Dating sites are the new parents

Online dating isn't dead. It's more powerful than ever -- and it can be just as controlling as mom and dad

Published October 22, 2013 5:50PM (EDT)

  (<a href=''>vm</a> via <a href=''>iStock</a>)
(vm via iStock)

Despite the fact that you, your best friend or your dad (or all three) are probably on some form of online dating site, Pew research released yesterday found that 21 percent of people still find online dating "desperate." This is even true for 13 percent of people who online date. This would seem like bad news (unless you're one of the many who use and hate Facebook), and Slate's Amanda Hess declared it the death of the traditional dating site. She cited the rise of Tinder, a location-based app that's simpler than OkCupid and requires daters to sign in through Facebook.

It's telling, though, that Hess believes dating sites will be supplanted not by a return to older models (running into people at parties and asking if they like hummus, say), but by "the full integration of the Internet into our romantic lives," a time when "we will feel less incentivized to segregate our online romantic dealings from our digital business connections and social spaces." Basically, no matter what it looks like, humans are going to continue doing a lot of their dating on the Internet, and that gives whoever administers Internet dating enormous power.

As sociologist Michael Rosenfeld has noted, our parents used to have a lot of influence over whom we dated and married. That influence has dwindled, replaced in part by colleges and friends and social groups and the kind of serendipity endlessly chronicled in romantic comedies. Some of online dating's biggest critics imagine a time when all meets were cute, and while it's not true that we were all tripping over our intendeds' dog leashes before the advent of OkCupid, it is true that for a time people relied on a more cobbled-together series of possible-love-connection venues.

But what's interesting about online dating, whether it looks more like OkCupid or more like Tinder, is that it has the potential to be a lot more managed, and a lot more top-down, than its real-world alternatives. If the landscape of parental influence gave way to a landscape of disorganized partygoing and drink-having, then the new landscape of services that bring people together based on certain rules and algorithms looks almost ... parental.

Some dating sites grill potential partners about their intentions just like parents used to. And even the more laid-back ones have the potential to be more controlled -- and possibly controlling -- than running into someone on the street.

Maybe the future of fully social-networked online dating will be just as decentralized and scattershot as a bar scene. Then again, the most successful dating services tend to be the ones with the most users -- and between a world of a bunch of tiny social networks and a world of big, huge powerful ones, I know which one the V.C. money's behind.

Which means that a few online dating networks -- whether linked up to our existing social networks or not -- are going to have a lot of influence over how human mating works. They may not choose mates for us the way parents sometimes used to, but they'll have an influence over how we choose.

Take OkC's recent move to allow users to "filter" their matches by body type. For an extra fee, you can now see only matches who describe themselves as "skinny" or "curvy" or one of around 10 other types. "People have strong preferences on body type," co-founder Sam Yagan told the "Today" show. "We might as well just let them admit that and save everyone some time."

Plenty of people do have such preferences, and certainly they do a kind of "filtering" in real life. But online (and I'm far from the first to point this out), a filter might mean you never see people who don't match your criteria. You don't have the opportunity to decide if a certain person is the exception to your self-imposed rule, because all such people are effectively dead to you (and, significantly, the body type descriptions you can choose among are dictated by the site itself).

Tinder, as Hess notes, is a lot more streamlined than OkCupid, but this spring it did allow users to filter by age. And the service is, in itself, a filter -- you only see people near you who have decided to sign on to this particular app at this particular time (and who have agreed to interact in the particular style the app supports).

Inevitably, dating sites that give users any choices at all are going to reinforce certain ideas about what qualities matter. Should we care about weight? Age? Income? Astrological sign? People have certain preconceived opinions about all of these things, but a big enough dating service certainly has the power to influence those opinions, or even change them. We don't just create culture, culture creates us -- and dating sites are already a powerful culture unto themselves.

I'm not a Luddite -- I am in fact a big proponent of online dating. I'm a big enough fan, and know enough big enough fans, to think it's here to stay -- and that this confers upon its corporate stewards certain responsibilities. Yagan et al. may be giving their customers what they want, but they're also shaping what their customers want, and anything they do affects not just their bottom line but also how countless users experience coupling -- how safe they feel, how accepted, how open they are to people they might not otherwise consider, how they treat and think about people out in the real world. They're not just neutral meeting places where single people bring their own biases and desires. They're managed services that can influence those biases and desires.

Like it or not, dating sites are in loco parentis now. They should behave accordingly.

By Anna North

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