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« Public and Secret codes of conduct | Main | Comments, Aggregators, and Broadcast Models »

November 1, 2003

"Silent Dating" and the Curious Eroticism of Text

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Posted by Clay Shirky

Everyone's first few days spent using email or IM brings with it the curious eroticism of communicating with someone you can't see, don't know, but are nevertheless in direct contact with. There are many reasons for this, of course, including the distance that appends to words we write vs words we speak, the ability to project onto your conversational partner those attributes what are left to the imagination in a written medium, the tension inherent in the "so close yet so far" gap (like a strip club in this regard, though a strip club uses physical proximity and personal distance, the inverse of email conversation), and the fact that when we read what's been written by someone we don't know, we hear them in our head in our favorite voice -- our own. A group in London is trying to take advantage of the eroticism of text through "Silent Dating", which is bascially in-room IRC with paper and pens. The idea is to link the strip club pattern (not the nakedness, but the disconnected physical proximity) with the telegraphic flirting of IM, in order to fuel libidinous communication.
Now enter the world of tranquility. Where singles flirt and lose their lustful inhibitions through the art of silence. This is the Silent Party. A modern revolution in dating. Your tools for the evening - pen, paper and your ability to find a date without opening your mouth. This is dating for the truly discerning customer who likes to be in control. Up to 100 singles meet and pass naughty notes to the objects of their desire.
The event is hosted by the same people who set up speed dating events, and it seems to be in part a response to scale. Speed dating sets up high two-way transaction costs, which in turn creates a link-density vs time tradeoff, which in turn limits the number of participants. With Silent Dating, the transaction costs plummet (no need to explicitly pair one man and one woman for a period of time -- just gather a group let the messages fly.) And, as a result, they've greatly increased the potential number of participants and lowered the pressure to get a 1:1 match in the group as a whole. (As a side note, the Silent Dating events in Cleveland, Chicago and London all maintain that it was invented in NYC, and that it has taken that town "by storm." However, all the 'silent dating' links Google knows about fall in the last month, and most in the last two weeks. The internet moves ideas fast, but those ideas are still sold to people as if they are passing by cultural diffusion, both to validate that they have worked elsewhere, and to suggest that they have been ratified by an elite population.)

Comments (11) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: social software


1. howard on November 2, 2003 9:08 AM writes...

"and the fact that when we read what’s been written by someone we don’t know, we hear them in our head in our favorite voice — our own."

this is THE most absolute and least (generally) understood truths in computer-mediated textual communication.

sorry for not adding anything new here, i just had to underline this phrase. thank you, clay.

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2. Meme Engineer on November 6, 2003 2:30 AM writes...

One wonders about the point of stripping out the subtle emotional cues of body language. Dating is not like attending a business meeting at which the point is efficiency at expressing an idea. This seems more like faddish technology worship than anything truly meaningful.

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3. kevin rogers on November 6, 2003 12:27 PM writes...

While text communication does inhibit the talker in conveying emotion, the reader does not go into some catatonic state. Instead they provide, or fill in, a lot of the emotional context. Given the likely emotional context the users of this service are bringing to the table, I would not be surprised to see a higher success rate for initiating dates than when people actually have to talk to one another face to face.

As for the strip-club/telegraphic-flirting, why not make some real money with this and start a Secret Affairs Service. Offer encrypted messaging and tips for the flirting spouse on defeating spyware, arranging clandestine meetings (map quest link) and making love with a keyboard.

See, depending on you emotional context, I am either being funny, condescending or just sick.

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4. Mary Evergreen on November 8, 2003 1:32 PM writes...

I find myself elucidating much more of my feelings in written form.
The descriptions are more poetic as I am not verbally constricted when I am alone on the keyboard.
I think the reason behind that, for me, is that social shyness has contributed to my inability to speak in the moment.

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5. Lawrence Krubner on November 9, 2003 11:26 AM writes...

"Everyone’s first few days spent using email or IM brings with it the curious eroticism of communicating with someone you can’t see, don’t know, but are nevertheless in direct contact with."

Good lord, this takes ahistoricalness to a new level. A psychologists might refer to this post as an example of "recency bias", the bias we all have to give recent events much more weight than older events. Nevertheless, we should all remember that Enlightment Europe, the late 1700s, was a sort of golden age of letter writing. In London the mail was brought 5 times a day, and I don't think I've often done more than 3 rounds of email with someone in a day, so they had then what I have now.

In his later years, Voltaire lived with his girlfriend Marquise du Chatelet, who was also a good writer. They kept their offices at opposites ends of her mansion, and communicated all day long, sending written notes by way of the maids.

The human race did not begin it social orientation toward text when Mark Andressen invented Netscape. Let's try to talk sanely on these matters.

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6. michael t on November 9, 2003 8:59 PM writes...

since the notes are pen and paper, and since penmanship cannot be masked by the keyboard, as a face-to-face meeting cannot be masked by the internet, i wonder how much style of lettering plays into the picking and choosing of a potential the players take on a peacock like attitude and strut their stuff?

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7. Meme Engineer on November 16, 2003 2:40 PM writes...

Lawrence Krubner's comments about a "Golden Age" of letter-writing two centuries ago are well-taken. However, there still remains the interesting question of what it means to write such letters while actually in the presence of the intended recipients.

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8. Brian on November 19, 2003 6:30 PM writes...

I wonder if there will ever be a need for
silent - silent dating. This would be an event that the interested singles would not even have to attend, they wouldn't have to write anything to arouse any other single person's interest. Also, there would be no drinks to buy because noone would show up.
For that matter I wonder if dating rituals are so different in Brittain as they are in U.S.

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9. Aneel on November 20, 2003 12:11 PM writes...

silent dating (the current craze-in-forming).. started as "quiet parties" -- -- by a couple of New Yorkers last year.

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10. Henri Sant Cassia on February 19, 2004 8:18 PM writes...

I run and think everyone is taking dating nights such as silent dating far too seriously by what i read on the comments posted on this site. It's just a bit of fun and if someone meets a person they like then all the better.

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11. Jean Claude on April 22, 2004 7:01 AM writes...

Henri is absolutly right!

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