Technology

Finding Love Online, Version 2.0


In the winter of 2002 Jonathan Abrams began to hear a lot about online dating from his friends. Everyone was using Web services such as Match.com and Yahoo! personals, or so it seemed. As a single in Silicon Valley where the dating scene rivals that of Antarctica, Abrams had the same problem his friends did with finding suitable dates. But he didn't like the way online dating services worked. He felt they were "...too anonymous and creepy."

Abrams thought he could do better. He envisioned a system that would mimic the way many of his happily coupled acquaintances had met: through friends of friends. His site would encourage subscribers to invite their friends and form loose networks of online connections. Users would be able to see and talk only to people who were connected to their circle, that is, friends of friends, friends of friends of friends, or at the most friends of friends of friends of friends. And if someone behaved badly or impeccably on a date, the site would provide a feedback section on each member to allow others to share impressions.

A former programmer at Netscape back in the early days, Abrams also had the advantage of understanding how to build the software required to power this idea. He started his company, called Friendster, in August, 2002, and a beta version went live in March, 2003, with no charges. Abrams didn't market the service. He just told his friends about it. And they told their friends, and they told their friends.

ENHANCED PROFILING. As of June, 450,000 people had joined. The membership roll is growing at 20% per week, says Abrams, who plans to start charging for some features in the near future. "We get a ridiculous amount of feedback. And the feedback is overwhelmingly positive from most people," he says.

Friendster is one of several of new services rolling out in the second half of 2003 that aim to significantly improve online dating from the first versions launched in the late 1990s. Others include enhanced psychological profiling and compatibility rating systems from industry leader Match.com and San Francisco dating upstart eMode Match. If they can do that, the mating game will be forever changed as online dating truly fulfills its promise of providing a comparatively painless, cheap, and easy way to meet the perfect other half.

"Our goal has been that we have to hit it out of the ballpark on the very first set of 10 screen profiles we return to our customers. That match has to be somebody so compelling that you get out your credit card," says Mark Thompson, a PhD psychologist who's also the CEO of Dallas compatibility technology company Weattract.com.

DUSTY PARADIGMS. It's all part of the ongoing sea change in this notoriously frustrating common pursuit. Centuries ago, marriage was more an economic exigency than a rite of love. That changed for good with the arrival of modern industrial society when people started choosing mates based on personal characteristics and attraction.

However, the leap from that to modern digital society in the 1980s and '90s left the old dating paradigms in the dust. In 1970, 28.3% of the U.S. population was single, according to the Census Bureau. By 2000, that percentage was up to 40.4%. With tens of millions of Americans changing addresses each year, the deep community ties that often resulted in long-lasting relationships leading to marriage have become rare. Longer hours at work have likewise put a damper on dating. And the workplace itself, now rife with fears of sexual harassment, no longer presents the same opportunities for romance.

"There's a delay of marriage as people pursue careers. There is the decline of the nuclear family. The old ways of meeting people are not as useful anymore. The idea that you get married at 25 at the local church doesn't happen anymore," says Abrams.

O.K. ON MAIN STREET. Pop psychologists postulated that the world would inevitably become a more lonely place, and hand-wringing authors penned tomes such as Bowling Alone and Urban Tribes dissecting the rise of singular souls. In steps the Internet to fill that yearning need in an era of connected disconnectedness. First the province of early adopters and Web wackos, during the late 1990s, online dating crossed the respectability tipping point somewhere in late 2001 or early 2002, as Abrams and countless others have observed.

Now the shift is in full swing as the Main Street crowd has increasingly taken a shine to this new mating medium. Since January, 2003, the number of visits to online-dating sites has soared 51%, according to Hitwise, an Australian company that tracks traffic coming from Internet service providers around the world. Web consultancy comScore Media Metrix tallies the total number of people using these services worldwide at 37 million. The leading U.S. site, Match.com, has over 8 million active profiles alone, equivalent to nearly 5% of the U.S. adult population.

