Your parents didn’t meet on Tinder. Their parents didn’t either. Maybe they met in an algebra class or a Jewish youth group. Maybe they grew up next door to each other or maybe their parents arranged the whole thing. At no point during the process did anyone pull a phone out of their pocket and swipe right.
But microprocessors evolve, products iterate, paradigms shift … and the next thing you know, falling in love is forever changed.
Vox recently analyzed data from 35 years’ worth of wedding announcements in The New York Times, and found that “online” now ranks as the third most common way people meet — second only to “school” and “mutual friend.” In the older-than-40 age range, it creeps into the second spot. Even more remarkable than the speed with which such services became mainstream is our willingness to fess up: Maybe it wasn’t so much a meet cute as it was a photo swipe while sitting on the john. And you know what? Maybe there’s nothing wrong with that.
We already trust our computers to do our shopping and banking, why shouldn’t the fruits of the home computer revolution help us find love? Online dating will be a $2 billion industry in 2016, according to market research firm Ibisworld. And the rise of the smartphone is only going to increase that adoption.
So what happened, exactly? How did matchmaker services make the transition from embarrassing, mullet-wearing, VHS tape services to the thing we do while waiting in line at Trader Joe’s? And more important, when did it become OK to finally stop lying to our parents about how we met our significant others?
More than 10 years ago, the Pew Research Center published a study simply titled “Online Dating.” There was apparently no need for a clever name. After all, even a full decade after a site called Match.com entered that brave new world with $1.7 million in startup funding (enough to warrant the 1995 Wired article “Love and Money”), the phenomenon was still an emerging novelty. “When we first studied online dating habits in 2005,” the research center explained in a follow-up published earlier this year, “most Americans had little exposure to online dating or to the people who used it, and they tended to view it as a subpar way of meeting people.”
At the time of the study, Match.com was number two on Pew’s list of the top 10 “personals sites,” with eHarmony (founded in 2000 during the dot-com boom) a distant seventh. Otherwise, the list is largely unrecognizable today, dominated by long-forgotten names like Mate1.com, True.com, and MarketRange Inc., which sounds more like a pork-futures trading company than a dating site. Most telling about precisely where the industry was in 2006 is the site that topped them all: Yahoo! Personals.
“most Americans had little exposure to online dating or to the people who used it, and they tended to view it as a subpar way of meeting people.”
By December of that year, Sunnyvale California’s favorite singles bar had only grown in favor. Another survey noted a 13 percent increase, and that Yahoo Personals captured the top spot in the field.
Which means, of course, that the first wave of Yahoo Personals babies should be turning 10 this year.
Everyone dates, yet these sorts of studies are surprisingly few and far between. New York University Professor of sociology Eric Klinenberg, who teamed with comedian Aziz Ansari for the 2015 book Modern Romance: An Investigation, told Digital Trends: “There’s just not a lot of research out there. Good research is hard to come by and hard to do. It’s still not a major field in the social sciences.”
What is out there, particularly dating back to the relative dark ages of online dating, is murky, often relying on surveys commissioned by the sites themselves.
The extremely influential 2012 paper “Searching for a Mate: The Rise of the Internet as a Social Intermediary” by Michael J. Rosenfield of Stanford and Reuben J. Thomas of The City College of New York also notes that research into the internet’s impact on social dating norms was, in a word, lacking. “Scholarly debate about the social impacts of the Internet has been hampered by a lack of nationally representative data on how (or whether) people use the Internet to meet new friends or partners,” the paper explains.
“We’re at an important moment because more and more of our lives are happening online,” Klinerberg said. “And we don’t know how to track it.”
The stigma on online dating was still strong in 2005, the first year Pew studied such information. “Most internet users (66 percent) agree with the statement that online dating is a dangerous activity because it puts personal information on the internet,” the organization wrote — a little over a year, mind you, after Chris Hansen snared his first online predator on a Dateline NBC episode in which 18 men ended up in a Long Island, N.Y., home with the intention of having sex with a minor. It’s not exactly the sort of thing that instills confidence amongst a skeptical audience.
In a 2003 article highlighting the beginnings of a perception change regarding those who found love online, The New York Times noted “even those who embrace online dating acknowledge a major flaw: the frequent disconnect between who people say they are online and what they are really like. In one recent example, the Army said it was investigating accusations that a colonel, who is already married, duped dozens of women on tallpersonals.com into believing that he would be marrying them.”
