Online Dating in the Age of Discovery

The Internet-at-large is in the midst of a sea change, from an era dominated by search to one that prizes discovery. In the decade past, it was enough to know everything. But omniscience turns out to be only half the battle; just as important are the people you know, the places they visit, and the things they recommend.

Discovery is a tricky, and sometimes lucrative, business. No more so than in the business of online dating, which in his recent, exhaustive survey, The New Yorker’s Nick Paumgarten noted was something of a misnomer.

“You don’t date online,” Paumgarten wrote, “you meet people online. It’s a search mechanism.”

Until recently, that is.

Before there was Google, there was Match. Founded in 1995, Match pioneered the idea of using the Internet to reduce “the whirlwind of courtship to digital science,” as a Wired writer promised then.

You can draw a straight line from Match to the newer, hipper OK Cupid (and not just the bottom line: Barry Diller’s IAC owns both of them, among the thirty dating sites in its portfolio). To varying degrees, Match, OK Cupid, and competitors like eHarmony and Plenty of Fish ask you questions about yourself and what you’re looking for, apply sundry algorithms, and leave you to sift through the results.

This formula is not without its appeal. New faces greet you every morning, new possibilities arise. Hope springs eternal.

Pretty quickly, though, online watering holes can begin to feel like the real-world sites they simulate: dive bars, round-robin dating events, and singles mixers, where anonymity is assured and a good pick-up line is the highest form of currency.

There are, outside of our computers, a thousand ways to meet new people. Our friends introduce us to their friends, we meet people at concerts and bookstores, at museums and, yes, bars. But where the web has enhanced many facets of our lives — Facebook keeps us connected to our friends, Twitter lets us follow the people we admire, Yelp tells us where to go — our dating lives on- and offline remain secluded. Meeting new people is inherently social, but online it is solitary and search-driven.

Enter the new wave of dating sites. Offerings like Nerve Dating and How About We eschew the secret sauces that sites like Match and eHarmony tout, borrowing instead from social media sites to boost connectivity.

“The story of online dating has become about algorithms and not having fun with people,” Sean Mills, of Nerve, told The New York Times. “We’re moving away from the algorithm era into the social era. This is a dating site that reflects how the Web has changed,” he said.

Nerve asks its users questions like “What did you do last night?” or gives prompts like “Vampire romance is ...” From this Twitter-like stream of tidbits, it falls on users to talk amongst themselves. There’s no promise of predestination, but conversation comes easily.

How About We takes a page from Foursquare, putting location front and center. Users envision a date — ice skating at Rockefeller Center, a hot cider in Union Square — and others can take them up on the offer.

Online dating is now the third most popular way to meet new people, friends and family or work and school connections still being more common. That gap will continue to narrow as online dating loses its stigma, but the real test will be when it loses its distinction. When people can say they met through a friend — online.


Rob Fishman is the co-founder of Kingfish Labs, Inc., a company that builds Facebook applications. Yoke, a social dating app, will launch in 2012. Previously, Rob was the social media editor of The Huffington Post.


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Rob Fishman

Co-founder of Niche, contributing editor at BuzzFeed.

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