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)

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Some are trying to take the online dating industry in a new direction by putting a new brand on it. Instead of calling it online dating, new sites are being branded as “social discovery sites.” It is basically social media with a new twist; they are injecting it with the essence of online dating, which is meeting people you don’t already know online.

Let’s start with the positives. How has online dating made relationships better?

It is making human relationships easier to find. Loneliness is a horrible affliction. I think we have all endured it at some point in our lives, and we know what that is like. I think a technology that comes along and says, “Hey, we have an answer to that problem” is a great thing.

Dan Winchester, founder of a free dating site in the United Kingdom, says, “The future will see better relationships but more divorce.” This seems hard to grasp.

The idea of better relationships but more divorce is exactly what I saw happening among some people that I spoke with. On the one hand, the bar would be raised for what we think of as a good relationship. But, necessarily, as a result of that, you are also going to see more relationships break up. People are not going to be as willing to stick around in relationships that they are not happy with.

You talk a lot about choice. With so much choice built into online dating networks, will people always have this “grass is greener on the other side” attitude?

If you are in a good relationship, where both of the people in it are happy, you are not going to be hanging out on online dating sites waiting for something better to come along. I think the “grass is greener on the other side” idea will affect a certain kind of a relationship, a relationship that is sub-optimal. You may see people return to the dating pool online again and again, who are in relationships that are on the fence in terms of quality. 

The more society turns to online dating, the less likely people will commit to relationships—or so you say. What evidence do you have to support this argument? 

I am not a scientist. I approached this like a lawyer would approach it, which was what I used to be before I became a journalist. You marshal all the evidence. I will say that after having interviewed over 100 online daters for the book, the phenomenon of the guy moving on and on because he could, came up a lot—not for everyone, but with a lot of both men and women.

I cite a fairly widely known report, at least among psychologists, that theorized about the elements of commitment. One of the elements of commitment is the potential availability of a person’s alternatives. If the perception of alternatives is high, people are less likely to commit. All I would say is, look at what online dating does; it vastly expands the alternatives, or maybe just the perception of them.


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