Looking for Love Online: the Evolution of Dating in the Internet Age

Tech for dating has a longer history than you may have guessed. But the explosion of dating sites and apps around the turn of the century has resulted in more people looking for love online.
Ariella  Brown

Online dating has a history older than some of the people currently using it. In fact, the roots of computer-aided dating go all the way back to the 60s. However, the rise of the internet, mobile apps, and social media have expanded the possibilities of online dating, though the human touch still has its place.


The conception of computerized compatibility

The concept of computer dating actually predates the internet by a good number of decades.  Back in 1965 a couple of Harvard students launched what they called Operation Match. A 2018 Crimson article detailed how it worked:

"To enter, its clients filled out a paper survey with 75 questions about themselves and the same 75 questions about their date’s ideal characteristics. They would then mail their answer sheet to Cambridge along with a $3 fee.

Their answers would be recorded on punch cards and run through a room-sized IBM 1401 computer. Three weeks later, the clients would receive a sheet of paper with the names and contact information of their top six matches."

While the article considered this computerized matchmaking solution “ahead of its time,” the questions it featured may have been a product of the time. “The founders sat down, thought about their own dating criteria, and just wrote them,” it explained.

The criteria for ideal dates included “nine height ranges; what they wanted in their date’s SAT score; whether their race should be ‘Caucasian,’ ‘Oriental,’ 'Negro,' or some combination; how much they believed that they were a ‘conformist; and whether they were sexually experienced or believed that ‘romantic love is necessary for successful marriage.’” 

It also included some hypothetical questions to get a sense of the person’s priorities. One of those was: “What would you do if your roommate set you up with an ‘embarrassingly unattractive’ blind date for a big dance?” The multiple-choice responses included taking over that roommate’s date or being nice to the unattractive date though it could raise expectations of your wanting to go out again.

One of the founders of Operation Match, Jeffrey C. Tarr, recalled, “I’m sure that they did all right as well, but we were lucky to be the first, and we kind of dominated it… because of the size of our pool.”

It was successful enough to inspire competitors to get into the act. But interest then did fizzle out. While it did offer the supposedly scientific approach to compatibility, the clunky execution with mailed in forms made it far from convenient. But the internet would change that.

The rise of internet dating in the 90s

Connecting with people online predates any official dating sites, according to A Brief History of Online Dating, which points out that the web was likely used for that almost from day one. It attributes the “cultural boost” internet dating gained to the 1998 movie You’ve Got Mail, starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan as people who knew each other as business rivals in person but became romantically involved online.

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However, there was a first official dating site, and while most sources identify it as Match.com, which was registered in 1995, the same person who registered that first registered a site called Kiss.com in 1994. However, the former is still around, while the latter is not, though even Match.com changed hands. 

As online dating became more respectable, A Brief History of Online Dating explains, Ticketmaster Online-Citysearch purchased both Match.com and OneandOnly.com. That, in turn, sparked other major names in those heady days of the internet to add on dating features, including  Yahoo! and the source of the 1998 movie title, AOL.

Subsequently, a number of other dating sites were acquired, and some of these did go bust when the dot coms imploded at the beginning of this century.

The dawn of a new century and social networks

But another event of 2002 also changed online dating’s trajectory. That was the birth of social networks in the form of Friendster and Myspace.

That year Wired Magazine ran an article entitled ,”Why Are Online Personals So Hot?” that opened with this line:  “Twenty years from now, the idea that someone looking for love won’t look for it online will be silly, akin to skipping the card catalog to instead wander the stacks because ‘the right books are found only by accident.'”

It insists that such an idea of finding one’s match without using tools like the internet to search for the person  is as preposterous as assuming “the book of your dreams will just fall off the shelf and into your arms.”

The Wired writer then waxes rather lyrical in declaring 2002 “as the gilded age of 21st-century dating, a computer-enabled love-letter renaissance,” which would only be appreciated twenty years later.  

The teen years for online dating

Here we are nearly 20 years later, and online dating certainly has entrenched itself. Pew Research reported in 2015 that online dating sites were used by 15% of American adults. The percentage grows to 27% for those in the 18 to 24 age range. That’s a very significant increase over the 10% that indicated online dating usage just two years earlier in 2013.

Clearly, people have adapted their own expectations and approaches to romantic relationships. The dating sites have also evolved, adapting to the smartphone age with apps and advanced features like augmented reality and voice capability.

“Voice tech is on the rise and will continue to grow,” said Dan Drapeau, Head of Technology at Blue Fountain Media, in an interview earlier this year.

Perhaps the biggest change, though, was expanding dating options to meet the demand of users for same-sex matching. While there are gay-specific apps, like Chappy for men and Her for women, all major general match sites like Match.com, OKCupid, eHarmony, and others include the options of men seeking men and women seeking women.  

The Pew Research Center reports that while 11% of heterosexual couples credit their coming together to online dating, the number is more than triple that for homosexual couples:  37%.

But like most growth trajectories, there are bumps along the road. The lastest one of these is the lawsuit against Match Group filed by the FTC on September 25, 2019 

The FTC alleges that Match.com used fraudulent tactics to get users to pay into the service from June 2016–May 2018. Match.com denied the allegations, claiming that bots and scam merchants were to blame, not the site, as reported in the Wall Street Journal.

