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Tech & Relationships: Dates in the Metaverse, Sex Robots, and AI Sex Toys: Is this the Future?
Episode 228th June 2022 • So Curious! • The Franklin Institute
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You might like robots, but do you LOVE robots? In this episode Kirsten and Bey with expert Dr. Julie Carpenter about how people form attachments to AI. They also break down myths and truths about sex technology. Later on Dr. Liesel Sharabi teaches us all about the impact of technology on our relationships. Are instagram couples really happy? What do dates look like in the metaverse?

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Hello.

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Hello! And welcome to So Curious, presented by the Franklin Institute.

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We are your hosts. I'm The Bul Bey.

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And I'm Kirsten Michelle Cills.

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On this season of So Curious!, we are

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talking all about the science behind love, sex, and relationships, everything from

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your brain on love, to why we obsess over our favorite television characters, to how

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science and tech are changing our relationships with each other.

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"Need oil for fuel."I love robots.

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I really do. Sci-fi, all that stuff.

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I love it. But do you love-love robots, romantically?

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Because in this episode, we are going to

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talk about how humans relate to robots, and obviously, we had to get an expert.

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Today we are joined by robotics expert Dr.

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Julie Carpenter.

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People can become emotionally attached to different forms of technology.

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Can we hold attachment in a friendship, sort of a light?

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Later on in the show, we'll talk to Dr.

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Liesel Sharabi to find out how tech is impacting our romantic relationships.

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We're interested in seeing how people can use VR in forming relationships, how they

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can use it to improve their interpersonal skills....

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All right, Bey, you know what?

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I'm going to ask the question on everybody's minds.

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What is your favorite robot?

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Give me a Roomba.

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Roomba is a very practical answer. Yeah.

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Kirsten, what's your favorite robot?

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My favorite robot?

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Well, Bey, you know, I'm very into horror.

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Horror movies are a big part of my life, so I think I'm going to have to go with

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one of the scariest robots I've ever seen, Wall-E from Pixar's.

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Wall-e.

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Wall-E's a great robot. What was the other one?

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Evie, Eve? Evie.

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Yeah. That's robot love right there.

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But robot-on-robot. Robot-on-robot.

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Yeah. Well, that's a good transition to talk

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with our first guest, who knows the AI and robotic space better than most.

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AI means artificial intelligence, and that covers a lot.

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But basically, it's making computers that

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can think, reason, and make decisions, kind of like humans do.

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It's cool that your Roomba knows where to

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go and it knows not to fall down the stairs, but I feel like it's probably

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going to get more complicated when it comes to romantic relationships.

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Dr. Julie Carpenter, welcome to So Curious!

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Can you introduce yourself and tell us about what you do?

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I'm a research scientist, and I'm in a

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subfield of psychology that studies how people create, think about, make, and

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behave with technologies and artifacts of technology.

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The larger thing is that I'm always interested in is, what inspires people to

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create and interact with AI in different ways? And I'm especially interested in

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emotional attachment, so that can take lots of different forms.

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And, of course, one of those niches is sex robots.

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Would you say it's ethical to have, like, developed, actualized, real sex robots?

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Oh, that's such a thorny question.

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Yes, thorny.

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So anytime you develop any technology, you have to ask, why are you developing it?

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What problems are you solving?

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Who are you developing the technology for? Things like that.

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Do we actually have sex robots?

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Is that an actual thing we have?

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Not really, no.

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That's a very nice question.

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We have robots that claim to be sex robots

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in that they are advanced sex dolls that have some sort of limited interaction

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capabilities, but they really don't have robotic capabilities.

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How, in your experience, do humans trust tech and robots and AI?

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Do you feel like that's something that has a lot of pushback?

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When people have been surveyed, they seem to be more open to the idea, but I think

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they're more open to the idea of robots being in their everyday lives.

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In general. If you ask people in the United States

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anything about sex, you're going to get fairly conservative answers.

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In general, have you investigated human technology emotional attachment?

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People can become emotionally attached to different forms of technology.

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That shouldn't really surprise us.

