The Trouble with Online Dating

Dating, Technology and the Human Condition
Dating websites have been with us since the turn of the millennium and are an inevitable consequence of the internet, which came into widespread use during the previous decade. The logic behind such sites is inexorable – if you can order goods and services and book holidays online, why should you not look for a partner? On the face of it, online dating is the “killer app” of the singles scene. Unfortunately, as I intend to show in this article, the reality is rather different. I must make it clear at this stage that I am not suggesting this is due to any unethical practices on the part of the proprietors of the dating sites themselves. The problem lies with the fact the sites are being used by human beings and way in which human beings choose partners. This has the ironic consequence that online dating – far from providing a decisive advantage over dating services using older methods – actually makes things much harder.

A Brief History of Dating Services
The idea behind using dating services (agencies, personal ads, etc) has been around for a long time. The need for them is fairly obvious – not everybody lives and works in an environment where they can regularly meet people of the opposite sex; partying and clubbing does not appeal to everybody; and understandably there are many who would rather be proactive than wait for somebody to come along by chance.

The one problem with the “blind date” in its many guises is that no matter how well two people might get on by letter, over the phone or latterly by email, to slightly modify an old proverb the proof of the pudding is in the meeting. There is quite simply no way to determine without meeting somebody whether the so-called “chemistry” will be right. Consequently it will usually be necessary to go on a number of dates before meeting somebody compatible. Any dating service must therefore focus on quantity as well as quality of matches.

The idea of using computer technology to meet a partner is also not new and so-called “computer dating” agencies first appeared as long ago as the 1960s, in fact not long after computers came into general use. These early systems were fairly basic – subscribers filled in a questionnaire, the details were input to a computer, which would then print out a list of hopefuls for the subscriber to contact. In turn, his or her details might appear on the contact sheets of other members. Although the idea might seem positively alarming now, well into the 1980s the details provided included not just telephone numbers but home addresses of prospects! The market leader was Dateline International (a play on the international dateline) who opened their doors for business in 1966. Contact sheets listed six members – typically this might yield one or two actual dates.

These systems ran alongside more traditional “introduction agencies” and the time-honoured “personal” advertisements which were carried by many publications, notably Time Out.

These latter also began to benefit from technology during the 1990s when advertisers were able to record “voice greetings” in which they described themselves and which could be listened to by interested parties by dialling a premium-rate number and entering the relevant box number. If still interested, they could then leave a message for the advertiser, who in turn could retrieve their responses in a similar fashion. In addition to Time Out, publications such as the London Evening Standard and broadsheets such as the Guardian and the Independent began to offer this service to their readers.

Introduction agencies had a rather patchy reputation during the latter quarter of the last century, but some were more reputable and one in particular deserves an honourable mention. This is the quirkily-named Drawing down the Moon (DDM), which was and still is highly regarded. The format was extremely simple – if successful in passing a screening interview (membership was aimed at people of above-average intelligence who for the most part were university educated), subscribers filled in a thoughtfully-crafted questionnaire which was simply filed in a ring-binder together with a photograph. They could then look through the files of other members’ details and pick out about a dozen prospects which would then each be sent a photocopy of the member’s completed questionnaire together with their photograph and phone number. If the recipients were interested, they’d get in touch. Conversely the member might themselves be “chosen” by another member and sent their details. In both cases the onus would be on the recipient of the details to make contact. DDM advised their members that the “hit rate” was about 20-25%. Thus a “mailout” to twelve prospects might yield 2-3 actual dates. It is interesting to compare this with the “hit rate” for Dateline and note that they are very similar, despite the very different methodologies of the two organizations. We shall return to this point later.

Enter the Online Dating site
All the systems we have discussed above had drawbacks – with Dateline one knew nothing about the names on the contact sheet save they met the subscriber’s basic stipulations regarding age, height, education, location, etc. With the voicemail system, it was necessary to wait for the advertisement to appear and a certain amount of planning in re-running it at intervals. With DDM, it was necessary to schedule a trip to their offices in Kensington at fairly regular intervals to make selections. Nevertheless all of these systems made it fairly easy to get dates with potentially compatible members of the opposite sex, the odd “horror story” notwithstanding.

The online dating site would seem to offer all of the advantages of the above systems without any of the drawbacks:

1) Members can access detailed information on line about prospects.
2) Contact details don’t have to be exchanged until both members agree.
3) The site can be accessed from a member’s home at any time of the day or night.
4) Once a member has uploaded their details, they are ready to go – there is no waiting for an advertisement to appear in an external publication.

Given all these seeming advantages over the older systems, which did themselves produce reasonable results, one would expect online dating to represent another triumph for the internet. In fact the emergence of the dating site has made things far harder. The amount of time needed to secure a date in comparison to the older systems is far higher and the average “quality” of dates in terms of compatibility is certainly no better and is, if anything, worse. Furthermore the frustrations experienced along the way are apt to engender such negative sentiments about the whole concept of online dating as to make success even less likely.