Facebook dating 

While social networking inevitably leads people to learn about each other and possibly connect in real life, people may not always want to share everything with a potential date that they share with their friends. Facebook saw some potential in exploiting that fact of allowing people to use their profiles for dating and share the pictures and videos they want on display while still maintaining control over what the other person would see. 

On September 5, 2019 Facebook announced:  “It’s Facebook Official, Dating Is Here.”  It put it this way:

Today, we’re launching Facebook Dating in the US. We’re also giving people the ability to integrate their Instagram posts directly into their Facebook Dating profile and giving people the ability to add Instagram followers to their Secret Crush lists, in addition to Facebook friends. By the end of the year, we’ll make it possible to add Facebook and Instagram Stories to your Dating profile too.

Perhaps Facebook was also mindful of what got Match.com in hot water in reassuring users of their security in using its dating feature: “We worked with experts in these areas to build protections into Facebook Dating from the start, including the ability to report and block anyone; prohibiting people from sending photos, links, payments or videos in messages; and by providing easy access to safety tips.”

An interesting thing about using Facebook for dating rather than some other dating app was observed in a Tech Crunch article on the launch: 

On Tinder, you may write that you “love hiking,” but Facebook would know if you actually participated in hiking-related groups or events, and how often. It may know a lot more, too — like your check-ins to hiking trails, if there are mountains in your photos, if you posted updates with the keyword “hiking,” if you “Liked” Facebook Pages about hiking, etc. But Facebook won’t confirm if this sort of data is used or how.

The article also points out that Facebook offers two key advantages for daters:

  1. A dating site that charges subscribers actually makes more money for those that stay on longer, which means that the dater’s goal to find love sooner is antithetical to the business goal of keeping the customer on as long as possible. That’s irrelevant to Facebook, though, as it is not relying on this feature for subscriber fees. 
  2.  Given that it has billions of users, there are a huge number of potential matches that could arise without people having to consciously pay into an online dating service.  

Yet human matchmakers are still around 

While online dating sites with thousands of members and Facebook with its potential to reach 2.4 billion members are big on quantity of options, some people still prefer high quality matches delivered as a personal service. That’s why human matchmakers are still around and commanding hefty fees for their services for seriously marriage-minded individuals who don’t want to waste time by just chasing pretty faces who may have some of the same hobbies. 

In the earlier part of the last century, matchmakers were disparaged as meddling busybodies who pushed people into relationships that weren’t right for them just so that they could collect their fees.


They were regarded rather like used car salesmen who browbeat people into bad bargains. Such a stereotype was not just at the center of the Yenta character in Fiddler on the Roof but forms the central plot of Thornton Wilder’s The Matchmaker which was rendered into a musical under the title Hello Dolly! 


Surprisingly enough, a hundred years after the time frame for these musicals, matchmakers are back in vogue literally. In fact, the “Tinder-tired,” as the article calls them, are paying thousands of dollars for their services. It’s the equivalent of hiring a highly skilled and highly compensated headhunter to bring you the right candidates for the job rather than skimming through thousands of applicant resumes. 

Hybrid models

Some people believe you can work out the best of both worlds -- the reach of online dating combined with the personalized service of matches curated by humans.  Some sites do work on that model with matchmakers deciding which profile should be sent to whom rather than having them search through all the ones on the site on their own. 

The curation is meant to make the members take the suggestions more seriously. The drawback is that people are still sent profiles and draw their own conclusions based on what they see on the screen.

A truth not universally acknowledged 

The drawback for all dates screened through profiles with pictures is that people feel like they've already met the person and know enough to make a decision about whether they like them or not based on the brief summary and the person's picture, but mostly the picture. They believe in the romance of love or at least attraction at first sight and fail to understand that the concept is actually mocked by the writers who assert it.

"Whoever loved that loved not at first sight?" is the rhetorical question posed by the shepherdess Phebe in Shakespear'e comedy, As You Like It. But the context subverts the meaning because she pronounces it about her feeling for what she takes to be a young man but who is really a young woman in disguise, and no, they do not get together.

 On p. 112 of the Heath brothers' book Decisive, they point out this statistic: "20% of the women reported not liking their spouse-to-be when they first met. (This also implies that there are millions of other people who met their future  spouse and then walked away because their gut instinct led them to abandon the interaction too early)."

This particular truth,  Jane Austen grasped from her own limited life's observations two centuries earlier. The first title she gave her most famous work, Pride and Prejudice was First Impressions, and, of course, the lesson of the book is not just that the simplistic love wins but that one has to overcomes one's first impressions and get to know what a person is really about. 

In contrast to the rather reserved Mr. Darcy, who fails to make a good first impression, Mr. Wickham is charm itself. But the former proves to be a man of integrity and the latter to be a dishonorable opportunist whose selfish actions threaten to socially ruin the Bennet family. This is a general theme in Austen's novels that those who are the most attractive at first glance are not always to be trusted, and initial attraction is not the proof of true love. 

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