In one of history’s best overlaps between technology and relationships, the bicycle’s introduction to England in the latter 1800s meant that the average distance between spouses’ birthplaces expanded from one mile to 30 miles. That’s what tech mostly did throughout the 20th century; it expanded our world and expended our dreams. It allowed my parents, born and raised on separate continents, to meet. It allowed us to believe “Sleepless in Seattle” and “You’ve Got Mail” would end happily. Technology enabled love without ensnaring it.
Love could still drift in the air like music through radio waves. Eyes locked across a crowded room. There was courtship and other best-laid plans, sure, but there was also a sense that the best-laid among us trusted serendipity and mystery. You pedaled to the next town unsure of what lay beyond the next hill.
Now Mark Zuckerberg wants to expedite the undoing of all that possibility. He believes in a smaller, probabilistic sense of love: matchmaking. It’s so many steps backward because it is, essentially, arranged marriage. Instead of our parents or clergy or nobility doing the arranging, agency is ceded to algorithms, offering our online data as dowry.
Good luck with that. Facebook gave us the belittling term “Facebook friends.” Now the site thinks it knows the magic of giving us a Facebook bae?
Netflix thinks I want to watch “Mulan,” “Gossip Girl” and “Sherlock” because I watched “The Good Place.” But all I really want to watch is “Star Trek” reruns and maybe “Murder She Wrote.” Amazon’s top shopping picks for me include an Orson Welles biography and a $25-$200 Sephora gift card, when I’m actually eyeing folding furniture and vintage maps. Facebook thinks I want to be friends with gay party DJs and former co-workers, when my newest friend was a Mexican diplomat I met at a gay bar in Melbourne.
Algorithms are dumb. Dating algorithms are the dumbest. They confuse response with romance. They pretend meeting up is any kind of finish line.
Meanwhile, love, we tell ourselves, is brave and defiant and giddy and unorthodox. It breaks all the rules. It sees character and conscience before color or class. People have been beaten and jailed and killed so that we could recognize and embrace that fullness of love. But love by way of apps isn’t just dumb or reductive; it’s also insincere. Facebook’s goal won’t be to create great dates. Its goal will be to create engagement with its own product — and to keep you engaged as long as possible. That is the core mission of any app: to be your click-bae.
Zuckerberg can talk about community as much as he wants, but the only relationship he cares about you having is the one you have with Facebook. Other dating apps are similar, which is why they offer for-a-fee premium services — Bumble Boost, Grindr Xtra, Tinder Gold — that pretend the act of giving them money will incentivize them into getting rid of you as a client, by giving you the love of your life. They conflate proximity with probability and calculation with charisma. Like any matchmaker, they tell you whom you’re supposed to like.
Maybe that’s love for some people. Or maybe some people can find a comfortable, manageable version of love within those parameters. But it’s not for me. Love should exist beyond data, beyond description, a leap of faith into an unknown future and a not-yet-known self. “Why would anyone — bisexual, gay, whatever — want to be trapped as a photo, as an Internet profile in an app? That’s a different kind of closet, a box. So boring,” a bisexual Cuban told me when I asked about Grindr’s presence in Havana. Another added: “If they are sending me messages that begin with photos of their chest, that’s not romance. That’s shopping.”
There used to be a home for online romance.
A month or so before Facebook’s dating announcement came a surprise move on the other end of the online hookup spectrum: Craigslist shut down its personal ads. Over nearly two decades on that site, my life was deeply enriched by meeting people I wasn’t supposed to meet, people I couldn’t have met any other way: an underwear model with whom I had a long-term casually intimate relationship; an Emmy-nominated actor with whom I enjoyed a four-way with two college lacrosse students among other wild nights; a Pulitzer Prize winner looking for somebody “grounded”; a Lakota man who walked me through the ceremonial scars on his chest; a trans man with giveaway eyelashes; closet cases; a nationally respected doctor; a Serbian stripper; a police officer; white-shoe lawyers; Broadway dancers; a Sundance director; a guy who had a paternity test the next morning; old men; young men; porn stars; virgins; a guy flattering enough to call me a “sex god”; and a Russian man so new to this country he was still smoking the last pack of cigarettes he bought in Moscow.
Meeting those men forced me out of so many comfort zones. It was a dice roll, and sometimes I lost badly. But far more often than not, it was an adventure into a great beyond that was so much greater and so far beyond anything I could’ve imagined or known. I am still single. But I know that’s love. And Zuckerberg does, too.
He met his wife, Priscilla, while in line for the bathroom at a Harvard frat party that was a quasi-mock farewell party on the heels of a disastrous prank he pulled on the student body. Wearing glasses scrawled with a drunken C++ joke (“pound include beer dot h”) he told her: “I’m going to get kicked out in three days, so we need to go on a date quickly.” It’s about as lovely as the line Dan Savage used on his future husband at a gay bar (“You’ve got a pretty mouth”) or what Michelle Robinson told Barack Obama the first few times he asked her out (“I’m your adviser. It’s not appropriate.” He had to offer to quit his job before she relented.)
That’s where romance used to live, in the so-called “third places” of our lives: not home, not work, but where we exchange ideas and build relationships. Facebook and other social networks have turned our phones into society’s only third place; the rest is just selfie window dressing.
Ironically, the smartphone and social media booms have been paired with an opposite trend in mindfulness, meditation — and an appreciation for vibes, auras, chakras and other energies where it’s not uncommon to assert that “the universe spoke to me” or “the universe heard me.” Awesome. But one of the most insidious tricks these apps pull, on even supposedly self-aware people, is that they shortcut intimacy so that users can achieve a first date without needing the interpersonal skills to maintain that first date, let alone progress to a second date or proper relationship.
A word to the wise: If you can communicate with the universe, try some small talk with the cutie at the gym, or in the coffee shop, or at church. No texting. No emoji. No swiping. No algorithms. You can do it. Really. It’s as easy as riding a bicycle.