Online Dating

March 20, 2015 – Volume 25, Issue 12
Can apps and algorithms lead to true love? By Barbara Mantel


Melissa Ellard (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
Melissa Ellard, a fashion entrepreneur in Foxborough, Mass., says she would have been dateless for several months last year if not for Hinge, one of a number of new, increasingly popular mobile dating apps. One in 10 American adults has tried online dating through a website or smartphone app. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

Since its start 20 years ago, online dating has grown into a multibillion-dollar industry that includes not only giants such as and eHarmony but also niche sites serving older singles, Christians, Jews, animal lovers, vegans and even would-be vampires. As the business adapts to an increasingly mobile culture, more and more people are accessing dating services through smartphone apps, some of which allow users to appraise potential dates instantly and to accept or reject them with the swipe of a phone screen. One in 10 American adults has tried online dating, and nearly 60 percent of Internet users say it is a good way to meet people. Yet some researchers say dating companies' matchmaking algorithms are no better than chance at providing suitable partners. At the same time, critics worry that the abundance of prospective dates available online is undermining relationships. Scammers, meanwhile, are using dating sites to extract money from vulnerable targets, and some dating-site users advise caution about maintaining personal safety.

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Since moving to New York City from Colorado a little more than two years ago, 27-year-old Marcy has been meeting most of her dates online. “I didn't really know how to meet men here when I first arrived,” the editor and writer says, and online dating seemed like a natural alternative. Most of her friends and colleagues are women.

Marcy, who wanted only her first name used, says she has had the most luck with the popular free dating service OkCupid, resulting in two relationships, one lasting nine months and the other three.

“Going online beats going to a bar and having a weirdo hit on me,” she says. “At least online, I know a little bit about each person before meeting.”

Millions agree, making online dating a multibillion-dollar-a-year business, dominated by big names such as subscription-based, eHarmony and Zoosk and free services PlentyOfFish and OkCupid, which depend on advertising and premium upgrades for revenue. One in 10 American adults has tried online dating through a website or smartphone app, according to a 2013 national poll.1 More than a third of marriages between 2005 and 2012 began online, according to a study commissioned by eHarmony.2

Friends may still be the No. 1 way to meet potential dates and mates, but perhaps not for long, says Stanford University sociology professor Michael Rosenfeld, who has researched dating trends. “Friends, family, the workplace are all less common venues for meeting people than they were 20 years ago” when online dating first appeared, he says.

Scott Valdez (Courtesy Scott Valdez)
Scott Valdez, the founder of Virtual Dating Assistants (ViDA), helps men compose their online dating profiles. Researchers have been studying so-called “image management” in online dating since the industry's start in the 1990s. More than half of online daters said “someone else seriously misrepresented themselves in a profile,” according to a recent Pew Research Center poll. Valdez says he encourages honesty, except for the occasional suggestion that shorter clients exaggerate their height. (Courtesy Scott Valdez)

The benefits of online dating, many experts say, are clear: the expanded pool of possibilities; the ability to screen for desired traits; and the ease of electronic communication. Yet those same characteristics have led some to wonder whether online dating is becoming too much like online shopping, with potential dates treated as disposable goods, with an even better prospect a few mouse clicks or phone swipes away.

“There's an enormously addictive quality to online dating that has never existed before in the culture,” said writer R. D. Rosen, who is working on a book about the evolution of courtship. “You want to keep going back, because you think you're going to hit the jackpot eventually.”3

Helen Fisher, a Rutgers University anthropologist and consultant for the online dating site, says those worries are misplaced. “It's just giving people more opportunities to meet the right person,” she says. “When you meet the right person, you're going to date the way you always dated.”

But concerns are not limited to online dating's impact on romance. Independent researchers question whether the matchmaking algorithms of dating companies even work or are based on mistaken notions of what makes people compatible. In the meantime, technological changes are transforming the industry. Online daters, especially younger ones, are shifting from computers to mobile apps, which make online dating fast, portable and, some say, superficial.

Traditional online dating sites, such as, eHarmony and, have users write personal profiles and answer questionnaires of varying lengths. It can be a time-consuming process, but Jacques Cook, a 68-year-old divorced attorney in North Bethesda, Md., says it's worth the trouble because a profile can reveal intelligence and a sense of humor. “It's not to say that I don't look at the picture because there has to be some chemistry, but the profile gives you some insight,” says Cook, who is in a relationship with a woman he met on

Not true, says Jon, a 33-year-old real estate executive in New York City who says he wouldn't be caught dead on the traditional dating sites. “Filling out those profiles is a nightmare. Plus, all the information on them is kind of generic. Everybody has the same favorite three TV shows, everybody likes to go to the beach,” says Jon, who asked that his last name not be used to avoid unwanted online attention.

Instead, he and his friends prefer the recently developed mobile-only dating apps, such as Tinder, Hinge and Coffee Meets Bagel, with their emphasis on photos and brief biographical information. “A lot of people think a picture is superficial, but I think it provides a lot of information about someone,” Jon says. “You can see if they adopt a front or are more natural, how they dress, how much makeup they use, whether they pose with family … or try to hide behind friends, if they like to travel.”

These new apps require just a few minutes to sign up, often through Facebook, and use location data so users can set a desired geographic range. But they are not identical. Hinge and Coffee Meets Bagel, for example, try not to overwhelm users with too much choice. They mine information from Facebook pages and monitor users' behavior to send compatible matches from within a person's Facebook network, up to 15 matches a day from Hinge and one match a day from Coffee Meets Bagel. They also send along information such as age, school and job.

Tinder, the most popular mobile-only dating app, measured by individual user sessions, is less discriminating and more stingy with information. Tinder users can scroll through hundreds of photos of people within their desired geographic range, often with little more than a first name attached, swiping left to reject and right to like someone. When two people swipe right on each other's photos, it's a match, and they can start chatting and arrange to meet … or not. Some people treat it more like a game, although Jon says he does not. “The person I'm dating now I met through Tinder, so it does work,” he says.

Jon and Cook represent a generational divide. “Most of our users are college graduates and young professionals, says Dawoon Kang, co-founder of Coffee Meets Bagel. “Our median age is 28.” Those age 45 or older tend to avoid mobile apps, even the apps introduced by the traditional dating sites. They instead prefer the comfort of websites and their desktop computers or laptops, according to the Pew Research Center.4

One in 10 Americans Use Dating Sites

They also are the age group least comfortable with online dating, no matter the platform. Their rate of online dating, 8 percent or less as age increases, is roughly half of most younger Americans. For instance, 22 percent of 25- to 34-year-olds and 17 percent of 35- to 44-year-olds have tried online dating, according to a Pew Research Center poll. But the youngest adults are almost as online-dating shy as the oldest. Just 10 percent of college-age students, who often have singles all around them at work and school, have used dating sites or mobile apps.5

Meanwhile, online daters leave a trail of data behind that companies are studying to unearth patterns. Last year, OkCupid co-founder Christian Rudder wrote Dataclysm: Who We Are When We Think No One's Looking, in which he dissects users' behavior. And independent researchers are sometimes given access to companies' data.

Ken-Hou Lin and Jennifer Lundquist, sociology professors at the University of Texas, Austin and the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, respectively, studied the data of a large, unnamed dating site. They wanted to know whether people tend to date others of their own race because of inherent preferences or “simply because those are the people they know in real life,” for instance from their neighborhood or through church, says Lin. In other words, Lin and Lundquist wanted to find out whether the broader choices available on the Internet would lead to more interracial dating.

“We are still seeing that people have very strong preferences,” says Lin, who looked at how people both send and respond to messages. Women, and to a lesser extent men, send messages primarily to others of the same race.6

Here are some of the questions that researchers, company executives, industry analysts and daters are asking:

Do traditional matchmaking sites deliver on their promises?

Many of the biggest dating sites use complicated software programs to send matches to their customers. These algorithms sift and sort users' answers to questionnaires and track their behavior as they navigate a site. “We can mathematically deduce who you are similar to and who you might be interested in,” says Vatsal Bhardwaj, general manager of Match North America, a division of IAC, which also owns, Tinder and many other online dating services.

Not all dating companies promise true love. While eHarmony vows to match members with “compatible persons with whom they are likely to enjoy a long-term relationship,” promises only “great dates.”, with the fewest questions, assures only “a great match” but promises another six months of free access (with certain conditions) if a user doesn't find “someone special” in the first six months.

Even the limited claims have skeptics. “I don't know how scientific it is, and I don't believe the promise,” says Lynn, a 62-year-old professional in Washington, D.C., who had been on for six weeks with no luck. “I'm sure people get married off eHarmony, but I don't think it has anything to do with its algorithm,” says real estate executive Jon. “I think it has more to do with the fact that people who want to get married go to that site.”

Several independent researchers say online daters should be skeptical. “There is no evidence that any of these algorithms, whether they take into account questionnaire responses or browsing data, are any better than chance at helping you to really connect with someone on a date or in a relationship,” says Paul Eastwick a psychology professor at the University of Texas, Austin. He and several colleagues did an exhaustive study of online dating in 2012.7 The primary boon of online dating is not the algorithms but the “whole bunch of possibilities that you're giving people outside their normal channels, people that they never would have met otherwise,” says Eastwick.