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We know that we get attached to animals

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and pets, objects, things that we own, or things that become sentimental to us.

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But I think what you're asking about is a different level.

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Can we hold attachment in a friendship sort of a light?

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What does that look like? Yeah.

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And how is it investigated?

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There's different ways of approaching it.

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The methods I use are often referred to as qualitative methods of inquiry.

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I do a lot of asking and talking to people

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and observations of their interactions, and I describe my findings.

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I do some analysis of what people say.

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When I interview people, if you think of each one as sort of a case study, I can

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report findings that way, or I can look for similarities and patterns across what

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people say within that and across different interviews.

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Can you give us some highlights from your investigations, from your research?

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I did a body of work where I looked at

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specifically a group of military explosive ordinance disposal people, commonly known

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as bomb techs, people who disarm any kind of unexploded ordinance.

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They have to work with robots.

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Robots keep everybody at a safer distance from potential unexploded ordinance.

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Sometimes they did form a certain almost pet-like bond with the robot.

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And where does that come into play ethically?

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I mean, so far what I found was it didn't affect decision-making for the soldiers.

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They never hesitated.

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However, if the robot was lost, sometimes

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if it was disabled or was beyond repair, there was actual mourning.

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Can you tell us what is the highest technology we have right now, or what it

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is that you consider to be the most intelligent?

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Probably a lot of the software that is not that exciting, and here's why.

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Because artificial intelligence really sucks at understanding human experience.

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We often assume that we're trying to have it resemble a humanlike intelligence.

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If you're expecting a humanlike or

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biomimetic experience, you're not really going to get that from AI.

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Now, what's the most advanced AI that would convince me it's a human?

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Some of the chat bots are getting pretty good.

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Would they convince you that it's completely human?

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No.

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But by themselves, without being embodied, your brain will fill in a lot of the

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imaginary parts, if you will, of what's going on.

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How do you think having a quote-unquote

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"partner" with sex robots or chatbots like you're saying, that's able to sort of

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fully cater to someone's needs, how do you think that that is going to either

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positively or negatively impact how we view sex and relationships?

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You're putting words to a really

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interesting concern that I see come up sometimes in alarmist headlines.

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I think it's valid, but sometimes, again, people can be overly concerned about the

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idea of robots, in particular sex robots, replacing humans in some way.

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You're not going to replace humans as far as humans go.

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You're always going to need another human or other humans for some relationship.

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I don't think it's going to set different

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standards for what people expect about people.

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People understand, people are fraught with people-flaws.

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Right? We understand that.

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People are also going to understand that

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there's limitations with robots and there are robot flaws.

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So I think that it will be a different kind of relationship.

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People will regard them as their own social category.

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If they were to start comparing, that

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wouldn't make any sense from sort of a human perspective.

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We're going to regard them as robots.

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It's its own social category.

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That's what I believe is going to happen.

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Thank you for that insight. Yeah.

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Where do you see the future of your field going, and the future of this work?

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Honestly, I think a lot of where my field is going is the ethics side of things.

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A lot of the things that we're talking about in regards to people's emotional

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safety and emotional outcomes is not being really deeply considered in the

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development of these products that people just want to sell.

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There's no regulation.

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When I think about a sexualized robot or any sex toy that has any kind of AI

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capability, I would wonder what kind of data is being collected, and who it's

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being sold to, and where it's being kept, and how it's being used.

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Because imagine this is your most private, intimate moments, thoughts, ideas,

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fantasies, and even biological occurrences happening.

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And if you're with a very robust AI or

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robot that can measure or record any of these things, where is that data going?

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And as this technology develops, would you

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say your emotional state of mind, is that a data point that's priority?

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Or is it like, I'm not really concerned about how this is making people emote.

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Unfortunately, people are concerned about ... Let's talk about sex robots

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specifically, just to narrow down the scope of this.

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Creating an emotional experience. Right.

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If we're talking about sex workers, you might call it the "girlfriend experience.

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" As a sex stall market, you might say the "boyfriend experience.

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" That's the direction the AI is going.

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In order to do that, it has to learn more about you.

