Online dating is sometimes portrayed as the ultimate solution to finding our romantic partner. But many people who use it are still struggling to find someone. The brief history of online dating shows us that it has changed things, but not as much as we may hope or expect. When we realise this we can then use it in a helpful way. 

I really enjoy podcasts. I’m always on the lookout for new and interesting ones. From sport to politics, to business, to everyday stories, and everything in between. I came across one recently that looked at the first business to use computers to match people for dates, and then it charted a brief history of online dating.

It’s called ‘Operation Match’ and is part of the series called ‘Undone’. It’s 30 minutes long and really interesting. For example, it points out that online dating originally happened offline!

Operation Match

He was using computers to match people to go on dates

A student at Harvard university started the Operation Match business. He asked people to fill in a long questionnaire and post (as in stamp and envelope) in their answers. These would be fed into one of the world’s first computers at the university, and then after it generated matches the appropriate people’s names and telephone numbers would be posted back to you.

This was happening before the internet, but it really is the beginning of online dating. It was using computers and complex maths to match compatible people to go on dates.

It’s a fascinating podcast and I hope you listen to it when you get the time. There were a few things that stood out to me as I listened, and a few things I think we can learn from this brief history of online dating.

Then and Now

You hear the story from a woman called Andrea. She is currently on the dating scene. She cannot find anyone in her every day offline social circles and really wants this to change. Andrea turned to online dating many years ago. Unfortunately, it isn’t going well.

She says she is using all of the dating apps and websites to try and find someone. She is clearly getting more and more frustrated, she thought she would have found someone by now.

It can lead to marriage but that’s definitely not always the case

Another woman called Anita tells us her story about her dating journey. She dated in the 1960’s. Anita had similar frustrations to Andrea. She was going to parties, looking for someone to find a romantic relationship with, and it wasn’t happening. So she turned to the Operation Match business.

This did lead to a good date, and ultimately a marriage that has lasted 50 years.

These two stories are important because many online dating services (unintentionally) lead us to believe that computers and the internet can match us up with someone who is ‘perfect’. They can lead us to our ‘soul mate’. As we can see from these two stories, it can lead to marriage but that’s definitely not always the case.

I have always said that if I invented online dating I would have called it ‘online introductions’

It Found Dates, Not Spouses

I have always said that if I invented online dating I would have called it ‘online introductions’. It sounds boring and uninspiring I know, (which is why I’m not in marketing). However, I always say that online dating isn’t dating, it’s an online introduction.

We form romantic relationships in the day to day real life. Not with a screen. Don’t get me wrong, I think online dating is a good thing if it’s used well, but no computer will ever be able to make us fall in love. We still build a relationship offline, even if we meet online.

Interestingly, this Harvard student said this himself. He said the service was about finding dates, not spouses. It was a dating experience and not a mating experience. The podcast also mentions growing research that claims no computer can match ‘soul mates’. (Read Technology and Relationships: Swipe Left or Right?)

It cannot find out about an entire person or evaluate things like sense of humour. It can only suggest people you may have a good date with.

This was said and backed-up by one of the creators of one of the biggest dating sites today called OkCupid. He says the idea is to get you out on dates, it can’t do more than that (he honestly says this, listen to the podcast).

Back To Focusing On Looks

This is why, some argue, apps like tinder are on the rise. Many people and dating sites are putting less and less faith in the ‘matching formula’. This means we have gone back to the ‘party rules for dating’. By which I mean, you go to a party, if you like the look of them, then you start talking and getting to know each other.

The matching element is therefore reduced dramatically in some dating apps and websites and they become very visual and picture focused. Maybe only location or gender is used in the matching process.

Good Tweaks

It’s clear that online dating hasn’t transformed our romantic relationships, but it has changed them, and it can help.

It isn’t a solution to all of our romantic problems. It’s another way of meeting people

Let me say again, I’m a fan of online dating when it’s done well. I think there does need to be a good level of matching analysis done by the app or website, but there’s no guarantee it’ll bring us a match for life, or any match. It isn’t a solution to all of our romantic problems. It’s another way of meeting people. But a very good way to meet people we wouldn’t usually meet.

This came out strongly by the end of the podcast. Unlike before, when people could only go to parties or blind dates and meet people nearby, the internet now means we can meet more people than before. And we can decide the parameters. For example, the area they live, the age range., etc. The parameter isn’t just whoever came to the party.

It means we can be active as well. (Read my post about activeness here) you can join a dating site, start searching, and be involved. This is a good thing and can help us think through what type of relationship we want to build.

Bad Tweaks

we can still only fall in love face to face and not facing a screen

However, online dating, offline dating, dating then and dating now, involves lots of time, worry, nervousness and emotional energy. The bottom line is, we can still only fall in love face to face and not facing a screen.

The worry is that sometimes the perception is that online dating takes all of this away. But if we remember it can’t, and think about it bringing more introductions and getting us out there meeting people, then it can be a good benefit.

Imagine If…

Imagine if next time we use online dating or talk to someone about it, we remember it’s not online dating, but an online introduction. Online dating is just part of us building healthy, enjoyable romantic relationships.

What has surprised you, or your friends, about online dating? (Comments welcomed below)