When it comes to talking about the use of technology in dating, one wouldn’t naturally look for insights from the 1800s, but that’s exactly where one podcast started. In an episode of The Secret History of the Future, produced by Slate and The Economist, hosts Tom Standage and Seth Stevenson begin their exploration of dating apps today by first discussing the bicycle.
For people in the 1800s, the invention of the bicycle provided freedom to move outside a few block radius more easily and quickly, making it easier to keep up relationships outside your immediate social circle. As cyclists expanded their networks, many of them kept notes in journals called “wheeling diaries,” according to guest Evan Friss, an associate professor at James Madison University.
Friss tells podcast listeners about one such cyclist, a New York City resident named Arthur Hyde. His wheeling diary included not only where he went but who he met or travelled with, including a list of women, professor Friss says. “It’s clear that he’s using his bicycle to date women, to meet women,” Friss continues, “ultimately this woman who he marries is a woman who he courted via the bicycle.”
According to Professor Friss’s research, romantic couplings that were created and maintained because of the bicycle were relatively common in the nineteenth century. Not only did dating on the bicycle mean you could date outside your immediate social circle or neighborhood, it offered dating individuals more privacy—friends and family didn’t have to see that early courting process that is often muddled with awkward moments as we fumble over our feelings for the other person.
These are similar characteristics we see in online dating, too. But Standage and Stevenson admit their primary purpose of exploring the history of dating with the bicycle was to highlight this simple fact about humanity: “A new piece of tech comes along, and if there is anyway we can figure out how to romance people and to find a mate, we definitely will do that,” says Stevenson.
There’s a bit of comfort in that thought—that whatever new internet tool, app, or communications technology might emerge, we don’t have to guess whether it will be used for finding romantic love. It likely will.
In fact, in the late nineteenth century, at least one woman predicted how new communication technology would change our modern dating landscape. Standage and Stevenson point to a novel, Wired Love: A Romance of Dots and Dashes, written by Ella Cheever Thayer, who was at one time a telegraph operator. The book detailed the budding romance that developed over the telegraph wire.
While the book is fictional, its imagination of the dating and courtship process is in fact eerily similar to what online dating looks like today—and it even predicts the smartphone’s invention and potential impact on romance. As one passage cited by the podcast reads:
“We will soon be able to do everything by electricity; who knows but some genius will invent something for the especial use of lovers? Something for instance to carry in their pockets, so that when they’re far away from each other and pine for a sound of ‘that beloved voice,’ they will have only to take up this electrical apparatus, put it to their ears, and be happy. Ahh! blissful lovers of the future!”
You can’t help but smile at her wishful thinking; as most modern daters would agree, the use of the smartphone in dating hasn’t always made it blissful. The invention of the smartphone brought with it more than just a communication shift in our relationships—it has fundamentally changed how we form and maintain relationships alongside management of our day-to-day lives.
Making things simpler and more complicated
It seems as if, all at once, a rectangle-shaped device that fits in our pockets has become a tool for organizing our work lives and our home lives, connecting us to loved ones near and far away, and helping us to meet new friends and lovers. That’s a lot to ask of one piece of technology, and it’s a lot to ask of our minds and hearts as we navigate our smartphone use.
We feel this burden in our family relationships and our friendships, of course, as we navigate proper boundaries—for example, when it’s okay to have your phone at the dining room table and when it needs to be put away, so you can focus on your loved ones in your home. But the best practices for smartphone usage in dating, especially in the early stages of a relationship, are filled with blurred lines.
Clara Artschwager explains the effects of this well in her personal essay “Dating Without Texting Is the Absolute Best,” published by The Cut in 2018. Artschwager writes:
Recently, I’d noticed a pattern in my dating habits. I’d meet someone, and next thing I knew, we were texting more frequently than I text my best friends. The difference, of course, is that texting your best friends is a fun diversion, whereas texting someone you’re interested in can feel exhilarating but also exhausting. Every interaction is laden with meaning: How long should I wait to write back? What does his delay imply? Is an exclamation point too much? Should I add a winking face emoji?