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They put things in that they call

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"emotion-reading technology." Personally, I don't care what data points they're

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collecting and how they're triangulating it.

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It's my opinion you cannot capture people's emotions authentically.

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And there are so many reasons why, when people say that they can read emotions,

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they're often triangulating different data points that could be actions body

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language, facial movements, eyes, things like that.

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And there are so many reasons any of these things are not how you're feeling.

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Let's say, for example, where somebody is

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in danger and they're trying to de-escalate a situation, right?

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I might be petrified.

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Somebody might be coming at me.

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I'm trying to de-escalate.

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So I'm like, laughing, trying to be nice, or what if I'm neurodiverse?

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I don't have the same facial affect as

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somebody else, or I've had a stroke or facial palsy, I'm disabled.

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And it's been shown, historically, that

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anytime somebody says they have emotion -reading technology, that it fails.

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And it often fails in really bad ways, really in racist ways.

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It uses data sets based on very narrowly defined cultural expectations.

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I mean, that's the other thing.

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People in different cultures react

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differently in different situations, right?

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So when a company says, "we're emotion -detecting or emotion-reading, AI we're

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building in," I hear all kinds of alarm bells.

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And again, not only am I suspicious of the validity of all these claims... Why?

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Right? Why are they using it?

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And where is that data going?

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And if they're collecting inaccurate data

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about you, which in my opinion, likely they are, again, where is that going?

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Doctor Julie Carpenter, thank you for

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enlightening us, and giving that insight, I greatly appreciate it.

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Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us.

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This is excellent.

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I do want to leave with that, I don't think it's all bad by any means.

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It's not all bad, but we have to be thoughtful about it going forward.

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Absolutely, 100%.

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Thank you so much, Dr. Julie Carpenter.

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Thank you so much.

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Thank you.

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So it seems like we aren't going to have

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robotic partners anytime soon, but we have other options when it comes to technology,

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like dating apps, Tinder, Grindr, Bumble, so on, so forth.

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There are a lot of these things.

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So what determines whether or not you meet up with someone that you met on Tinder?

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I would say the biggest factor would be

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because I always like to ask up front, are you a serial killer?

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And if the answer is no, I'm there. Right?

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What about you, Bey? That's a low bar.

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Yeah, it is a low bar.

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I'm very trusting.

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I think for me, it's just like the length

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of conversation that we had on the platform.

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So if the conversation is nice and

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pleasant and it goes on long enough, it's like, all right, well...

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Would you like to continue this

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conversation in the real world space? And then see how that threshold gets crossed.

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And especially for me, as someone who's very into comedy,

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you can be funny over messages because you've got time to think of them.

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But I want to see if you can be with me in the real world.

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Have you found that conversation can remain...like, there's consistency?

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If you're funny in chat, you can be funny in real life?

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You can be, but that doesn't mean that you're quick.

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That text might have taken you a minute to

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formulate, versus when you're in front of me, I'm on full judge mode.

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Yeah. You have to have your natural responses.

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Thrill me, make me laugh!

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And if you can't thrill me right now... It's my only high standard.

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That, and don't be a serial killer.

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Okay, so I think that's a good transition to our last guest, whose work is centered

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around the impact of tech on romantic relationships.

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Dr. Liesel Sharabi, welcome to So Curious!

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Could you just introduce yourself, tell us your name, what you do, and where you are?

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I'm Dr. Liesel Sharabi.

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I'm an assistant professor in the Hugh

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Downs School of Human Communication at Arizona State University.

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And I also wrote a blog about relationships and technology for

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'Psychology Today,' called "Dating in the Digital Age."

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Now you are the Director of Relationships

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and Technology at Arizona State University.

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What kind of work goes on in this lab?

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So my research looks at the impact that

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technology has on our relationships, and specifically our romantic relationships.

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So a lot of the research that we're doing is really focused on how technology is

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changing how we date, how we fall in love, and how we're meeting people.

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So to give you an example of the kind of work that we're doing, we have one study

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going on right now where we're partnered with a virtual reality company called

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Fortel, and also a date-coaching company called A Good First Date.

