In 2003, a young Mark Zuckerberg sat in front of his computer and instant-messaged a friend. Back then, “the facebook thing” was still a rough idea, and 18-year-old Zuckerberg was trying to finesse the concept.
Already, he knew what he didn’t want. “I don’t think people would sign up for the facebook thing if they knew it was for dating,” Zuckerberg wrote. “I think people are skeptical about joining dating things.”
A decade later, a somewhat savvier Zuckerberg has had a change of heart. Last week, Facebook unveiled “Graph Search,” a new search engine that will allow users to comb through data from their existing online networks. At a press launch, Facebook reps showed off the new product, explaining that it could be used to search for restaurants, or for job recruiting. At one point, a Facebook employee stood to demonstrate a search for “friends of my friends who are single and living in San Francisco.”
And that’s when Facebook entered the online dating game, doing away with what was, until now, a fragile divide between quotidian online activity and the act of browsing for potential mates. On the day of the announcement, the stock price of InterActiveCorp—the parent site of online dating behemoths Match.com and OkCupid.com—dropped by more than two per cent. The war is on.
Over the past two decades, the Internet has become a fixture of the modern-day romance plot. In the early ’90s, just one per cent of new relationships began online. By 2009, that number had grown to around 20 per cent for heterosexual couples, and 60 per cent for same-sex matches.
An estimated 30 to 40 million North Americans now use online dating sites. The 1,500 sites comprise an industry worth over $1.5 billion. A quarter of all Canadians have tried Internet dating, and 16 per cent have had sex with someone they met online.
Today, online dating sites peddle a radical vision: a new future for love as we know it; a more efficient, more targeted way to meet a compatible mate. And a vastly more open field to play in. Forget about hanging out in bars, or volunteering at community functions, or awkwardly asking friends if their friends are single.
Many of the biggest online sites are marketing themselves not just as places to get a date, but as a place to find a lifelong mate. The dating site eHarmony claims an average of 542 members marry every day in America. As online dating becomes the dominant path to relationships, it shifts the way these unions are built. The question, casting forward, is how that will change the very institution that many daters seek—marriage. In the industry, the dominant view is that espoused by U.K.-based online dating executive Dan Winchester, who predicts, “The future will see better relationships, but more divorce.”
Internet dating sites, supporters say, create a larger and more fluid “dating marketplace,” which in turn yields better and more compatible matches. On the flip side, this bustling new marketplace, with its steady pace of transactions, might threaten traditional marriage. Why settle down when a better match is just a click away? And where is the incentive to work through relationship difficulty when it’s so easy to access alternatives?
Online dating sites offer a panacea: a soulmate whose interests, background and disposition are congruent with ours. And they share some common conceits: that similarity is good for a relationship, and that mathematical algorithms can predict compatibility.
The problem is that the scientific jury is still out on whether similarity is, in fact, good for long-term commitment. And there’s no strong evidence that computers can predict compatibility through measurable psychological variables. In 2012, a meta-analysis of online dating research by five U.S.-based psychologists concluded just the opposite: “The ways online dating sites typically implement [their] services . . . do not always improve romantic outcomes; indeed, they sometimes undermine such outcomes.”
The report continues: “By suggesting that compatibility can be established from a relatively small bank of trait-based information about a person—whether by a matchmaker’s algorithm or by the user’s own glance at a profile— online dating sites may be supporting an ideology of compatibility that decades of scientific research suggests is false.”
Still, the now-ubiquitous smartphone promises more of the same—with the addition of GPS technology and social network integration. The search for mates (or the temptation to search for mates) will soon be mobile and transparent, and it will be constant.
A new book by journalist Dan Slater, Love in the Time of Algorithms, argues that something momentous and irreversible has happened to modern-day dating and relationships. Slater says it heralds a shift akin in significance to the sexual revolution. “We will reach a point when people don’t distinguish between meeting online and off-line,” he says. “We won’t refer to online dating; it will just be dating.” And we aren’t far away.
But as dating-through-device becomes a primary medium for romance, it seems likely that our end goal—traditionally commitment, and often marriage—will also change. Online dating has already altered our romantic psyche—most significantly by assuring us that new options are always waiting. Slater doesn’t think that online dating will necessarily destroy monogamy, but he does think that monogamy will change and become more transient. “The bar for what people consider to be a good relationship will go up,” he predicts. “The other side is there will be more breakups, because people won’t feel imprisoned in relationships that aren’t right.” And that, Slater and others predict, could erode the values of commitment.
