Frequent Twitter users have shorter relationships than people who don't use the social-networking site, OkCupid, the online dating site and Daily Beast partner, found in a survey. Jessica Bennett on why thinking in 140-character bursts is shrinking our love lives. Plus, 10 charts about sex.
In an age where 140-character tweets have replaced talking on the telephone, where job and work and social life are multitasked between 19 open browsers, the idea that our attention spans are shrinking has become pretty well accepted. Last year, two Northwestern professors documented how the 15-second TV spot had come to replace lengthier, more in-depth (and by in-depth we mean 30-second) advertisements—an effort to match attention spans of the majority of viewers. Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows, has described how modern technology has pushed so many distractions on us that it's possible we'll never have our attention spans return. "It used to be that the most valuable thing on the planet was time," John Greening, the Northwestern prof conducting the ad study, said at the time. "And now the most valuable thing on the planet is attention."
If you believe the results of a new OkCupid survey, it turns out that attention doesn't just shape our ability to complete homework or work efficiency—it actually hinders romance, too. As part of its new trend report, Daily Beast partner OkCupid has mapped out relationship length, Twitter usage and age, as determined by survey questions. What they found? Just as with their 140-character musings, Twitter users seem to end up in relationships that are bite-size. "Twitter users have shorter relationships," says Christian Rudder, the site's cofounder and editorial director. "How much shorter? Maybe not a lot... but the difference is measurable and consistent."
OkCupid isn’t a research institution—but it does have access to fascinating data from hundreds of thousands of people. Some 7 million people regularly visit the site, the nation's largest free online dating service; half of those visitors are members. For this particular survey, data analysts mapped the responses of some 833,000 users, ages 18 to 50, across two linear arcs: those who use Twitter "all the time" or "every day," and those who don't. People who used Twitter frequently, as you'll see, consistently had relationships that were 5-10 percent shorter than those who didn't use the social-networking site. What that tells us is obvious, says Rudder: "People who Tweet live their life in shorter bursts."
The OkCupid data don't go much further than said statistical chart—they don't provide any written analysis, for example—but whether or not you believe their findings, they do highlight some of the larger (and fascinating) ways technology is affecting the way each of us interacts. According to the most recent Pew data, 72 percent of American teenagers are active on social-networking sites, while Nielsen has found that 13- to 17-year-olds send or receive an average of 1,742 text messages a month (versus 231 cellphone calls). Cultural commentators have opined that we are losing our ability to communicate directly, that technology is making us stupid, impatient, and more depressed than ever. In one recent study, pediatricians noted that tracking friends' status updates, photos, and wall postings isn't just overwhelming, it can be depressing—like a giant popularity contest that extends into the digital realm, with each post as aspirational. "I have many people tell me they didn't want to share that their dog died, not to mention something really sad or difficult," says MIT psychologist Sherry Turkle, director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self. "We share the self we want to be."
“We're using inanimate objects to convince ourselves that even when we're alone, we feel together.”
For her recent book, Alone Together, Turkle spent a decade talking to young people about technology, looking to quantify how it has redefined our perceptions of connectedness. Social networking and the like have clearly drawn us together—allowing us to connect, mobilize and communicate in ways like never before. But Turkle surmises that all that modern gadgetry is undermining real intimacy—ultimately creating a generation that is more concerned with checking out a status update than spending time with a partner in real time. (In one study, Americans said they'd be willing to forgo sex for two weeks rather than give up Internet and cellphone access.) Where does that leave us? "We're texting at a distance," says Turkle. "We're using inanimate objects to convince ourselves that even when we're alone, we feel together. And then when we're with each other, we put ourselves in situations where we feel alone—constantly on our mobile devices." The takeaway? Relationships might be easier when we’re distracted by 140-character blips—but they certainly aren’t as rich.
Jessica Bennett is a Newsweek senior writer covering society, youth culture and gender. Her special reports, multimedia packages and original Web video have been honored by the New York Press Club, the Newswomen's Club of New York and GLAAD, among other organizations. Follow her on Twitter.