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And we're actually sending people out on

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first dates in what we're calling the "Datingverse," which is basically a

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rooftop bar that you can access through your Oculus headset.

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And we're interested in seeing how people

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can use VR to form relationships, how they can use it to improve their interpersonal

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skills, and see if there's a way to carry that over into face-to-face interactions.

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Wow.

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Tell us about some of the results that you found.

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Right now, we're still in the process of collecting data, but it's been really

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interesting to observe just how people engage with this kind of virtual

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environment because it's really a different way of getting to know somebody.

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Because if you've ever done, like, a video date with somebody you've met through a

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dating app, sometimes it feels like an interview.

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It's like, you sit across from each other, and it's back-and-forth questioning.

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But in VR, you at least have this shared context where you can learn about somebody

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by looking at how they engage with the environment.

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Like how they behave, versus just this Q and A session.

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That makes sense because it's new to everyone, the VR experience, right?

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I mean, at this point, there's varying

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levels of experience, but I think for most people, it's still pretty new.

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So in my eyes, it's full of possibility.

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Like, how will people actually end up using this?

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I think there's so much potential there.

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I am not versed in VR by any means.

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With what you've been doing, can they see each other? In the sense that they

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actually look the way that they do, when they're on these VR dates?

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So that is one big difference between VR and video dating.

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Because in VR, you're an avatar and you can choose your avatar.

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You have control over what you look like.

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You can change your hairstyle, your clothes, but you are not seeing the

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person, which, I mean, when you're doing it, it can be kind of nice, it's a little

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bit of anonymity, and it kind of frees people to be themselves.

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But it also means that things could be a

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little different when you actually see what someone looks like.

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And just for clarification, just because we might not have all listeners who know

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what VR, could you just explain a little bit about that briefly what VR is?

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So you're talking about a virtual

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environment that you can actually step into, so it's all around you.

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So if you're playing a game on your computer, for instance, it's two

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dimensional, you're kind of looking at it on a screen.

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But when you're in VR, that environment is entirely just encompassing you.

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And so you and the person you're talking

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to, like on Zoom, you're in two different spaces.

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You're both in your living rooms.

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But in VR, you're together in the same space.

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And what's the actual hardware that one

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would need to jump into this place in this space?

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We're using Oculus headsets, which I think

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is pretty common for people that are playing around with VR right now.

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To do that, using Oculus and a headset on the low end, it's a few hundred dollars.

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So, still pretty expensive, but I

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anticipate the price point will probably come down in the next few years.

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On your website, you described that one of

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the primary goals of your research is to understand the growing interdependence

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between online behavior and offline relationships.

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Can you tell us a little bit more about that?

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Yeah, so I'm not just interested in knowing how people are behaving online,

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but also what it's doing to their real-world relationships.

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Is technology connecting us to each other?

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Or is it further isolating us and driving us apart?

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I'll give you some examples of how my research reflects this.

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In one of my favorite studies that we've done, we followed a sample of online

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daters from when they first started talking to somebody through a dating site,

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up until when they switched modalities, when they met somebody for a first date.

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And in doing that, we also ask them for

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all of the messages that they've sent through the dating platform so we could

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actually get some insight into these private conversations they were having.

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What people actually say leading up.

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They willingly gave that up?

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Yeah, you'd be surprised what people will share with researchers!

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And we wanted to see if we could predict the success of their first dates based on

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some of the things they talked about and their behaviors prior to meeting.

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And something that was really interesting

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that we found was that it was common for people to be a little bit disappointed

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after they met for the first time, which is kind of surprising.

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Like you would think you go on a first

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date, you should like the person more now you've actually met them.

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But theoretically, it does make some sense, because we know people have this

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tendency to really build up expectations of somebody.

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So you kind of create this fantasy in your mind of what this person is going to be

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and then you meet them for the first time and there can be this little let-down

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like, "oh, this is a real person, this isn't some fantasy in my head right now."

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Is there a complete 180 of behavior from the online interactions to the real world?

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That's a good question.

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And I think a lot of it comes down to how honest people were before they met.

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I think that you hear about catfishing.

