How Big Data Has Changed Dating

What it means to be single and looking for love in the time of algorithms

(AFP / Getty Images / Frederic J. Brown)

Online dating has gone mainstream. Over one third of the 90 million single adults in America have an online dating profile in any given month. And, as touts in its commercials, one in five relationships now start on the Internet.

But how does this new reality affect the way we love and what we come to expect from relationships?

In his new book, Love in the Time of Algorithms, Dan Slater argues that online dating, as it becomes ever more popular, may lead to better relationships. Online daters set the bar high in terms of what they want in a partner, says the journalist. At the same time, however, this has a downside. Slater speculates that dating sites give the impression that there are many more fish in the sea, leading to less commitment in the singles scene.

I think people consider online dating to be a relatively new phenomenon. But your parents met through a computer dating service in the mid-1960s. Can you describe these early days?

It was limited to college campuses, especially in the first few years. You would be in your dorm room and all of a sudden someone would come by and slip a questionnaire underneath the door. You would be asked 100 things about yourself and about what you are looking for in the ideal mate; the questionnaire had these little bubbles next to the questions.

You would return the [completed] questionnaire to the person or the company with a subscription fee of something like $3 or $4. They would take all of your answers and transfer them onto a punch card, which was then run through enormous computers that would fill up an entire room. For each of the subscribers, the machine would spit out a sheet with the person’s six ideal matches. You would just get the name of the person, the college they went to, graduation year and, I believe, their phone number. That would get mailed to you. Then, it was up to you to somehow make contact, either by sending a letter or calling them up.  [Slater’s father went to Harvard, his mother to Mount Holyoke.]

What happened after this first service came out?

The two young men [Jeff Tarr and David Dewan] who started these first two companies at Harvard left school, sold their companies and went into other fields. There were other incarnations of online dating as early as the early 80s. But, the modern online dating era, as most people now know it, really started around 1995, when launched.

What have been the most significant changes since the mid-1990s in the way the sites look and how they function?

The major change from a macro level would really be the efficiency of the sites. One of the early struggles was just that the populations on these sites were so small. The best-case scenario would have been if you lived in San Francisco in the mid-90s, where originally launched. A 30-year-old woman might have been lucky to log on and find 20 people in her area that at least loosely fit her criteria. Today, if you logged on to a site and only found 20 people, it would feel ridiculously light. You would probably go find another site.


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