What do sound, monopoly-free open markets have to do with online dating?
I recently read my NAF colleague Barry Lynn‘s new piece in Harper’s, “Killing the Competition.” It was fascinating and depressing reading. The concept of “open markets” helped me better understand the role of good transparency in markets, and of markets in the economy. This role goes unfilled by the massive monopolies Barry studied, and the political rhetoric costuming them ruins our understanding of competition. He hinges on true transparency as a necessary feature for open markets to serve their regulatory purpose. If I can discern the true cost of a good or service, and the vendor reflects this price openly, the transaction is most likely to satisfy us both and promote a collective good value for the whole market and its participants. When the true cost of goods is hidden or not met, as by price fixing or investor overconfidence, then things won’t work out well – dotcom crash, housing crash, environmental ruin. Barry writes about open markets like environmentalists write about the wetlands – they represent immense value beyond dollars.
Right now we should all appreciate the problems with a lack of transparency in the financial and housing markets. “Free markets” don’t promote transparency; usually it is a cover term for monopolies that have already abused, and then suffocated, transparency in their own markets. I remember from high school the lesson of Standard Oil, which viciously undercut the price of oil and took a loss to starve their smaller opponents out of the market. A businessman sees a strategy lesson in this, but on a dull mathematical level, Standard Oil’s value imbalance produced an unsustainable market. The market ceased to be an effective regulatory feature on the retail level, so Standard grew into a monopoly and ceased involvement in a market at all. This is the stuff that fuels wealth inequality and an imbalance in the means of production – the math’s numerical results created painful consequences. If we can easily audit and verify both sides of all value equations, we have price transparency.
I thought about this in the context of relationships and dating. The internet, social media, and all of those algorithms and processing power and networks are a platform for a great broadening of information transparency to the online community. Dating site OK Cupid holds fame from crunching its users’ data and blogging about the statistical results. We used to rely on interpreting the nuance of social interaction, choosing what to show and what to hide, to gauge potential partners and present ourselves. Now, you can see how many times someone views your profile, as just one example. Applying information transparency principles suggests that your per-person profile view count is useful data that can help you make a better decision about pursuing, or avoiding, a person on the site. Yet the folks I know who use OK Cupid entreat me not to click “view profile” when they show me someone’s picture who viewed or messaged them on the service. They don’t want to appear as online stalkers or give away their interest, like shy wallflowers at a high school dance. Despite that data’s availability, they play the game as though it were still solely offline and lacked the datasets of the social media sphere.
This increased transparency will bear consequences, similar to the outcomes of the mathematics and environment of a healthy open market. To avoid clicking someone’s profile, even when you really want to, is like obscuring what you would truly pay for a service in an open market. A “price imbalance” grows more likely, and you both risk less satisfaction with the outcome of your “shopping.” If more people embrace transparency in online dating sites, then the matches will be better for more people – better relationships, perhaps even better than the average relationship of the past, will follow. They’ll teach their kids that transparency was key to how they met each other. Instilling a value of transparency in kids can solve some problems in the future. So, view profiles liberally.