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I think that is not as common as we might be made to believe.

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Like most people aren't trying to actively deceive somebody, but we do like to talk

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ourselves up online and kind of sell ourselves.

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And when you do that, you are opening the door for somebody to create some really

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high expectations of you that you might not live up to.

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But I think that when people are a little

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more realistic before they meet in their expectations and also how they present

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themselves, I think first dates tend to go a little bit better.

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In your article called "Finding Love on a

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Matching Algorithms in Online Dating," you

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talk about the history of online dating, which has been around for a good time now,

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and specifically the emergence of the modern methods for finding romance with

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data, the algorithms that we're kind of familiar with.

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Can you tell us a little bit about how

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have these online dating algorithms evolved over time?

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I think to understand the trajectory of

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algorithms, you have to think back to what online dating looks like in the beginning.

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So like, early to mid 90s, it was a lot like newspaper personal ads.

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So you would create this profile, you would put it on Match.com, and then

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people would just click around until they found somebody interesting.

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But as these sites got bigger and you had

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more and more choices, that process got kind of overwhelming.

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So you're looking at a lot of people who you would never consider dating.

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Like maybe they're outside of your age range, they don't meet your preferences.

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So I mean, that's a very time-consuming process.

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People get overwhelmed by the choices available.

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And that's when online dating sites

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started to look at algorithms as a way to help people make decisions about partners

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and to kind of narrow down the dating pool so you're not wasting so much time.

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So some of the first algorithms I think of

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like, eHarmony, what they would do was these sites would give you a

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questionnaire, it was often a really long one, and you would provide all this

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information about who you were, what you were looking for, and then they would try

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to find somebody who actually met your criteria.

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Now in the past ten years, with all of these dating apps popping up though,

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people aren't going to spend like an hour filling out a questionnaire.

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No one's going to sit there for an hour just to get on Tinder.

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So they had to find a better way to kind

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of infer what you would want without having to actually ask you.

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So these days, a lot of apps are using something called collaborative filtering.

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Have you heard of this before? I have not.

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I haven't heard the term at least, what is it?

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Even if you've never heard the term,

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you've probably interacted with this technology before because it's the same

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kind of thing they use to recommend products on Amazon.

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It's how movies and TV shows get recommended to you on Netflix.

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So basically what they're doing is finding people who have similar taste as you, and

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they're using that as the basis for their recommendations.

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So you swipe right on somebody.

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The algorithm is looking at other people who also swipe right on that person, and

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then it's looking forward to say, okay, who did they swipe right on next?

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Swiping right being the indication that you like somebody.

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And then that next person might be delivered to you as a recommendation.

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Like, clearly you have the same taste as this other person.

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They liked person number two.

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So we think you might like that individual as well.

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And so with that, what do you think in the

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future, dating algorithms and apps online, might look like?

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I've spent a lot of time thinking about this question and I think that one thing

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we're going to see is a greater shift towards video.

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That started happening during the

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pandemic, and I think it's something that's going to stick around.

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I mean, social media is very much shifting

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in that direction if you think of how popular like, TikTok is right now.

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And so for dating, it's so much easier to judge someone based on video and hearing

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their voice and seeing them versus interacting over text.

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I also think there's a lot of potential in VR, although I think we're really at the

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early stages of figuring out what that might look like.

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Exactly.

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And then I think that algorithms over time are inevitably going to get better.

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There's more data that they can tap into.

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As more people are using these platforms,

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I do think the predictions could potentially become more accurate.

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And it raises a lot of privacy concerns,

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like, how much do you want an app to know about you?

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But at the same time, I think that there is room for improvement.

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So I think there are a lot of changes coming to online dating.

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You conducted a study on how couples'

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Instagram presence can reveal clues about the quality of the couple's relationship.

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Can you describe your findings on why this might be?

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Yes. In this study, we surveyed 178 couples,

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and we also collected just over, at least 3000, Instagram posts, because we wanted

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to know how people felt about the relationship.

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And we also wanted to know what they were

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choosing to share about it with their networks, how they were posting about it.