As the story goes, the first-ever matchmaker made his first match in the city of Haran, in what is now Turkey. In the Bible, Abraham sends the loyal servant Eliezer to find a suitable wife for his son Isaac, who, at 40, isn’t getting any younger. Eliezer sets out for Mesopotamia; he returns with the young and virtuous Rebekah, who becomes Isaac’s bride.
The semi-professional matchmaker has been at it for centuries. Priests, clergy members and rabbis have been romantic intermediaries. Elderly female neighbours lent a hand too—none more famously, perhaps, than the meddling Yenta of the 1964 musical Fiddler on the Roof.
Computer-mediated dating predates Yenta herself. In 1959, a group of Stanford University students developed “The Happy Families Planning Services” as a final project for their mathematics course. They programmed the world’s first mass-produced computer, an IBM 650, to match up 49 men and 49 women, using their answers to a basic questionnaire. The project received an “A,” and resulted in a single marriage.
Dan Slater is the spawn of another early venture: a dating company launched at Harvard University in 1965. Slater’s parents—undergraduates at Harvard and Mount Holyoke—paid $4 to have their profiles run through a car-sized Honeywell 200. They married in 1967, but divorced (forebodingly, their son might now argue) when Slater was a child.
Still, computers didn’t gain a clear lead until the ’90s. The ’70s saw the rise (and quick fall) of video dating; the ’80s witnessed a resurgence of the printed personal ad.
In 1995, a Stanford M.B.A. named Gary Kremen launched Match.com and changed the industry forever. By 1996, Match had 60,000 users, at a time when only five per cent of Americans had Internet access. By 2012, Match.com claimed 1.8 million paid subscribers, and was the world’s largest online dating site.
By many accounts, one in five new relationships begins online. Within North America, an estimated one-quarter to one-third of singles use online dating sites.
The industry worked hard for those numbers as it evolved in three stages. The first phase, which began with Match.com, was putting personal ads online—and allowing users to browse. The second phase came in 2000 with the inception of eHarmony and its “algorithms.” This new class of dating sites touted “algorithm-based matching” and “science-based” compatibility spotting. These sites rely on personality profiling rather than user-controlled window-shopping. The latest phase began in 2008 with the launch of the App Store, taking the best of Phase 2 and adding Bluetooth technology, making it mobile and social. Dating is now algorithm-guided and Facebook-integrated. And it’s done on the run.
Julie—a 28-year-old from Orillia, Ont., who requested that her last name be withheld—joined the website Plenty of Fish in 2005. Then a student at Carleton University, Julie was underwhelmed by her boyish peers, and figured she could do better online. She approached the task judiciously, spending hours combing through profiles before messaging a single user: a 23-year-old named Dan.
There was a lot to like on Dan’s profile, Julie says. Dan mentioned that he was starting his own business, which showed that he was gutsy. But he admitted that his venture was still in the red, which proved he was honest. Julie was also attracted by the “optimistic, positive-thinking, follow-your-dreams buzzwords” sprinkled through Dan’s writing.
As is standard, several days of messaging, emailing, texting and phone calling ensued before the two agreed to meet at an Irish pub near Julie’s apartment. Two years later, in March 2007, Julie moved in with Dan. The next October, they were married. (According to an Iowa State University study, for marriages that begin online, the average length of courtship is 18.5 months, compared to 42 months for marriages that began off-line.) Seven years later, Julie is still “head over heels.”
The new first date looks a lot like Julie and Dan’s initial encounter: less a gradual getting-to-know-you meeting than a real-time verification of data pulled from online profiles. Today, an online dater is likely to know what her prospective mate looks like before she meets him—as well as his basic stats, profession and ability to spell. Depending on the site, she might also know whether he expects his girlfriends to shave their legs in winter, whether he thinks flag burning should be illegal and even how much he enjoys anal sex.
Much of what makes online dating unique happens before the first real-time encounter. Online dating has fundamentally widened our pool of potential mates. “In the past, you would marry someone because they were in your proximity,” says Marina Adshade, an economist at the University of British Columbia and the author of the forthcoming book Dollars and Sex. But “online dating has widened our choices. That has caused us to choose people who are far more like ourselves.”
