Marriage is a form of social glue: it creates connection, often between groups (circles of friends, family, etc.) that where not connected before. In that sense, our amorous entanglements can play a similar role as Granovetter’s weak ties, that is, they may establish bridging connections between groups that can be quite dissimilar concerning the habitual social parameters (class, ethnicity, religion, etc.) thereby effectively contributing to social cohesion. This article from German news magazine Die Zeit argues that marriage used to be an important means for social mobility:

“One in two men used to marry below their social status and one in two women above.”

The fact that secretaries married their bosses and nurses the doctors at their hospital contributed greatly to the mixing of milieus and even played a role in producing a more even distribution of riches. What I found really interresting though is that this seems to be changing and that online dating is one of the reasons.

Dating websites establish what could be described as a regime of data based perception. Profiles contain a lot of information about a person, some of which allow for an easy and quick categorization on the scale of social status: job and income, level of education, cultural preferences, choice of language, etc. make it easy to compare one’s own social position to that of the millions of profiles that we have access to. According to the cited article, online dating significantly reduces interaction between social strata. Both women and men now strive to find mates that have a similar educational and socioeconomic background and the data offered by most dating sites allows filtering out potential candidates – down to a very fine degree – and still get access to hundreds of profiles. The haphazard component of interaction in physical space where attraction might emerge in unexpected ways is greatly reduced when every single person from the pool of available mates is a profile competing in a handful of very large markets (= dating sites) that are based on specific data constructs and algorithms that allow to project that data according to one’s own wishes.

One could say that in a sense, digital space implies a shifting of perceptual categories: the physical attributes of a person are compressed into pictures and a small number of descriptors (weight, height, body shape) while information that would traditionally have to be uncovered in a conversation (job, education, etc.) is magnified and pushed to the front. With economic insecurity and status angst on the rise, this shift perfectly fits a public increasingly eager to include rational arguments when it comes to choosing a mate.

As always, the chain link that interests me most is the designer of such information systems that, in this case as least, becomes a full fledged social engineer whose choices might have larger consequences for social cohesion than he or she would probably be willing to admit…

Post filed under metatechnologies, perception.

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