Susanna Liu

My friend Greta met Collin when he slid into her Instagram DMs in June of 2019. Collin had noticed her profile on the dating app Hinge and decided to track her down on Instagram. He opened with: “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more Scandinavian name.” They’ve been together ever since.

 Greta is Danish and so blonde her hair is almost white. Collin is Swedish and so blonde his hair is almost white. They’re both born on March 14. They both love rock climbing and the outdoors, and could model for L.L. Bean (but their favorite company is Patagonia). They’re the kind of couple you’d expect to see lounging in the back of a Mercedes-Benz Sprinter in an Instagram picture, with the caption #vanlife. 

“When my roommate met him for the first time she was like “oh my god — you could be twins!” said Greta. “And I was just like ‘fantastic,’ and we all laughed, because what else are you supposed to do at that point?”

To me, Greta and Collin exemplify the power of the internet to connect similar people.

After all, we are attracted to people that look and act like us. A study published in Psychological Science study found that there are personality similarities among couples and friends, and another found that we prefer faces that look like us and our kin when looking for a mate. In fact, we even show a preference for people genetically related to ourselves – deCODE genetics, an Icelandic biopharmaceutical company, found a “significant positive association” between kinship and attraction among Icelandic couples. Societal perceptions of interracial marriage in the U.S. are on an upward trend, and so too is the instance of interracial marriage. Even so, both men and women – though at different rates – tend to prefer people of their own race when selecting mates, both in-person and on the internet. 

The internet contains vast pools of every type of person imaginable. It provides us the ability to handpick our communities like never before. A Facebook IQ report from 2019 says there are over 10 million groups available on the website and 1.4 billion people using those groups every month. With this abundance of choice, even those with the weirdest interests can find community. For the polyglots among us, there’s the group “I Am Fluent in Three Languages: English, Sarcasm, and Profanity.” For loyal friends with a modicum of fashion sense, there’s “Friends don’t let friends wear CROCS!!!!” The list goes on. There were 138,000 active subreddits – communities on Reddit based around user-created areas of interest – as of July 2018. There’s a subreddit for:

  1. people who want to see photos of dragons copulating with cars, 
  2. people planning to survive the zombie apocalypse, 
  3. people who think they are immortal transdimensional beings,
  4. people want to photoshop arms onto birds, and 
  5. people who think birds are waging war on humankind. 

The list goes on.

An MIT Sloan School of Management study demonstrated that the Gale-Shapley algorithm, a matching algorithm used to solve the “stable marriage problem,” does a good job of predicting both marriages begun offline and couples who met online; the factors people consider when screening potential mates don’t vary much between online dating and offline coupling. Not surprisingly, both the offline marriages and the couples that met online showed a strong correlation between race, age, education, weight, and income. 

This correlation in visible attributes is stronger, in fact, among traditional marriages than among couples who meet online. Hitsch, Hortascçu, and Ariely say that, though this could be chalked up to the fact that they are comparing apples and oranges here (i.e. married couples and people that have just started dating), it could also be because people care more about shared interests when “relationshopping” online than when meeting someone at a bar. This would mean that rock climbing and canyoneering factor more heavily into the formation of couples online than they do into the formation of offline couples. And so do dragons and crocs.

In Tinder’s case, the app’s matching algorithms only exacerbate our propensity to partner up with similar people. The algorithm observes our interests and swiping behavior, then gives us more of what we like. If we tend to swipe right on people like ourselves, Tinder notices and supplies more potential matches that fit this trend. Before the dawn of online dating, our friends might have facilitated a similar kind of sorting behavior by introducing us to potential mates from their own social circles – people tend to choose friends similar to themselves, so two people with a friend in common are also likely to be similar. This traditional mode of meeting mates, however, can’t even begin to approximate the ease and abundance that online dating affords.

At best, this new stage in human socialization history could push us into the arms of someone with a Mercedes Sprinter (sadly, Collin has just decided to sell his). At worst, it could mean a warped perception of the world. Online dating could cause us to overestimate the prevalence of certain personalities in the general population, while underestimating others.

In the early 2000s, it was becoming evident that people behave differently online than they do offline. Professor John Bargh, P.H.D, turned toward the internet with interest. Bargh is a Yale psychology and cognitive science professor who studies the way in which the unconscious mind controls us. He wondered what unconscious motivations might be responsible for the behavioral mismatch seen between the internet and the world at large. Bargh and his colleagues found that everyone, regardless of how ostracized they were in offline society, could find acceptance and positive reinforcement online.

The internet is just another environment where a basic human impulse, like partner selection, can express itself. The result can be more dangerous than a couple you’d mistake for siblings, however. Bargh said that people who once thought they were the only ones with “this kink or that quirk” can now see that there are others like them. “It affirms the sense that you’re okay and there are others like you,” he said. “The sense [that] you’re not alone.”

That kink or quirk could be anxiety, or it could be white supremacy. While the internet can foster positive community, it can also facilitate hate and violence. More insidiously, as we keep to our preferred online nooks and crannies, the internet facilitates a belief in a world that looks nothing like reality.

Bargh said Gen Zers have never known life without the internet and its compartmentalized communities. “You are [like] fish in water,” Bargh said of Gen Z. 

I am one of those fish, and I use Tinder. I have frozen many a time in terror while perusing the app’s offerings as the realization hits me. All the faces I swipe on, I suddenly see, have converged into one single face: blue eyes, blondish hair, relatively defined cheekbones, a largish nose, and green, winged eyeliner. “Oh my god!” I scream. I am staring into a picture of my very own face.

Okay, that didn’t happen. BUT I see clearly enough that I swipe right on people who are of my same socio-economic class, people who are in college rather than working full-time jobs, even, perhaps, people who look like they could be distantly related to me. I am in Facebook groups for Gen Zers who attend the same college as me, and for people who like writing and are politically liberal. I am not an alt-right subredditor who believes birds are maniacal, but I nevertheless stick to certain communities that are becoming ever-more specific and closed-off as the internet and human evolution do their jobs the way they are intended.  

Though I choose these online communities because I identify with their members, I have no desire for their members to supplant my picture of humanity as a whole. Much less do I want the familiar politics and morals of these communities to lull me into blissful ignorance of the rest of the country’s convictions.

 When all we see are people who resemble ourselves, who have the same spiritual and political and ethical views as us, we begin to assume that that is how the world looks. Whether we know logically that the world does not consist entirely of beautiful, athletic blondes (i.e. Greta and Collin), the world in our head narrows. For us fish, the world has always appeared bigger, and much, much smaller, than it actually is.

 I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard the phrase “most politically divided society” in reference to the one I’ve been born into. There is no discourse across the aisle, we bemoan, as we all settle a little bit deeper into the familiar comfort of our Facebook group of choice: “An Arbitrary Number of People Demanding That Some Sort of Action Be Taken.” (It actually exists, look it up.)

Maybe, just maybe, once this pandemic’s at bay, I’ll crawl out of the virtual cave I’ve found my way into and try to listen with an open mind to people claiming birds aren’t drones and the earth is round.