This is Econ 101 material: bigger markets are more efficient, so a bigger dating pool yields better-quality matches—which often entails compatibility in areas like education. That doesn’t mean that every pairing is a great one, cautions Adshade. But “it does mean that people are slower to settle.” On an aggregate level, this is significant. “There is less diversity,” Adshade continues. “Gone are the days when the educated doctor marries someone with only a high school degree. That’s largely because of online dating.”
Online dating has also introduced new species into the dating pool: older divorcees who rarely meet new people, for instance.
Mark is a family doctor in Toronto who requested Maclean’s refer to him pseudonymously for professional reasons. (And “Put in the article that I’m 48 years old but I look like I’m 40,” he advised.)
Mark is tall and thin with cropped dark hair; he has married and divorced twice, and has a handful of children. Last summer, he joined JDate, a dating site for Jewish singles. “Of course there was hesitation,” he grants. “You don’t know your marketability. You worry that only losers go online.” He took a laissez-faire approach, and let the women come flocking. Mark’s tally: eight or nine first dates, four second dates and one five-month relationship. Last month, in search of a fresh market, Mark switched from JDate to Match.com. He says the sites are pretty similar, though he’s not crazy about the emails that Match sends him with info on women he might like. In one recent email, Mark was shown the profile of his ex-wife.
In general, Slater argues, the expanded relationship market is good for people who find it difficult to date, for whatever reason. One chapter in his book tells the wrenching tale of Laura Brashier, a young ovarian cancer survivor who is unable to have sex, since radiation turned much of her vagina into scar tissue. In 2011, Brashier launched 2 Date 4 Love, “a dating site that enables people who cannot engage in sexual intercourse to meet and experience love.” Dating websites serve a similar purpose for minority groups whose members are committed to marrying internally, but might be geographically dispersed.
The “nichification” of the industry has also helped satisfy specific preferences. There are now dating sites for obese individuals, “cougars,” farmers, Ivy Leaguers, vegans, men who like women with breast implants, convicts living behind bars, military brats and people who like to be choked during sex. GenePartner.com uses DNA testing to pair clients. Ashley Madison—slogan: “Life is short. Have an affair”—facilitates “married dating and discreet encounters.”
It has also breathed new life into “premium international online dating” or, more colloquially, “mail-order brides.” The popular Anastasia Date, for instance, connects Western men with Russian, Ukrainian, Chinese, African and Latin American women. In 2012, Bloomberg Businessweek valued the international marriage-making business at US$2 billion.
Choice and satisfaction, however, are not neatly correlated. A 2011 study of speed-daters found that as the variability of potential matches increased, test subjects were more likely to reject 100 per cent of would-be mates. Too much choice can cause burnout.
Someone’s willingness to commit to a relationship is a delicate variable, Slater explains. But we know that a key predictor of commitment is “the perception of appealing alternatives.” When someone believes there are good alternatives out there, they are more likely to exhibit “low commitment to their partner and eventual breakup.” Dating websites offer near infinite “alternatives”—or at least the perception that good alternatives are easy to find.
Scientists were onto this in the ’90s. A 1995 study in the American Sociological Review observed: “The risk of [divorce/separation] is highest when either wives or husbands encounter an abundance of spousal alternatives.” A 2007 study in the Journal of Human Resources found that people are more likely to divorce when they work in co-ed environments. Despite all the interest in collecting data in online dating, there aren’t yet any solid statistics on the divorce rates of those who meet online compared to off-line.
More than anything else in Slater’s book, his description of a thirtysomething named Jacob—who let his two-year relationship with “young and beautiful” Rachel languish because “having met Rachel so easily online, he felt confident that if he became single again he could always meet someone else”—stands as an example of the troublesome state of modern romance. Jacob tells Slater that he reactivated his Match.com profile the day that Rachel moved out.
In the same breath, an introspective Jacob admits that if he had met Rachel off-line, he would have married her. “At that point in my life, I would’ve done whatever it took to make things work. Did online dating change my perception of permanence? No doubt. When I sensed the breakup coming, I was okay with it. I was eager to see what else was out there.”
Online dating sites bait their clients with promises of soulmates and serendipity, but those promises can inflate expectations and leave people less willing to work through rough patches; “It isn’t meant to be!” inevitably leads to throwing in the towel.
