For years, online dating sites have promised that their almighty algorithms could turn strangers into soulmates.
But recent research suggests that their love-engineering is about as foolproof as flirting with random people at a bar, and a new breed of dating sites are using social networks, rather than science, to help singles find romance.
Online dating services such as theComplete.me and Circl.es are looping singles' friends into the matchmaking process in an effort to connect people to each other's acquaintances and keep suitors from weaving the kind of elaborate fictions that characterize many profiles on traditional dating sites.
"Facebook has created a shift from online dating to social dating," said online dating expert Julie Spira. "Facebook technically could be the world's largest dating site. And if you look at these new players, they're taking advantage of the fact that they have this fabulous universe of people."
Facebook revolutionized the web by replacing screen names with real names, and now online dating startups are following suit with features that eliminate anonymity. The creators of these sites say this shift will help keep users honest and accountable for their actions, which in turn should help people find better matches, lessen the stigma attached to many matchmaker sites, and make online dating feel more like offline dating.
"You can't put up a fake picture and misrepresent yourself on Facebook when you have 600 friends," said Circl.es founder Justin Krause. "This is a better system because it cuts through the crap. It's real. You can tell whether someone is legit."
Traditional online matchmakers have served up a courtship process that looks a lot like online shopping: Users browse photos hoping to find something (or someone) they like, then choose a product (or person) to engage with offline. Both are solitary exercises that often yield an experience far different from what the picture promised, and users' inboxes are flooded with irrelevant emails for weeks afterward.
But browsing these new social dating services can feel like a series of blind dates, only speedier and more efficient. All sync with Facebook, and most are free.
Rather than sorting through nonsense nicknames attached to suspiciously flattering photos, users can see other singles' full names, the friends they have in common, the pictures they've used as their Facebook profile photos, and, depending on their privacy settings, their hometown, alma mater, interests and employer.
Acquaintable, which bills itself as a tool for "connecting friends-of-friends," shows people's mutual friends and connects two users only after both have said they'd like to "get acquainted" with each other.
Other social dating services, such as Yoke.me and theComplete.me, match singles based on personal information shared on Facebook, so one person who loves the Black Eyed Peas and went to Harvard University could be matched with another who adores Lady Gaga and graduated from Yale. Yoke.me, which was created by two former Huffington Post employees, even invites friends to play matchmaker and set up singles they think would hit it off.
Circl.es, branded a site for "people who hate online dating," shows only "real" people who live nearby: Each profile includes the individual's full name, along with other details pulled from Facebook.
The entrepreneurs behind these social dating services hope that marrying users' offline identities with their online personas will dissuade people from making inappropriate advances, and take some of the awkwardness out of meeting people face-to-face. The personal information these sites provide can serve as an ice-breaker, and users can follow up with mutual friends to fact check others' claims.
"It just takes the stigma attached to online dating -- ‘Is this person really who they say they are?' -- and melts it away when you realize you know someone in common," said Brian Bowman, CEO of theComplete.Me. "It's like you met them through a friend."
TheComplete.Me also uses its connection with Facebook to shame its users into good behavior. The company blocks anyone who lists their relationship status as "married" from registering for the app, and assumes that the awkwardness of a wife having to explain to her husband why she's changed her status to "single" will keep unfaithful couples off the service.
Yoke.me seeks to emulate the experience of being set up by friends, but gives singles more control over the process: Rather than waiting for an acquaintance to make an introduction, users can actively search for potential love interests among their wider circle of friends. No one need ever know the couple met through an online dating app.
"Most dates are set up through friends, but most dating sites have nothing to do with friends. It's the opposite: Those are places people go to hide," said Rob Fishman, CEO of Kingfish Labs, which created Yoke.me, and former social media editor at The Huffington Post. "Dating sites now are all cold calling. They don't take advantage of the fact that there's a social network."
Despite all the features offered by these niche dating sites, established dating services still boast one key advantage: mass. Circl.es, which launched in March, has just 5,000 members. According to analytics site AppData, two month-old theComplete.me has 20,000 monthly active users and Yoke, which launched in March, has 7,000. Match.com and eHarmony boast 20 million and more than 33 million users, respectively.
The new dating sites are also limited by the quality and comprehensiveness of the information their users have shared on Facebook. Facebook is a social network, not a dating site, and many users tailor their profile for an audience of friends, family and colleagues, not necessarily lovers. While the site might offer up details about someone's favorite songs and sports teams, it won't necessarily dive deeper into how he or she feels about smokers, single parents and extramarital sex.
"I hope there will be a lot of success stories, but I know Facebook doesn't want to be a dating site," Spira said. "I know a lot of people who, when they go on Facebook, look at it as a social network for friends. People feel a little creepy when they get hit on through Facebook."
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