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So a couple of things that we found were that people who had high-quality

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alternatives, who thought they had really good options outside of their

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relationship, tended to be a little bit more private in posting about it on

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Instagram, which in some ways, I guess makes sense.

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Like, if you think you have good options, maybe you don't want people to really know

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that you're in a relationship or want it to be ambiguous.

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But at the same time, the people who are happy, who told us, I'm really invested in

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this relationship, I'm really committed to my partner, they tended to post a lot.

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They would post a lot of couple pictures.

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They interacted with their partner a lot

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on social media, which is just to say that the couples that were telling us that they

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were happy really did look happy on Instagram and how they were posting.

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And what does this reveal about the

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interdependence between online behaviors and offline relationships?

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I think that these days we live so much of

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our lives online that it shows that how we're presenting ourselves, how we're

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engaging in our relationships on social media, is becoming a pretty good marker of

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what our lives are like offline and what our relationships look like.

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Now, I say that not thinking about Instagram influencers and people who do

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this for a living, who are making a profit off of it.

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I'm talking about your average everyday user.

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But I will also add a caveat to that,

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which is that it's still important to keep in mind that even the happiest couples,

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their relationships don't look like their social media feed.

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That's very much a highlight reel of

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somebody's life, and you are seeing the best moments.

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So I think there's some danger in comparing your relationship because you

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see these posts and you think, why don't we look like that?

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They look so happy.

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And so I think you also have to resist

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that urge to compare because you're not seeing the full story.

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You're seeing something very edited and very filtered.

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Mmhm.

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Thank you so much for coming on the So Curious!

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Podcast. Thank you.

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That was excellent. Thank you so much.

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Thanks.

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Do you think that your socials are an honest reflection of you?

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Like alt-y? Like, genuinely?

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Do you think that? I think no, but I think that's an

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unfortunate reality when it comes to social media.

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You can't put your entire life onto a page.

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That's some incredible UX experience if you're able to do that.

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Yeah, so I have all kinds of food, drinks

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that I don't share, and conversations that I don't share, and things like that.

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But I don't think that necessarily means that I'm like being dishonest.

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I just kind of share what I want to share and I don't share what I don't.

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If you know me in real life, then you know all about me.

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I share a lot when I'm in front of people.

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Maybe way too much. What about you?

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What are you sharing, and are you being honest?

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So I wouldn't say I'm lying, but I wouldn't say it's honest.

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Like, how can it be? It's freaking social media.

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Right?

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If you only followed me on social media, you have a very different idea of me.

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Like, I am not always in full hair and makeup, performing, looking amazing,

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mid-laugh and drinking a glass of champagne somewhere, right?

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Perfect soft lighting.

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Right. Yeah. I'm not always on the good side of my face.

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Right?

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Like, in an ideal world, that is how everyone would see me.

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Sometimes, I also sleep and eat and do things that I'm not posting about.

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So, yeah, I wouldn't say it's a lie, but I wouldn't say it's the truth.

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Right.

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So I feel like this is going to be a really fun season.

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Bey, why don't you tell our listeners what we're going to talk about next?

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You know that feeling you get when you get

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a match on Tinder and the animation confetti pops up on your phone?

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Next week we are going to be talking about

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how the video game-style structure of dating apps affects our psyche.

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And you are going to get this and more on next week's episode.

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And please don't forget to subscribe to this podcast wherever you listen.

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So Curious! Is presented by the Franklin Institute.

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And special thanks to the Franklin

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Institute producers, Joy Montefusco and Dr.

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Jayatri Das.

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This podcast is produced by Radio Kismet.

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Radio Kismet is Philadelphia's premier podcast production studio.

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The managing producer is Emily Charish.

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The producer is Liliana Green.

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The lead audio engineer and editor is Christian Cedarlund.

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Head of operations is Christopher Plant.

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And the editors are Lauren DeLuca and Justin Berger.

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The science writer is Kira Vallette.

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And the graphic designer is Emma Sager.

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And coming at you from behind the mic, I am Kirsten Michelle Cills.

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And I'm The Bull Bey. We will catch you next week.