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Love in the Time of Algorithms: What Technology Does to Meeting and Mating

Dan Slater

(Penguin; US: Jan 2013)

These days you can sift through thousands of potential mates’ profiles on dozens of online dating sites without breaking a sweat. We used to be limited in our choice of significant other by the small number of people we might encounter due to social and geographical constraints. Now anyone can peruse countless profiles of people we would likely never have met if it weren’t for the Internet. Contacting them is easy, going out on a first date is exciting even if it doesn’t end well, and there’s always that potential of finding The One. If that’s what you’re after.


Is all this choice messing with our sense of romance, our ability to commit? Are we missing the point of why online dating was developed in the first place? Dan Slater rolls up his sleeves and dives into the foundations of computer-mediated dating to investigate how this industry became the powerhouse that it is today.


It used to be taboo to admit you met someone online, especially in the dating context, but online dating has definitely gone mainstream. Slater notes couples from ten years ago who would have lied at their own weddings about where they met, when now the stats show that online connections are responsible for more than one in five marriages in the United States today. And now, people are willing to talk about it.


A hookup or relationship is not always the goal or ideal outcome. I got my start as a podcaster when a guy I met on Plenty of Fish and I discovered a shared love of podcasts, though we didn’t share any physical attraction. We became friends and launched The Dating Digital Podcast. After a year of podcasting, we ran out of fodder from our own experiences with online dating and ended up letting the show lapse, but it was a fun way to share what we had learned with a wider community. At the risk of revealing my own potential bias in favor of online dating, we both met our current partners online and had to admit we should pass the torch to those currently part of the scene to give advice and recommendations to listeners.


With online dating, people will take chances, talk long distance with strangers, and even move across countries to try a life with someone they’d never have crossed paths with in the past. They also go out on one-off blind dates that often end badly—but they had to take a chance, right?


Online dating has exploded in the past ten years, though it has earlier roots than you might imagine. Slater gets into the nitty-gritty of the origins of online dating, starting with college computer geeks who fed survey data into early computers. On the other end the printer spit out five or ten matches based on a small number of preferences, such as how much sexual experience the respondents had. One of those early computers spit out the match that resulted in Slater’s parents meeting and getting married.


These days there are conferences dedicated to the science behind matchmaking and there is a niche dating site for just about every religion and hobby, give or take. Slater just spoke at the annual iDate “super conference” in Las Vegas in January 2013 (see video at the end of this review). iDate 2011 in Miami is where Love in the Time of Algorithms launches, with Slater there, appropriately enough, with an online date in tow.


Slater notes that in 2010 about 30 million single people in the United States had a profile on at least one online dating site. He delves into what differentiates the major sites from each other (eHarmony.com, Match.com, PlentyofFish, the list goes on), and reveals bits of the algorithms and formulas that match users up and keep them coming back for more.


The efficiency of online dating has convinced some that the future will hold more divorce and less commitment. It’s just so easy now to logon and find someone new. We keep setting the bar for a mate higher, we make our self-assessments more lofty. We’re losing our fear of being alone forever as meeting someone online becomes more and more common among friends and coworkers. As Slater wrote in a recent piece in The Atlantic (“A Million First Dates”) the profit models of online dating sites mean they’re not really invested in helping us find long term love, and people’s expectations of their perfect match keeps getting higher.


While reading Love in the Time of Algorithms it seemed like everywhere I turned I saw another news story about online dating or heard the topic discussed on one of the many podcasts I pass the time with during my daily commute. A February episode of Spark included an interview with Sam Yagin, CEO of OkCupid and a major player in Slater’s book. (Full disclosure: I’m a little partial to OkCupid myself, just saying.) Host Nora Young went out of her way to get lots of listeners’ input and viewpoints from a bunch of different demographics, including online dating for the elderly.


Whether you see it as a money-making machine, a sad indicator of the way technology is taking over our lives, or the root of all your happiness, online dating seems here to stay. With countless apps for meeting potential partners in close geographical proximity (Grindr, Blendr), and mobile apps for dating networks so that you can connect wherever you are, whenever you want, we’re spoiled for choice. And it’s up to each of us to decide if choice is what we’re after, or if we can stay focused long enough to find the right match among all the potential out there. Slater provides a great overview of where online dating came from, and where it’s headed.

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Lara co-hosts and produces the long-running tech and social media HD video podcast, commandN. She works in information management in Atlantic Canada after completing a professional Master's program in Library and Information Studies (MLIS) in 2010. Lara holds an MA in literature from Durham University (UK), and a BA from Boston College (US) in English and philosophy. She has been writing for PopMatters since early 2007. Her favorite authors include Haruki Murakami, Salman Rushdie, Jeffrey Eugenides, and Jasper Fforde. You can often find Lara on Twitter @larakillian.


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