And those numbers “embrac[ing]” online dating were still low enough to justify the decidedly breathless title, “Online Dating Sheds Its Stigma as ,” Sadly, that site is now just a domain squatter. The same article reported around 11 percent of adult internet users had visited “an online dating website or other site where they can meet people online” by 2006. At the time, internet dating was the domain of the young, something no one younger than 35 would think twice about. Everyone else ….?
Online dating may seem like a young person’s game, but according to many sociologists, the phenomenon was almost unheard of among users younger than 25. University of California assistant professor of sociology Kevin Lewis told Digital Trends that, along with older users who, in many cases, continue to stigmatize online dating, “the other population that’s been a little bit slow that way is college students. They don’t really get it. They’re still surrounded by people their age and a bunch of other eligibles. It’s really not until after you get out of college that it becomes really hard to meet people.”
“The efficiencies of internet searching are especially important for individuals searching for something uncommon.”
Such scarcities have helped drive the rise of online dating over the past 10 years. “Even though comfort with technology might be expected to be greatest among the most recent birth cohorts, the youngest respondents were not the most likely to meet their partners online,” the 2012 Rosenfield/Thomas paper explains. Instead, before recent trends, online dating has seen its most notable growth among users in their 30s and 40s, when more traditional methods of meeting a partner have slowed considerably as more and more potential love interests have coupled up.
Gay users have also been early adopters for similar reasons. “The efficiencies of internet searching are especially important for individuals searching for something uncommon,” Rosenfield and Thomas explain. “The most striking difference between the way same-sex couples meet and the way heterosexual couples meet is the dominance of the internet among same-sex couples who met after 2000, with more than 60 percent of same-sex couples meeting online in 2008 and 2009.”
It should come as no surprise, then, that Grindr was so instrumental at the dawn of mobile dating. Launched a year after Apple introduced the App Store, the geosocial networking app targeted at gay and bi-sexual males was hosting 1.1 million daily users by June 2012. Two years later, the app had hit more than 10 million user downloads, impressive numbers by any measure.
It would be another mobile app, however, launched the same year as Grindr, that would transform online dating forever.
“We were really focused on mobile,” Jonathan Badeen, Tinder co-founder and chief strategy officer, tells Digital Trends. “That was our guiding principle, and we looked at the things that were out there already. We needed to start from scratch, because everyone was taking what was on the desktop and trying to cram it into a mobile device.
“Most people weren’t thinking about how to start from scratch and apply that to mobile, and because of that, the GPS didn’t play as big a factor. They were just replicating the desktop experience. You can’t take advantage of those things until you throw out your preconceived notions of how they work.”
“Instead of sitting down and creating a profile, it makes it feel like a game.”
The New York Times revisited the topic last year in an article bluntly titled “In Defense of Tinder,” which opened by eulogizing the “old paradigm” of desktop sites like eHarmony and Match.com. “The new paradigm is a mobile app like Tinder,” the story explains. “You quickly browse photos on your phone, swiping to the right if the photo appeals, to the left if it doesn’t. If the attraction is mutual — that is, if both of you have swiped right — you might try to set up a date for, say, five minutes later.”
To Tinder’s own in-house sociologist, Dr. Jessica Carbino, the app’s most fascinating impact on the world of online dating was capturing a younger demographic previously hesitant to embrace the space. “It was my students who told me about it.” explains Carbino. “I was fascinated by the fact that 18- to 24-year-olds were using an online dating app. That was something that had never occurred before.”
“Tinder was genius in terms of reaching college students,” Lewis agrees. “Instead of sitting down and creating a profile, it makes it feel like a game. College students are comfortable whipping out their iPhone when waiting in line.” The gamification Lewis refers to is what Tinder users commonly refer to as “the swipe”: a simple yes or no decision that asks users to accept or reject a potential mate with a right or left swoosh of the finger. The feature, introduced to the app by Badeen, serves to both simplify and speed up the process, while essentially transforming the traditionally rigid world of online dating into a mobile game.
“We’re always trying to keep things as simple as possible,” says Badeen. “We work really hard to do that and we look for clever ways to add things in without cluttering the experience or truly altering it. Instead of having a profile that’s 10 pages long, our goal is to have something that’s really digestible, but to pull up meaningful information.”
