Online dating as a competitive sport

Since it’s Valentine’s Day tomorrow, we are all no doubt about to be bombarded with starry-eyed analyses of the dating scene, and how technology is playing an increasingly dominant role (dominant as in principal, not dominant as in 50 Shades of Grey, which I haven’t seen yet and hope to avoid). This report will be slightly different, as in no stars in eyes. True, there may be a dash of “Gee, things sure are different now” and a good dollop of “Things are getting interesting”, although my more literate colleagues will no doubt end up saying it better. My reaction – and while I’m sure I’m not alone in this, it is not the bemused, tech-centric view of most – is “When did dating get so competitive?”.

screenshot from Tinder

screenshot from Tinder

Online dating used to be something that we were embarrassed about. Surely we must be pathetic human beings if we have to advertise ourselves online to find a date, right? Even back then I always thought that it was seriously brave, figuring out what you wanted and then taking steps to increase your chances of getting it, however uncomfortable it made you. Now, it seems that everyone’s doing it. According to Pew Research, 60% of Americans believe that online dating is a good way to meet people, up from 45% in 2005.

In sync with the anthem “Love is a Battlefield”, online daters in general are in it to win. Obviously each has his or her own definition of winning, but the amount of time spent crafting the ideal profile and choosing the right platform, not to mention the sifting through the options and then filtering the actual dates… it all adds up to a significant investment. Which, obviously, needs to be profitable. An entire ecosystem has sprung up around these sites to help you “be a better you”, to hone your marketing, and to develop a strong strategy. It’s a competitive business. In spite of sites like Plenty of Fish implying by their name that there’s no rush, whatever, you know, we all deep down know that the good catches are going to be snapped up, so you have to get-your-game-on-get-on-the-ball-and-get-out-there, in the most likeable, attractive and interesting way possible.

It’s competitive. And articles with titles such as “How To Beat Your Online Dating Competition and Get To Him First”, “8 Genius Tips for Taking the Perfect Online Dating Profile Photo”, or “5 Data-Backed Tips to Boost Your Online Dating Game”, all try to show you that the secret to being successful at online dating is just knowing how. Get the formula, and stick to it. Earlier this month saw the launch of Ignite Your Match, a business whose purpose is to help users with their online dating profiles.

With so many “how to game the system” articles, you may be forgiven for thinking that it’s all about the data. Obviously, love isn’t about data. But online dating is. It’s about tweaking the photo, using the right keywords, controlling the amount of information you give. It’s about mathematical equations. Some dating sites, such as OK Cupid and eHarmony rely on algorithms to match you with someone with similar interests, based on questions you answer when you sign up.

So if it’s about data, and data can be manipulated, obviously the system can be manipulated. Amy Webb wrote a book – “Data, A Love Story” – about her (successful!) attempts to manipulate the online dating game, and you can see her very entertaining and recommendable TED talk on the subject here (“How I Hacked Online Dating”). Tales abound of studies done on the impact of one photo over another, or what happens when the photos are removed from the equation. Dating app Willow doesn’t show the photo first, as most do. First, you start a conversation based on questions submitted by other users. If you like the conversation, then you can go on to see a photo. OK Cupid tried a “blind date” experiment in which it removed the photos from its site for a few hours. It found that the number of messages sent plummeted to about a fifth of the typical level. Further experiments show a level of superficiality that could lead you to despair for the human race: the near-perfect correlation, for example, of personality ratings and looks ratings. We may despair, but how much of that is really a surprise?

image from datemypet.com

screenshot from datemypet.com

With manipulation part of the game, and with so many platforms to compete on, it does seem to many that online dating is becoming a competitive sport. It’s a numbers game, it’s a race against time, it’s becoming a social barometer against which to measure yourself. How are you doing compared to your peers? Not too well? Tweak your approach. Test. Iterate.

With so many individuals taking online dating seriously, it’s no wonder that new opportunities are springing up almost weekly. The competition is not just between daters, but also between platforms. It’s a huge and crowded space. Back in 2012, Online Dating Magazine (of course there’s a magazine exclusively about this enormous part of our single* lives), estimated that there are over 5,000 dating sites world-wide. IBISWorld gives the number of companies running dating platforms as 3,500, and several of those companies are running more than one site. Forbes refers to estimates of over 8,000 competitors worldwide (although it doesn’t give the source for those estimates).

(*Apparently as many as 40% of dating app users are married. Yikes.)

Given that the current market size is over $2 billion and is expected to continue to grow over the next five years, that’s a lot of reward for the few that make it. According to Forbes, only around 1% will be successful. But who will that be? As with most start-up sectors, it will be those with the largest user pool and/or the best user experience.

The top five are OKCupid, Plenty of Fish, Match, eHarmony, and Tinder. They have size going for them. But new, interesting models are showing up almost weekly. Bumble is like Tinder, only ladies make the first move, and it has to be within 24 hours. HowAboutWe asks users to post a date idea, to which other users can then opt in. Grouper takes shyness out of the equation by asking you to bring along two friends and then pairing you with another group of three. DateBrandonScottWolf.com lets you date Brandon Scott Wolf of Brooklyn, New York. Extra points for sense of humour.

As for the business models, they’re generally either advertising-based, or freemium-based (free for general use, you pay for extra functionality like an “undo” button in the case of Tinder, deeper statistics in the case of Plenty of Fish).

The success of Tinder and Happn show that there is a trend towards location-based matching, but the sector is also seeing some new activity in relationship-based introductions. Back in the old days, you used to rely on your friends to introduce you to friends of theirs that you might like. That’s not necessary any more, apps are springing up (Coffee Meets Bagel and Hinge are just two) to take the pressure off. These apps use your Facebook profile to see who you know, and who those people know, and who of those people might you be interested in.

The niche players could also have a lucrative idea. DateMyPet matches pet owners (we all know how important it is that your potential partner love your pet). Tastebuds compares iTunes playlists and introduces you to people who share your taste in music. SingleParents.ie helps you to meet other single parents in Ireland.

Some niche players are downright weird. There’s a dating site for clowns, the real kind. There’s a dating site for sea captains. There’s a dating site for moustache lovers, for My Little Pony Fans, and for those who like people in uniform. There’s even a dating site for people who work in the funeral sector. Mingle with your own, I suppose.

screenshot from deadmeet.com

screenshot from dead-meet.com

With over half of the over-16 population in England and in the US single, the potential market is huge, and the demand for the no-commitment I’m-just-looking approach to dating is growing. Competition is fierce, not just between platforms, but also within them. The number of how-to books and advice sites that have hit the market recently feed our feelings of urgency and inadequacy, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see some dating sites start to “rate” the dates according to their intelligence, kindness, looks, and how good they are at, um, conversation. At what stage will it stop being fun? When does too much pressure make it impossible to have a good time? What kind of dating scene do you want for your children, and what do you want them to think that relationships are for? Important issues, and food for thought. I believe that the proliferation of online dating platforms is empowering, but also belittling. However, the technology-enabled freedom of choice and an online voice that allows us to call out abuse and bad behavior make the incursion of the personal into the public realm a positive development, as long as we can keep the pressure down. Meanwhile, it’s certainly going to be interesting to watch.

Now I have to go and convince my husband that the dating sites that he caught me looking at earlier were entirely for research purposes.

And I’d wish you a Happy Valentine’s Day, but that would be pandering to the commercial conceit that love needs to be celebrated on a specific day, instead of every single day that we can. So, instead, I’m going to wish you a happy and heart-filled February 14th.

(This post appears in Spanish here.)

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