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.

The fact that the online populations have grown so much has allowed the sites to become efficient, not only from a population perspective but also from a data perspective. When you can observe really large populations of people and see how they behave in an online meeting context, it allows you to optimize your site.

Here is just one example. If a guy signs up, and he says, “I am interested in marriage” or “I am interested in something long-term,” but then the people he is messaging are people who have not said that in their own profiles, the system can see that and adjust accordingly. The site is not going to show him women that are interested in marriage or long-term relationships. That wouldn’t have existed even five or seven years ago. 

The first technological incarnation of this is this idea of behavioral matching. Let’s say you are a 30-year-old woman and you sign up for Match. They ask, “Do you like men with facial hair?” You say, “yes” or “no.” The other way to see if you like men with facial hair would be not to ask you explicitly but to just see how you behave on the site. Are you clicking on lots of profiles of guys with beards? Maybe you are. Maybe that would surprise you to know that, because you have always thought of yourself as someone who can’t stand facial hair. I think that is the sort of thing that technology may be able to promise now and even more in the future.

So, dating sites can work even when what we think or say we want in a partner is not always what ends up being the best or most compatible for us?

One of the things that online dating executives are always happy to tell you is that people are actually horrible assessors of who they are and what they want. I think to some extent that is true, but we will certainly be seeing the industry play that up as much as possible, “You need my technology in order to figure out what you actually want!”

Beyond the technology, what has happened socially in the last decade and a half to make people want and need the choice and control that online dating offers more than ever?

The marriage age keeps getting later and later. The further the marriage age moves up, the more it means that people are dating into their later years. The more that people are dating into their later years, the harder it is for those people to meet. That is just a reality of life. As you get older, for the majority of people, you’re social circles can shrink a bit. Online dating becomes very useful. The online dating industry has seen this in the form of the 50 and over crowd becoming one of the most popular demographics.

Is there still a stigma, do you think?

There is a lingering stigma. But, I think that the more online dating gains a reputation for being effective, the more the stigma will erode. I spoke to online daters across the age spectrum, male and female, all around the country. I would ask them about how they felt about the stigma. The thing I heard a lot was, “It seems like people are still anxious to talk about it. But, you’ll be in a group of people and once the first person brings up the subject, then there is this outpouring of talk about it. Everyone wants to speak about it, but they don’t necessarily want to be the first person to bring it up.”

What are online dating executives doing to try to get rid of a stigma?

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.

I also talked to a bunch of divorce lawyers. These divorce lawyers are saying that technology is a factor in a very large percentage of the relationship breakups they are seeing these days. It may not just be online dating, but it is the whole world of connection that happens online. It is also email; it is also Facebook. The easier it becomes to stray and to go in search of something new, the higher the percentage of people who do that.

What is the next big thing in online dating?

As some of the more sophisticated sites learn how to use their data to enrich things like matching, will the technology advance what we know about the science of compatibility? For the time being, psychological science says that it is impossible to predict the likelihood of compatibility between people who have never met. Obviously, there are a lot of dating sites out there saying the opposite. They are saying we actually can predict the likelihood of two people hitting it off on a first day, even when they have never met before. Some sites will even go as far as to say we can predict the likelihood of a good marriage between two strangers. Psychological scientists and academics are sitting on the sideline saying, “Okay, show me that.” And sites, of course, aren’t really offering anything up. So, the question is, will they gather so much data about what people want that they can actually move science forward to the point where the likelihood of a successful match being struck goes from 5 percent to 15 percent, or something like that. I think that is the next thing to watch.

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