Thanks for the Automated Valentine!

Feb 14, 2016 | Internet Culture, Love and Dating, Science and Technology

Published: The Good Men Project (February 13, 2016)

First, I just want to add that I’m a big fan of Film Brain, the British movie critic whose web series “Bad Movie Beatdown” manages to intelligently deconstruct some of the worst motion pictures ever made. Since our Twitter conversation inspired this piece, I figured it would only be appropriate to preface this article with a gratitude plug.

Now for the tweets themselves:

For those of you who haven’t seen “Her,” I’d highly recommend it. It’s a bittersweet romantic comedy about a nerdy, socially awkward man who develops a romantic connection with a self-aware computer operating system. For all of his (literal) Jackass-ery, director and writer Spike Jonze is one of the most original filmmakers entertaining mainstream audiences today, and this movie (like so many of his others) is a pleasure.

On the other hand, for those of you who haven’t used the Auto-Compose Valentines on Yahoo! Mail, I’d urge you to stay away. Not because there is anything particularly wrong with what the Valentines actually say, but because there is something deeply, deeply disturbing about their underlying implications.

Since I’m not a Yahoo! Mail user myself, I created an original account for the sole purpose of investigating these Auto-Compose Valentines. They were exactly what I expected to find – a scroll bar in which you scanned various themes, picked the one that seemed to fit your sentiments, and let Yahoo! take care of the rest by providing you with a romantic letter. Although you can add edit these if you’re so inclined, the overall purpose is clearly for individuals to substitute their own heartfelt sentiments for some platitudes deemed “holiday appropriate” by a large corporation.

Wait a second Matt, I hear you saying (because for the purposes of this article, an imaginary dialogue with my readers will have to do), Valentine’s Day is already a corporate holiday! Why do the Auto Compose Valentines make things any different? This wouldn’t be a bad point, except that email is a medium which by its nature lends itself to highly personalized communication. It’s one thing to say that you bought a box of chocolates or bouquet for your loved one because those are the gifts traditionally associated with this holiday. Even a greeting card from a store, though just as corporate and depersonalized as these Auto Compose Valentines, is partially justifiable by virtue of the fact that individual sentiments are the exception and not the norm when it comes to physical cards.

Emailing an Auto Compose Valentine, on the other hand, strikes me as a deliberate use of the impersonal in an environment where the personal is not only possible, but ideal. If you have an active email account, it is just as easy to type up a series of thoughts that are specific to yourself and the other person as it is to click your mouse a few times. The difference, though, is between an end result that obviously came from one person to another and a product that was quite literally written to apply to anybody. At least in the movie “Her,” Joaquin Phoenix developed a meaningful bond with his operating system because of who he was and how he could relate to her. With an Auto Compose Valentine, the notion of romance is obliterated by formulaic substitutes. It may not be dystopian, but it’s certainly downright depressing.

And yet… And yet I think about the millions of people who need to languish alone during this holiday. My mind wanders to the men and women who, instead of sharing an intimate connection with another person, are instead recovering from heartbreak or from the pain of romances that have never materialized. I wonder what these feelings might do to their self-confidence – and as such to their capacity to weave romantic prose from any medium – and I question whether Auto-Compose Valentines, though depressing on one level, could be just the boost these individuals need to take that necessary next stab at ending their existential loneliness. Perhaps I’m merely trying to find a silver lining here, but if there is even one person who obtains happiness courtesy of Yahoo’s pre-written Valentines, then I will be happy to disregard all of my neo-Luddite pontifications.

Either way, I wish everyone – coupled, single, and ready to mingle – a truly Happy Valentine’s Day.