Eastwick is wrong, says consultant Fisher. “The algorithm matters dramatically,” she says. “What these algorithms do is help you kiss fewer frogs.”

No two matching systems are alike. Dating sites such as, PlentyOfFish and ChristianMingle allow users to browse profiles on their own or to receive matches generated by the algorithms. Other dating companies, such as eHarmony, and PerfectMatch, have mandatory questionnaires and allow users to browse only matches they are sent.

Online and Mobile Services Lead Industry

The science behind each algorithm is different, too. eHarmony founder and clinical psychologist Neil Clark Warren, who created the Compatibility Matching System, studied successful marriages to come up with the traits and attributes that the company says can help predict relationship success. Pepper Schwartz, a University of Washington sociology professor, created PerfectMatch's Duet Total Compatibility System, which is loosely based on a personality test designed decades ago to help businesses figure out how well people work together.

OkCupid co-founder Rudder is a mathematician. His system puts the filtering process in the hands of users by allowing them to choose from thousands of questions about everything from sex and alcohol to horror movies and the death penalty. Fisher of is a biological anthropologist, and her personality test sorts people into four categories — director, builder, negotiator and explorer — that she says are linked to the hormones estrogen and testosterone and the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin.

Some sites promise to match people who are similar, others to match people who are similar in some areas and complementary in others. But until dating companies publish research in peer-reviewed journals with details about their algorithms and how they work, “it's all just advertising,” says Eastwick.

(Critics say the ideal study would be large and would randomly assign some daters to be matched by a dating site algorithm and others to be matched arbitrarily, and researchers would evaluate any resulting relationships to see which group was more satisfied.)

Besides, what's important for successful relationships is not how similar or complementary two people are, Eastwick and his co-authors concluded. It's how a couple communicates, resolves problems and supports one another, as well as a couple's circumstances, including outside stress from job loss or illness and the support they receive from family and friends.8

“As almost a century of research on romantic relationships has taught us, predicting whether two people are romantically compatible requires the sort of information that comes to light only after they have actually met,” said Eli Finkel, a psychology professor at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill.9

Majority Sees Online Dating as Effective

Fisher doesn't deny that circumstances and communication styles are important. But Eastwick and Finkel are psychologists, she says, and “they, as a group, really do not study biology or embrace it.” eHarmony did not respond to several requests for an interview, but in a statement to The New York Times last fall, the company said Finkel's views are not part of “meaningful discussions that can be had about how compatibility can be measured and predicted.”10

Both Eastwick and Finkel are intrigued by the rise of smartphone-based dating apps. Eastwick says relationship science shows that the approval of friends has a big effect on the success of a relationship, and so mobile apps, such as Hinge, that tap into someone's social network are “a smart, scientific way of going online to match people.”

Finkel defends Tinder, which makes no pretense of having a complex algorithm and is often criticized as just a game or a hookup app. “I believe Tinder's approach is terrific for pursuing casual sex and for meeting a serious relationship partner,” he wrote in The New York Times. “With Tinder, online dating is capitalizing on its strength — an expanded dating pool — and then accelerating the process of actually meeting someone.”11 That's important, say relationship experts, because communicating through texts, instant messages and emails before meeting has costs as well as benefits. One benefit is that “people get to know each other's intrinsic characteristics before they might be affected too much by something superficial like hair color,” says sociologist Susan Sprecher of Illinois State University in Normal. But let that digital communication go on too long and daters build up unrealistic expectations, she says.

“I don't like chatting much before the date,” says New York fashion industry executive Anthony Brown, 37, who has used OkCupid and Tinder. “You can fall in love before you meet them, and then you meet them and say, ‘What the hell?’” Brown no longer uses online dating. He now has a boyfriend, whom he met offline, at the gym.

Will free mobile-only dating apps force traditional sites to lower fees?

Tinder is free. So are Hinge, Coffee Meets Bagel, Tastebuds (a mobile app that matches users according to their favorite songs and musicians) and Mingleton, which connects users who are within 150 feet of one another. The same is true for Grindr, a mobile app for gay and bisexual men. Many depend on angel investors and venture capitalists to fund their development and expansion.

Coffee Meets Bagel's Kang says all this competition will affect older, traditional dating sites such as eHarmony and, which allow users to create profiles, answer questionnaires and view matches at no charge but require a subscription to communicate with potential dates.Footnote *

“Different dating services serve different needs, so if you are looking for marriage, eHarmony is where you go. But subscription-based services are going to have to think about how they're going to provide value without having people pay every month,” says Kang. “The subscription model will go extinct.”

Several traditional dating sites have always been free. Neither OkCupid nor PlentyOfFish charges people to contact one another. Instead they make their money from advertisements as well as premium services. For example, Plenty OfFish users who pay to upgrade, either through the website or through the company's mobile app, get to post extra photos, see if their emails were read or deleted, and learn who viewed their profiles and when.

Premium services are becoming an increasingly important revenue source for PlentyOfFish because most of the company's customers are exclusively using the mobile app, which has no advertising, says Markus Frind, company founder and CEO. Last year, the company made little effort to bring in revenue from its mobile app users, he says. “Now we're just starting to ramp up. It's pretty new.”

This business approach is known as the “freemium” model. And several of the new mobile-only dating apps use it, too. For example, users of Coffee Meets Bagel can purchase “coffee beans” and get more than one match a day. And in early March, Tinder rolled out Tinder Plus, a paid version of its app with additional functions that allow premium subscribers to undo a left swipe or pick a location anywhere in the world.

“It's possible in the future that Tinder may try to insert advertising, but IAC and Tinder have not explicitly said as much,” says industry analyst Jeremy Edwards of IBISWorld, a global publisher of business intelligence. Kang says her company has no plans for ads.

Like Kang, Frind thinks the subscription sites are going to shift to the freemium model. They've already begun experiments. “You saw eHarmony and others start offering free communications weekends a couple of years ago,” says Frind. “They're testing stuff. We'll see what happens there.”

But North American general manager Bhardwaj says the paid model is strong. “Our members agree that it's well worth the cost to be introduced to like-minded people that are serious about finding a relationship,” he says. “In fact, many users of free sites move to paid sites as they get more serious about their search.” Besides, Bhardwaj says, “you get what you pay for,” including better customer service and fraud prevention. is the nation's most popular dating website (Getty Images/Bloomberg/Andrew Harrer) is the nation's most popular dating website, with some 35 million unique monthly visitors. PlentyOfFish, at 23 million monthly visitors, is No. 2. Launched in 1995, subscription-based provides a website and mobile app that match users based on their answers to questions. (Getty Images/Bloomberg/Andrew Harrer)

Marc Lesnick, a New York-based organizer of Internet industry dating conferences around the world, agrees. “Companies like and eHarmony are like, ‘If you want all those 20-something kids with little income, go ahead. That's fine, we don't want those kids. We'd rather have those older professionals who are looking for a lifelong partner.’ And those people are willing to pay for online dating — they are willing to pay substantial sums,” says Lesnick.

People are also willing to pay for niche sites that are brand leaders, he says, such as JDate, which caters to Jewish singles, and Ashley Madison, which focuses on married folks and whose trademarked motto is “Life is short. Have an affair.” Ashley Madison is “insanely successful right now,” Lesnick says. Forbes recently reported that privately held Avid Life Media, the owner of Ashley Madison, grossed $115 million for 2014, up 45 percent from 2013 and nearly triple the gross revenue of 2010.12

Some serious-minded daters will also pay for the kind of feedback and advice that traditional matchmakers give. A little more than a year ago, eHarmony launched eH+, an offline service that “puts you in the hands of a relationship professional,” according to the company website. “The eH+ Matchmaker will be with you every step of the way, learning about what you want and need in a relationship, using this information to find your most compatible matches, incorporating your feedback, and helping you evaluate your connection with your matches,” says the website.13

Industry consultant Mark Brooks says the service is small right now but already profitable. Although labor intensive for the company, the service commands a premium fee. eHarmony charges each subscriber $5,000 a year for eH+.

“I think a lot of people will be relieved to not have to do so much management of their online profile,” said Grant Langston, eHarmony's vice president of brand marketing. “That can be a lot of work.”14

Does online dating lead to disposable relationships?

In a personal essay, Fortune writer JP Mangalindan put it this way: “Don't like the fact one guy's hair is thinning? Next. Think a girl could stand to lose a few pounds? Next. Hate that so-called ‘beauty mark’ on their cheek? Next, next, next!”15

The large number of potential dates available online, he said, creates a shop-around mentality that someone “hotter, smarter and funnier” awaits in the next OkCupid email “filled with matches” or literally around the corner thanks to location-based apps like Tinder. Mangalindan himself was unceremoniously tossed by text while away on a short trip, when a guy he had recently started dating met someone else online.16

Five years ago, communications and information professors Rebecca Heino, Nicole Ellison and Jennifer Gibbs published a paper based on in-depth interviews with 34 participants from a large online dating site and concluded that, yes, most viewed online dating as a marketplace. Heino, a professor of management at Georgetown University, says three factors are responsible for this attitude: the large number of potential dates available online, the ability to screen for desired qualities and the fact that people are used to comparison shopping for goods and services online.

