I’m an admitted Nick Paumgaten fanboy, already having raved about his story on elevators and, more recently, for this series, his story on commuters. So as I worked through my pile of longreads, I read his 10,300-word examination of online dating: Looking for Someone published in the July 4, 2011 issue of the New Yorker. And it’s another great story.

Match.com splash page

What impresses me the most about this story is the scope of the reporting. A lot of feature writers might look at something like online dating, interview two or three people, collect a few stories and anecdotes, mash it together and call it a day. But by my count, Paumgarten talked to at least 25 people for this story. And that doesn’t include the people he may have interviewed or met, but who didn’t make the final draft of the story. “Looking for Someone” is packed with the voices, ideas, and experiences of more than two dozen people.

Second, as always, Paumgarten weaves together a wealth of research, reporting, and analysis into a flowing narrative: he goes into the history of computer matchmaking and the evolution of online dating; he looks at the psychology and science behind attraction; he examines the sociological and cultural meaning of internet matchmaking; he looks at the business aspects of online dating sites and the CEO’s that drive them; he talks to a lot of people who have used Match.com or eHarmony or OK Cupid; and on top of all of this, he writes his own reflections on what it means:

It is tempting to think of online dating as a sophisticated way to address the ancient and fundamental problem of sorting humans into pairs, except that the problem isn’t very old. Civilization, in its various guises, had it pretty much worked out. Society—family, tribe, caste, church, village, probate court—established and enforced its connubial protocols for the presumed good of everyone, except maybe for the couples themselves. The criteria for compatibility had little to do with mutual affection or a shared enthusiasm for spicy food and Fleetwood Mac. Happiness, self-fulfillment, “me time,” a woman’s needs: these didn’t rate. As for romantic love, it was an almost mutually exclusive category of human experience. As much as it may have evolved, in the human animal, as a motivation system for mate-finding, it was rarely given great consideration in the final reckoning of conjugal choice.

The twentieth century reduced it all to smithereens. The Pill, women in the workforce, widespread deferment of marriage, rising divorce rates, gay rights—these set off a prolonged but erratic improvisation on a replacement. In a fractured and bewildered landscape of fern bars, ladies’ nights, Plato’s Retreat, “The Bachelor,” sexting, and the concept of the “cougar,” the Internet promised reconnection, profusion, and processing power.

I won’t dig deeper into this. Just read it. Another great story…

Read Looking for Someone →