!) when, even in small ways that don’t have to replicate the rom-com meet cute, the encounter feels fortuitous. I guess my mushy side doesn’t quite want to let go of the idea of a pleasant surprise over a completely rationalized system of dating.

Well, this exists.

Symbolic interactionism & doing gender

The classical sociologist Erving Goffman is often affiliated with the same symbolic interactionist school as Mead, although others would argue he’s a bit difficult to sort. Unfortunately, I don’t have any of his books immediately on hand, and I want to get this written while it’s all fresh in my mind, but one of his major theories is a dramaturgical approach that breaks social life down into a front stage and back stage. In the case of OkCupid, we are expected to present our best, most desirable self on the “front stage” of our profile.

Doing Gender” by Candace West and Don Zimmerman describes the process of, well, doing gender, referencing Goffman in its definition of gender as “a routine, methodological and recurring accomplishment” and an “emergent factor of social situations”(126):

“Gender, in contrast [to sex], is the activity of managing situated conduct in light of normative conceptions of attitudes and activities appropriate for one’s sex category. Gender activities emerge from and bolster claims to membership in a sex category.” (127)

One thing that I find fascinating about OkCupid is that it doesn’t seem to ask for anything specific in terms of gender presentation—you can find people all along every spectrum, from heterosexual to homosexual, monogamous to polygamous, virginal to kinky, and everywhere in between—yet for some reason, at least in my experience as a heterosexual woman, it seems to reinforce and even amplify gender roles in dating.

On OkCupid, most women receive so many messages per day that it wouldn’t make sense even in the most bizarre universe for them to also invest time sending messages of their own. Men are, therefore, expected to do all of the approaching, while women primarily vet the messages in their inbox, overwhelmed with the flurry and consequently making extremely arbitrary choices along the way.

The most obvious advice to make this better would seem to be to encourage women to send more messages, but this, too, can be problematic: “when I experimented with sending messages, men assumed I was desperate or that something was wrong with me,” a friend lamented (sorry, @pixelr8r, I non-consensually paraphrased you here. Which seems like a good time for a non-sequitur reminder for everybody that consent is cool).

All in all, the interface and experience of OkCupid can’t really be blamed for this trend; instead, just like we’ve sometimes seen in online comment threads, OkCupid replicates the patterns of real life behavior. And other interfaces don’t seem all that much better: a French couch-surfer who stayed at my house told me about an app that locked women into the position of choosing and men into the position of being chosen. Which raises the question: what would an app that subverted these norms look like? Is it possible to create something like this that achieves the same (increasingly) mainstream appeal of OkCupid?

Homosociality & collective activity

Now for a quick diversion from classic sociologists to a couple of contemporary essays. In Michael Flood’s “Men, Sex, and Homosociality: How Bonds between Men Shape Their Sexual Relations with Women”, he does a good job of summarizing some past literature on the topic:

Homosociality refers to social bonds between persons of the same sex and, more broadly, to same-sex-focused social relations (Bird 1996, 121). Masculinity studies argues for powerful links between homosociality and masculinity: men’s lives are said to be highly organized by relations between men. Men’s practice of gender has been theorized as a homosocial enactment, in which the performance of manhood is in front of, and granted by, other men (Kimmel 1994, 128-29).

This is true for most of us, I think. In a qualitative study I did in college that collected data through interviews of men in their twenties, I found that almost every person I talked to expressed that what they were looking for in their romantic life was strongly influenced by how their friend group framed their own romantic lives. Men whose friends all had girlfriends yearned for a similarly steadfast connection, while men whose friends played the field like a bro’d out Ash Ketchum tossing pokéballs into the wilderness to “catch ‘em all” sought the same variety-sans-commitment.

Yeah, bro, I caught so many Pokémon at the club last night. U?

When I started using OkCupid and no one else I knew was on the site or even mildly interested in trying it, it felt like a strange dating vacuum. It was only as I snuck out of the house for my first OkCupid date, which I hadn’t talked to a single friend about, that I realized how reliant I normally was on casual chitchat about my (generally incredibly awkward) romantic escapades.

Now that OkCupid seems to be a more acceptable means of seeking love, how do we engage with it collectively? How is it similar and different from the realm of real dating (which has also changed a lot since the advent of social media, etc.)?

Wrapping up: Walter Benjamin’s aura

I couldn’t write this article without bringing up Walter Benjamin, whose concept of the aura in his essay “The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility” was intended to be applied to works of art but which I can’t help but apply to just about everything I encounter. Benjamin writes that technological reproduction takes away the “here and now” from a work of art, that je ne sais quoi of unique existence:

“In even the most perfect reproduction, one thing is lacking: the here and now of the work of art—its unique existence in a particular place … The here and now of the original underlies the concept of its authenticity, and on the latter in turn is founded the idea of a tradition which has passed the object down as the same, identical thing to the present day. The whole sphere of authenticity eludes technological—and of course not only technological—reproduction.” (21)

In creating an OkCupid profile, we, like the film actor examined by Benjamin later in the essay, are expected to “operate [our] whole living person, while forgoing [our] aura” (31).

For me, Benjamin’s concept of the aura summarizes everything I’ve talked about above: in attempting to condense our entire “self” into an online profile for the purpose of attracting “matches”, we lose what makes us most special, the difficult-to-describe qualities that underlie the development of chemistry between ourselves and someone totally unexpected.

One could go on to argue that OkCupid removes the “aura” from the very act of dating; it’s easy to lose the sense that dating is something special sui generis, in and of itself, in the rat race of online dating. It may be difficult to give a romance time to develop when you know you can summon new contenders just by logging in, but now’s as good a time as any to suggest that we could all probably benefit from being a bit more mindful about love.

Society has a lot to say about what we should want, who we should be pursuing, what end goals we should be aiming for, but I can’t think of many pursuits that don’t benefit from enjoying the process, and dating is no different. <3