Looking for Love in All the Wired Places

The first thing you notice is the rich, ocean blue filling the entire screen. It’s as if OKCupid is trying to get the visitor to relax, to tell you that despite what they’ve heard from their friends and families, online dating is nothing to be afraid of. In the middle of the page under the bubbled logo, bright white sans serif font makes the pitch: “Join the best free dating site on Earth.”

OKCupid is only one of the hundreds of online dating services offered to singles today. Anyone with an Internet connection and a willing heart can join a dating site or download an app onto their phone. What was once stigmatizing is now a sensation, and with more users joining every day, these matchmaking machines show no sign of slowing down.

According to Match.com, over 40 million Americans use online dating services, making up 40 percent of American singles. VICE’s documentary The Mobile Love Industry posits that by 2040, 70 percent of couples will have met online (to see how couples today meet and more, refer to the infographic). Applications and websites like Tinder, OKCupid, Grindr and Match.com bring in millions of dollars in revenue from helping users find romance online.

However, including a third party on your quest to find love is nothing new, says Dan Slater, author of Love in the Time of AlgorithmsArranged marriages and matchmakers are almost as old as human relationships themselves, and personal ads date back to 17th century England. Computers didn’t enter the love business until early 1965 when Harvard mathematics student Jeff Tarr founded Operation Match.

The first of its kind, Operation Match was a $3 subscription-based matchmaking service that used a computer program to match students based on their answers to a questionnaire. The subscriber would then receive six personalized matches, complete with names and contact information within a few days. Thus, online dating was born.

Today, technology and digital romance have come a long way from pushing punch cards into IBM 1401 computers, and so have society’s romantic practices. According to Modern Romance, the average age of marriage in 1950 was 20 for women and 23 for men. Today, the average woman gets married at 27, with the average man marrying at 29. This increase in age can be attributed to a few things : economic instability, an extended period of adolescence, the rise of feminism and the sexual revolution, and, perhaps the most important factor, choice.

For most of human history, marriage meant one thing : security. Marrying another person secured finances, social status, and doubled your chance of survival and reproduction. Love was rarely an incentive. Modern marriage is different. It is no longer enough, or even necessary, for a romantic partner to provide this kind of security. Now, we’re looking for our soul mate, and that search has led us online – for better or worse.

“I’ve found that [online dating] usually leads to more hook ups than long-term relationships,” said Katie Williamson, 22. Williamson, who identifies as bisexual, had been a long time user of dating sites and mobile apps before she met her current girlfriend through her job. Tre Miles, also 22, has had a different experience, having met two significant others through a mobile dating app for gay men.

“It’s been fascinating. I’ve had two boyfriends and few other [encounters] from it. It’s been a generous ride for me, or as much as it can be for a mixed femme boy.” he said.

People’s opinion of online dating seems to be almost as complex as the relationships themselves. Williams and Miles, now both in relationships with people they met offline, have mixed feelings about the technology, and both cite the same problem: choice.

In 2004, psychologist Barry Schwartz released The Paradox of Choice, a book that explores the psychology of decision making. Schwartz found that while more options may sound appealing, in practice they actually make it harder for a decision to get made, and often times the choice you do make is less satisfying. In online dating, this means if you find the tiniest detail wrong with someone, you always have the opportunity move onto the next, and the next and the next.

“On one hand you don’t necessarily want to lower your standards, [but] it’s just so specific,” Williams said.  “I found myself going through people’s profiles and seeing that they liked, I don’t know, Fall Out Boy or something, and deciding ‘Nope, not going to happen, not going to talk to this person’, whereas if I met them in person, i.e. my girlfriend – I didn’t know she liked them. And while that would have been a deal breaker online where I can see everything in black and white, when I [get] to know someone better first, and they like something unfortunate, I can overlook it.”

This specificity Williams cited is catered to by online dating. Looking for a man within 20 miles of you who also likes dogs and tennis? There’s a filter for that. Want a woman who doesn’t smoke and loves to hike? Chances are it’ll be right there on her profile.

“I think it’s a pro/con situation,” said Miles. “The pro is that I feel it [offers a] larger sphere of opportunity for dating and meeting a partner; the con is that I feel people treat dating as a much easier thing than it used to be, as in the world is smaller and people don’t care as much about other people. There’s a lot more room to be rude.”

In this brave new world of digital intimacies, online dating remains a mystery. Some couples have found love and started families. Others have been torn apart from knowing how easy it is to move onto someone else. In the end, the only definitive thing to be said about online dating is that it is a tool. How it is used it determined by whom is wielding it. For some, it’s an anchor, for others, it’s a life saver. OKCupid’s ocean blue homepage is ready for whatever you decide.

 

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