What's more, people are increasingly pulling out their credit cards to pay the matchmaker. According to the Online Publishers Assn., Web surfers anted up $302 million to buy personals at dating sites in 2002. That's a 319% increase over 2001's $72 million. That support isn't confined to urban singles from 25 to 40. McDermott says Match.com is also growing quickly in rural areas and among seniors. "We just did a talk-show segment of 80 year-olds looking for love online, and we had dozens of customers willing to talk about it," says McDermott.

"OPPORTUNITY AND OPTIMISM." In a slow and subtle shift, the dating sites appear to taking some of the perceived pain out of the dating game. According to Trish McDermott, vice-president for romance at Match.com, studies run by the online dating company have found singles growing increasingly optimistic about their chances for meeting someone special. "We believe there's a correlation between opportunity and optimism. Never before in the history of dating has it been so easy to get to so many eligible qualified dates and use the technology to help you do this," gushes McDermott.

Such breathless talk might have seemed insipid a few years ago. Even today, many people who try online dating say they've had mostly horrible experiences. But McDermott cites a January, 2003, survey of 1,100 Match.com customers that found 81% felt more comfortable talking about online dating in public today than they did a year ago. In that same survey, 88% of respondents said they would be attracted to someone they met on an online-dating service, vs. 52% in a bar or a nightclub.

To understand the small changes underpinning the big shift, you need to talk to someone like Marissa Aroy. A 30-year-old documentary filmmaker from Berkeley, Calif., she has always liked dating but never did much of it because she found it hard to meet people she was interested in. After hearing from friends that online dating was actually pretty cool, she dove in last year.

SHARPER DATING SKILLS. While she found some duds on Match.com -- the guy who said he was a great salsa dancer but had three left feet, for example -- on the whole she was more than satisfied. "Going on 10 dates in six months was nothing I had ever experienced before. I learned about what I wanted and didn't want. I also learned how to say "you're a great person but this isn't what I want,'" she says.

According to McDermott, online dating has made it easier for people to practice dating skills. "Dating is something we get better at with practice. We become better at making choices and get better at executing on the date -- wearing the right things, asking for the first kiss," she says.

Of course, making the choices becomes harder as millions and millions of people go online and filtering potential suitors becomes an onerous task. And that's where online dating version 2.0 is heading right now. Friendster, Match.com, and eMode, among others, are quickly rolling out technological solutions that can help people narrow the field using a variety of tools.

UNIQUE THUMBPRINT. These tech Holy Grails vary. With Friendster, the ideal online scene is a replication of a casual party where you might hook up with interesting friends of friends who run in similar circles and have the same social interests. At eMode you play a version of "40 questions" to establish a personality profile. The site will later give you percentage compatibility ratings of other people in the service.

Match.com is perhaps the most radical of the bunch. Weattract has built a free-ranging free-association test designed to mimic the most accurate psychological surveys. Match.com is planning to roll out the latest iteration later this summer. Thompson won't reveal the exact nature of the system, but he claims it holds the promise of creating a digital dating thumbprint for everyone who participates. Aside from a compatibility-matching engine that rates pairings, the system will include a feedback mechanism to fine-tune results and findings.

"When users see a profile, they'll be able to get feedback on whether they thought it's a good fit or not. When you start doing that, you start teaching the system, and it starts learning," says Thompson. Getting improved results is probably necessary as newcomers join the early-adopter crowd. "The late adopters want solutions. They're the Consumer Reports people, and they want to read such and such dating site has a 70% success rate before they pay to join," claims Thompson.

ENDLESS MENU. Whether all of this ends up making a huge difference in coupling up the world remains an open question. It's far to early to chart demographic shifts in marriage rates that could be attributed to online dating. And the new phenomena might even encourage the opposite. As people realize they can sample the menu forever, they might feel less pressure to settle down once sitting at home alone on a Saturday night is a thing of the past.

At the very least, however, online dating has succeeded in making the world a slightly smaller place again. Again, consider Marissa Aroy, who met her current long-term boyfriend on Match.com. They dated for a while and then drifted apart to date other people online. Months passed, and they ran into each other in an art gallery. The encounter rekindled their interest, and they started dating again in earnest. Without the original online introduction, they would likely have passed each other by in that gallery without a second glance. By Alex Salkever, Technology editor for BusinessWeek Online


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