Two factors have collided. First, the last few decades have seen a huge increase in the proportion of single people. Discussing a pioneer dating site, Emily Witt notes in the London Review of Books that  Match.com’s original business plan

… cited a market forecast that suggested 50 per cent of the adult population would be single by 2000 (a 2008 poll found 48 per cent of American adults were single, compared to 28 per cent in 1960).

So a much greater proportion of the population is “looking.” And they are looking online. In fact, they are living online. At Vanity Fair, Nancy Jo Sales reported,

If you’re between 8 and 18, you spend more than 11 hours a day plugged into an electronic device. The average American teen now spends nearly every waking moment on a smart phone or computer or watching TV. This seismic shift in how kids spend their time is having a profound effect on the way they make friends, the way they date, and their introduction to the world of sex.

This year [2013], 81 percent of Internet-using teenagers in America reported that they are active on social-networking sites, more than ever before. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and new dating apps like Tinder, Grindr, and Blendr have increasingly become key players in social interactions, both online and IRL (in real life).

They probably won’t “grow out of it.” But is the Internet any place to look for lasting relationships?  Or do they not really matter that much in the age of the Internet? I’ll be unpacking that over the next couple of columns. But l’d start with a brief rundown on who the key Internet dating players are, and what they do.

Perhaps the earliest and possibly the largest worldwide free online dating service, Match.com debuted in 1995, a time when many more men used the Internet than women. The principal partner was computer engineer Gary Kremen. But he left the business in 1997, with the result that today,Witt notes, “he is better known for his protracted legal battle over the ownership of the pornography website sex.com than he is for inventing internet dating.”

Match.com assures us that “Literally, hundreds of thousands of single men and single women right in your area have posted personal ads on Match.com,” searchable for free. One feature offered is

As part of the Match service, we have an extensive fraud prevention team that works diligently to identify and investigate any suspicious activity. Many free sites don’t provide this service.

As it happens, their advice for avoiding frauds and villains is commendable but fairly obvious; just as Mom did, they tell us never to get into a car with a stranger … (See also: Stop. Think. Connect.)

As we shall soon see, their obvious good counsel is not relevant to the reasons many people get hurt, burned, or harmed.

OK Cupid is a newer service (founded in 2004). The math major entrepreneurs sold the firm to IAC/InterActiveCorp, a media conglomerate which also owns Match and Tinder, for $50 million. Like Match, OK Cupid relies on questionnaires, calculating the number of matched answers in order to offer date choices, including a specific focus on the user’s interest in casual sex. Witt, who wrote an in-depth article on her experiences for the London Review of Books, reported,

I found these algorithms put me in the same area – social class and level of education – as the people I went on dates with, but otherwise did very little to predict whom I would like. One occurrence in both online and real-life dating was an inexplicable talent on my part for attracting vegetarians. I am not a vegetarian.

Not okay, Cupid, but lonely people will probably keep trying and odds are they will eventually find someone. But then what?

However, Witt is not put off by this:

 

On the other hand, online dating sites are the only places I’ve been where there’s no ambiguity of intention. A gradation of subtlety, sure: from the basic ‘You’re cute,’ to the off-putting ‘Hi there, would you like to come over, smoke a joint and let me take nude photos of you in my living room?’

But in the end, it did not work out well for her:

Like most people I had started internet dating out of loneliness. I soon discovered, as most do, that it can only speed up the rate and increase the number of encounters with other single people, where each encounter is still a chance encounter. Internet dating destroyed my sense of myself as someone I both know and understand and can also put into words. It had a similarly harmful effect on my sense that other people can accurately know and describe themselves. It left me irritated with the whole field of psychology.

But all that wasn’t fast and casual enough for Internet life. As Molly Wood reports at the New York Times, due to the world of smartphone apps,

Online dating, long dominated by big outfits like Match.com and eHarmony, has in the last two years been transformed by the rise of Tinder, the mobile phone app that lets its users scan photos and short profiles of potential dates.

Then, as easy as a swipe of a finger, you can decide if you want to chat or pass on a prospect.

The Tinder user must have a Facebook account, which is usually associated with an actual name, so the algorithm can find matches to offer. The advantage is that one need not fill out long profiles.

From deepa lakshmin at MTV, we learn that the

Hinge app is to dating what LinkedIn is to jobhunting:

The app lets you swipe through people who are friends of friends, so you’ll usually end up seeing people who went to the same school as you but who you never met. When you get a match, you’re able to message the person through the app.

The contact’s actual name appears, which enables a quick Internet search, so that as lakshmin helpfully puts it, “since there’s no anonymity on Hinge, people aren’t going to message you the sleazy pickup lines they do on Tinder.”

 

Tinder appeals especially to the 18- to 25-year-old demographic, a group competitors hadn’t really been reaching.

So how is it affecting that demographic? And the teens just below them? Most articles on the subject seem to offer a ritual Hollywood ending: Love is found at last and

“So now we’re together.” Really? Let’s look deeper.

Next: Settling in at Brave New World

Note: Another free dating site, reputedly the largest in the United States, is Plenty of Fish, claiming to feature 50,000 singles daily.

 

Denyse O’Leary is a Canadian journalist, author, and blogger.


Denyse O’Leary is an author, journalist, and blogger who has mainly written popular science and social science. Fellow Canadian Marshall McLuhan’s description of electronic media as a global village...