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Online dating promised so much. “This is one of the biggest problems that humans face and one of the first times in human history there was some innovation,” says Michael Norton, a psychologist at Harvard Business School.
Finding the right partner, whether for life or for Saturday night, is so important to so many people that you would think we might have cracked it by now. By assembling a vast array of date-worthy people in a searchable format, online dating seems like it should be a huge improvement on the old-fashioned methods of meeting people at work, through friends, or in bars and nightclubs. But it’s not clear that the innovation of online dating is helping very much.
A simple survey that Norton conducted with two other behavioural scientists, Jeana Frost and Dan Ariely, revealed that people were unhappy with their online dating experience in three obvious ways. The first was that the “online” bit of the dating was about as much fun as booking a dentist’s appointment. The second was that it took for ever — the typical survey respondent spent 12 hours a week browsing through profiles and sending and receiving messages, yielding less than two hours of offline interaction. Now, 106 minutes are plenty for certain kinds of offline interaction but, however people were spending their time together, they didn’t seem satisfied. This was the third problem: people tended to have high expectations before the dates they had arranged online but felt disenchanted afterwards. To adapt a Woody Allen joke: not only are the dates terrible but there are so few of them.
Given that online dating tends to be tedious, time-consuming and fruitless, it is no surprise that we seem hungry for a better way. Most approaches to online dating have tried to exploit one of the two obvious advantages of computers: speed and data-processing power. Apps such as Grindr and Tinder allow people to skim quickly through profiles based on some very simple criteria. (Are they hot? Are they available right now?) That is, of course, fine for a one-night stand but less promising for a more committed relationship.
The alternative, embraced by more traditional matchmaking sites such as Match.com and OkCupid, is to use the power of data to find the perfect partner. We badly want to believe that after giving a website a list of our preferences, hobbies and answers to questions such as, “Do you prefer the people in your life to be simple or complex?”, a clever algorithm will produce a pleasing result.
Because these pleasing results seem elusive, wishful thinking has gone into overdrive. We hold out hope that if only we could be cleverer, the algorithms would deliver the desired effect. For example, Amy Webb’s TED talk “How I Hacked Online Dating” has been watched more than four million times since it was posted in 2013.
In a similar vein, Wired magazine introduced us to Chris McKinlay, “the math genius who hacked OkCupid” and managed to meet the woman of his dreams after cleverly reverse-engineering the website’s algorithms. The brilliance of McKinlay’s achievement is somewhat diminished by the revelation that he had to work his way through unsuccessful dates with 87 women before his “genius” paid dividends.
This should hardly be a surprise. Imagine looking at the anonymised dating profiles of 10 close friends and comparing them with the profiles of 10 mere acquaintances. Using the profile descriptions alone, could you pick out the people you really like? The answer, says Dan Ariely, is no. “It’s terrible. It’s basically random.”
It is crazy to believe that someone’s eye colour and height, or even hobbies and musical tastes, are a basis for a lasting relationship. But that is the belief that algorithmic matching encourages. Online dating is built on a Google-esque trawl through a database because that’s the obvious and easy way to make it work.
Is there a better way? Perhaps. Jeana Frost’s PhD research explored an alternative approach to online dating. Why not, she asked, make online dating a bit less like searching and a bit more like an actual date? She created a virtual image gallery in which people had a virtual date, represented by simple geometric avatars with speech bubbles. The images — from Lisa and Jessica Simpson to George Bush and John Kerry — were conversation starters. People enjoyed these virtual dates and, when they later met in person, the virtual date seems to have worked well as an icebreaker.
Virtual dating has not taken off commercially, says Norton, in part because companies have tried too hard to make it realistic, and have fallen into the “uncanny valley” of the not-quite-human. I suspect, but cannot prove, that virtual spaces such as World of Warcraft are perfectly good places to meet a soulmate, assuming your soulmate happens to like orc-bashing. Perhaps mainstream virtual dating is just waiting for the right design to emerge.
Or perhaps the problem is deeper: online dating services prosper if they keep us coming back for more. Setting someone up with a romantic partner for life is no way to win a repeat customer.
Tim Harford is the author of ‘The Undercover Economist Strikes Back’. Twitter: @TimHarford
Illustrations by Harry Haysom