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Online Dating in an Algorithm World

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It's the middle of peak season for the online dating industry. As the calendar inches closer to Valentine's Day, I know that you have many choices with the thousands of online dating sites that have popped up in recent years. Perhaps you'll select one that you've viewed on television showing the happy success couples. Maybe your cousin's engaged to a guy she met online and you select that site to dip a digital toe in.

But do you ever wonder what happens behind the scenes at the online dating sites? Did you know you could find a date or a mate based on medical issues, pets or ethnicity? Did you ever wonder why you were being asked so many questions while setting up your profile? These questions create the dating algorithms that some believe will increase your chances of finding a better match.

At the recent Internet Dating Conference (iDate) in Las Vegas, I had the chance to speak with writer Dan Slater about his new book, Love in the Time of Algorithms. As an online dating executive, I've read the book from cover-to-cover before interviewing Slater. Here's his insight to the online dating industry.

Q: What inspired you to write a book about online dating?

A: It certainly wasn't one thing, and I wasn't dying to write this book my entire life. Around the time that I lost my job at the Wall Street Journal, I also become single at the age of 31. I started using online dating sites for the first time and saw how different the process was. A year later, I found out my parents met through a computer dating service in the '60s. I went to iDate in 2011 to learn about the business and wrote an article in GQ, which became a launching pad for the book idea.

Q: In The Atlantic article, "A Million First Dates," you take the position that online dating threatens monogamy. Do you believe that people don't want to connect long-term or that they just don't want to get married?

A: The Atlantic article was an excerpt of the book. The article framed monogamy in a way that made the meaning different from what the meaning was in the book itself. As far as the demise of monogamy, that was not the point I was making.

I think monogamy and commitment are two different terms. Monogamy is about loyalty; about fidelity to the person you are with. Commitment, in my mind, defines the level of engagement in a relationship and the speed that someone moves through relationships.

People who are in relationships, which aren't fantastic, might have stayed together before. I think the new availability of meeting new people though online dating makes it easier to leave a relationship and find someone better.

Q: Do you think the dating algorithms help to create better matches and better relationships?

A: I'm somewhere in between where the academics of the world say [on one hand] and eHarmony [on the other hand]. I don't believe a computer can predict long-term compatibility or long-term relationship success. If you interview online daters, you'll find many who are unhappy with the technology, but will find others who think it's kind of amazing.

Online dating is getting better at predicting who would get along on a first date. As the technology evolves, it's a good chance that it will get even better.

Q: In your book, you referenced the 2010 U.S. census statistic that 39 percent believe marriage will become obsolete. Do you agree?

A: No. I don't think that marriage will become obsolete. I think that's absurd. You don't stomp out a business model. People who are in successful marriages will tell you that marriage is one of the best things that has ever happened in their lives.

Q: If you suddenly became single, which dating sites would you sign up for?

A: It's hard to say. It would depend on what age I was and what period and time it would have happened. I would be influenced by the media and influenced by what people I know are doing. Generally, I'd look for the size of the population and a site with a certain degree of searching capability.

Q: With the announcement of Facebook's Graph Search, how do you think that will affect the traditional online dating sites?

I don't think there's going to be an immediate impact on the online dating industry. In the long-term, it can be helpful, as it will further erode whatever reluctance people have to meet and date new people online. Facebook is considered mainstream. Once people experience dating on Facebook, it sends society a huge message that any stigma attached to this is now gone. That's how it could help the online dating industry.

One of the ways that big sites make money is by having anonymous profiles. If people come to expect non-anonymity in dating, then what happens to those paid sites? To me, that's a pretty interesting question, but that's a way off.

Q: Do you think social media hurts or helps relationships?

I think it's very challenging to be forming relationships these days, especially online with Facebook around. In the old days, you'd meet someone, whether online or offline, and you'd gradually meet during phone calls and face-to-face meetings. Now you go home and friend each other on Facebook and you're suddenly exposed to all of this information on Google, Facebook and Linkedin. You don't know them, but you have all of this information. It's hard to form the trust you need when you can see each other's lives play out online. There's a big disconnect between what you think you know and what you actually know.

Q: Do you believe that singles can find love with mobile dating apps or will they remain predominantly for hook-ups?

I think mobile has a long way to go in terms of societal acceptance. It's such a radical departure from what online daters are used to. If you look at the history of online dating over the first 10 to 15 years, it's developed in terms of more efficiency. What does mobile dating do? It's just one more step towards efficiency. My hunch is one day it will be the norm, once people learn to use it in a way that's more satisfying to them and not threatening.

Q: What's next for Dan Slater?

A: I'm a journalist and was a lawyer for a brief period of time. I want to write. I loved immersing myself in this subject for the two-plus years that I did. It was a fascinating subject to explore. I don't think I have much more to say. I will now be a lifetime follower of the industry and who the players are as well.

You can visit ByDanSlater.com for more information on Love in the Time of Algorithms.

Julie Spira is a leading online dating expert and CEO of Cyber-Dating Expert. She creates irresistible profiles for singles on the dating scene. For online dating advice, follow @JulieSpira on Twitter and at Facebook.com/CyberDatingExpert.