It’s a far cry from eHarmony’s questionnaire, the 436-question test designed by the site’s relationship research facility to scientifically match users with potential mates. Tinder trades in the rigorous scientific research for volume, offering up little in the way of self-appointed contextual information in favor of big images and blurbs. Critics have characterized the format as a move toward the superficial, a sort of mobile update to the circa-2000 online rating site Hot or Not.
But Carbino defends these snap judgments. “We know that people are very capable of taking thin slices of information about someone based on a photograph and gleaning a lot of things with a high degree of accuracy and very quickly figuring out something about someone ranging from socioeconomic status to believing if someone is kind or compassionate,” she explains. “Women believe that men who have a softer jawline are more compassionate than their counterparts who have a stronger jawline. That’s something that can be gleaned from a photograph that is theoretically more valuable than somebody writing in their profile, ‘I am a kind person.’”
The true innovation of Tinder’s streamlined approach to matchmaking is the speed with which it connects its users. “Swipe apps discourage you from sitting at home and analyzing people’s profiles ad nauseam,” explains Klinenberg. “One of the big mistakes people make when they’re online dating is that they spend far too much time online and not enough time dating. Swipe apps correct for that.”
Simplification, portability, and GPS functionality have all worked to bring online dating out of the home and into the real world. “You see people in Whole Foods using it,” says Carbino. “You see people in line at the post office swiping.
“You see people doing it collectively at restaurants.”
Online dating is now something young people do with their phones, which means they’re carrying a portal to digital romance with them wherever they go. That’s a significant change, Klinenberg noted. “Once upon a time, people would come home at the end of the workday and sit at their computer and work a second shift trying to find a romantic partner.”
No longer. According to Pew’s most recent data, the share of 18- to 24-year-olds who use online dating has roughly tripled from 10 percent in 2013 to 27 percent today. Use among 55- to 64-year-olds has also risen substantially, to 12 percent today versus only 6 percent in 2013. Apps in particular are booming: About one in five 18- to 24-year olds now report using mobile dating apps; in 2013, only 5 percent were swiping left.
“If you talk to any straight woman who has used online dating, they hate it because they’re just inundated by creepy guys.”
The explosion in online dating comes with unique new drawbacks. Lane Moore, Cosmopolitan sex and relationships editor and host of the popular comedy talk show Tinder Live, told Digital Trends: “I always hope (like we all hope) that I’ll meet my dream person online somehow. But lately I’ve had really crappy luck in terms of guys who don’t ask you any questions and only answer them, or just want to sext, or who don’t really have much they’re passionate about.”
With any new social technology comes new societal norms. With the rise of phenomena like “ghosting” – loving them and leaving them as quickly and completely as a ghost — it seems the latter still has some catching up to do with the former.
“The norms surrounding online dating aren’t firmly established because online dating hasn’t been around for a long time,” says Carbino. “People aren’t sure what’s appropriate. If someone doesn’t like someone based on a text exchange, do they have to talk to them? It’s different from when you meet someone in person and go out on a date with them and you have subsequent interactions. You can’t just say nothing. You have to respond.”
Then there’s the harassment problem. It’s hard being a woman on the internet. It’s doubly hard being in the vulnerable position of being a woman on a dating site. Tinder’s double-opt-in has tried to address this, requiring both users to approve a connection before a conversation can begin. “That’s one of the things we identified from the beginning,” says Badeen. “A lot of times, you have to send a message to somebody, and there’s a lot pressure there. You have to figure out a photo, send a message to someone, and try to put your best foot forward. That’s a lot of pressure. The double opt-in, along with the swipe, made it no pressure, and you only engage with those that have expressed interest back.”
“Designers of dating apps recognized that they had a problem with women getting harassed and overwhelmed by aggressive messages that they had no interest in,” says Klinenberg. “So there’s a growing number of sites to help women initiate or OK the communication chain.
Bumble is specifically designed to put women in charge. I’ve definitely talked to women who got on Bumble only to realize how hard it is to be a man. They have to initiate all of these conversations, only to have no one talk to them. Why would they want that? One of the great privileges of being a woman is not having to deal with that.”
