Online dating sites celebrated their 20th anniversary this year and are more popular than ever - but are they helping us or changing us? The World Weekly talks to the CEO of Clocked, an award-winning new app, about third-wave dating.
I n April this year, Match.com, the world’s first online dating site and still one of its most popular, celebrated its 20th birthday. The anniversary prompted a flurry of stories about how online dating has moved from the stigmatised edge of western culture to general acceptance, at least among those younger than 40. Many articles quoted a Pew study from 2013 that found that around one in five Americans between the ages of 25 and 45 had used online dating at some point and that attitudes towards it had correspondingly shifted with the percentage of those polled who felt dating sites represented a ‘good way to meet people’ rising from 44% in 2005 to 59%.
Yet while dating sites have gained acceptance, the statistics also revealed that arguably they weren’t fulfilling their advertised purpose of helping people find lasting partners, with the research suggesting that nearly 90% of new relationships and more than 95% of recent marriages formed without the use of online dating.
The statistics were also, as several journalists pointed out, two years out of date. The second wave of more casual ‘hookup’ dating apps like Tinder and Happn, which have put their emphasis on more casual encounters, have only grown in popularity since then. Moreover, Pew’s statistics were reliant on surveys, where traces of lingering stigma are likely to have had an impact on the answers of some of those polled. Just two years on, the one-in-five figure is beginning to look quaint in a booming industry worth around $2 billion a year worldwide.
Dating sites now have access to a huge trove of raw data, but they are notoriously reticent about giving away what they know. This is partly down to privacy concerns but, as the scandal around the notorious Ashley Madison affairs site revealed, some dating sites have been gaming their own numbers. The tech magazine Gizmodo suggested that of the registered 5.5 million female profiles on Ashley Madison just 12,000 belonged to real women.
The one high-profile exception to the industry’s tendency towards data hoarding was the now defunct OkTrends Blog, which was maintained by executives of the OkCupid dating site and provided analysis of the statistics it gathered, even if it was somewhat partisan (in 2010 the blog’s principle author Christian Rudder slammed sites that charged customers, alleging that "pay sites have a unique [financial] incentive to profit from their customers' disappointment"). Mr. Rudder caught the attention of the wider press when last year he openly admitted that, following revelations that Facebook had manipulated its users, OkCupid had done much the same. He told his blog’s readers the site had defied its own algorithms to set up unsuitable matches: “when we tell people they are a good match, they act as if they are. Even when they should be wrong for each other.” His book on dating and big data, ‘Dataclysm: Who We Are (When We Think No One’s Looking)’, describes the industry as “an irresistible sociological opportunity”.
If Ashley Madison wasn’t overly damaging to the reputation of the wider dating industry (in promoting cheating it never even flirted with respectability) other recent stories have put dating apps under the microscope. In November it was reported that the new generation of dating apps were behind a recent spike in the spread of sexually transmitted infections in the UK. Public Health England reported that syphilis saw a 33% and gonorrhoea a 19% increase in 2014. “Our members are dating sites, not sex-encounter businesses,” George Kidd, head of the UK’s Online Dating Association, said in defence of the industry.
Nevertheless, new dating apps are under intense scrutiny. Arguably more damaging to consumer relations may have been a piece written by Nancy Jo Sales, an associate editor of Vanity Fair, in October. Entitled ‘Dating Apocalypse’, her story, which went viral, painted an ugly portrait of the dating scene in which “romance is dead” and users freed by the new technology are “[sexually] gorging themselves” - an experience from which few were said to emerge with healthy relationships. Her story prompted Robert Weiss, the senior vice president of clinical development for Elements Behavioral Health, a US company that runs a system of rehabilitation centres, to suggest the new apps could be triggering a new wave of addiction. "What I'm seeing is people with vulnerabilities who are finding their ways to instant release,” he told the Huffington Post. “If substance addictions were the addiction of the 20th century," he suggested, "behavioral addictions are those of the 21st century."
For Ben Lambert, the CEO of Clocked, a new service that won an award as the UK’s best new dating app for 2015, the dating app world is in need of a fresh approach.
He points out that while “legacy companies” like Match.com and eHarmony “pioneered” online dating, user attitudes have shifted. “They can be considered archaic and appeal to an older demographic,” he tells The World Weekly. “In an attempt to catch up with the mobile revolution they have built apps that deliver a bad customer experience.”
