Online dating’s hints of Stoicism


Yesterday, I examined why some believe that data and the internet are conspiring to limit both our attention, and the fields of our knowledge/interest. Today I’m presenting something entirely different, namely the results of a forthcoming report which demonstrate how the phenomenon of online dating is actively altering the fabric of society by expanding our worlds.

An overview of the paper is available here, but in a nutshell, researchers from the University of Essex and the University of Vienna have been studying the social connections between us all, and have revealed how so many of us meeting (and mating with!) complete strangers through online dating is having the effect of broadening out our whole society.

Economists Josue Ortega and Philipp Hergovich argue that, whereas just a couple of decades ago most new people arriving into our social circle (e.g. a new partner) were just a couple of connections away from us to begin with (i.e. someone you meet through existing friends, or that lives in your local community), now our digital “matchings” with random folk from the internet mean that for many of us, our social reach extends much further than it ever would have done – i.e. into completely separate communities.

Looking at the bigger picture, this means that our little clusters of friends/family/neighbors no longer exist in relative isolation because: “as far as networks go, this [dating strangers] is like building new highways between towns…just a few random new paths between different node villages can completely change how the network functions.” This bridging between communities is perhaps most vivid when considering the growing numbers of interracial couples. Indeed, the report’s authors claim that their model predicts almost complete racial integration post the emergence of online dating.

This put me in mind of the concentric circles of Stoic philosophy (further popularized by the modern philosopher Professor Martha Nussbaum). This simple image has existed for centuries and has been described by Nussbaum as a “reminder of the interdependence of all human beings and communities.” It is supposed to encapsulate some of the ancient ideas of belonging and cosmopolitanism, and is similar to the expanding circles of moral concern explained by Philosopher Peter Singer:


As its inventor, Hierocles, imagined it, the most external circles should be pulled in as strangers are treated as friends, and friends as relatives. This happens as we increase our own efforts to recognize the habits, cultures, aims and aspirations of others and consider them akin to – and even constitutive of – our own.

In many respects, the evolution of the internet (as well as other media) has built upon the foundations of global travel to help us realize Hierocles’ rudimentary diagram. Though we still have strong ideas about personal, familial and community identity, the broadening out of our non-virtual social network – as exemplified by this work on online dating – means that our connections and concerns are not limited to the smaller, inner circles any longer. We increasingly draw those from the furthermost circles inward. As Singer argues, this must also mean that our ethical/moral concern emanates outward beyond our immediate vicinities.

Yet, not only can the internet (and in this case, data matching) bring those outer circles in, but in some ways it also seems to enable the distribution of “the self” and – more pertinently – a community…

I remember back in 2012, when I was working in PR and public affairs, there was a lot of talk about current “trends”. One of the ones that has stuck with me was nicknamed something like “patchwork people”. It referred, I think rather observantly, to the notion that so many of us feel better defined by the virtual/global communities we inhabit (perhaps communities based around hobbies or research or careers or fandom) than we do our immediate physical communities, within which we might rarely interact.

Whether the internet is allowing us to draw others into our understanding of the world, or whether we feel that our understanding of the world is mainly constituted by connections to others outside of the “natural” inner circles, there seems to be no doubt that the natural order of priority is evolving, and it will be fascinating to see how and if it continues to progress.