Heino sees several problems with this marketplace attitude. “First,” she says, “it fosters the idea that if I just shop for the right characteristics, I'm going to find the ‘right’ person and the best relationship. It underestimates the work and communications skills needed to create and maintain a relationship.” Second, “we quickly dismiss people based on superficial criteria,” people we may have given a second chance if we had met in person, she says.

10 Most Popular Dating Websites

But Heino's research did not follow people through dating and relationships, so she can't say if this marketplace mentality carries over once people meet face to face. Sociologist Sprecher thinks it probably does, at least initially.

“If you don't have many alternatives and a first date doesn't go super well, both people might be more willing to try it again. But if you know you have alternatives, then it's on to the next person,” she says, which can be both good and bad. “It's bad, I suppose, if it leads people to being on an endless search for something that is never possible,” Sprecher says, but it's good if it means “not getting into a relationship that's not going to work in the long run anyways.”

Not surprisingly, several company executives said they doubt online dating is affecting how people view relationships and commitment. Frind of PlentyOfFish says if having lots of dating options made people more fickle, he would see differences in the behavior of rural users, who have far fewer matches, and urban users, who have the most. “We don't see too much difference in how relationships are formed and why they break up. It's kind of similar,” he says.

“Online dating makes it easier to meet interesting people, and I would imagine that makes people who are stuck in a bad relationship have the courage to leave it more easily,” says Kang of Coffee Meets Bagel. “But I don't think it causes people who are in a happy relationship to leave it just because it is easy to meet someone else.” Kang says she has no way to prove this.

But some research has looked at these questions. Stanford University's Rosenfeld and Reuben Thomas, a professor of sociology at the University of New Mexico, studied how the Internet is changing the way Americans find romantic partners by analyzing data from a nationally representative survey of more than 4,000 American adults called “How Couples Meet and Stay Together.”17

If Internet dating is making people less likely to commit — or more likely to commit for that matter — it would show up in the partnership rate, which is the percentage of Americans who have a boyfriend or girlfriend, a spouse or a live-in partner. But it doesn't, according to their study. The heterosexual partnership rate has remained flat during the Internet era. “In other words, people tend to form partnerships at a rate that is not dependent on how they meet,” says Thomas.

On the other hand, the partnership rate for same-sex couples has increased, but “there is a question of whether it is more because of growing social acceptance or whether it is a result of online dating, and I don't know of a way to disentangle that,” Thomas says.

Once relationships are formed, it seems to matter little whether they started online or offline, according to the researchers. “People who met online report the same level of relationship quality as people who met offline,” Rosenfeld says. “Once people are married, the breakup rate is low, and it doesn't really matter where they met.”

“Maybe there are ways that the technology is potentially undermining relationships, but there are many ways that technology fosters, strengthens and benefits our relationships,” says Rosenfeld, “by helping us stay in touch, by helping us know where our loved one is.”

An even larger survey, funded by eHarmony and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that marriages that got their start online were slightly less likely to break up and were associated with slightly higher marital satisfaction than marriages that began offline.18

But there is a problem with that study, according to Rosenfeld. Everyone who took the survey had Internet access at home, possibly skewing the results. “Meeting online is more common among people who have Internet access at home than among people who do not have Internet access at home,” says Rosenfeld. Therefore, the eHarmony study “would have over-estimated the percentage of recently married Americans who met online.” Rosenfeld called the study “an important piece of scholarship, nevertheless.”19

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*For a minimum three-month subscription, eHarmony costs $39.95 per month and $26.99 per month.


First (Computer) Love

While online dating is relatively new, computer matchmaking, its predecessor, is not. It originated nearly 60 years ago, a decade before the development of the earliest workable Internet prototype.

One of the first efforts at computer dating took place at Stanford University in 1959, when engineering students Jim Harvey and Phil Fialer decided to link their fascination with computer programming to Harvey's keen interest in hosting parties. To fulfill a requirement for a class project, the two created a computer date-matching program.

They recruited 98 Stanford students and outside friends to answer a questionnaire about age, height, weight, religion, hobbies, personal habits and personality traits. “The social-psychological [questionnaire] the two enterprising [programmers] prepared was, to put it mildly, not the most sophisticated of social science tools,” wrote C. Stewart Gillmor, an emeritus professor of history and science at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., and a student participant in the Stanford experiment. It was based on the concepts that Harvey had learned in Psychology 101.20

To analyze the students' answers, Harvey and Fialer wrote a program for the school's IBM 650, a small-for-the-day, 3,000-pound mainframe computer about the size of two refrigerators. The program scored potential couples for similarities. At the end of the semester, the two students held a party at Harvey's residence for the 49 resulting matches. There was music and homemade beer and no official tally of the romantic results. But Gillmor recalled that his date ended early, by mutual agreement, despite the couple having the fourth-best compatibility score of the group.21

Four years later, Iowa State University of Science and Technology in Ames conducted its own computer dating event after the administration decided that the student body sorely needed help with romance. According to a 1963 Time article, “The predominantly agricultural-science and engineering males have more than average difficulty meshing with the predominantly home-economics females.”22

This time, professionals were involved. Two weeks before a university dance, nearly a thousand students answered 120 questions about “travel, the arts, current events, sports, attitudes toward dating, marriage, religion, politics, education plus an evaluation of one's own personality,” Time said.23 An IBM computer sorted through the answers and came up with matches based on two theories, according to psychology professor Edwin Lewis, who helped devise the questionnaire.

“‘First: that in matters of opinion, like seeks like. Second: that in matters of personality, opposites — or rather complementary needs — attract,’” Lewis explained.24

The dance was a success, although some students were disappointed, reported Time. “Pert Elena Pappas, an applied arts student from Evanston, Ill., drew an ex-steady,” and “Dreamy, blonde Linda Saunders, in pre-veterinary medicine, was unhappy that the computer had not turned up a single animal lover for her.”25

Early Commercialization

It didn't take long before a group of enterprising students tried to commercialize computer dating. In a dormitory bull session in December 1964, Harvard University undergraduates Jeff Tarr, Vaughan Morrill and a few friends brainstormed the idea of using computers to find compatible dates. Initially, their goal was to have fun, not make money. “And to meet some attractive ladies,” Tarr told a reporter several decades later.26 They called their endeavor Operation Match.

Over the course of a few weeks, Tarr and Morrill, joined by Harvard student David Crump and Cornell University dropout Douglas Ginsburg, created a questionnaire they began publicizing and distributing to college students in the Northeast. Participants filled it out and mailed it back, along with a $3 fee.

Matchmaker Lory Kelsey meets with a client (Getty Images/Bloomberg/Michael Nagle)
Matchmaker Lory Kelsey meets with a client at her home in Greenwich, Conn. While most matchmaking today involves websites and smartphone apps with complex algorithms for matching people, Kelsey says she puts people together the old-fashioned way, by meeting face-to-face with clients and getting to know them. (Getty Images/Bloomberg/Michael Nagle)

The Operation Match team paid a friend $100 to write a computer program to sort through the answers according to some basic psychological principles. The answers, transferred to punch cards, were fed into a computer they rented in the middle of the night on Sundays. In six weeks, they had a list of matches. “People got a letter saying who they were matched to, with phone numbers, and they were very pleased,” said Tarr. There were a few glitches. “One woman at [then single-sex] Vassar got over 100 matches. One of them was her roommate,” said Tarr.27

Still, participation was not enough to turn a profit. That changed in the spring of 1965, when CBS invited Morrill to appear as a “mystery” guest on its television quiz show, “To Tell the Truth,” generating free national publicity. By the fall, approximately 70,000 college students had sent their completed questionnaires and fees to Compatibility Research, the student entrepreneurs' newly created corporation.28

Soon the national media were covering the story, including Look magazine, whose 1966 article included opinions that would seem at home — aside from the 1960s vocabulary — in any article about online dating today.

