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In conversation with Marie Bergstom

Posted on 12 July 2022

Last week, Swedish sociologist, and researcher Marie Bergström spoke with Managing Associate Nicola Simmons about her recent research on how and why online dating became so popular.  

In this session, she discussed her new book The New Laws of Love: Online Dating and the Privatization of Intimacy, and how the key to understanding the ride of digital dating is in 'the privatisation of intimacy.'

The book also sheds light on the persisting inequalities of intimate life, showing that online dating is neither free nor fair: it has its winners and losers, and it differs significantly according to gender, age, and social class.

The Mishcon Academy Digital Sessions
In Conversation with Maria Bergstrom

Nicola Simmons, Managing Associate, Mishcon de Reya

Welcome everyone and thank you for joining us for this Mishcon Academy Session.  I am Nicola Simmons and I will be hosting today’s event.  I have the pleasure of being in conversation with Swedish Sociologist, Marie Bergström.  She specialises in the study of online dating and that research has led her to recently publish the wonderful book so what was it that ignited your interest in the social impact of online dating?
Marie Bergström, Sociologist and Researcher

Online dating started for me as a Master’s thesis that went into being a PHD thesis so it is one of my main topics and so I started studying this in 2007, so it has been some time now and like what I am interested in you know, seeing how this new practice that went really big, how it’s evolving and what it is changing and really in the beginning actually what I was interested in when I was starting thinking about going into a PHD was more questions about intimacy, about love, about sex and how our intimate lives are changing and also about gender differences in those domains, meaning that women and men don’t necessarily have the same aspirations, not necessarily the same expectation etcetera.  So that was really my main research interest at the time so, and so I wasn’t really interested in the beginning digital technology, my, my entry to the topic was more the main of the changes in intimacy and it was actually my supervisor who suggested that I look at online dating and I wasn’t necessarily thrilled at the beginning.  I think in 2007 you know, online dating had a really bad, it had a bad reputation, there was a lot of to do around it and I think it is quite possible that I shared some of those pre-conceived ideas and I had to think a little bit about it but I ended up doing it, I ended up making it my main topic of research because I understood quite quickly I think that I think online dating sites are really good observation sites if you want to understand how love has changed, how sex has changed, how gender relations has changed and so I thought that by looking at online dating I would find answers to some of these bigger questions that I was interested in.  So that’s kind of how it all started.

Nicola Simmons, Managing Associate, Mishcon de Reya

As your research revealed for want of a better phrase ‘arranged dating’ has changed completely throughout the years even way before 15 years ago from… it started from things like debutante balls and that’s gone to 5 minute speed dating events or personal ads to dating agencies and unfortunately there is a big programme at the moment, that people might be watching, it’s a very popular dating show and so dating has changed completely.  Why do you think dating became so big when it went online and specifically transitioned into dating apps themselves?

Marie Bergström, Sociologist and Researcher

I think you are right to point out that it’s, it’s kind of a long history like of course online dating is new right because it is a digital service so like the first online dating service that went online was actually Match, that you might know of, it’s still well known today and it went online in ’95.  Then you had dating apps as you say that came around like Grindr for gay men came… was launched in 2009, Tinder was launched in 2012 so, so that a recent history but it is true that online dating has a longer history as you say, we have matrimonial agency, personal ads that exists since at least the 19th century and so in that sense you could say arranged dating or mediated dating or dating services, they are not new per se but you are right to point out that what is really new is that it became so big because what we know from service for example, is that using personal ads for example was never a big thing, it never made it to the big public.  They were around for 150 years and are still around but there are really few people using these types of services whereas online dating really became, you know, we can go back and talk about that later but it is really a lot of people using these platforms.  So why did it become big?  Why was there a success whereas all other forms of media dating had been a more of a failure.  Part of the answer is the digital form, I think the fact that it was an internet based service made it more conceivable and acceptable for certain people but I think that’s really just part of the answer.  I think really the main reasons why online dating became big is because of broader transformations in our intimate lives and when I say that, I think about two things that are really big changes.  The first one is among young people so what we see over the last decade that young people are settling down later, at later ages and before they do they have a lot of you know, different types of relationships; you have hook-ups, you have one night stands, you have all these you know, these type of sexual experimentation that has become really important and it is really what characterises youth now is this idea that you need to enjoy youth, take advantage of it, you shouldn’t settle down too early and so on and actually online dating platforms lend themselves really well to that type of sexual experimentation because you have a place where there is lots of singles but also its you know, people don’t have to know about you going online like dating, flirting and so you can experiment but with a lot of privacy and a lot of young people appreciate that.  And then if you, if you move up the, the age ladder to say when you look at people who are 30 / 40 / 50 what we see is that we have a really dramatic increase on separation and divorce which means that people are you know, they are single when they are young and then you become single again.  But when you are 40 or 50 it’s not that easy to meet new people and the platforms they make it possible to meet people who are outside of your social circles, new people and they have become very, very popular among separated people for great partnering.  But if we want to understand why this became big we can’t just focus on the digital part, it’s really… I think we really need to take into account the fact that we have these two huge transformations, sexual youth or sexual experimentation during youth and separation rates that went up and I think that’s really the main factor.