Trying to determine whether or not you like someone enough to date them is difficult enough. Finding the courage to move forward with a romantic commitment or to break if off also takes emotional energy. Just because a message can be delivered and received instantaneously doesn’t mean we’ll instantly know how we’ll feel about it and what action (if any) to take with it. Practically speaking, we may see the text from said romantic interest at the exact moment we’re typing an email to our boss or online shopping for a family member’s birthday or some other important and meaningful everyday life moment.
But taking a little time to consider how to respond to a message, or just being too caught up in your life to have the time to respond, can have unintended consequences. Artschwager explains:
“Even if I didn’t respond to a text right away, the message would be hanging over me and firing warning signs back in the other direction. Unlike a friendship, where not responding to a text for two hours (or two days?) is acceptable, in dating, both the act of texting and not texting communicate something. How fast or how slow you respond says something to the other person.”
While we know there can be myriad reasons for a person’s delayed response to a text, it’s nearly a universal experience among dating individuals that waiting more than a few hours to get a text back from a romantic interest can set off a spiral of doubts and threaten to sabotage a budding romance.
That’s precisely what happened to Artschwager and the man she was dating when her inability to respond to a text in 24 hours—because she was juggling a new job and a family crisis—led them to almost call the whole thing off. In the end, they decided to continue dating, but with a new rule: they weren’t going to text each other, unless it involved logistics like running late to a date.
“I spent my days exactly as I saw fit, and while I did, my mind wasn’t filled with worry over when he would text me or whether I should text him; my hand didn’t reflexively reach for my phone a dozen plus times a day,” she writes. “Anticipation took that anxiety’s place: I was excited to tell him about all the things I was reading, seeing, and doing. I had so many questions for him: How was his week? How was his writing? What did he eat? What was he reading? There was so much to talk about.”
The information smartphones don’t hold
Artschwager’s experience mirrors what some analysis has to say about navigating our use of these devices in our relationships. Noami S. Baron, author of the book Always On: Language in an Online and Mobile World, puts a name to what is missing from our lives when we are in constant communication:
To the extent language technologies make it possible to always be in contact, we end up sharing a great deal of information and experiences, which in earlier times we might have saved up for face-to-face meetings. . . .
I have taken to calling this phenomenon “the end of anticipation,” because we no longer await the return of family and friends to share in their stories. For as long as humanity can remember, anticipation of reunion has been part of our social definition. That is, a relationship is a composite of joint experiences plus recounting of events taking place while we are apart.
This process of anticipating a reunion can play a critical role in helping dating individuals determine what their feelings are about a relationship. Are you keeping track of what moments in your everyday life you want to share with a romantic interest? Or are you reflexively sharing thoughts without thinking through whether you even want to share this piece of your life with someone you’re just getting to know?
And even when we are really excited about a person we’re texting, transferring the virtual connection to an in-person connection isn’t always easy. When we take technological communication like texting out of the equation and put communication in person in its place, we’ll either find we have the courage to say what we desire and need to our potential love interest or not. And isn’t that another data point that tells us something important about the relationship?
This is where I can’t help but think about the dating bicyclists of the nineteenth century and in particular, their wheeling diaries. What would a wheeling diary—perhaps better named a “data diary”—read like today?
I’m not suggesting a diary that simply downloads our texts exchanged, noting also how quickly we responded to each other. I’m talking about a diary that we handwrite, detailing those texting details alongside things like: the motivation and emotions behind our decisions to text or not; the questions we’re seeking to answer in our tendency to add a certain emoji, ask or answer a question, or even research a romantic interest’s online presence; and any other motivator for our technological communication in romance. What sort of intel would we learn about ourselves and our love lives if we took some time to document our digital romantic behavior and then study it through the eyes of a casual observer?
There is a lot of data contained in these little devices we carry around, but there is a lot more data in the people who use them.
The question for the twenty-first century is not whether we should use technology in our romantic lives. Instead, the challenge is knowing when to use technology and when to use our own minds and heart to find and keep the love our hearts desire.