“I approve of it [Operation Match] as a way to meet people, although I have no faith in the questionnaire's ability to match compatible people,” Yale University student John de Forest told Look. “The machine has no way of telling whether or not the girl has pazazz!”29

But fellow Yale undergraduate Carter Wiseman thought computer screening increased the odds of getting along. “Say you're interested in Renaissance art, and the machine gives you a chick who's interested in Renaissance art, you've got a basis to build on,” Wiseman told Look. “You can't just go up to some girl on the street and say, ‘Hello, do you like Botticelli?’”30


Tarr and his partners sold Compatibility Research in 1968. By then, dating companies had proliferated. According to a 1967 article in LIFE, “The computer-dating service is growing as sturdily as the price of a share of IBM.” Fees ranged from $5 to $150, and “there are a half-dozen outfits to choose from in New York alone.”31

But the LIFE article was skeptical of the process, imagining that couples who meet by computer are hostile and embarrassed. “Drinking takes care of the embarrassment but not the hostility. ‘You needed a computer, did you? So what's wrong with you?’ a man sneers at the end of an evening. Or the girl does. Or both do.”32

The dating services worked hard to persuade a reluctant public. “How to be comfortable with computer dating,” a 1969 advertorial in LIFE for a dating service called Compatibility, tried to overcome any misgivings by emphasizing the company's experience, ethics and large membership, as well as the members' good character and the company's guarantee of performance. “If the most expensive matching program in the world doesn't guarantee to make highly compatible referrals on a regular schedule, it probably is not for you,” the advertisement warned.33

“It is hard to estimate the number of companies in the computer dating business because it attracts many fly-by-night operators,” reported The New York Times in 1970. “The more stable concerns say their business is growing steadily, and there also is evidence that complaints against abuses are rising as well.” The attorneys general of New York and California had charged several companies with fraud, according to the newspaper.34

But some customers were just plain disappointed, such as a Boston man who received only one matching name from a company called Date-Mate: his cousin, with whom he worked. “Too bad I don't have a sister,” he wrote back.35

These early forays into computer dating eventually failed, according to Northwestern University's Finkel and fellow researchers. “The computers were not powerful enough to handle data from many users, and there was no Internet platform for efficiently communicating with customers and obtaining data from them,” they wrote in their study of online dating.36

In the 1980s, direct online communication became possible through bulletin boards and chat rooms, but “in the era before widespread availability of Web browsers,” their use remained “a niche activity for a small group of particularly tech-savvy people,” the researchers wrote.37 Romance in cyberspace was rare.

Online Dating Emerges

As computers became “cheaper, smaller, and more powerful, and as the Internet became widespread, a new generation of computer dating businesses emerged,” wrote Finkel and colleagues. The first crop of online dating sites resembled online versions of personal advertisements, allowing users to post a profile and browse the profiles of others. Subscription-based, which debuted on April 21, 1995, with a $9.95 per month membership fee, was one of the first.38 Today it is the industry leader, attracting more unique visitors each month than any other dating site in the United States.

In the year before it launched, was still the work-in-progress of a 30-year-old engineer named Gary Kremen. That year, Kremen borrowed $2,500 against his credit card to buy the domain name, opened a small office in San Francisco and bought a computer server on credit from Sun Microsystems.39

Kremen dreamed big. In his first significant television interview after the site was up and running, Kremen, wearing a tie-dyed shirt, promised that his company would “bring more love to the planet than anything since Jesus Christ.”40 Hyperbole aside, grew fast. By October 1996, 100,000 people had registered, and by 1997 the company was boasting of the 150 married couples who met through the site.41

Kremen's “exuberance was short-lived, however,” wrote Dan Slater, a journalist who closely covers the online dating industry. “In 1997, investor infighting over whether to make Match available to gays forced a sale to Cendant, a consumer services company, for $7 million, of which Kremen walked away with a fraction,” according to Slater. A year and a half later, Cendant sold for $50 million to the precursor of IAC, a publicly traded corporation controlled by media and Internet mogul Barry Diller. “It's difficult, giving up your baby like that,” Kremen told the audience at an industry conference 15 years later. “I should've made that $50 million.”42

Over the years, many sites have mimicked's model of profile browsing. Some sites charge a monthly fee, while others, like PlentyOfFish, begun in 2003 by Canadian entrepreneur Frind, are free to users, relying on advertising and premium services to generate revenue. Some, like, are broad-based, while others cater to niche markets, such as ChristianMingle, BlackSingles and Vampire Passions.

The arrival of subscriber-based eHarmony in 2000 ushered in the next level of online dating sites: services that use proprietary computer algorithms to match people based on their answers to questionnaires. The company makes big claims. “There's a lot of science that goes into our matchmaking process,” says the eHarmony website. “We search among millions of singles based on Key Dimensions that are crucial for relationship success,” calling the process its “secret sauce.”43

Other companies soon followed the eHarmony model. In 2004, a group of Harvard math majors founded the free site OkCupid. However, unlike eHarmony with its fixed questionnaire, OkCupid, which caters to a younger, less marriage-minded crowd, gives users a choice of questions to answer. On average, users “select 350 questions from a pool of thousands,” according to Wired. 44 And in 2005, the team at launched sister-site, which uses anthropologist Fisher's questionnaire and computer algorithm. (In 2011, IAC purchased Ok Cupid for $50 million.)

Searching for That Special Someone

Existing sites adapted. began offering a matching system of its own, as did PlentyOfFish. Users can still browse thousands of profiles unaided if they wish.

The latest phase of online dating began in 2007, with the introduction of Apple's “Web-friendly iPhone that people could easily access a new world of mobile-ready sites on-the-fly,” wrote Slater in his 2013 book Love in the Time of Algorithms: What Technology Does to Meeting and Mating. introduced a mobile app, and so did Badoo, created by a young Russian, Andrey Andreev. Badoo allowed people to meet quickly, “based on little more than a photograph, an age, and an interest or two,” Slater wrote.45

Now there is Tinder (started with the backing of IAC in 2012), Coffee Meets Bagel (2012), Hinge (2013) and a host of other mobile-only dating apps in what has become a crowded market. Traditional online dating sites are trying to keep up with the smartphone revolution, introducing their own mobile apps or, in the case of, redesigning their existing apps to incorporate the latest features, such as the swiping feature introduced by Tinder. In fact, PlentyOfFish says that 80 percent of site usage now takes place on a mobile phone.46

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Current Situation

The Creep Factor

Boorish and troll-like behavior can be found everywhere on the Internet, from social networking sites and online gaming to discussion sites such as reddit. But some places are more prone to it than others. Perhaps surprisingly, given the emotions at play, harassment is less of a problem on dating sites and apps, according to a 2014 poll.47

Nevertheless, it happens, and sites such as Bye Felipe allow women to post examples of the hostility some men exhibit when women reject or ignore their dating overtures.48 Alexandra Tweten, 27, who works for an entertainment company in Los Angeles, created the Bye Felipe Instagram account last October.

“We can't win,” Tweten told The Atlantic magazine. “If we don't respond, they come back and say, ‘You're a whore.’ If we do respond, we get yelled at and called names. I hate that men think they can talk to women like that. They should be publicly shamed.”49

Women also complain about getting overwhelmed with solicitations for sex. One man, after listening to a female friend's descriptions of offensive messages, set up a fake OkCupid account as a woman to see for himself. He shut it down two hours later after being bombarded by aggressive messages demanding replies, requests for no-strings-attached sex and messages that started out normal but quickly became sexual. “I would be lying if I said it didn't get to me,” he wrote on reddit.50

In the past year or so, several mobile dating apps have attempted to eliminate the creep factor. Here are just a few of the new entries, all of which use smartphone geolocation capability to link people who are nearby:

  • Bumble closely resembles Tinder, in its swipe function and design. However, once both parties swipe right and create a match, only the woman can initiate a chat, and if she doesn't do so within in a day, the connection disappears. (There is no such rule for same-sex relationships.)

  • Siren invites men and women to answer a question-of-the-day. Men and women get to see each other's answers, and each can express an interest in the other. But men see a woman's photo only with her permission, and only women decide whether to pursue a date by sending out a “Siren call.”

  • Mesh uses a program that screens out messages with bad grammar, vulgarity and copy-and-pasted content — the sign of someone sending the same message to multiple people. It also allows users to select deal-breakers such as religion or drug use before a message can be sent.

  • Wyldfire puts women in the role of curator. Men can join only if invited by a female acquaintance. After that, the app works very much like Tinder, with users swiping right to like and left to reject someone. If two people like each other, they can start messaging.

“Our whole site is built around women,” said Mesh CEO and founder Asher Snyder, 29, a computer software engineer, who thinks that when women's problems online are solved, “the experience gets better for everyone.”51

Romance Scammers

Sometimes, online dating can go beyond creepy. Predators, posting fake profiles with stolen photos, have been accused of trying to romance money away from vulnerable victims.

Alabama resident Shannon Glover, 30, met a former prison inmate and convicted serial fraudster through an online dating service. Glover alleged he led her to believe that they were going to buy a home together, and she took out a payday loan to send him about $2,400 for related expenses and paid for his rental car with her credit card. The man, who used a fake last name, is “very, very persuasive,” Glover said. “He basically feeds off whatever the women tell him.”52

Glover said she became suspicious when he didn't come to Alabama to meet her as promised, and, after researching online, she discovered his true name and his criminal past. In December she contacted law enforcement officials, who arrested him the next month after he asked Glover to pick him up in Florida.53

Romance scammers come from all over the world, but West Africa is the most common source, security experts say. To explain why they cannot meet in person, the scammers often tell their targets they are Americans but live across the country, are working abroad or are posted overseas with the military.

The stolen photos they use to accompany their fictitious profiles are often of professional models, college students or military personnel. The photo of one retired U.S. military member, happily married Raymond Chandler III, appears on hundreds of dating sites and social media accounts, much to his consternation. “The fact that people decided to use my image for their own personal gain, it felt like I was violated,” Chandler told The Washington Post. 54

Once romance scammers establish contact, they quickly try to convince a target to shift communication off the dating site — where it might be monitored and flagged as a scam — to email and will spend weeks or months building a romantic relationship. When they are confident that they have the person's love and trust, suddenly “tragedy” strikes, and the scammer will need money, for a child's heart operation, to fix a smashed car, to replace an essential lost computer. Or they say they want to visit and ask for plane fare. The target wires the money, and the scammer disappears.