In 2012, the team of U.S. psychologists in the meta-study argued: “People with a strong belief in romantic destiny are especially likely to exit a romantic relationship when problems arise, even when they are involved in rewarding relationships.” In other words, believing in soulmates actually breeds what the researchers call “romantic dysfunction.” “By contrast,” the psychologists claim, “those who believe in “romantic growth” (sometimes called “work-it-out beliefs”) will fight through hard times, and succeed. One January 2011 poll found that 73 per cent of Americans believe in soulmates, up from 66 per cent six months earlier.
What do we make of this tendency for online daters to quit relationships when the going gets tough? “It’s unknown whether that’s good or bad for society,” Slater admits. “On the one hand, it’s good if fewer people feel like they’re stuck in relationships. On the other, evidence is pretty solid that having a stable romantic partner means all kinds of health and wellness benefits.”
Numerous studies suggest that married people live longer than single people—and that they stay healthy further into old age. Married people also report lower levels of depression and distress than their single counterparts. Any large-scale changes to marriage patterns will undoubtedly have macro policy implications.
Yet Greg Blatt, CEO of Match.com’s parent company, views this shift as a positive: “You could say that online dating is simply changing people’s ideas about whether commitment itself is a life value.” According to Blatt, the ease of online dating will reduce our pressure to nail down a compatible mate. By extension, marriage could become a string of Internet-facilitated trysts.
Of course, this thesis bolsters Blatt’s business model. Dating sites succeed when our relationships last just long enough to build trust in the algorithm—but not long enough to make us swap the dating pool for the marriage altar. Online dating sites promise love and companionship, but their viability depends on love remaining the elusive target.
Peter Ludlow, a philosophy professor at Northwestern University, recently posited in the Atlantic that the online dating “market” is too “frictionless”—too easy to enter, exit and transact within. This fluidity, he argues, will lead us to undervalue the relationships we end up with. “If diamonds grew on dandelions,” Ludlow writes, “no one would care about diamonds.”
Ludlow likens the experience to his time spent as an amateur stamp collector. For years, he travelled from dealer to dealer, digging through bins for the best finds. But then came the Internet. And eBay. And suddenly it wasn’t fun anymore. Another aspect of Ludlow’s metaphor deserves consideration. He recalls the time a stamp dealer spontaneously showed him a folder of 19th-century envelopes, something Ludlow would never have asked to see on his own initiative. Within minutes, his hobby “had been radically transformed.” We don’t always know what we want until we experience it.
Second-generation dating sites always boast of their personality-matching capabilities, their ability to predict similarity and compatibility. But few entertain a critical question: just how important is personality to a successful match? The answer: not much.
“The weight of scientific evidence,” write psychologists Eli Finkel and Susan Sprecher in Scientific American, suggests that “similarity and complementarity” have little effect on “ long-term romantic compatibility.” Controlling for baseline measurables like age, education and marriage history, matching algorithms are only “negligibly better than matching people at random.”
In the near future, it is likely that the boundaries between online and off-line dating will blur. With its new Graph Search, Facebook’s users can seamlessly integrate romantic pursuit into their daily routines. Already, social platforms that, on first glance, have nothing to do with dating have begun to offer matchmaking services. Spotify, a music-streaming app, has integrated with a website called Tastebuds.fm, which scans your music and suggests matches nearby with similar tastes.
The future will also be mobile, as smartphones become ubiquitous. An app called Badoo (mostly popular in Europe and Latin America) uses GPS tracking to arrange dates on the fly—with little more than a photograph from users. In 2012, Badoo boasted 35 million users. And industry leaders eHarmony, Match and OkCupid have all released new mobile applications.
This idea is old hat to the four million men who use Grindr, a mobile app for the gay community. It’s a user-friendly concept: after downloading the app to your phone, you’re instantly shown other gay men in your vicinity. Like the look of someone’s profile? With a single tap, you’re chatting.
Sometimes, Grindr is just for conversation; on other occasions, it’s for sex. Recently, says Simon, a 24-year-old Toronto real estate agent, it has become “an obligation. Every gay guy I know has or has had Grindr.”
If technology has its way, it’s only a matter of time before the typical date ceases to be a private and isolated occurrence, a product of kismet, effort or choice, and instead becomes a relentless, on-the-go and highly customizable experience.
In the meantime, as dating becomes more like Internet shopping, some worry about product safety. In their 2012 meta-study, the U.S. psychologists argue that online dating sites should be subject to regulatory authority, like the food and pharmaceutical industries. In particular, they insist, claims that “algorithms are supported by scientific research” should be externally substantiated. As it stands, the soulmate market is anyone’s game.