But what about our more intimate personal lives? How has online dating changed over the last couple of decades? And what do these changes mean in terms of how we form relationships and the nature of the relationships we form?
A Brief but Busy History
The idea of the computer matchmaker can be traced back to 1959 when Stanford engineering students Jim Harvey and Phil Fialer ran the names of forty-nine men and forty-nine women through and IBM 650 for a class project titled “Happy Families Planning Services”.
There were a few similar experiments in the decades following but, not surprisingly, much of the history of online dating (or “social discovery”) sites takes place within the last twenty years.
Dan Slater documents the history of the sites and their effects in his comprehensive and well-researched book Love in the Time of Algorithms. This history presents a timeline of sites changing with technology, and how dating itself changed with the sites. There’s the grandparent site Match.com (founded way back in 1995) the concept of which provides a forum for the relationship theories of the founder of eHarmony in 2000. Plentyoffish changes the game in 2003 and, thanks to the launch of Google Adsense, provides a free large traffic site. Enter OkCupid providing both paid and unpaid services.
The start of a more unapologetic hook-up culture in online dating can be traced to the popular European site Badoo using Bluetooth technology to alert the user when a matching profile was 50 feet away. This would birth the apps Grindr (2009), Tinder (2012), and Bumble (2014).
When Western Culture shifted towards capitalist democracies it became a cheerleader for choice. An intense focus on individualism present in North America exalts the concept of “freedom of choice” even more. By making decisions based on very specific preferences we will be satisfied and happy. These values have spread to varying degrees as market economies have throughout the world.
But research has found that too much choice makes making a decision more difficult and can leave you feeling dissatisfied with the decisions you make.
The digital dating landscape is teeming with a variety of ways to meet people and a variety of people to meet. General sites such as eHarmony or Plentyoffish offer so much choice it’s easy for the user to become overwhelmed.
In response to this there are a myriad of sites catering to very specific wants. Individualized sites such as LoneyStoner.com, WeWaited.com (for virgins), theuglybugball.com (for people not conventionally attractive), and clowndating.com (which you can probably guess the market for).
Slater very effectively states the cause and result of this, “As the Internet grows vaster, technology is allowing us, and in some cases forcing us, to be more specific. This means John Dater can find people who are like him, and quite easily. It also means that, out of necessity, he will exclude those with qualities he may not realize he needs or enjoys”.
Commitment of some type is a recognized component of relationships, but limitless choice is making commitment difficult. Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics Dan Ariely describes online dating as “an efficient frictionless market environment”.
His assertion is you can only build up a relationship when you invest in it, and such investment decreases when faced with a large pool of alternatives. “Why should I put up with this bs”, you might ask yourself about your partner’s quirks, flaws, or mistakes, “when an alternative is just a click away?”
Slater found that most people working within the online dating industry were in agreement with the findings of researchers that the rise of online dating will probably mean an overall decrease in commitment. Nic Formani, the head of social media marketing at Badoo was very honest, “People always said that the need for stability would keep commitment alive. But that thinking was based on a world in which you didn’t meet that many people”.
What Can Be Done?
As with most of what we’ve covered regarding online interactions and their effects on our socialization, knowledge and awareness will help societies to maintain healthy relationships as technology continues to evolve. And whether technology is a help or a hindrance depends on knowledgeable users with healthy perspectives.
For example, when looking at the variety of specific sites for individual tastes (clowndating, uglybugball, lonelystoner, etc) it should be considered that niche dating opens dating up for people who, for reasons beyond their control, may have a more select market. There is a white-label dating company called DatingFactory that has over three hundred sites for people with disabilities.
And even with regards to commitment the “perception of diminished choice” finds that people exhibit stronger positive illusions about a partner when they believe that access to alternative partners is scarce. This is decidedly unromantic, but it presents the valid perspective of some loss of commitment as being a reduction in “learned helplessness” or settling.
So there are arguable benefits even in the negative aspects of online dating. It is a question of having an educated populace with strong ethics to begin with.
To create this educated populace the societal value of commitment needs to be stressed. Teaching commitment to children through incentive based games, limiting screen time, and educating adolescents about sexuality and relationships in ways that include information on how their brains work (and not just their bodies), will go a long way in creating adults better able to navigate digital dating in informed, meaningful, and healthy ways.