“We've heard reports about such scams occurring on all of the major dating sites, and from victims of varying backgrounds. Men, women, young, old, black, white, gay, straight, etc.,” said the National Consumer League, a Washington-based consumer advocacy organization, on its website.55

“It's crushing emotionally, and it can be crushing to them financially. It takes a toll,” said FBI special agent Darrell Foxworth.56

It's not good for business, either, because fear of fraud could be keeping people from using dating sites or mobile apps. But Frind of PlentyOfFish maintains his site has solved the problem by using filters designed to detect typical words used by scammers; employing probabilistic computer models that can detect typical scamming behavior; and accessing location data from mobile phones. “It's very, very hard to pretend that you're in the United States when you're actually in Nigeria using a phone,” says Frind.

Frind insists that as a result of the company's precautions, most scammers cannot register on the site. “The handful that do register will be detected within 5 to 10 minutes and thrown off,” he says.

However, Jason Lee, an online dating critic and speaker at industry conventions, says scammers are often one step ahead of the industry, although he does think the media exaggerate the problem of romance scams. “The best protection against scammers is common sense,” Lee says. “If you simply don't give people things until you meet them in person and have developed trust, then I think you are pretty safe.”

Human Guinea Pigs

Last year, Rudder of OkCupid caused a public ruckus when he revealed on his company blog that the dating site experimented on its users without their knowledge.

Rudder explained that the company had wondered whether its matching system worked “just because we tell people it does.” So the company ran a test. It told poor matches they were good matches and good matches they were poor matches and watched what happened.57

Sue Liang (Getty Images/The Boston Globe/Jessica Rinaldi)
Thirty-year-old Sue Liang of Jamaica Plain, Mass., is fed up with online dating and the endless lies and oddball characters she says she has encountered. “At this point, I don't even want to do traditional online dating anymore,” she said. “Sometimes, I get so tired of it. It's so hard to tell if someone's really genuine, or what they're looking for.” (Getty Images/The Boston Globe/Jessica Rinaldi)

It turned out that the power of suggestion is strong. “When we tell people they are a good match, they act as if they are,” wrote Rudder, and the odds of them exchanging four messages — the company's definition of a “real conversation” — go up. When good matches are told that they are poor matches, the odds of such a conversation go down.58

Still, Rudder said the algorithm works. Good matches that were not misled had the highest odds of conversing, and poor matches that were told the truth had the lowest.

The more than 1,200 comments reacting to Rudder's revelations ranged from approving (“nice article, worth reading”) to dismayed (“Wow I feel betrayed”).59

Rudder had begun his post by saying: “If you use the Internet, you're the subject of hundreds of experiments at any given time, on every site. That's how websites work.” And that's true. Companies do what's called A/B testing all the time. They'll show some users one version of a website design and other users a different version, and then adopt the one that got the best reaction.

But Brandon, the very first commenter on Rudder's blog post, insisted that the OkCupid experiment “is something entirely different…. You're just lying to people.”

Some lawyers even wondered whether the dating service had violated the law that prohibits “unfair and deceptive” practices that result in misleading or harming consumers. “When you're matching people up with individuals who are not good matches, that would certainly be deceptive,” said attorney Jesse Brody. But others questioned if there was real harm, because the dating service is free.60

Rudder told Reuters that the users subjected to the experiment were notified at its conclusion, and that the site's term of service allows such “diagnostic research.”61

But some lawyers said that is insufficient. “Mention of research buried in a general data usage policy is not informed consent” when research goes beyond simple observation and actually manipulates people, wrote attorney Jamie Sheller in The Philadelphia Legal Examiner. 62

In academia, there are strict government rules for human experimentation, including behavioral experiments such as OkCupid's. Researchers must justify a study in advance to an institutional review board (IRB), composed of peers, that follows federal regulations. Companies, on the other hand, are subject to no such rules, and some experts think that should change.

“They shouldn't be subject to the very same rules as academics, in part because they are for-profit enterprises, and in part because they operate at scale that would make the IRB difficult,” says University of Washington law professor Ryan Calo. Many academic researchers complain that the IRB process is slow and cumbersome. “So we would want something more nimble here, but we would want something.”

Calo proposes that industry or the Federal Trade Commission convene a panel to write a report on the ethics of consumer research that would guide such experiments. Calo also would like to see companies that conduct consumer research, including online dating services, create a Consumer Subjects Review Board, composed of employees with diverse training, such as law and engineering, to review human research proposals.

Such a system, says Calo, would provide “an ethical gut check.”

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Mobile Future

While a significant minority of Americans remains skeptical about online dating, public attitudes appear to be growing more positive. In 2013, 59 percent of Internet users agreed that “online dating is a good way to meet people,” compared with 44 percent in 2005, according to Pew Research Center polls. And the share of Internet users who felt that “people who use online dating sites are desperate” declined from 29 percent to 21 percent during that period.63

Kang of Coffee Meets Bagel thinks attitudes will only improve in the next five years. “It's going to come to a point where there isn't going to be a conversation, ‘Oh, have you tried online dating?’ or ‘Oh, I don't want to say we met online,’” says Kang. “It's going to become so natural that it will be for every single person, a natural way to connect.”

And the method that a growing number of people will use to access online dating services will be “mobile, mobile, mobile!” says Bhardwaj of Its mobile phone registrations more than doubled from 2013 to 2014, he says, making mobile “key to our future and growth.”

PlentyOfFish CEO Frind says most of his company's traffic already comes through mobile phones, whose possibilities have yet to be fully exploited. “It took Tinder to come along a year or two ago and do the swiping thing,” he says. Over the next five to 10 years, dating companies will figure out how to fully exploit mobile phones' sensors and cameras, he says.

During that time, Match Group, the division of IAC that runs,, OkCupid, Tinder and other dating services, is only going to get bigger, says industry consultant Brooks. “I think they are going to rule the roost. They're going to be acquisitive, buy the successful businesses, roll them in, make them more efficient,” he says.

Asked if PlentyOfFish would ever become a part of Match Group, Frind responds, “I don't know.”

There are always going to be attractive and profitable niche sites, says Brooks. “JDate is a great example. They're a hallmark niche dating site, and they're not going to go away. They're going to continue to grow,” he says.

Edwards, the IBISWorld analyst, also expects continued industry consolidation, but he expects overall industry growth to slow. “Recent growth has been a feature of rapidly evolving technology, particularly pertaining to mobile devices,” says Edwards. However, “smartphone penetration is expected to reach saturation towards the end of the next five years,” he says. It seems the slowdown has already begun. In February, IAC reported that growth in the number of subscribers to its dating sites had slackened in the last quarter of 2014.64

As far as dating services opening up their algorithms to inspection and analysis by academic researchers, Brooks says that probably will never happen. “To move these algorithms along, we need to engage with more academia,” Brooks says. “I would really like to see more cross-examination of these algorithms. I would like to see them torn apart. But the problem is that it's very bad for business to do that publicly.”

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Should states require dating site background checks?


Carole Markin
President, Carole Markin Inc., and Former plaintiff in lawsuit against . Written for CQ Researcher, March 2015

About 40 million Americans use online dating services every year. Whether hopeful daters go to the sites looking for true love or a good time, there is a false presumption that encounters will always be safe. Unfortunately, certain types of criminals troll the sites looking for targets. One found me. That is why I started advocating for background checks.

I was an experienced online dater, having been on for a number of years. But in 2010, I went on a coffee date in Los Angeles with a man who contacted me through the site. At the end of the second date, he overpowered me and sexually assaulted me. Later that night I discovered he had at least six sex offense convictions in his past. After eight days I found the strength to report him to the Los Angeles Police Department, who told me he was a convicted sex offender well known to them. A year and a half later, the attacker pleaded no contest to felony sexual battery by restraint and went to jail.

In the process of pursuing the case I came to the conclusion that the crime against me was preventable. Sexual predators are listed on national and local databases. It wouldn't be that difficult for a highly profitable dating site such as to screen for predators using credit card names. Plus, a sexual predator who commits another crime under an assumed name faces even stiffer charges.

After an extensive search, I retained a lawyer who was open to suing, not for money, but simply for a change of policy. We asked the company to screen for sexual predators using the federal and local databases. Soon,, to its credit, agreed and is now cross-checking members with both registries.

California Attorney General Kamala Harris took things further. She met with eHarmony, and Spark Networks. The companies agreed to step up online safety measures to protect members from sexual predators, identity theft and financial scams. The attorney general promised to work with providers to investigate and prosecute crimes involving the sites.

Clearly the top dating websites see it is as good for business to screen. Other companies should follow their lead to remain competitive.

Even with these protections, daters must take personal responsibility and exercise caution in online dating. But knowing that background checks are in place helps the dater and the industry as a whole.


Maria Coder
Author, InvestiDate: How to Investigate Your Date. Written for CQ Researcher, March 2015

The responsibility to date safely falls on the dater, not the dating site. Your safety is not a top priority for dating websites; it can't be. These sites make money off memberships. If, indeed, one in 10 dating profiles is fake and must be removed, that's quite a hit in revenue.

