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Why dating sites are desperate to keep you single
Improvements in "engagement" with a website don't lead to real-life engagements
 
If only it were this simple...
If only it were this simple... (Thinkstock)

Many, many people spend thousands of hours of their lives in pursuit of that special someone. Because we're all after "the one," aren't we? Which is why making a business out of romance has been an age-old pursuit: florists for courtship; jewelers for marriage. It's only sensible, then, that with the scalable economics of the internet, industrial-scale matchmakers would come along. But, while most of these businesses want to cater to happy relationships, a successful matchmaker needs some couples to flourish, for the testimonials, but it also, and more importantly, needs a ready supply of unhappy singles. How do they do it?

HOW IT WORKS… OR DOESN'T

Online dating arrived with the web — in the early nineties — and was an evolution of the commercial matchmaking services of that time: lonely hearts ads, video-dating, and so on. But, unlike its predecessors, which were seen mostly as a service for undesirables, online dating quickly rose out of infamy and into the mainstream. Not quite to the standards of real-life dating, mind you: surveys still report that people who've never visited an online dating site have a mostly negative view of the whole thing. But certainly this type of dating — of communicating with a stranger, vetting them and, potentially, meeting up — has never been more popular. In 2005, 37 percent of single people in the U.S. with access to the internet said they used online dating. The figure is even higher today — though it's difficult to find consistent numbers.

The basics of online dating are pretty straightforward. People create profiles, which they fill with basic physical and personality traits in the hope of getting matched up with someone who is looking for that particular mix, while hoping that they find satisfaction themselves in the person concerned. It's rare for this to be the only thing a website will want its users to do, though. Profiles are usually quite extensive: letting you introduce yourself (anecdotal evidence suggests 90 percent of profiles begin with, "I'm not very good at this sort of thing…" or "I'm not sure why I'm here"), and prompting you to answer essay-type questions about your job, hobbies, and ideal relationship. Most popular websites today, like eHarmony, OkCupid, and Match.com, feature quizzes, which ostensibly help line you up with your soul mate.

This the ubiquitous sales-pitch of online dating: they net you the man, woman, or vampiric lover of your dreams. These sites occasionally make very grand — and sometimes implausible-sounding — claims. The closest you'll find to a sincere sales pitch is at OkCupid, which says: "We don't claim to evaluate you perfectly, but we do claim to find someone who claims to fulfill your claimed requirements." I think that translates as: 'We're just middlemen: finding someone, and making it work, is up to you." So that's what these sites do: they're a go-between.

Everything else is just smoke and mirrors. Claims about "science" and "mathematical algorithms" that will capture your life partner have not been substantiated, and certainly not favorably peer-reviewed. PerfectMatch and eHarmony say they cannot open their studies to scrutiny because they'd be giving away their "secret sauce". In the meantime, they are welcome to toot their "science" liberally while never having to explain what it is they actually do behind the scenes.

FUNDAMENTALLY FLAWED

The more basic assumptions of dating, for example, asking people what they like, and that "everyone has a someone", are poorly evidenced. Research decades old has shown that what people say they want, and what they actually go for, are really quite different. That seems to undercut a fairly fundamental assumption of dating websites: that a list of romantic opinions, physical attributes, and financial or professional demands can be as unhelpful and as ultimately useless as a shopping list you've left at home.

A study in 2010 showed that people, far from messaging each other evenly across the range of races, ages, and attractiveness, quite predictably emailed the most attractive, successful, and intelligent people, irrespective of whether those people matched the criteria message-senders had themselves specified. Christian Rudder, one of the founders of OkCupid, described these people as "surrounded." So, while in a bar or similar situation you can tell when a person is popular quite easily, and so might prefer to flirt with someone unattended to, on a dating website that "surrounded" factor is obscured. The dramatic differences in who gets messaged online can leave some users high and dry.

Unlike in real life, dating site users who get a ton of messages, rather than being overjoyed and overactive, usually become disenfranchised and distant.

These structural problems plague an industry which, to be fair, is still quite young. The "science" of love is barely understood at all, and even the most popular researchers in the field publish papers that read more like Cosmo sex quizzes than bleeding-edge neurological research. The research that relates directly to online dating is especially poor, given that key romantic factors — body language, smell, voice, and simply the physical presence of someone — are missing when you meet online.

To compensate, dating sites are updating their research methods, using user data like time spent on profiles, number of messages, and quality of messages. How long before phone numbers are exchanged, for example — which means that yes, these companies are scanning your private messages, wading through the dirty talk with algorithms to discover trends. But this seems to take us further and further from our object: meeting the love of our life. A very subjective version of "science" is deployed in place of efficient matchmaking. Instead of fixing holes in a flawed concept, dating websites are fixing holes in the user's online experience to make them spend longer on the site, so they can be served more advertising.

Improvements in "engagement" with a website don't lead to real-life engagements. But there's no reason that should faze the likes of OkCupid. After all, dating sites are predicated on singledom. And while presumably there is no nefarious conspiracy to keep the world's singles out of wedlock and stuck on the internet, you do have to wonder just how smart it is for a dating site to pair anyone up at all. They certainly do a good job of making singledom look attractive, and, the better a website does this, the less inclined a person is to get or remain partnered up, and the more likely they are to return to the singles experience and the addictiveness of surfing online profiles.

The excitement of receiving a new message, the ability to scan hundreds of eligible profiles, the ease of initiating contact with an attractive single person. Users often revel in the choices they're being given — many describe it as "going shopping for love." And while this might make a nice after-hours hobby, and certainly helps explain why these services have become so popular, it shouldn't be in itself enough to make being single more attractive than a fulfilling relationship. Reducing the business of finding love to a throwaway consumer experience is a bit chilling, when you think about it.

Why is this a problem? Well, it is this exact idea — that of a "fulfilling" relationship — that has come under fire with the advent of online dating. Our understanding of what counts as "enough" is shaped by what choices are available to us. In a famous study about how we react when given a lot of choice, a supermarket arranged two stands: one of 24 pots of jam, and the other of just four. While 50 percent more people looked in on the larger tray, ten times more people bought jam from the smaller counter.

TOO MUCH CHOICE

We do this because too much choice is confusing, and the mental effort required to make a decision too much. When we have too much choice, we are more likely to say no, even if we are giving up having any sort of reward at all. We become spoilt and careless, believing there are quite literally millions of fish in the sea. It's this aspect of human psychology that dating sites, with their targeted advertising and subscription fee-based business models, are counting on.

Viewing hundreds of side-by-side profiles can do several things to you. First of all, it makes us less sensitive to any one person: the more we are exposed to, the less we remember. This makes the experience more generic but, oddly, not less fun: people still report enjoying themselves, regardless of how many profiles they've viewed and how much they can remember of the people they've seen. The same is true for speed-dating. And for both speed-dating, online dating and jam, we are likely to say no unless the product is truly exceptional.

Given all this: can we really say online dating websites are acting in our best interest? Certainly their business models are incentivized against pairing us up, to put it mildly. This isn't to say that it's impossible to find a dating website with success stories. Given the scale they operate at, it would be absurd it they failed to pair anyone up. But from their most basic anecdotal assumptions to the "hard science" they boast about but will not explain, these websites, which more closely resemble the Wizard of Oz behind his curtain of smoke than kind benefactors of love, should be regarded as deeply suspect.

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