Lewis adds that the creep problem may never go away entirely, as eliminating it might ultimately be bad for a company’s bottom line. “If you talk to any straight woman who has used online dating, they hate it because they’re just inundated by creepy guys,” Lewis said.
Brace yourself: The future might be the worst thing ever to happen to dating.
“The attractiveness of the soulmate you’re assigned will be proportional to the number of advertisements you agree to watch first,” writes humorist James Warner on online dating in the year 2020. “During the actual date, you’ll receive constant real-time dating advice generated by machine-learning algorithms.
“Your household appliances will tweet constantly about your relationship status— if they ever stop this, you will feel unaccountably melancholy.”
We’re closer to such Sleeper-esque prognostications than any of us would care to admit. Certainly, advertising has gained a foothold among the explosion of mobile dating apps, and our washing machines and refrigerators know a lot about our particulars. But other technologies could take things even further.
“I think the challenge is getting the people from the screen to the date.”
Virtual and augmented reality technologies are prime candidates for future dating — though the transition from the current crop of apps into virtual dating environments will take time.
“I can’t say that I’m spending too much of my time thinking about the virtual reality implications, because we’re looking for technology that is accessible to everybody,” Tinder’s Badeen explains. But what’s mere flirtation with the Oculus Rift and other VR headsets today may transform this entire space tomorrow. “In maybe two or five years’ time, I think it’s going to become a real interesting thing. It’s personal on a different side of things. I think that it will end up playing a large role — but until it becomes a more widespread thing, it will go back to being that thing you’re doing at home.”
Virtual reality was one of the key concepts in an extremely forward-looking study compiled by MSc Management students at Imperial College Business School on behalf of online dating granddaddy eHarmony. The study, which attempts to predict online data trends into the year 2040, also lists video profiles, lifelogging, artificial intelligence, and biotechnology as key drivers in the future of online dating.
“DNA analysis — with the potential to unlock the innate laws of attraction — could cost as little as $1,000 by 2040,” according to the study. “Increased affordability will allow more extensive research into this field, in turn giving us a clearer insight into how our own genetic makeup plays a role in physical and emotional attraction.”
In 2014, a site called SingldOut raised $600,000 in seed funding on the rather Gattaca-esque promise of matching up members courtesy of a DNA cotton swab. The whole thing was based on the following scientific-sounding explanation:
Research shows that children born to couples with very different immune system genes are more likely to successfully defend themselves against a greater variety of infections. But not only does scientific evidence point to children with strong immune systems, the research has shown that these couples also enjoy more satisfying sex lives, greater marital stability, increased fertility rates, and find each other more attractive.
Perhaps the site was too ahead of its time. Today, SingldOut.com appears to have vanished from existence with a URL that goes nowhere and a Twitter account that stopped updating in April. Apparently, the world wasn’t quite ready for the site’s visions of a new generation of offspring emboldened by invincible immune systems.
Until they’re able to properly untangle our genetic strands, dating companies will likely focus on increasing efficiency. After all, while success (at least theoretically) means users delete their accounts, there’s no better PR for a dating service than a story that ends happily ever after.
“I think the challenge is getting the people from the screen to the date,” explains Klinenberg. “Geolocation will be a big part of that. Sites that alert you to single people you’ve swiped right on, who happen to be near you. We’re going to see much more of that. Fundamentally, dating is a network problem, and the internet is good at connecting strangers and integrating them into new networks. So it’s going to stick around for a while.”
Carbino adds that Tinder is growing steadily in new markets, both demographically and geographically, currently hosting users in nearly 200 countries. “Our fastest-growing market is India, a market where theoretically Tinder would have been anathema 50 years ago. It is flourishing among educated and metropolitan audiences. I think online dating will become more prevalent globally, given that they’re learning through exposure that online dating can be a very fruitful and successful way to meet their romantic partner. As well as the fact that people are just becoming more comfortable with the fact of technology being a part of their daily life.”
For his part, Lewis is slightly less bullish about the continued growth of online dating. “I wouldn’t be surprised if we’ve reached a point of plateau with how frequently these sites have been used. The stigma is largely, if not entirely, gone.” The sociologist hedges his bets slightly, adding, like Klinenberg, that there are still some fundamental questions left.
“There are still some very basic puzzles that nobody has figured out,” he adds. “The puzzle of what makes two people compatible.”