When we log on looking for love, we're loaded with hope, and this is problematic. Sometimes we want so much to believe we've found someone that we deceive ourselves before we even give the other person a chance to do it. We overlook one thing, then we overlook another thing and before long we've overlooked everything. If we believe a dating site will perform an adequate background check to screen its members, we're merely adding another layer of illusion.

Even if the site claims to screen and monitor its members, the best it will do is run a name against a national sex offender registry and presumably remove select daters from its site. But the action plan on how to deal with daters that fail to meet the minimum threshold varies by site, by state, by definition and with each website's protocols.

Plus, who decides where to set the bar and how frequently daters will be screened? After all, things change, and a clean record eight months ago could be tarnished by now. In a dating site's net, the most obvious people, the dumbest criminals, might be caught. But the scammers and con artists will find a loophole to slither through. While it would be helpful for sites to offer a second set of eyes, if daters believe this will suffice, then this is no help at all. In fact, it poses a serious danger.

Daters must date with the mind-set that they need to be their own bodyguards. This default places the ownership where it really belongs, back on the dater. It takes a few seconds to check the national sex offender registry at Uploading a photo to Google Image Search will instantly show where else it's in use, a great way to corroborate corresponding profiles and cross-check information.

It's crucial to remember that most dating sites that screen their members aren't penalized if they get it wrong. And no one says, “Hey, I'm an ax murderer, let me buy you a beer.” It's important for daters to arm themselves with information.

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1950s–1970sComputer dating begins on college campuses.
1959Stanford University engineering students Jim Harvey and Phil Fialer create a computer date-matching program for a class project.
1963Iowa State University of Science and Technology matches students by computer for a school dance.
1965Three Harvard University undergraduates and a Cornell University dropout start Operation Match, which charges college students $3 to be matched by computer.
1967Dozens of computer-dating companies charge fees ranging from $5 to $150.
1970Attorneys general of New York and California accuse several computer-dating firms of fraud.
1990sWeb browsers allow online dating to take off.
1995Engineer Gary Kremen launches online dating website, taking advantage of the burgeoning Internet and the introduction of Web browsers; monthly subscription costs $9.95 and allows users to post and browse personal profiles; 100,000 people register within 18 months.
1997Real estate executive Joe Shapira starts JDate targeted to Jewish singles, one of the earliest niche online dating sites; it's later bought by Spark Networks.
1999The precursor to IAC/InterActiveCorp, a publicly traded media and Internet giant, buys for about $50 million; one-month membership costs $16.95.
2000-PresentDating sites introduce matching algorithms; smartphones allow mobile dating apps to thrive.
2000Clinical psychologist Neil Clark Warren begins subscription-based eHarmony, which promises compatible matches for the marriage-minded with its patented computer matching algorithm and set list of questions for singles to answer; within a few years, most other sites offer matching algorithms.
2002Sports attorney Noel Biderman starts niche dating website Ashley Madison for married people seeking to have affairs.
2003Canadian entrepreneur Markus Frind begins PlentyofFish, a largely free dating site that generates revenue from advertising and premium services for users.
2004A group of Harvard math majors founds OkCupid, a free dating site; unlike eHarmony, OkCupid's matching system allows users to choose which questions to answer.
2005IAC launches, which uses a matching questionnaire developed by anthropologist Helen Fisher.
2007Apple introduces its Web-friendly iPhone, which inspires the development of mobile dating apps…. Two Iranian immigrants found Zoosk, a mobile dating app and website that tracks users' behavior to send them matches.
2011IAC purchases OkCupid for $50 million.
2012With help from IAC, entrepreneurs Sean Rad, Justin Mateen and Jonathan Badeen launch Tinder, a free location-based mobile app that allows users to swipe left to reject and right to like others based primarily on photos…. Sisters Arum, Dawoon and Soo Kang start Coffee Meets Bagel, a free mobile app that sends users one match a day at noon…. California's attorney general reaches agreement with, eHarmony and Spark Networks to screen for sex offenders after a woman was raped by a convicted sex offender she met through
2013Justin McLeod launches free mobile dating app Hinge, which mines a user's Facebook page to send 15 matches a day from the user's extended Facebook network.
2014Whitney Wolfe and other former Tinder employees start free mobile app Bumble, identical to Tinder except only women can initiate a conversation; it's one of many new mobile apps giving women more control.

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Short Features

Even grave diggers have a place to meet.

Can a Yankees fan find true love with a Mets fan? Can romantic sparks fly between a cat lover and a dog lover? A Democrat and a Republican? A runner and a couch potato?

Novelists, filmmakers and comedians have long answered yes. Niche dating sites say not so fast: Similarities in interests, careers or values matter too.

Fueled by the belief that opposites don't necessarily attract, niche sites are spreading rapidly as they try to connect seekers of every possible interest and type, including by age, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, hobbies, eating preferences, politics and occupation.

VeggieDate, FarmersOnly, DateMyPet, DemocraticPeopleMeet and VampirePassions are some of the thousands of targeted dating services in this increasingly crowded market. Industry analysts, such as IBISWorld, a publisher of industry reports, expect even more niche entrants over the next several years, and many will probably have mobile apps as well.1

But skeptics say many of these sites are too narrow or quirky to be effective.

Some sites are run single-handedly. For example, Dead Meet, a dating site for morticians, grave diggers and others working in the death industry, was created by a former anatomical pathology technician. But the biggest niche sites are part of larger corporations.

IAC/InterActiveCorp, an American media and Internet company that owns some of the most successful generic dating services, such as,, OkCupid and Tinder, also owns OurTime, for singles over 50, and BlackPeopleMeet, for African-Americans. Spark Networks owns LDSSingles, for Mormons, ChristianMingle and JDate, a destination for Jewish singles.

Thousands of targeted online dating sites, like JDate, a destination for Jewish singles, try to connect date-seekers of every possible interest and type (CQ Researcher/Screenshot)
Thousands of targeted online dating sites, like JDate, a destination for Jewish singles, try to connect date-seekers of every possible interest and type. Skeptics say many of the sites are too narrow to be effective. (CQ Researcher/Screenshot)

Niche sites have two potential advantages over more general dating sites, says Arthur Aron, a social psychologist at Stony Brook University in New York and the University of California, Berkeley. Although similarities in hobbies and the like are really not that important for the long-term success of a relationship, “dissimilarity really hurts,” he says. “So if you feel really strongly about something, such as religion, niche dating sites allow users to avoid those big deal-breakers.”

“Another advantage of niche sites is that you'll probably have family support, particularly at something like JDate,” says Aron. “In Western cultures, especially in America, we don't pay enough attention to family support, but it becomes very important after children come along. It's very helpful if family is supportive of the marriage.”

But many niche sites never catch on. “Niche sites only work when the niche has two properties — a lot of people have the relevant characteristic and the characteristic is a deal-breaker for a large number of people,” said Paul Oyer, an economist at Stanford University and author of Everything I Ever Needed to Know About Economics I Learned From Online Dating. He said sites for older people, Jews and Christians fit those criteria, but a site for tennis lovers might not. The United States might have a lot of tennis players, but most would probably happily date squash players. “I recommend sticking to a larger site unless there's a really good reason not to,” Oyer said.2

Claudia, a professional living in Phoenix, currently subscribes to because “it seems to have the greatest number of members, in regards to lesbians.” Claudia, who asks that her last name not be used, says lesbian dating sites, such as Pink Sofa and Pink Cupid, didn't work out for her.

“My experience has been that they don't have the bandwidth of membership. So I'm routinely sent lots of people outside my boundaries, for instance age boundaries,” says Claudia, who is 59. “And the number of people within my boundaries that I get sent are small. I think [the sites] just want my money. They might get my money once, but they won't get my money twice.”

But even can be annoying, she says. “Every day they send you a list of new matches, but inevitably 90 percent of those matches they've shown me before. I get about 23 or 24 matches a day.”

Claudia says she's not too surprised. “When you think about it, maybe 3 percent of the U.S. population is gay, and about half of that is female, and a tiny amount of that lesbian population is single, and then an even smaller number are my age. It's a really, really tiny pool that I'm after.”

— Barbara Mantel

[1] Jeremy Edwards, “Dating game: With increasing internet penetration, online dating is on the rise,” IBISWorld, November 2014, pp. 9–10,

[2] Paul Oyer, “An Economist Answers Questions About Online Dating,” The New York Times, Feb. 10, 2014,

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Small lies are common and even expected, researchers say.

The man checked “athletic” for body type, but he was stretching the truth a bit. Belly fat hid his muscles. “Even with a little bit of tummy here, I am still athletic, you know …,” he told researchers studying online dating profiles. “I still have muscles, even if they are covered.”3

The white lie wasn't unusual. In the online dating world, people seeking a relationship must rely on perfect strangers to represent themselves honestly. But many hopefuls are disappointed. More than half of online daters in a Pew Research Center poll said they had felt that “someone else seriously misrepresented themselves in their profile.”4

Researchers have been studying what they call “image management” in online dating since the industry's start in the 1990s. Most people misrepresent themselves, they have found.

