Aziz Ansari is an American comedian and a star of the sitcom Parks and Recreation. In both guises he is obsessed with the opposite sex. As Tom in Parks and Rec, he is a relentless flirt whose pick-up technique is to hand out spare house keys to attractive women. In his stand-up, his main meat is dating and sex, marriage and children. Unmarried and childless, he doesn’t have much time for the latter two.
In his 2013 live show, Buried Alive, he describes the idea of getting married – saying “I want to keep hanging out with you until one of us dies” – as “the most insane thing ever”, and mocks the proposal tales of his audience. As for children, when his friends send him baby pictures, he replies with a single word: unsubscribe.
It is all good fodder for stand-up and now, aged 32, good material for a book about love in the 21st century. The catalyst was a text message he sent to a girl he met at a party, which never got a reply. “Then I look on social media. I see her logged onto Facebook chat. Do I send a message? No! Don’t do that, Aziz. Be cool. Be cool. Later I check Instagram, and this clown Tanya is posting a photo of some deer. Too busy to write me back, but she has time post a photo of some deer?”
The anxiety continues like this for several pages until something clicks. “The madness I was descending into wouldn’t have even existed 20 or even 10 years ago. There I was, maniacally checking my phone every few minutes, going through this tornado of panic and hurt and anger all because this person hadn’t written me a short, stupid message on a dumb little phone.” Some might call it karma, given Ansari’s stand-up trick of stealing his audience’s phones and making fun of their texts, but he saw as it as a sign that he needed a book to help him navigate “the many challenges of looking for love in the digital age”.
Finding there was no such book, he sat down to write it, with the help of a reported $3.5m advance and Eric Klinenberg, a professor of sociology at his alma mater, New York University. Together they embarked on a two-year research project, setting up focus groups and interviews in New York, Los Angeles and Wichita, Buenos Aires, Paris and Tokyo. They scrutinised people’s texts and online dating messages. They set up a global forum on Reddit where they asked questions like “Has anyone started an affair through social media?” or “How long should you wait to text someone back?” They used data collected by dating sites Match.com and OkCupid and spoke to academics and anthropologists. And finally Ansari opened up his phone, too – printing and annotating some of the cringey texts he sent forth in hope. Even world-famous comedians can suck at dating banter, it turns out.
The result is a kind of social study/textbook/ dating journal, with as many pie charts and statistics as jokes and daft Photoshop collages. There are nine pages of endnotes, but the footnotes are largely used for comic asides. Those accustomed to Ansari’s stand-up – edgy, slick, a little cruel – may find him a little tamer, more eager to please in print, although the provinces and dating “bozos” (Ansari’s word for the unlucky or inept in love) come in for sharp jibes. It is lively and entertaining without ever being clear about who or what it is for. It is neither quite funny enough to be a comedy or quite serious enough to be a study. Like a bozo on a terrible first cocktail date, it falls between two stools.
Ansari and Klinenberg have set themselves necessarily narrow parameters on a sprawling topic. Their focus is heterosexual relationships, “middle-class people, folks who had gone to college and put off having kids until their late 20s or 30s and now have quite intense and intimate relationships with their expensive smartphones.” The thrust is that, in the past, people had fewer options and settled down earlier. Today, as we live in a “hallway with millions of doors”, many of them opened by the internet, how does that affect the way we meet people, how we communicate with or cheat on our partners, how we break up or stick together? Do selfies, swiping and sexting make it easier or harder to find a soulmate?
Between 2005 and 2012, more than a third of the couples who got married in America met through the internet. “No other way of establishing a romantic connection has ever increased so far, so fast,” writes Ansari. Online dating takes up much of his book – from advice on which messages and pictures work best (for a woman, “a high-angle selfie, with cleavage, while you’re underwater, near some buried treasure…”) to research into the fact that screen communication is ruining our ability to chat, or that the apparent wealth of choice means that people are becoming either too dismissive or too forward. As Ansari puts it, with Tinder in their palm, “Every bozo can now be a stud.” He talks to the walking wounded of online dating, who treat keeping up with messages like a second job. The problem, Ansari finds, is “too much online, not enough dating.”
The most intriguing part, voyeuristically so, perhaps, is the international chapter in which Ansari visits love hotels in Buenos Aires and talks infidelity in Paris. In Tokyo he encounters both sex robots and “Herbivore Man”, a commonplace Japanese type who is entirely disinterested in relationships; he discovers that people prefer to post pictures of their rice cookers, not selfies on dating sites; and in one exposing episode he trials an egg-shaped sex toy called a Tenga (“It felt like I was masturbating with a thick, cold condom on, and I didn’t understand the appeal.”)
So what do we learn? Technology has changed the relationship landscape but not entirely. Inevitably, Ansari is now happily ensconced in his own relationship – with a chef he met in real life. His online profile stated that he was looking for someone a little younger than him, small, with dark hair. “The person I’m currently dating, whom I met through friends, is two years older, about my height – OKAY, SLIGHTLY TALLER – and blonde. She wouldn’t have made it through the filters I placed in my online dating profile.” So you can write a book of rules if you like, but modern romance rarely plays by them.Reuse content