We use our phones for everything from networking and connecting with people through various apps to catching up on the day’s news and finding local restaurants to try out. Our phones are an extension of our lives, and to use a phrase that while new already feels tired and clichéd, they have become our lifeline to the world. No longer, then, is it far-fetched to think of the cellphone as a medium through which people collectively expand upon their romantic lives. Arguably not since the women’s rights movement in the 1960s have we seen such a transformation in dating. The various tactics we use in meeting, engaging, and dating people have been altered by the rise of the smartphone, for better or worse. The ability to connect and communicate with anyone at any time means the world is at your fingertips: but what happens when that communication is lost? We begin to obsess. We become perfectionists that review our words to find out what went wrong. The lack of closure can lead to self-loathing and confusion. These are feelings most of us know too well. “Do I call? Do I text? Do I send a Facebook message? Do I send up a smoke signal?” (Ansari and Klinenberg 2). It can almost feel as if we’re experiencing the five stages of grief in an instant. The smartphone is a liberating window into a globally connected sea of information from billions of users that will leave you feeling alone, broken, and confused.
At least, that’s the conclusion that comedian Aziz Ansari and NYU sociologist Eric Klinenberg have drawn in their book, Modern Romance: An Investigation. Modern Romance is a psychological book marrying cutting edge social science with real world experiences and sharp humor, which examines dating in the digital age. Ansari, the main author of the book, investigates how much romance and dating has changed, and whether this shift has been positive or negative. The authors enlisted the help of several leading social scientists, psychologists, anthropologists (whom I’ve studied and learned from here at Marist), journalists, and historians from around the country, as well as respondents from around the Internet and the world.
Modern Romance is a unique psychological study on dating, relationships, and romance in the digital age. I am not the authority on psychological studies; I’ve read a few journals (some written by social scientists who worked on this book) and taken a few psychology classes (one of which was Love and Romance). However, I know my own experiences—I know the experiences of friends and family. I especially understand the issues that plague singles and couples in this digital age. Modern Romance is the first one to answer those questions, and does so in a way that is thorough, observational, and factual considering it is also funny, light-hearted, and relatable. I can easily relate to the problems this book covers. From the opening story Ansari shares about a girl he hit it off with (named Tanya) who never responded to his text, to the focus-group’s experiences with dating apps like Tinder, to visiting bars, clubs, and parties…each of the examples the authors and respondents used could be applied to anyone. Sometimes, the examples and shared stories were eerily similar to those I or someone I know has experienced.
Modern Romance covers topics such as the rise of online dating and how it relates to the past, in which the authors use data collected by Match.com, OKCupid, and other major online dating services. Ansari and Klinenberg provide insight into how our access to a larger potential dating pool affects our understanding of romantic choice. They begin by presenting the idea of a “soul-mate” in the first chapter—a common phrase nowadays, but not something that existed in the mainstream prior to around the 1960s. The authors visited a retirement home and concluded that most of the respondents who dated before the ‘60s ended up marrying someone within walking distance of their house. Love was not a common justification in their choice of partner (desire to move out of their parents’ house was often cited). The reasons given by the seniors were also grounded in statistics; the median age for men and women getting married prior to the ‘60s was much lower (early twenties) as compared to today (nearing thirty years old) (Ansari and Klinenberg 33-50).
The book then transitions into the rise of texting and online dating, and how these two forms of communication have dramatically changed courtship. One of the examples given was a screenshot of a message thread on a woman’s phone. The image was filled with ten “Hey’s” from a man who was interested in her (Ansari and Klinenberg 49). She replied to none of them, begging the question: why didn’t he take the hint? Diving into the phenomenon of texting, the authors also evaluated why men felt it smart to start a dialogue with suggestive texts such as, “I like your tits” (Ansari and Klinenberg 46). The authors concluded that texting, and therefore phones, have created a barrier between two people. Most sane people would be unable to utter such a statement in an initial face-to-face interaction. But phones have allowed a sense of anonymity that grants us the freedom from guilt. Face-to-face interactions do not provide that same freedom.
However, this is not the first era in which technological advances have drastically impacted the concept of romance:
Culture and technology have always shaken romance. When the plow came in and made women’s labor value in the family unit drop, it was disruptive. When the car provided a means for people to travel and see people who lived farther away, that was disruptive too…History shows that we’ve continually adapted to these changes. No matter the obstacle, we keep finding love and romance. (Ansari and Klinenberg 250)
Ansari and Dr. Klinenberg concluded that despite serious problems the Internet and technology have created for singles and couples alike, it has not made dating or romance any easier or harder compared to the experiences of prior generations. We are simply in a different place than we were before, with new forms of communication, new outlets for worry and concern, new possibilities for dating, and (perhaps most importantly) new and stricter criteria for potential suitors to meet. However, I didn’t see this as the main point. What really hit me was the nuance throughout the book that seemingly whispered, “We’re all in this together.” One of the problems technology poses that most of us know all too well is it can create a sense of isolation. This isolation, in my experiences, has caused me to feel like everyone else in the dating world knows what they’re doing. For whatever reasons, my past failures were uncommon. I was simply “doing it wrong.” But the stories and statistics presented in this book caused me to reevaluate those notions, as many of the people quoted have shared nearly identical experiences, emotions, and reactions as I had. I don’t see this book as a tool used to navigate within an ever-expanding forest of potential partners; I see it as a reflection of the forest itself, exploring the caves, quicksand, and occasional beauty of dating in the digital age.
Ansari, A. and Klinenberg, E. (2015) Modern Romance. United States: Penguin Press.