This article originally appeared on VICE US
As we navigate whatever crap-era of the internet we're in, it's becoming clear that most of its promises have been unfulfilled. Cultural barriers thought to be eradicated as we learned more about one another have instead begat digital walls that have cloistered us even more. Money expected to trickle down with the ease of transaction is simply being funneled to Silicon Valley. The ease of publication has meant the sharing of more stories, but also more tossed-off reactions from sexists, racists, anti-Semites, and whoever else is out there. But what about the promise of "disrupting" dating?
At first, the positives of online dating were obvious. Being able to vet over a more extended period of time and trading messages back and forth over days as opposed to a few drinks at a bar meant fewer false starts. Both parties could try to get on the same page, offering fewer misunderstandings when they treaded those murky waters between "dating" and "relationship." That's good. But more than that, it was the expansive dating options that changed the game.
Rather than your love life being tied to where one happened to be born, or the trustworthiness of your social circle, or the whimsy of chance, online dating allowed for more variety in potential suitors. It was the Mall of America instead of the corner bodega. Having these additional options would, theoretically, allow potential dates the chance to hone what they were looking for, to find the partner juuuuust right. This was the goal of first generation dating sites like Match.com, eHarmony, and OKCupid... They cast enormous nets, and let the user choose their catch.
But that's old internet. The new hot dating sites are curated, niche, with their URL names branding the singular category they serve. Christian Singles (duh), Farmers Only (also duh), SaladMatch (vegetarians), MeetMindful (spiritual yoga folk), TrekPassions (fans of Star Trek). These sites are now legion, and their perceived value is understandable. Filtering for sci-fi nerds or religious affiliations is just a step removed from clicking your sexual preference on your profile. But the ability to focus a dating search on one specific category can also be horrifying if the category of interest is built around pernicious things like hate or violence or crackpot ideas.
The latest and one of the most portentous niche dating sites is Awake Dating, "the best dating site for conspiracy singles, awake singles, truther singles." (The word "best" is also worrying, as apparently there's more than one?) At the site, users match based on the norm, like proximity and age, but also the out-there, like "9/11 Was an Inside Job" and "Illuminati." When I check it out myself, my closest potential romance is with a 32-year-old woman with a Monica Lewinksy profile pic who lists among her interests, "How to Survive When You're Wide Eyed Blazened Awake" and "Jewish Mind Control."
"It's conception goes back a couple of years," says Jarrod Fidden, Awake Dating's CEO, in his heavy Australian accent over Skype. "My wife and I found we didn't resonate with the people who were involved with the mainstream narrative. While we were married, we thought that, maybe if you were single, you don't have someone else to share these ideas with. So, we provided that platform."
In a little over two months, Fidden claims the site has gathered over 10,000 members, hooking up on commonalities such as Area 51, anti-vax activism, or the Round-Earth Conspiracy (the movement that sees the "mainstream narrative"of a round Earth as propaganda used to control the masses). "Everyone's interpretation of what it's going to mean to be 'awake' is going to change from person to person," says Fidden. "It's not for us to decide what's outlandish or not. There's all this information, and in this day and age, each has their own opinion."
But, well, maybe that's not good. With so many outlets, everyone not only has their own opinion, but access to others who share that opinion, no matter how outlandish it is. If you happen to believe that Kraft controls the New World Order, on our beloved internet you're sure to find someone to second that, and thusly legitimize your own insanity.
When I press Fidden about this potential echo chamber effect that could come from conspiracists dating one another, he dips into his own personal experience. "I've had discussions with my wife about things we haven't agreed on, and every discussion we end up changing opinions," he says. "The ability to communicate openly and honestly disseminates the ideas, and finds the truth."
By now we know that's not exactly how it works. One need only delve into the Twitter mentions of any fight about gun control or the lady Ghostbusters to see that opinions, once fortified by other internet randos, become solidified and dug-in. There are a few terms flying around for this concept. The Filter Bubble is the biggest.
The main concept is thus: Surround yourself with those who believe the same things as you, and those beliefs become truths, which means there's no talking you out of them.
How this occurs is obvious when you consider our new internet reality. Everyone's personal experience on the web is a unique butterfly of surfing tailored to their own needs. Your Facebook feed is curated by you, with your own friends or acquaintances. If you get annoyed with them for certain posts, the "hide from feed" button is a few clicks away. Your Instagram and Twitter work the same. We've come to accept this, but what's a little more insidious is the fact that your Google search results are different from everyone else's as well.
Google and most other search engines are intended to give us information about what we want to know. To do so, they use "cookies" to track not only our location (which comes in handy, if we're looking for nearby Korean joints) and search history (which comes in handy if we're a NASCAR fan searching for "Jim Johnson" and don't want to hear about the Dallas Cowboys). In those cases, pumping us search results to return the information we're looking for is benign. The cancerous part is when we search about issues where opinions mingle with fact.
As Eli Pariser—former CEO of Upworthy—highlighted in his 2011 book The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding from You, a search for "BP" can produce two outcomes for two different users. For one, it can offer information about stock prices, but for another, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill that ravaged the Gulf in 2011. The difference depends on what the user's search history has shown. This difference is relatively low level, but consider the person Googling "the truth about vaccinations" with a search history showing a pattern of visiting anti-vaxxer websites. They could be led to more conspiracy nonsense that further promotes their preconceived ideas, as opposed to actual science.
This isn't just the fault of search engines, though. They're mostly just doing their job, after all.
"I don't think we can blame one particular site," says Engin Bozdag, a senior researcher at 4TU Centre for Ethics and Technology and senior privacy consultant at PwC who studied the filter bubble in his PhD thesis. "We cannot just solve this by regulating algorithms and telling them, 'you should create a more diverse environment so people can hear diverse opinions from opposing viewpoints.'"
Frankly, that product won't sell, because people wouldn't want to use it. If the top search engines or social media platforms began highlighting opposing viewpoints or opinions, people will move to ones that don't. (DuckDuckGo is a search engine that doesn't track users, meaning it provides the same results for any search, but there's a reason you haven't heard of it until now.) Which, in a roundabout way, brings us back to niche dating websites.
"Let's say you want to date a conspiracy theorist, [the program] doesn't have to tell you, you shouldn't do that," says Bozdag. "That would violate your autonomy and choice. And if it shows you results you do not wish, you won't use the tool anymore."
Meaning that it really falls on the prospective internet user to purposefully gather opposing views, seek out those beyond their own cultural sphere. And that's really fucking hard. "On Twitter, I try to add people from opposing viewpoints to see what arguments they're using. At least, see their sources," says Bozdag. "But this is an exhausting task. No one would want to do this unless you have a very personal interest."
Leaving us in a weird place with no clear solutions, which is getting people to do things they don't want to do just because they should, like asking people to eat vegetables even though they don't taste as good as McDonald's burgers. No one wants to do things that are hard, because they're hard. Avoiding the filter bubble is solely up to our own willpower to forgo base tendencies to surround ourselves with only those we agree with.
"The reason why you should listen to other parties, that's beyond internet, or Facebook and Google," says Bozdag. "is to improve your own arguments, and also enlarge your own viewpoint before you make up your mind."
Niche dating sites that filter out our ability to connect with those who don't share our belief that lizard people control the world's currency from the sewers of L.A. is only adding to the problem. Worst of all, while the other forms of the filter bubble are generally self-contained within the minds and opinions of one person, one idealized end result from these niche dating sites is love, then lasting relationships, and then the creation of our planet's next generation crackpots. And that's one scary prospect.
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