“People know that, and they make mental adjustments for it,” says Rebecca Heino, a professor of management at Georgetown University, who has researched how people present themselves online. In one of Heino's studies, “people didn't really see it as dishonest as long as it was in a small range.”

One study on how people reported their age, weight and height in their dating profiles found that 81 percent of participants lied about at least one of those characteristics — most often about weight, then height and age. Men were more likely to dissemble about their height, women about their weight. But the deceptions were small. “Many of these deceptions would be difficult to detect face-to-face,” the researchers noted.5

“To be completely honest about it, if a client is shorter than 5'8”, we usually suggest adding an inch or two,” says Scott Valdez, the founder of Virtual Dating Assistants, which helps men compose their dating profiles and communications. “The reality is that almost everybody is doing it, so by putting your real height in your profile, you are actually at a bigger disadvantage online than you are in real life.”

Other research has found that people lie about traits they believe they can change or goals they think they can attain, and that they consider such lies acceptable. “I'm actually in sales but I would prefer to be in marketing someday, and so I check off marketing instead of sales,” a study participant told an interviewer. “It's not like me saying I'm a janitor, and then lying and saying that I'm a CEO. You know that's unacceptable.”6

Lisa Hoehn (Courtesy Lisa Hoehn)
Lisa Hoehn is a professional writer of online dating profiles who conducts in-depth interviews with her clients. She says they are seeking serious relationships and know that “lying is not a good idea.” (Courtesy Lisa Hoehn)

Another study participant wrote in her profile that she went to the gym several times a week, even though she did not. But she didn't consider it a lie because, she said, “when I actually have money, income coming in, I will have a gym membership and will be there.”7

Others felt reclaiming on older version of themselves was legitimate. A smoker told researchers that “I have no problem saying I'm a nonsmoker” in her profile because she has quit in the past, and if she met the right guy she would quit again “without him ever knowing.”8

Meanwhile, an increasing number of daters are outsourcing their profiles to professionals like Valdez. There seems to be no research on whether those profiles better reflect reality. Valdez says he encourages honesty, except for the occasional height exaggeration.

Another professional profile writer, Lisa Hoehn, founder of Profile Polish, says her clients are looking for serious relationships and “know inherently that lying is not a good idea because a relationship won't work if it's based on lies.” Hoehn also conducts in-depth interviews with clients before writing their profiles. “It gets really personal, and so when someone is pouring their heart out, I think they are less likely to lie,” she says.

Online dating sites themselves have begun to offer writing help. has something called Profile Pro, where professional writers will create a profile. “We rely on the customer to provide us with accurate information,” says the company. “Profile Pro's focus is to capture the essence of each client's personality and convey that in his or her online dating profile.” Both Valdez and Hoehn do the same, they say, and Hoehn says hiring her to write a profile is really no different from hiring a professional to polish a résumé.

“Just because you can't write a great résumé doesn't mean you aren't fit for the job,” says Hoehn. “And just because you can't write a polished profile doesn't mean you wouldn't make a great partner in a relationship.” She says profiles are often too vague and boring and recommends spicing things up with specifics. “Rather than saying, ‘I love food,’ talk about the time you ate a five-course meal and finished every morsel.”9

But an outsourced profile is not going to be as helpful to someone like 68-year-old Maryland lawyer Jacques Cook, who thinks a woman's writing style contains valuable clues. “It's nice to see if the person is reasonably literate,” says Cook, who met his girlfriend on “When a woman writes well, it does say something about their intelligence. Some women are really gifted writers.”

— Barbara Mantel

[3] Nicole B. Ellison, Jeffrey T. Hancock and Catalina L. Toma, “Profile as promise: A framework for conceptualizing veracity in online dating self-presentations,” New Media & Society, June 27, 2011, p. 10,

[4] Aaron Smith and Maeve Duggan, “Online Dating & Relationships,” Pew Research Center, Oct. 21, 2013, p. 23,

[5] Catalina L. Toma, Jeffrey T. Hancock and Nicole B. Ellison, “Separating Fact From Fiction: An Examination of Deceptive Self-Presentation in Online Dating Profiles,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, August 2008,

[6] Ellison, Hancock and Toma, “Profile as promise,” op. cit., p. 8.

[7] Ibid., p. 9.

[8] Ibid.

[9] “Would you pay a digital dating coach to help you find love online?” CNN Money, Feb. 10, 2015,

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Oyer, Paul , Everything I Ever Needed to Know about Economics I Learned from Online Dating , Harvard Business Review Press, 2014. An economist examines how online dating sites work in order to explain basic economic principals.

Rudder, Christian , Dataclysm: Who We Are When We Think No One's Looking , Crown, 2014. The co-founder of OkCupid analyzes the data of online daters.

Slater, Dan , Love in the Time of Algorithms: What Technology Does to Meeting and Mating , Current, 2013. A journalist looks behind the scenes of the online dating business.


“Would you pay a digital dating coach to help you find love online?” CNNMoney, Feb. 10, 2015, Online daters are hiring professionals to write their profiles and messages.

Bilton, Nick , “Tinder, the Fast-Growing Dating App, Taps an Age-Old Truth,” The New York Times, Oct. 29, 2014, A journalist visits the headquarters of the fast-growing mobile-only dating app.

Chaey, Christina , “How eHarmony Plans to Use $5,000 Personal ‘Love Doctors’ to Find Your Internet Soulmate,” Fast Company, Nov. 1, 2013, eHarmony offers users old-fashioned matchmaking services, for a fee.

Finkel, Eli J. , “In Defense of Tinder,” The New York Times, Feb. 6, 2015, A psychologist and online dating skeptic defends Tinder and says it is effective for both engaging in casual sex and for starting serious relationships.

Kelly, John , “Love a man in uniform? Online dating scammers hope so,” The Washington Post, Feb. 25, 2015, Scammers impersonate military personnel on dating sites to steal money from vulnerable targets.

Khazan, Olga , “Rise of the Feminist Tinder-Creep-Busting Web Vigilante,” The Atlantic, Oct. 27, 2014, A woman shames men who post offensive comments on online dating sites.

Mangalindan, JP, “How online ruined dating … forever,” Fortune, March 11, 2013, In a personal essay, a journalist says online dating is undermining romance.

Poulsen, Kevin , “How a Math Genius Hacked OkCupid to Find True Love,” Wired, Jan. 21, 2014, A mathematician games OkCupid to improve his chances at love.

Sullivan, Casey , “OkCupid's Experiment May Have Broken FTC Rules,” Reuters, Sept. 29, 2014, OkCupid experimented on unknowing users by sending them misinformation.

Reports and Studies

Cacioppo, John T., et al., “Marital satisfaction and break-ups differ across on-line and off-line meeting venues,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, June 18, 2013, An eHarmony-commissioned study shows slightly greater marital satisfaction and slightly less likelihood of a break-up among couples who met online.

Finkel, Eli J., et al., “Online Dating: A Critical Analysis From the Perspective of Psychological Science,” Psychological Science in the Public Interest, January 2012, Psychologists analyze the online dating industry's assumptions about matchmaking.

Lin, Ken-Hou, and Jennifer Lundquist , “Mate Selection in Cyberspace: The Intersection of Race, Gender, and Education,” American Journal of Sociology, July 2013. Researchers find offline racial preferences persist online. Women, and to a lesser extent men, send messages primarily to others of the same race.

Rosenfeld, Michael J., and Reuben J. Thomas, “Searching for a Mate: The Rise of the Internet as a Social Intermediary,” American Sociological Review, June 13, 2012, Researchers compare partnership and breakup rates of couples who met online and offline and find no difference.

Smith, Aaron, and Maeve Duggan, “Online Dating & Relationships,” Pew Research Center, Oct. 21, 2013, A national survey of attitudes toward online dating finds growing use and acceptance.

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The Next Step

Mobile Apps

Huffman, Mark , “IBM finds most popular dating apps vulnerable to hackers,” Consumer Affairs, Feb. 13, 2015, An analysis of 41 mobile dating applications by IBM found 60 percent of them were susceptible to cyberattacks through smartphone cameras, microphones, GPS tracking and mobile billing.

Massa, Annie , “Tinder Plus Is Coming But You'll Have to Pay For it,” Bloomberg Business, Feb. 25, 2015, Dating website company IAC/InteractiveCorp will release a paid premium version of its Tinder app, though analysts expect few millennials will pay to use it at first.

Smith, Rachel, et al., “Invite-Only Dating App The League Caters to the Elite,” ABC News, March 10, 2015, The new invite-only dating app “The League,” which limits user membership based on referrals and applicants' social media accounts, has a waiting list of more than 100,000 people.


Cuda, Amanda , “Seniors embrace online dating,” The [Danbury, Conn.] News Times, March 7, 2015, Eleven percent of American adults, including 6 percent of those between 55 and 64 years old and 3 percent of those age 65 or older, use online dating platforms, according to a Pew Research Center study.

Leibowitz, Lauren , “The Way Most People Meet Their Significant Others Is Probably Not What You Think,” Mic, March 6, 2015, A survey of nearly 2,400 adults found nearly 40 percent of 18- to 34-year-olds met their significant other through mutual friends, compared to 10 percent who used online dating.

