Roommate hunting, online relationships, and information asymmetry

October 6th, 2010

A little over a month ago I needed a roommate.

I live in a three-bedroom apartment and I signed a lease with a second roommate stating that we would split the full rent between us, so there was a strong incentive to find someone to live in the third bedroom.

And, just like most every other important decision, I (we) procrastinated.

Two weeks before the new lease was to go into effect I took some pictures of the place and wrote up a nice post for Craigslist. I talked about the roomy kitchen and the dishwasher, and casually not mentioning the downsides (like the lack of a washer and dryer). At the end I deliberately tacked on a very short description of us:

We’re a man and a woman who are both fairly quiet, laid back, and keep to ourselves. Occasionally we’ll have friends over but usually only for dinner or movie watching. We’re looking for someone who’s the same.

We didn’t want someone who expected to become BFFs with us – even though we were totally okay if they turned out to be friendly.

Of the responses, about one in ten responded back to my initial contact. And even fewer of those actually showed up. The first one who came to see the place was a lovely French-Canadian architect we both loved but several days later decided against it because of the lack of the washer/dryer situation. Thus began a series of rejections by nice people of the place for little things: they found a place closer to their work, decided to move in with their girlfriend after all, and so on.

One early response intrigued me. It was from a college student who was moving to Boston from Nebraska. He wouldn’t be able to see the place but it seemed good enough for him and he assumed we weren’t too concerned with meeting him. Now, despite being vague in the posting we definitely wanted to meet the roommate in person so we could size up their potential to be crazy. So I searched for him online, found his Twitter and Facebook pages, discovered his Tumblr sites, and figured he was a good enough guy but it was early in the search so I told him that if he’d wait until we’d get a decision from the other good prospects who actually visited, he’d have the room. I then proceeded to fill in more information about ourselves and asked him to do the same.

No answer.

I found that interesting. He really just wanted a place to crash, even if it seemed like he’d still be home for homework and maybe a party or two. Or did the description of the two of us scare him off? Did I give off the vibe that we were looking for a BFF? Probably.

That was what made me realize that as efficient as internet tools can be to find people for nearly any kind of transaction or relationship, there was still a lot of information that depended on interpretation. The ambiguities, I realized, were inherent in the writing. It’s when two people meet in person that they can better size the other up in both conscious and unconscious ways. When writing an email or a text or even a video chat, there are limitations to what can be presented and opportunities to mask flaws. I didn’t want to say yes to this guy because I still wasn’t totally sure if he was going to be a good fit for me and the other roommate – and he may have perceived my response as different that what he’d expect from someone who merely wanted someone to pay the rent (which, despite the hesitation, was us…but with reservations).

To give this a name, I call it information asymmetry.

Information asymmetry actually can be beneficial. A company can use the limited knowledge of their customers to charge different people different prices; a trader can gain an advantage by knowing more about the product they are receiving than the other person has of theirs and thus make a profit; a politician can count on everyone else not reading all of a law and then tack on a piece that only benefits their constituents or who bribed them the most.

But in most human interactions, it’s better to give as much information as possible – except when one party is trying to deceive the other. And honestly, everyone deceives others even if just a little to give a positive presentation. Finding a roommate, however, needs both honesty and a little deception. If we are going to agree to give someone equal access to the same place we sleep, eat, and store our stuff, we want to know they aren’t insane or won’t cook awful smelling food or allow dangerous people into the apartment. And yet we want to make the place as attractive as possible to get the kind of person we’d get along with on a daily basis, so we have to be coy about a few details in the hope that the person, upon meeting us, is okay with the downsides.

This dance continued for the next week. Good people eventually passed, others turned out to be a mess in person. There were occasionally long exchanges of emails as we traded bits of ourselves to determine if the things we didn’t know where acceptable. One response said that he had just graduated from Catholic seminary. So I responded by asking if he was okay with having a gay roommate. He then emailed me with a long explanation of his stance: he was okay with having a gay roommate, but he still considered homosexuality a sin and immoral (but, he said it was immoral objectively and not subjectively, whatever that means). I decided he thought of being gay as a sin, but there are lots of sins, and we all sin. A cogent Catholic response. But I wasn’t too certain so I never emailed him back.

Eventually (as in two days before the start of the new lease) we found someone. He was coy about his work situation in email but was completely upfront upon meeting us. Plus he seemed like a good guy and was willing to meet all of our and our landlord’s terms. So we went with him. A month later I can say we chose the right guy. Our third roommate is wonderful and turns out to be very friendly too. It all worked out.

For a large segment of the population of the developed world (and a big share of the developing world too) we depend on the internet to handle our personal affairs (like banking, finding a roommate, etc.), to keep in touch with old and existing friends, and make new ones. Often these new friends come by accident, other times we find them through dating websites or simply actively looking for like-minded people to find. I have personal experience that the social tools available right now make it easy to find great people who match your interests, disposition, even sense of humor in ways not bound by geography and distance.

But that pesky information asymmetry pops up again and again. Misunderstandings, arguments, even feuds develop because of the murkiness of expressing ourselves through text, imagery, and videos. You might think if only we all were honest and clear in our intentions and the things we do, but not even the most upstanding can do that all the time. Like a blindspot, little discrepancies develop between a person’s online persona and who they really are. This is done both consciously and because online communication cannot match, say, spending the day with someone in person. You can say more in an hour than a year of texts. And because we may only have access to online content, we can only assemble an incomplete picture of someone.

I was involved in an online friendship that I’m pretty sure disintegrated because of information asymmetry (being an optimist I hope it really isn’t over). Both of us had incomplete information about the other and were unwilling or too coy to fill in the blanks. One dumb comment, two dumb comments, a couple of bad choices, and suddenly one isn’t talking to the other. Or are they? It’s hard to tell with most online communication: are they deliberately ignoring messages or are they desperately trying to come up with an honest response and failing and thus not saying anything at all? Maybe out of some sort of cowardice they are hoping the problem will just go away. There are no checks and balances of a physically close relationship – no third parties to stop on the street to get some answers, no chance of getting the truth on the more public forums without making it obvious to everyone else that something is going on. Whereas a meeting at a coffeehouse, for example, while public, is masked by distinctly separate conversations. Posting in the same forum as they and lots of mutual contacts, has the same weight as saying what’s on your mind to every person in the coffeehouse.

It’s situations like this that make it clear that online relationships still require traditional connections. When all you can do to talk to someone is to write a letter and wait days or weeks for a response, the physical distance is obvious and tactile; when you can text someone anywhere in the world and get an immediate response, the mind is tricked into assuming a close proximity. People still need to meet in person – in fact, often when I meet someone in person after knowing them online for a time, the relationship becomes more real, even if we only met for a few hours and never again. But to really feel close there needs more contact and continuous conscious acknowledgement that the person you are communicating with is still far away.

We keep making more powerful tools, but we’re still social animals who have spent most of our time evolving on the African savannah.

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