Nicola Simmons, Managing Associate, Mishcon de Reya

Online dating was traditionally viewed quite negatively and in your book you broadly conclude that, I think you are probably right, that that might have been because of the shock and discomfort that people reacted to, people basically saying, I want XX and X in a partner so bluntly.  But now given that it is so popular do you think society’s view of online dating has improved?

Marie Bergström, Sociologist and Researcher

I think the image of online dating has definitely changed a lot, I mean with the increase of the usage it has become more socially accepted and its less… there’s less negative reputation.  I think that everyone kind of came to understand, well a lot of people came to understand that you know, it is not only desperate people or losers who use these platforms because that was the image in the beginning but I think there is still a lot of critique against these platforms and I think it has to do with how it kind of clashes, it clashes with our representations and the way we depict love and intimate encounters and I think you know, some of these ideals are you know, strong and still there.  The first romantic idea that these platforms clash with which I think is the reason why they have a bad reputation is that you know there is this idea that love is about fate and of course online dating doesn’t really work with that idea because you go online, you are searching for someone, you put in criteria so it doesn’t fit at all with the way that we like to represent love and there is another idea that is still quite strong that is the idea that you know, love is blind.  So the fact that you could fall in love with people independent of their social characteristics and, and of course that too you know, is, is difficult to maintain with online dating and so I mean, these are kind of like myths or its ideals and we somehow know that they are not true because you know love has never been blind, it hasn’t been around about fate either I mean, so some… I think we do know that it is not really a realistic depiction of love but we really, really stick to these figures and we are still very fond of you know, the idea of a romantic meeting and romantic encounter.  The platforms have a better reputation today and I think the worst images of people being desperate or being kind of like the outcast of dating because that was the idea you know, you go online if you can’t find someone.  Those have I think disappeared but we still hear a lot of criticism and there is a lot of debate about these platforms because I think they don’t match with our ways of thinking and talking and representing love.

Nicola Simmons, Managing Associate, Mishcon de Reya

Going on to like the main principle of your book because as you can probably see and I will zoom in, the underline of your books is online dating in the privatisation of intimacy so your main observation is that online dating has privatised intimacy.  What do you mean by privatisation?