The rosy picture
Wait a minute – is all this really true? Newspapers and magazines are apt to heap praise on dating sites and regularly carry features in which a reporter has joined a dating site and has been deluged by emails from hopefuls. However these feature writers have certain things in common:

1) They are always female.
2) They are always very attractive (or so the photograph that invariably accompanies the feature would suggest).
3) They are always in their twenties.

Have you ever seen such a feature written by a bald middle-aged man? No. Have you ever seen such a feature written by any man, or a single parent, or a woman over the age of 40? No – and I suggest assuming they want the story to contain at least one account of an actual date it would take a very patient editor indeed to commission such a feature.

The Reality
The absurd number of emails our sexy female 20-something reporters claim to receive in a single day would take a typical male member several years to realise. Most men, of course, aren’t in the habit of waiting for this to happen, so they start emailing prospects… and there the problems begin.

The vast majority of emails receive either no response or a negative response, the latter generally accompanied by a dubious reason why it is not possible to take things further (the common claim to have “met somebody” begs the question as to why are they continuing to use the site). Even if somebody enters into a dialogue there is a fairly high probability that they will suddenly break off communications without a word of explanation. It might take 20-30 or even more initial emails before a dialogue ensues which actually leads to a date. This is about five times worse than the hit rates associated with the other methods described above.

An explanation would be is that there is a huge imbalance of men over women using dating sites in relation to other methods. But this is not the case – although more men than women do use the sites overall, the imbalance isn’t that great (for example Dating Direct claim a ratio of 55% men against 45% women). Also if this was so one would expect the women to be “snapped up” very quickly. But that doesn’t happen – women who have made their excuses or not replied at all often continue to show up in searches months later, or even turn up on completely different sites. So the women don’t seem to be getting any more out of online dating than the men.

All of which can only be explained by the women rejecting a far higher percentage of would-be suitors at the first hurdle than they would with other dating systems.

The million-dollar question is why?

Why are the women so picky?
That women are generally far more picky than men isn’t really a mystery when one considers how long it takes to get a woman pregnant versus the time it takes to bring the subsequent pregnancy to term and bring up the child. The woman needs to know that the man is going to stick around and play his part in bringing up the child. Of no lesser importance to the woman is to choose a fit and healthy man to father her child – one who is likely to father fit and healthy children. These two goals frequently work at cross-purposes.

Homo sapiens is believed to have evolved in Africa 200,000-150,000 years ago. The earliest undisputed anatomically modern human to have so far been identified, H.s. idaltu, lived almost 160,000 years ago in what is now Ethiopia. Although some authorities claim the mental evolution of our species (so-called modern human behaviour) lagged our physical evolution by a 100,000 years or more, this view is looking increasingly untenable but even if it accepted nobody doubts that by 50,000 years ago humans as mentally-adept as ourselves existed. But despite the beautiful art work produced by the people of this era, their lifestyle was that of the hunter-gatherer and remained so for tens of millennia. People lived in small groups, where everybody knew each other. Not until the end of the last ice age, 10,000 years ago do we see evidence of greater social complexity as agriculture began to replace hunter-gathering and the first proto-urban settlements such as Jericho and Catalhuyuk appeared; and the first state-level societies with complexity approaching that of modern society do not appear until around 6500 years ago with the rise of the Sumerian, Babylonian and Indus Valley civilizations.

Sexual selection was part of the original behavioural package which as stated above arose at least 50,000 years ago and probably much earlier. But the complex society in which humans now have to make mate choice has only existed for a fraction of that time. Sexual selection in humans, evolved for a hunter-gatherer society, has probably not had time to adjust to the new conditions.

If we accept, then, that mate selection has been problematic for humans under the social conditions of the last 6,500 years, it is no great mystery why the use of dating services complicates the matter still further. What has not yet been explained is why online dating compares so poorly with other dating methods.

Choosing a partner
It is generally accepted that people make up their minds about a prospective partner fairly quickly – estimates of just how long range from a few seconds to a few minutes, but it is certainly safe to say that if your date isn’t showing signs of attraction through their body-language after twenty minutes or so they never will. But how does attraction happen?

For the sake of this discussion we can dismiss such things as dress sense, money, having a flashy car etc. Not having these things can disqualify; conversely having them is no guarantee of success. I would argue that what is colloquially referred to as “chemistry” is largely independent of such things. This view is supported by recent research (Nature 451 pp760-762).

I have not the slightest doubt that a Nobel Prize awaits the person who can unravel the secret of what makes “chemistry” work. Certainly there are no end of theories – pheromones have become a prime suspect in recent years, in which case the notion of chemistry might literally be true. However the two main sensory modalities – sight and sound – almost certainly play a central role, with sight the more important of the two. What is certain is that all the sensory modalities are involved to an extent and hence there is no way the presence or absence of “chemistry” can be predicted in advance – it is necessary to meet a prospective partner to get a definitive answer.

What can be done is to improve the odds by giving hopefuls as much relevant information as possible about a prospective partner. I would argue that this is what dating sites fail to do; moreover their modus operandi encourages members to dismiss prospects on the basis of misleading information.

How online dating fails
By “relevant information” I mean sensory data. Let us now compare the various dating methods previously described and see how much sensory data they provide:

1) Dateline – None.
2) Drawing down the Moon – Photograph, handwriting.
3) Voicemail ads – Sound.
4) Online dating – Photograph.

