The internet is now the top place where couples meet. Per a survey just released from a team at Stanford University, other modes of couple introduction are in stark decline.
The study results are compelling, as exemplified by this almost shocking graphic that popped up on Twitter:
— Derek Thompson (@DKThomp) July 12, 2019
It makes clear what many of us have already anecdotally ascertained—people don’t meet in person, anymore; they meet through an app. Couples used to meet through family, friends, proximity as neighbors, churchgoers, or in school. Yet each of these modes of introduction has been in stark decline from the 1940s to present.
I decided to conduct my own, informal, entirely nonscientific study. I asked Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter followers how they met. Of 136 respondents, the largest percentage of couples met online, at 19 percent, with work coming in a close second at 18 percent.
That people meet less due to proximity now than previously makes sense, because Americans move around more than they used to. People don’t stay in one place, and families that in decades past would have had roots in a community, and a broad social network within that locale, do not.
The study, funded with support from the National Science Foundation, Stanford’s Institute for Research in the Social Sciences, and Stanford’s UPS endowment, is still in draft form and not yet peer-reviewed. The authors requested that the study not be cited without permission, although when I reached out to author Michael Rosenfeld, he said, “You do not have my permission to cite or quote from the paper.” I’m not sure what he fears in my analysis, or why an academic would want his work ignored by media; maybe he just doesn’t want me to cover his work.
Fewer Couples Meeting at Church, School, and Work
Church couple-ups are on the decline as well, but so is church attendance. According to a recent Gallup poll, “The past 20 years have seen an acceleration in the drop-off, with a 20-percentage-point decline since 1999 and more than half of that change occurring since the start of the current decade.” Thus it’s no wonder there’s a nearly 7 percent decrease in romantic partnerships coming out of church communities.
While people used to meet in primary or secondary school, that number has declined from about 27 percent in 1940 to 5 percent today. The trope of the high school sweetheart has been relegated to the dust bin of cheesy romances and relationships doomed to failure. But this really did happen.
Today there is very little encouragement for teen couples to maintain their couplehood past 12th grade. Couples routinely break up before attending college, believing that something better awaits, not just in the form of relationships. The idea is that coupling at 18 is a detriment for life—that a person has to be free to pursue a career, without the ties of love.
College meetups are down, too. After a slight bump in the early 2000s, when more people were attending college than ever before, those relationships are also on the decline, down from about 6 to 4 percent.
Men and women alike give top billing to career and being sexually libertine in their early twenties, deciding that the right person will come along at the right time. But how many people give up what could be a lasting and true love just because they think the timing is bad? Like anything else worth doing, love must be prioritized.
Workplace intros are in decline as well, because people are becoming afraid to meet that way. Human resources departments strictly forbid it, and workplace culture between men and women has a twinge of toxicity these days. Boss-subordinate relationships are legally and socially dangerous. People are so obsessed with their own sense of victimization that they have to worry more about the aftermath of a failed workplace romance than its potential for long-term success.
Phones As a Portal to Intimacy
Even skewed by age—most of the respondents to my informal, non-scientific, social media study were in their 30s and 40s—internet coupling has taken over. This means our primary conduit to coupling has become the internet.
We feel intimacy with our phones. We keep them within hands’ reach and freak out when we can’t find them. We stuff them in our bra straps, and half the time, just carry them around in our hands, not even taking the time to slip them into our pockets because we’ll only be drawing them out again in a few seconds.
If the internet is the intermediary, the smartphone is the interface. We have grown more comfortable with our phones than with people. Friends, family, schools, churches, and places of work used to function as places and conduits for meeting, but not so anymore. Per the study:
The apparent displacement of meeting through friends by meeting online suggests a process of technology‐driven disintermediation. Individuals used to need personal intermediaries, usually friends or family members, to introduce them to new people. Now that the Internet makes a large choice set of potential partners available, the intermediation of friends and family is relied upon less.
The rapid adoption of smart phones in the U.S. (World Bank 2015) has spurred the increase in adoption of online dating. Tinder, the leading U.S. phone dating app, was first released in 2012. Grindr, the leading dating and hookup app for gay men, was released in 2009, helping to initiate the phone app phase of Internet dating.
Contrary to the scholarship about how previous technologies have reinforced face‐to‐face social networks. … Internet dating has displaced friends and family from their former roles as key intermediaries in the formation of new unions. Disintermediation, i.e. the removal or subordination of the human intermediary between two parties, is a fundamental social outcome of the Internet.
With so much coupling happening online, and the portal to that intimacy being our phones, it’s not hard to imagine that people will intentionally pull themselves out of real-life situations to be more present online. This will both exacerbate and solidify this mode of meeting as the primary way we couple. We can imagine ourselves at the club, our phones in our hands, the dance floor empty, as we put on our best selfie face and hope to meet someone who’s not there.
This is an interesting study. It’s a shame Rosenfeld is more interested in denying access to his work that engaging in an open conversation about it. Perhaps in the future, he’ll realize that writers who share some of his concerns about e-coupling and the decline of traditional forms of romantic encounters are not the enemy, but allies interested in understanding the future of community building.