Marie Bergström, Sociologist and Researcher

Yeah, yeah so what I mean is that with this word I have been trying to express what is according to me the big historical change with online dating which is not what we have been, you know I think you know, saying before, I think what is new with online dating lies elsewhere than in the digital part or in the communication or, or other types of, of these that exist on the topic so by privatisation what I mean is that for the first time we now have platforms where you meet people outside of your social circle so that is, that is really new because if you, if you look at it from a historical perspective, in the Western world there has never been a place that has been wholly allotted to matching and meeting partners.  We have always met partners in our immediate surrounding.  These platforms that are you know, specifically and explicitly dedicated for partner, for meeting partners, dating has its own place and time and so we go there and we meet people that we don’t know from elsewhere, we are not linked to them in any way, it’s not a colleague, it’s not a friend’s friend and that, that makes dating private in the sense that these platforms are very insular, they are disconnected from the rest of our social life but it is also private in the sense that when you do that you know, you meet people online and your friends and family don’t necessarily know about it because there is no one there to watch the scene.  On the internet no one knows you have a date if you don’t tell them, of course you can tell them but if you want to keep it secret you can meet people without anyone knowing about it and all of this is very different from traditional meeting venues where you know, you meet partners through your friends and family and you, you know, you might meet someone at a bar and your friends are around and everyone sees what’s going on and I think that privatisation which is another way of saying that you know, before this social sphere and the sexual sphere used to overlap now we have disconnected them and it just, it means that there is less social control over what we do and who we meet so same and I think that is a huge break, a huge change in the way you know, intimacy is organised and that is what I mean by, by privatisation and so I think it is really important to understand also why online dating had become big and I think it has really big consequences for the type of relationships we have and I think the fact that there is a lot of casual dating going on, it is partly explained by that because you engage but you also disengage much easily with people you do not know and you don’t have to see them again.  And so you know, it becomes more private and means that you know you can also… there’s less social consequences and that’s a really, really big difference.

Nicola Simmons, Managing Associate, Mishcon de Reya

Well just thinking about what’s next for you?  Is there, is there an even newer Laws of Love coming out?

Marie Bergström, Sociologist and Researcher

I think I am going to continue to, to look at online dating so as I said I started in 2007 and I do have other research topics as well but I think I will continue to you know, follow up on this because I think it is going to change, it’s evolving and so I am interested in seeing you know, how it is going to change and also the long-term effects because you know if you want to see what consequences this has you know, sometimes you need to wait a little bit, you need to see you know, these couples are formed, you need to wait a bit to see… to really be able to see are they as long lasting or are they not so there is kind of some patience to have and I am actually quite happy to, to continue with that and on the side now I’m, I’m… so I am a sociologist and I work at the Demographic Institute and we are now working also on sexual health and sexual lives among young people so that’s another research project – looking into young people’s new relationships, their hook-ups and other types of, of relationships that are more and more common among young people and trying to understand you know, what that changes in their lives and what it has also long-term consequences.

Nicola Simmons, Managing Associate, Mishcon de Reya

We’ve had one more Q&A.  In researching the idea of limbic capitalism the premise that corporate entities such as Match.com create habit forming behaviour.  I am curious to know if you think dating apps are keen to match people or are they actually more interested in just retaining your attention?

Marie Bergström, Sociologist and Researcher

Well I think that’s a really good question because you know it’s a question about the economic and the business model behind these apps and sites and I think yeah there is a lot of people saying that you know these platforms, it’s not in their interest that someone meet up… that they meet their partner because you know they want to keep people on the platform.  Actually I don’t think that’s what the best model builds on because the thing is that if you have a product that’s made for something and this is not working, words going to have it and you know it’s going to you know, it’s going to spread that you know, it’s not working so I think that’s actually bad for the enterprise in the sector as a whole and they are quite explicit about this in their business plans.  They don’t… it’s not in their interest if nobody meets, you know, nobody… they want people to meet someone but they also know that relationships break up and when they do they want people to come back and that’s, I think that’s a very classic business you know, economic model, having people yeah, you know customers that they don’t you know, stay with the brand, they meet the ending they buy new products but they, they buy the product and when they you know, need to renew they go back so it is kind of making you know clients stick in the long-term and dating sites and apps really work that way.

Nicola Simmons, Managing Associate, Mishcon de Reya

Well I really enjoyed your book and this has been an absolute lovely conversation so thank you so much for your time Marie.

Marie Bergström, Sociologist and Researcher

Thank you, thank you very much.

Nicola Simmons, Managing Associate, Mishcon de Reya

In the meantime, I hope you’ve all enjoyed our conversation and thank you again Marie for your wonderful insight into a really interesting topic that’s only going to get more interesting I can imagine.

Marie Bergström, Sociologist and Researcher

Thank you.

 

The Mishcon Academy Digital Sessions.
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