If we accept that sight is more important than sound, the first reaction will be to think that surely systems that enable members to look at photographs are going to have the edge and that online dating sites are bettered only by the far more expensive DDM. There is no doubt that both dating sites and the people who use them (of both sexes) place great emphasis on members posting photographs of themselves. The sites claim members doing so receive up to seven times as many replies (albeit the obvious retort that “seven times f*** all is still f*** all!”). Women openly post that they will not reply to members who do not have a photograph (though in most cases having one seems to make very little difference). A milder comment is that “I like to see who I am talking to”. And thereby hangs the great fallacy – two great fallacies in fact.

Just how much information can be gleaned from a photograph? I would argue that it serves as little more than an aid to recognition when two people meet. I’d argue a photograph gives little clue as to whether or not you will be attracted to somebody. Some people are simply more photogenic than others. Another consideration is the quality of the photograph – at DDM members’ photographs would be screened and they would be advised if a photograph submitted for consideration didn’t do them full justice. This is a facility no dating sites offer. Yet despite these drawbacks, a significant number of women on receiving an email will look at the photograph that accompanies it and then don’t even bother to read the sender’s details.

I mentioned two great fallacies and the second is to think that a conversation by email constitutes “talking” to somebody. It doesn’t. The difference between the two is at least as great as the difference between seeing a photograph of somebody and seeing that person for real. The drawback online dating has even compared with Dateline becomes obvious when one considers the two following scenarios:

Scenario 1. Time – present day.
Mike picks out Jane’s details on a dating site and sends her a brief message:
“Hi Jane – I liked your pic and your details. I think we might have a few interests in common [lists examples]. Hope to hear from you – Mike.”
Jane notes that she does indeed like classical music, the theatre and art galleries. But the photograph is so-so. She makes a mental note to check out Mike’s details at some stage, but she never gets round to it.

Scenario 2. Time – 1982.
Mike receives Jane’s contact details. In the absence of any other course of action, he phones her.

“Hi, my name’s Mike, I got your name from Dateline”.
At this stage Jane of course has no foreknowledge of their shared interests, but she does think Mike has a rather sexy voice…

If, fast-forwarding to the 1990s, Mike was to place a voicemail ad, the outcome would be the same. Jane would read his ad, which contains sufficient detail to tempt Jane into listening to his voice greeting… she leaves him a message.

Drawing down the Moon doesn’t provide the vocal dimension, but Mike’s photograph is better, having been selected from a group submitted for consideration. Also his hand-written profile does provide considerably more insight than it would if it had been typed – it’s not just what you write but the way that you write it.

To sum up: Dateline succeeds by virtue of the very lack of information it provides – members are forced to make direct contact straightaway in order to achieve anything. Voicemail succeeds because it conveys sensory data – voice – about both advertiser and respondent. DDM succeeds by virtue of the exemplary quality of service it provides to its members – but it is far more expensive than other methods described here. Crucially though, online dating fails because members believe seeing photographs and exchanging emails constitutes seeing and talking to somebody.

But online dating services DO offer spoken voice
It is entirely true that many online dating sites do now offer members the opportunity to post a voice greeting or even a video of themselves. This on the face of it would refute the criticisms I have made. But to return to the point I made at the very start of the article, my criticisms are not directed at the sites themselves but the way they are used. Only a tiny fraction of members post a voice greeting; the number is so small as to be almost irrelevant. Where the sites are culpable is that while they constantly exhort members to post photographs, no corresponding effort is made to encourage members to post a voice greeting. But the membership can also be blamed – how many members threaten to boycott emails from those failing to post a voice greeting or say that they’d like to hear who they are talking to?

To ask the question posed by Lenin under rather different circumstances in 1902, what is to be done?

Really the dating sites have got to take the lead. Over a quarter of a century ago, using the then cutting edge technology of home videos, the Chelsea-based dating agency Masterview made a valiant attempt to tackle the problem. Members visited a studio where a short video was made of them in which they would talk about their interests, outlook on life and what they were looking for in a relationship. In a similar fashion to Drawing Down the Moon, they could review details of other members and choose those they were interested in. The drawback of the system was that it wasn’t possible for members to then send videos of themselves to prospects – they would receive only a photograph and contact details. But with modern technology, it is very easy to post a video of oneself on line and as noted, many dating sites do indeed offer their members this facility. What they need to do is to encourage or even obligate members to do so.

The problem is that they have little incentive to do so. While members are paying to use the sites, why should they impose conditions that would certainly discourage many people from joining? From the point of view of the sites themselves, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”.

The answer might be for a “niche player” to take up the challenge, offering a “premium” service at possibly a slightly higher price. Such a service ideally would also avoid the almost universal practice of having “free” members, i.e. those who register their details but never actually subscribe and thus cannot use most of a site’s features, usually including the ability to reply to messages. Thus the site would attract only people who are genuinely serious about using it to meeting a partner.

© Christopher Seddon 2008


Author: prehistorian

Prehistorian & author

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