Over the years since Tarr first starting sending out his questionnaires, computer dating has evolved
The computer-dating pioneers were happy to play up to the image of the omniscient machine – and were already wary of any potential stigma attached to their businesses. “Some romanticists complain that we’re too commercial,” Tarr told reporters. “But we’re not trying to take the love out of love; we’re just trying to make it more efficient. We supply everything but the spark.” In turn, the perceived wisdom of the machine opened up new possibilities for competition in the nascent industry, as start-up services touted the ins over others. Contact, Match’s greatest rival, was founded by MIT graduate student David DeWan and ran on a Honeywell 200 computer, developed in response to IBM’s 1401 and operating two to three times faster. DeWan made the additional claim that Contact’s questions were more sophisticated than Match’s nationwide efforts, because they were restricted to elite college students.
Most importantly, it has become online dating. And with each of these developments – through the internet, home computing, broadband, smartphones, and location services – the turbulent business and the occasionally dubious science of computer-aided matching has evolved too. Online dating continues to hold up a mirror not only to the mores of society, which it both reflects, and shapes, but to our attitudes to technology itself.
The American National Academy of Sciences reported in 2013 that more than a third of people who met their partner online, and half of those met on dating sites. The rest met through chatrooms, online games, and elsewhere. Preliminary studies also showed that people who met online were slightly less likely to divorce and claimed to be happier in their marriages. The latest figures from online analytics company Comscore show that the UK is not far behind, with 5.7 million people visiting dating sites every month, and 49 million across Europe as a whole, or 12% of the total population. Most tellingly for the evolution of online dating is that the biggest growth demographic in 2012 was in the 55+ age range, accounting for 39% of visitors.
When online dating moves not only beyond stigma, but beyond the so-called “digital divide” to embrace older web users, it might be said to have truly arrived
It has taken a while to get there. Match, founded in 1993, was the first big player, is still the biggest worldwide, and epitomises the “online classifieds” model of internet dating. Match doesn’t make any bold claims about who you will meet, it just promises there’ll be loads of them. eHarmony, which followed in 2000, was different, promising to guide its users towards long-term relationships – not just dating, but marriage. It believed it could do this thanks to the research of its founder, Neil Clark Warren, a then 76-old psychologist and divinity lecturer from rural Iowa. His three years of research on 5,000 married couples laid the basis for a truly algorithmic approach to matching: the results of a 200-question survey of new members (the “core personality traits”), together with their communication patterns which were revealed while using the site.
Whatever you may think of eHarmony’s approach – and many contest whether it is scientifically possible to generalise from married people’s experiences to the behaviour of single people – they are very serious about it. Since launch, they have surveyed another 50,000 couples worldwide, according to the current vice-president of matching, Steve Carter. When they launched in the UK, they partnered with Oxford University to research 1,000 British couples “to identify any cultural distinctions between the two markets that should be represented by the compatibility algorithms”. And when challenged by lawsuits for refusing to match gay and lesbian people, assumed by many to be a result of Warren’s conservative Christian views (his books were previously published in partnership with the conservative pressure group, Focus on the Family), they protested that it wasn’t morality, but mathematics: they simply didn’t have the data to back up the promise of long-term partnership for same-sex couples. As part of a settlement in one such lawsuit, eHarmony launched Compatible Partners in 2009.