Although the new generation of “hookup” apps like Tinder and Happn have made apps more generally popular, their reputation is mixed at best. “There used to be a stigma surrounding online dating,” he explains. “The great thing about the app revolution in dating is that anyone is now welcome. The stigma was changed by Tinder, and ironically then a new stigma for hookups was formed by Tinder themselves, with people not wanting to use apps due to the lack of depth in the connections that they made.”
“Someone needs to install loyalty into dating. We are here to do that. Currently people jump from app to app, person to person, and this disloyalty in apps is spilling over into the real life. If we can provide a curated list of people, services, advice and help then people will start to relate to us as a quality app, with integrity and loyalty at the heart and that is our aim.”
Mr. Lambert’s new app promises to offer a more personalised service and to make more meaningful matches relying not only on the data users give explicitly but through analysis of how they interact with the app and then integrating the data they don’t realise they’re volunteering. “As we grow and get more of an understanding of the likes and dislikes, the kind of profiles people like both physically and psychologically using our question engine, we improve the matches,” he explains. “We want to move to behavioural matching, basing our matches on different forms of behaviour that a user displays, not just what they say. For example, we are looking to implement recognition technology currently which will help build up an idea of what physical features people like based on their actions with others.”
The algorithm for Clocked is said to rely on 10 factors created in consultation with an experienced dating psychologist. The new equation will lean towards suggesting matches on the basis of behaviour, although distance and age will also be integrated - as will information drawn with permission from other sites about user interests as diverse as music and travel - to enable ever more suitable partners. The process also helps with security. “We sync your profile with your Facebook, which in this day and age is indicative of being a real person,” he explains. “It’s the best way of weeding out the fake profiles that plague some sites.”
All’s fair in love and apps?
Above and beyond expanding the pool of potential partners, some have asked whether online dating is profoundly changing the way we think about relationships and ourselves.
The French radical novelist Michel Houellebecq has suggested that Western society is changing more rapidly than we are ready to acknowledge. "In [Western liberal] societies like ours, sex truly represents a second system of differentiation, completely independent of money; and as a system of differentiation it functions just as mercilessly,” he writes in his bestselling novel ‘Atomised’. “The effects of these two systems are, furthermore, strictly equivalent. Just like unrestrained economic liberalism, and for similar reasons, sexual liberalism produces phenomena of absolute pauperisation. Some men make love every day; others five or six times in their life, or never. Some make love with dozens of women; others with none. It's what's known as 'the law of the market'... Economic liberalism is an extension of the domain of the struggle, its extension to all ages and all classes of society. Sexual liberalism is likewise an extension of the domain of the struggle, its extension to all ages and all classes of society.”
Later in the novel he expands on this point to suggest that the sexual revolution has profoundly changed relationships beyond simply sexual encounters. "It's interesting to note,” he writes, “that the ‘sexual revolution’ was sometimes portrayed as a communal utopia, whereas in fact it was simply another stage in the historical rise of individualism. As the lovely word ‘household’ suggests, the couple and the family would be the last bastion of primitive communism in liberal society. The sexual revolution was to destroy these intermediary communities, the last to separate the individual from the market. The destruction continues to this day.”
The World Weekly asked Mr. Lambert whether dating apps, with their emphasis on personal branding and market-style approach, might represent the apotheosis of the process Mr. Houellebecq outlines, and whether they could further change the way we live. He says while these are fair points, the tendency of commentators to take an alarmist stance overlooks the benefits of new dating technology.
“Apps have made it easier to approach people of different ethnicity, ages, classes, religions,” he points out. “It’s not about whether you go to the same religious dwelling, same expensive swanky bar, same private club for a certain age group, it’s about that initial attraction to a photo.”
The problem as he sees it is that current apps simply don’t discriminate and that, overwhelmed by choice, people have tended to feel little connection with those they meet - though this too is not necessarily a drawback as it “accelerates the way that people find out who they are looking for and allows people to experiment a lot more, which in the long run might be a good thing as people will be more likely to settle down when they find the one”. Nevertheless, Clocked’s own goal is to cut through such chaff.
Mr. Lambert also rejects the suggestion that dating apps might be a revolutionary technology without past equivalents, or an example of Say's law - that supply creates its own demand.
“Courtship has always been prevalent,” he responds. “Even in 18th-century literature… the new girl on the block was always an interest to all the eligible bachelors. What has changed is in the way that people let each other know their interest and the quantity of new people on the block being able to let others know. I think it is more of an indication around how people's lives have changed. The millennial can-do attitude pushes people to think in different ways.”
Certainly there’s new thinking abroad with Clocked and other third-wave dating apps now grappling with big data poised to change the industry and - maybe - the way we choose our partners all over again.