Molla, Rani , “The Current State of Online Dating,” The Wall Street Journal, Feb. 27, 2015, Nearly half of all online daters in the United States have been legally separated, widowed, divorced or are married, according to an annual survey by marketing research firm GfK MRI.

User Security

Landau, Joel , “Georgia robbers using dating app Jack'd to find victims: police,” The New York Daily News, March 2, 2015, Police officials said two armed robbers in Georgia communicated with a man using Jack'd, a gay dating and social networking website, to find out where he lived and when he would be home before robbing him.

Russon, Mary-Ann , “China shuts down 65 online dating sites on charges of fraud and online prostitution,” International Business Times, Feb. 17, 2015, China's Cyberspace Administration shut down 65 online dating sites, citing rampant fraud among users, online prostitution rings and user privacy concerns.


Lachapelle, Tara , “Diller's Dating Websites May Be Next Breakup Candidates,” Bloomberg News, Feb. 17, 2015, Analysts for the online dating industry speculate that websites and dating apps such as Tinder and would become more valuable if their holding company, IAC/InterActiveCorp, were to break up.

Ross, Terrance , “Where the Sugar Babies Are,” The Atlantic, Jan. 15, 2015, The phenomenon of “sugar babies” — young, attractive women who date older, more affluent “sugar daddies” for monetary compensation — gained popularity at U.S. colleges in 2014, according to data from the SeekingArrangement matchmaker service. The site promotes “upfront and honest arrangements with someone who will cater to your needs.”

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Dating Website Review
Reviews online dating services, follows industry trends and reports on scams.

555 W. 18th St., New York, NY 10011
Media and Internet company with more than 150 brands and products, including many of the largest online dating services, such as and OkCupid.

401 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 200, Santa Monica, CA 90401
Independent publisher of business intelligence, including industry research reports.

National Consumer League
1701 K St., N.W., Suite 1200, Washington, DC 20006
Consumer and workers' advocacy organization.

Online Personals Watch
Consultancy that tracks news and provides analysis of the online dating industry.

Pew Research Center
1615 L St., N.W., Suite 700, Washington, DC 20036
Nonpartisan think tank that conducts public opinion polling, demographic research and other data-driven social science research.

Scam Survivors
Volunteer organization that exposes cyberspace scammers, educates the public and counsels scam survivors.

255 Lytton Ave., Suite 200, Palo Alto, CA 94301
Media company that profiles information technology companies, reviews new Internet products and breaks industry news.

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[1] Jeremy Edwards, “Dating game: With increasing Internet penetration, online dating is on the rise,” IBISWorld, November 2014, pp. 27–33,; Aaron Smith and Maeve Duggan, “Online Dating & Relationships,” Pew Research Center, Oct. 21, 2013, pp. 2–3, 18,

[2] William Harms, “Meeting online leads to happier, more enduring marriages,” UChicago News, June 3, 2013,

[3] Paul Solman, “Using rational economics to simplify the search for romance,” PBS News Hour, Feb. 12, 2015,

[4] Smith and Duggan, op. cit., p. 17.

[5] Ibid., p. 13.

[6] Ken-Hou Lin and Jennifer Lundquist, “Mate Selection in Cyberspace: The Intersection of Race, Gender, and Education,” American Journal of Sociology, July 2013, p. 202.

[7] Eli J. Finkel, et al., “Online Dating: A Critical Analysis From the Perspective of Psychological Science,” Psychological Science in the Public Interest, January 2012,

[8] Ibid., p. 41.

[9] Eli J. Finkel, “In Defense of Tinder,” The New York Times, Feb. 6, 2015,

[10] Nick Bilton, “Tinder, the Fast-Growing Dating App, Taps an Age-Old Truth,” The New York Times, Oct. 29, 2014,

[11] Finkel, “In Defense of Tinder,” op. cit.

[12] Adam Tanner, “Even In The Tinder Era, Adultery Site Ashley Madison Keeps Making Money Hand Over Fist,” Forbes, Feb. 9, 2015,

[13] “eH+,” eHarmony,; also see

[14] Christina Chaey, “How eHarmony Plans to Use $5,000 Personal ‘Love Doctors’ to Find Your Internet Soulmate,” Fast Company, Nov. 1, 2013,

[15] JP Mangalindan, “How online ruined dating … forever,” Fortune, March 11, 2013,

[16] Ibid.

[17] Michael J. Rosenfeld and Reuben J. Thomas, “Searching for a Mate: The Rise of the Internet as a Social Intermediary,” American Sociological Review, June 13, 2012, pp. 523–547,

[18] John T. Cacioppo, et al., “Marital satisfaction and break-ups differ across on-line and off-line meeting venues,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, June 18, 2013,

[19] A quarter of the nation's households do not have Internet access, according to the latest census data. See press release, “Census Bureau's American Community Survey Provides New State and Local Income, Poverty, Health Insurance Statistics,” U.S. Census Bureau, Sept. 18, 2014,

[20] C. Stewart Gillmor, “Computers in Love: Stanford and the First Trials of Computer Date Matching,” Sandstone & Tile, Summer/Fall 2002, p. 6.

[21] Ibid.

[22] “216 Meets 14,” Time, Oct. 25, 1963, p. 102.

[23] Ibid., p. 102.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Nell Porter Brown, “The Originals: Matching them up,” Harvard Magazine, March-April 2003,

[27] Ibid.

[28] T. Jay Mathews, “Operation Match,” The Harvard Crimson, Nov. 3, 1965,

[29] Gene Shalit, “Boy … Girl … Computer: New dating craze sweeps the campus,” Look, February 1966,

[30] Ibid.

[31] “New Rules for the Singles Game,” LIFE, Aug. 18, 1967,

[32] Ibid.

[33] “How to be comfortable with computer dating,” LIFE, Aug. 8, 1969, p. NY1,

[34] Steven V. Roberts, “Often, Computers Spoil Cupid's Aim,” The New York Times, Dec. 25, 1970,

[35] Ibid.

[36] Finkel, et al., “Online Dating,” op. cit., p. 10.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Jeff Kauflin, “How's Founder Created The World's Biggest Dating Website — And Walked Away With Just $50,000,” Business Insider, Dec. 16, 2011,; Dan Slater, “Inside The Online Matchmaking Industry's Giant Blind Date,” Fast Company, Jan. 25, 2012,

[40] Ibid., Kauflin.

[41] “Match Timeline 1995–2014,”,

[42] Slater, op. cit.

[43] “Tour,” eHarmony,

[44] Kevin Poulsen, “How a Math Genius Hacked OkCupid to Find True Love,” Wired, Jan. 21, 2014,

[45] Dan Slater, Love in the Time of Algorithms: What Technology Does to Meeting and Mating (2013), p. 74.

[46] “Fast Facts,” PlentyofFish Press Centre,

[47] Maeve Duggan, “Online Harassment,” Pew Research Center, Oct. 22, 2014, pp. 5–6,

[48] Bye Felipe,

[49] Olga Khazan, “Rise of the Feminist Tinder-Creep-Busting Web Vigilante,” The Atlantic, Oct. 27, 2014,

[50] OKCThrowaway22221, “As a guy, I wanted to know what it was like to be a woman on a dating site, so I set up a fake profile and the end result was not something I was expecting,” TwoXChromosomes/reddit,

[51] Caitlin Dewey, “A wave of new dating sites attempts the impossible: getting rid of all the creeps,” The Intersect, The Washington Post, Sept. 30, 2014,

[52] John S. Hausman, “Alleged serial swindler of women turns himself in,” Muskegon Chronicle, Jan. 5, 2015,

[53] Ibid.

[54] John Kelly, “Love a man in uniform? Online dating scammers hope so,” The Washington Post, Feb. 25, 2015,

[55] “Lovers, beware: 'Tis the season for romance scams,” National Consumers League, February 2015,

[56] Keith Wagstaff, “Hook, Line and Tinder: Scammers Love Dating Apps,” NBC News, April 11, 2014,

[57] Christian Rudder, “We Experiment on Human Beings!” oktrends, July 28, 2014,

[58] Ibid.

[59] Ibid.

[60] Casey Sullivan, “OkCupid's Experiment May Have Broken FTC Rules,” Reuters, July 29, 2014,

[61] Ibid.

[62] Jamie Sheller, “The Mismatch Cupid,” The Legal Examiner, July 30, 2014,

[63] Smith and Duggan, op. cit., p. 3.

[64] Sai Sachin R, “UPDATE 2 — Barry Diller's IAC hit by slowing growth in dating business,” Reuters, Feb. 3, 2015,

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About the Author

Barbara Mantel, author of this week's edition of CQ Researcher

Barbara Mantel is a freelance writer in New York City. She was a 2012 Kiplinger Fellow and has won several journalism awards, including the National Press Club's Best Consumer Journalism Award and the Front Page Award from the Newswomen's Club of New York for her Nov. 1, 2009, CQ Global Researcher report “Terrorism and the Internet.” She holds a B.A. in history and economics from the University of Virginia and an M.A. in economics from Northwestern University.

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Document APA Citation
Mantel, B. (2015, March 20). Online dating. CQ Researcher, 25, 265-288. Retrieved from
Document ID: cqresrre2015032000
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