When Dan Slater got out of a long-term relationship in his twenties, he did what many other singles do these days: look for love online. Then, a shocking discovery about how his parents met inspired Dan to delve deeper into the online dating industry, its history, and how these dating sites changed the course of modern relationships. Here’s what he learned — and how to apply these lessons to your own search for love.
Q: What inspired you to write a book about the “algorithms” of online dating?
A: When I was maybe six months into a relationship with someone I met through Match.com, I discovered that my mother and father — who divorced when I was young — had met through one of the very first computer dating services back in 1965. So, I tracked down the people who ran these original companies (the first two were started by Harvard students, actually) and wrote about them. In researching that magazine story, I began to see the connections between the business of online dating and the various ways that technology seemed to be affecting how online daters approached their own relationships. This notion became the seed of my book, Love in the Time of Algorithms.
Q: How has online dating impacted the landscape of modern relationships today?
A: Online dating solves one specific and very important problem associated with dating in general: accessing people to date. This is the main lens through which I tried to understand online dating technology. And I believe that the negative and positive effects of giving singles this kind of expanded access to potential dates are similar to the benefits and complications associated with expanding access to any type of resource. Here’s one of the benefits: More choices can mean you’ve got a greater chance of finding happiness. In the best cases, giving daters more relationship “practice” opportunities will help people understand what they need and want… and know when they’ve found the right person. Also, the failure of any one relationship can be less devastating when new potential partners are easier to find. Now, here are some of the complications: The experience of having greater choice now engenders further expectations of greater choice in the future, and the resulting pickiness can be both good and bad. Pickiness paired with wisdom means you’ll make good choices; but pickiness paired with confusion just leads to more confusion down the road.
Q: Does all this access to potential dates that online dating provides create a “kid in a candy store” feeling in some people?
A: I followed one 34-year-old as he rode a sort of “merry-go-round of women” while dating, realizing how easy it’s become to do just that. It was liberating for him not to have to rely on any one relationship, but he also became disenchanted by engaging in so much hyper-romance. He fears that online dating has affected his ability to ever fall in love again (the idea being that people have perhaps become too fungible for him). It’s a good example of how one person changed his strategy according to what online dating allowed him to do, and in turn, he had to confront a new obstacle to relationship success.
Q: In your book, you talk about how online dating sites often “introduce” people to each other based on their compatibility with surprising results — i.e., you interviewed an asthmatic and a smoker who met each other on Match.com. How did this happen?
A: They met because Match.com’s matching algorithm noticed that other men who tended to like the same kind of women the asthmatic liked also tended to like this particular smoker. It’s called “triangulation.” So, the website ignored the asthmatic’s request not to meet potential dates who were smokers. In this case, it worked out. I like their story because it illustrates how online dating gives us more options (and more experiences); therefore, it can have surprising results — just as life also surprises us sometimes. This is the kind of serendipity that online dating can foster amongst people looking for love.
Q: What’s your best advice for online daters?
A: If something seems wrong, then something is wrong. Trust your intuition. Say you’ve been messaging back and forth with someone about setting up a date. Then that person disappears on you for a week, and then finally responds again, saying: “Let’s meet up.” That’s weird! Even with a genuine excuse — say, “My plane went down over the Atlantic and I had to swim back to shore” — this person has shown you a strong flaky side right off the bat and you should expect that flaky side to come up again… probably sooner than later.
Q: Are there any other online dating prospects where you’d advise singles to proceed with caution?
A: Beware of the wounded! Early on, you’ll notice that many people join online dating sites following a breakup. People tend to act strangely in the wake of breakups; sometimes they can’t manage a genuine smile, consume alcohol without turning bitterly nostalgic, or even just utter a sentence that doesn’t reference their (terrific? infuriating? super-talented? life-destroying?) ex. Recovering from a breakup sometimes requires a warm body to erase that ex’s memory. Whatever form the red flag ends up taking, though, just learn how to spot it early on and adjust your expectations accordingly.
Q: What’s coming down the pike for online dating in the future — whether it’s 5 or 50 years from now?
A: Online dating seems to be heading toward greater efficiency. As with any product, the versions of online dating that will flourish in the future are those that help people find what they like best with the least amount of work. That might mean more mobile dating options, and it also might mean some kind of merge between the anonymous world of online dating and the identity-driven world of social media will happen. But the most interesting thing to see will be whether the online data revolution can enhance the poor level of knowledge we presently have about how romantic compatibility works between two people. As more people date online (and more often), it’ll be cool to see whether scientists and dating entrepreneurs can use that data to predict not just whether two people can hit it off on a first date, but whether they could be happy together for 50 years — and how they’ll make that happen.