In May, Match.com launched a new initiative called “The Stir” where they sponsor social events for users to meet each other. Just this June, “The Stir” expanded to 20 different cities. By September, they are planning to be nation wide. They expect to have over half a million people at events by year’s end.
If you are a bit skeptical about the importance of this new initiative and its impact on relationships in the United States, consider that the online dating industry grossed close to two billion dollars last year, over 40 million people use dating websites (about 20 million on Match.com) and an estimated 20% of marriages last year started online . (See The Economist, CNBC, Wikipedia, and DatingSitesReviews.)
Given these numbers, there is no doubt that these sites are shaping our relationships. Should we be concerned about this? I think a bit, but not in the way that is typically thought.
I do not think we need to worry that these sites will supplant human contact although this seems like an easy concern to have. In Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam noted the precipitous decline in social capital in the United States over the last few decades. Moreover, televisions (and one would assume the internet nowadays) accounts for part of this decline. People sitting at home on the coach or in front of the computer are not engaging others.
Yet, this explanation is limited. Work probably explains more of our disconnectedness from others. We as a society tend to work more hours, move away from our communities for work, and are employed by business that are rarely rooted in communities.
Also, technology does not necessarily replace social interactions but supplements it. One example will suffice: texting. People tend to text their friends, the people they see daily, more than they text strangers.
Internet dating sites are like texting. They do not replace social interactions but rather supplement them. These sites are becoming a first step in the process of meeting people but will never be the only or last step. “The Stir” is just an extension and formalizing of where online sites were already heading and what they were already doing. The creators of these sites knew that the best way to evaluate the potential for a relationship is a face to face meeting, so they figured out a way to use technology to expand the number of people a user could meet. It did not take these companies long to realized that they could go further and even facilitate the meeting itself. Hence, “The Stir”.
All of this is primarily to say that online dating does not replace person-to-person contact. It is just becoming another avenue to this.
I do think we need to be concerned about how these websites are affecting the way people are viewing dating and relationships. Online dating seems to intensify the already prominent understanding of dating as a kind of “shopping” for a partner. People go into a store to look at a product and evaluate whether or not they want it enough to purchase it. The framework is about whether this product, or in this case relationship, will fulfill me, make me happy.
Obviously, personal preferences matter a great deal in choosing a partner. Yet, relationships for Catholics cannot just be about what makes the individual happy but how the couple will work together to love and care for themselves and others. Thus, I think firefighting is a better metaphor for relationships than shopping. In firefighting there is work to do. It is hard and dangerous but it is ordered to the preservation of the good of those around you. Of course, firefighters take care of one another, watch out for another, and enjoy each other’s company. It is a fellowship that emerges out of working together and doing it well. That fellowship is both the foundation of the work together and is intensified by working together. The result is that this fellowship is more meaningful, intimate and enjoyable than shopping ever could be.
For Catholics, the work to be done is learning how to love, learning how to be a disciple of Christ. This is our common task. Many of us date, and many of us marry. When we think about relationships, we should not just ask the question “does this person make me happy” but also “is this person good and loving to others as well as to me.” This will lead us to good, healthy relationships because it is rooted in true love, the love God manifested in the gospels, the love that perfects the person by leading them to service of the neighbor, the stranger and the enemy. We should make sure that the perspective that dating websites are “stirring” up do not frame our understanding of relationships but rather the gospel perspective does.