My latest story in Maclean’s is about the ubiquitous phenom that is Online Dating:

Online dating and the search for true love — or loves

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Naturally, my favourite part of the assignment was learning about the history of the matchmaking industry.

Here were my findings (in their expanded, pre-editors’ cut version):

As the story goes, the first-ever matchmaker made his first-ever match in a village called Charan, in what is now Turkey. In the Bible (Genesis 24), Abraham sends the loyal servant Eliezer to find a suitable wife for his son Isaac: who, at the ripe age of 40, wasn’t getting any younger. En route to Mesopotamia, Eliezer finds Rebekah drinking at a village well and—after subjecting her to a brief test of virtue—brings her home for Isaac. The two married; love ensues.

The semi-professional matchmaker has been at it for centuries. Priests, clergy members and rabbis have often been matchmakers on the sly. Elderly female neighbours lent a hand too—none more famously, perhaps, than the meddling Yenta of the 1964 musical Fiddler on the Roof, whose unappetizing buffet of mates inspired the now-classic song “Matchmaker, Matchmaker.”

Computer-mediated dating predates Yenta herself. In 1959, a group of students at Stanford University developed “The Happy Families Planning Services:” as a final project for their undergraduate mathematics course. They programmed the world’s first mass-produced computer, IBM 650, to match up 49 men and 49 women—using their answers to a basic questionnaire, which collected information on height, weight, favorite hobbies and religion. The project—this first effort at computerized matchmaking—received an “A” and resulted in a single marriage. Soon after, Harvard University students launched their own version of the computer matchmaker: this time, sending questionnaires out to campuses nation-wide.

But computers didn’t gain a clear lead. The 70s saw the rise (and quick fall) of video-dating: facilitated by companies that would record and short video-clips of prospective daters, and then play them for other potential daters. The 1980s, by contrast, witnessed a resurgence of the printed personal ad—even as computerized bulletin boards were gaining ground.

In 1995, Match.com was live and the industry changed forever. The venture—which took the lead from a number of less-successful sites—had some serious backing: a Stanford MBA by the name of Gary Kremen, and his $1.7 million in venture capital. A year later, the US-based site had 60,000 users, though only 5% of Americans had Internet access. By 2012, Match.com, the world’s largest online dating site, claimed 1.8 million subscribers.

By some accounts, one in five relationships today begin online. Within the US market, an estimated 30 million customers (1 in 3 singles) use online dating sites. As of 2011, 18-29-year-olds made up 44% of that market, with 30-49-year-olds pulling in 35%. A 2009 study suggests that the average user spends 22 minutes a day online dating.

The online dating industry has worked hard for those numbers, evolving in what is sometimes described as three evolutionary phases. Phase 1, which began with Match.com, was about putting personal ads online. Those early sites worked via browsing: eventually, with the help of sophisticated search filters. Users had full control: to filter matches on criteria like religion, height and income level. Or to keyword search for favourite bands, books or travel destinations.

Phase II came in 2000, with the inception of eHarmony and its algorithms. A new class of dating sites was born, which touted “algorithm-based matching” and “science-based” compatibility spotting. These sites generally rely on extensive profile-building questionnaires. User control was, to varying degrees, handed over to mystery equations.

Phase 3, which began in 2008 when Apple Inc. launched its App Store, took everything from Phase 2, added GPS technology and made it mobile and social. We now at algorithmic-based social-network-linkable dating-on-the-run.

RIP kismet? 

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