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You Texted Her What? Aziz Ansari and Eric Klinenberg on the Way We Date Now

collage: smartphone showing a broken heart on the screen with enlarged text bubbles with ellipses popping out

“Everyone has a Tanya,” says comedian Aziz Ansari about a seemingly successful date he once had—one he naturally followed up with a text message. Like many long-suffering singletons before him, he received no reply. “I got worried,” he says, “and then I got furious because I saw Tanya was posting a picture of a horse on Instagram, so I knew she had checked her phone. Eventually I took a beat and realized: Oh man, I’m going through this whole rollercoaster of emotions simply because someone hasn’t typed out a message on their phone. That couldn’t even have happened some years ago.”

As his prospects with Tanya fizzled, Ansari began to consider the ways smartphones and online dating services have created new social anxieties around flirtation—and the subject became fodder for much of his standup. But when he began to ask his audiences about their own romantic texts gone awry, he realized he wasn’t just mining their dating lives for comedic material—rather, he was interested in the now near-universal experience of looking for love with technological assistance. “Everyone’s dealing with frustrations in the private world of their little screens,” he says. But research shows that online dating has yielded more than just awkward blunders: Between 2005 and 2012, it was the most common way Americans met their spouses—bigger than work, friends and school combined.

When Penguin approached him about turning his comedy into a book, Ansari was struck with an idea. Rather than rehashing his comedy he “wanted it to be an analysis of what everyone’s going through,” he says. “I thought of writing a humor book that was also a sociology book, so that it actually has some heft.” But for that he’d have to conduct a study—and for that he’d need a sociologist.  

photo: portrait of Eric Klinenberg

Eric Klinenberg

It was the publisher who paired Ansari with Eric Klinenberg—NYU sociology professor and author of Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone (Penguin, 2012), which documents the growing trend of single living as a way to assert independence and control over one’s lifestyle. With 50% of American adults now unmarried, up from 22% in 1950, Klinenberg reveals, our cities have begun to change shape: Fully half of Manhattan residences are single-person dwellings, for example. He demonstrates that when people can afford to, they live alone – and argues that our social and socioeconomic support structures will need to adjust to that new reality. The book made a big splash, garnering Klinenberg attention from all manner of media, from The New York Times and The Economist to Brain Pickings and the comedy collective The Upright Citizens Brigade. Time magazine called it the #1 idea that is changing your life.

Klinenberg and Ansari hit it off pretty much from the start. “I got a call from an editor who said, ‘Have you heard of the comedian Aziz Ansari?’” Klinenberg recalls. “I said, ‘Aziz Ansari? He’s my hero!’” Already being familiar with the Parks and Recreation star’s work put him in “a subcategory of about four other sociologists,” he jokes.

Comedians interested in data analysis might seem like an equally rare breed, but Klinenberg recognized that Ansari, a graduate of the South Carolina Governor’s School for Science and Mathematics and NYU’s Stern School of Business, was serious about documenting new patterns in 21st-century dating. Together they could not only tackle questions about modern relationships, but also examine the very stuff of courtship today—by reading through the text messages, online dating profiles, and emails of those looking for love.

“A big part of it was just talking to so many people, all over the world,” Ansari says of their fieldwork for the book, which sent the pair traveling to seven cities and towns—including Buenos Aires, Paris, Doha, and Tokyo—to discover how technology has affected different dating cultures across the globe. While Klinenberg developed the research methodology, Ansari proved useful in gathering the data. Almost everywhere, it seemed, people were familiar with his comedy and eager to speak with him. “Usually when sociologists ask people about their personal lives they clam up or give you partial memories,” says Klinenberg. “Aziz has already given so much of himself to his fans—through his standup you know about his family, his history, his food habits, even his cousins. People just handed us their phones. We had more access to people’s personal lives than anyone other than the NSA.”  

book cover: Modern Romance

Since that journey began, their book Modern Romance: An Investigation has been released, become a New York Times bestseller and been discussed everywhere from Vanity Fair and GQ to The Guardian and National Public Radio. And Ansari, famous for being single, is now in a committed relationship. But make of this what you will: The couple met through friends, not online.

The two authors recently spoke together at a book launch event held at NYU’s Skirball Center. Here are six insights they shared from their field notes on romance in the “swipe right” era:

1. Online dating works best when you use it to get right to the meeting-in-person part.

“Many people said that online dating is a miserable experience,” says Ansari. “You can either see it like that, or you can see it as an amazing resource. No group of people has ever had access to this many people outside of their social circle.”

But having so many possibilities can be overwhelming—leading you to browse endlessly or spend hours crafting noncommittal messages to dozens of possible flames. Better to take a quick look around and choose someone to ask out on a real date, he says. “It’s kind of like Yelp: the good way to use it is as a quick orientation of all the good establishments in your neighborhood, and committing to one. The bad way to use it is the way I use it, which is not being able to let go of my screen because I have to make sure the taco I’m about to eat is the greatest taco ever known to man. By the time I look up, I see the taco place is about to close, and so is everything around it. Most people we spoke to had a better experience with online dating if they actually met in person—sooner rather than later.”

2. In the dating world, text messaging and social media have created new levels of “douchiness.”

The faceless nature of instant messaging can bring out the worst in people—especially men, Ansari says. Not being able to see your correspondent’s immediate reaction—their facial expression or body language—seems to embolden people, making them write more aggressive, and often sexually explicit, things that they’d consider saying in person. The ability to message multiple recipients at once also means that people looking for a casual one-night stand tend to maximize their chances of success by being more direct, thereby only attracting people with a similar agenda. “You can’t test the waters in quite the same way in person,” says Klinenberg.

And even when you’re not trying to be forward or crude, instant messaging increases the risk of coming across the wrong way. “If you’re meeting someone face-to-face and say the wrong thing, you can recover pretty quickly by reading the person’s facial expression and changing the topic or your tone,” says Klinenberg. “But by text, once you put it out there, you can’t take it back. The person can dwell on it. In that way it’s a very unforgiving medium.”

3. Tinder is the dating app that best mimics real-life chemistry.

Really. One of the biggest surprises from their research, says Ansari, is that algorithmic dating sites like Match.com or OkCupid miss exactly the kinds of connections and attractions that create real compatibility. Unlike these services, which match people according to their listed interests and stated preferences, Tinder simply shows you the face of someone in your vicinity who is also on Tinder, along with their name, age and an optional “tagline.” If you like the look of them, you swipe right, which will notify the person that you like them. If you don’t, you swipe left—and move onto the next face. Only when two people have swiped right for each other are they allowed to communicate through the app.

The problem with the Match.com model is that what people say they want when filling out an online questionnaire is rarely what they actually end up going for in a mate, studies have shown. And a small detail—like a stated preference for a rival sports team or unpopular band—in an online profile could cause you to reject someone you might have felt an attraction toward had you met offline, where most conversations don’t begin with a dry recitation of hobbies and proclivities.

When Klinenberg and Ansari started their research, Tinder was new, and many dismissed it as a shallow tool for “hookups,” not real relationships. Now the prevailing attitude has changed dramatically. “People hate filling out profiles and reading through them. Tinder is fun; you’re just swiping at faces,” Ansari explains. But beyond that, Tinder is not very different from how you would meet someone in person. It simply shows you the faces of people around you, making it easier to approach them. “When you go into a party or a bar, you only have faces to go by anyway,” says Ansari. “People talk about meeting their spouses ‘the old-fashioned way,’”—in their neighborhoods, or at social gatherings—“but Tinder is pretty much the same thing.”

4. The effect of technology on global dating culture can be hard to predict.

The researchers found surprises everywhere they visited.

Take Japan, for example. “There’s this phenomenon of the herbivore man—guys who are very shy and can’t approach women, and don’t pursue people,” says Ansari. “We thought that online dating would be the perfect solution for these shy herbivore men. Because the Japanese are so technologically savvy—they invented emoji!—we thought there must be some next-level Tinder in Japan. But when we spoke to people we learned that online dating isn’t really a thing there, and among those who do use it, posting selfies is considered very narcissistic. Instead they post pictures of their cat, or their new rice cooker.”

If this sounds more like your grandma’s Instagram account than an online dating profile, it’s worth noting that Japan is going through a national crisis recognized by the government as “celibacy syndrome:” As the country’s birth rate continues to drop (projected to plunge by a third by 2060), in 2013 about a third of single Japanese men in their 20s and 30s admitted to never having dated a woman. And they’re not having casual sex either: A survey in the same year revealed that 25% of men aged 16 to 24 are “uninterested in” or “despise” sexual contact. For women of the same age that figure was as high as 46%. This flight from human intimacy, some speculate, may be a cultural reaction to Japan's increased dependence on technology that not only mediates but simulates human relations—from virtual pets to virtual girlfriends.

Then there’s Doha, Qatar—an Islamic society where cultural taboos prevent unmarried couples from showing affection or dating. What’s forbidden in public can flourish online: "They would start seeing people secretly over Skype, and people would send photos over Snapchat,” Ansari says, “so they’re using social media to break all of these rules and get around social conventions.”

5. Technology can encourage ridiculously high standards for potential partners.

Today’s young adults are noncommittal and career-orientated, and more interested in hookups and flings than they are in marriage and children—or so says the stereotype. But are millennials actually bored by the thought of true partnership, or just chronically indecisive about who that one partner should be?

The Modern Romance authors chart a striking cultural shift from the “companion marriage” ideal to the “soul mate marriage” ideal. “When we spoke to members of the older generation about what they looked for in their partner, they said it should be a nice person, and they should get along,” says Ansari. In other words, they looked for someone “good enough” as opposed to someone perfect. That often meant someone close by—often a neighbor, childhood acquaintance, or family friend. Sometimes these pairings made for unhappy marriages, but just as often what started out of convenience deepened over time into lasting love.

But we’re not just dating people from down the block anymore. “What young people look for is someone who fulfills us in almost every way, understands our needs and communicates perfectly,” Ansari says. “We want someone that almost doesn’t exist.” At the same time—with dating apps and social media to catalog and categorize everyone we might like to meet—our dating options seem limitless. “We have this sense that the perfect person is out there; we just have to find them. It’s bound to create a sense of dissatisfaction within any existing relationship.”

6. But technology is only part of the reason our attitudes toward commitment have changed.

“Not that long ago, if you were unsatisfied in your marriage and you felt like you needed to get out, you had to really justify that decision to people you knew,” says Klinenberg. “Now we live in this moment where if you’re not happy in your marriage and you feel you’re not being personally fulfilled or challenged, if you’re not growing and feeling excited and passionate all the time, you have to justify staying in it to your friends. And that’s an enormous cultural shift.”

Ansari and Klinenberg entered the project with smartphones in mind, but soon realized that there were much bigger cultural changes at play. “There’s this period of life that generations before us simply did not have: never before have people been able to spend their 20s and a good part of their 30s single, dating lots of people, experimenting in their careers and ‘playing’ at being adults,” says Klinenberg. Sociologists call this new period of life “emerging adulthood” or “second adolescence.”

Mostly, this freedom is viewed as progress: “For older generations, getting married was one of the only ways a woman could leave her parents’ house,” Ansari points out. On the other hand, cautions Klinenberg, it also means that “we never really know when to say yes to something—or someone.”  

—Anneke Rautenbach


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