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Dating Sites Are the New Parents

Online dating has never been more popular or powerful. And it can be just as controlling as mom and dad.
 
 
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Despite the fact that you, your best friend or your dad (or all three) are probably on some form of online dating site, Pew research released recenty found that 21 percent of people still find online dating “desperate.” This is even true for 13 percent of people who online date. This would seem like bad news (unless you’re one of the many who  use and hateFacebook), and Slate’s Amanda Hess  declared it the death of the traditional dating site. She cited the rise of Tinder, a location-based app that’s simpler than OkCupid and requires daters to sign in through Facebook.

It’s telling, though, that Hess believes dating sites will be supplanted not by a return to older models (running into people at parties and asking if they like hummus, say), but by “the full integration of the Internet into our romantic lives,” a time when “we will feel less incentivized to segregate our online romantic dealings from our digital business connections and social spaces.” Basically, no matter what it looks like, humans are going to continue doing a lot of their dating on the Internet, and that gives whoever administers Internet dating enormous power.

As sociologist Michael Rosenfeld has  noted, our parents used to have a lot of influence over whom we dated and married. That influence has dwindled, replaced in part by colleges and friends and social groups and the kind of serendipity endlessly chronicled in romantic comedies. Some of online dating’s biggest critics imagine a time when all meets were cute, and while it’s not true that we were all tripping over our intendeds’ dog leashes before the advent of OkCupid, it is true that for a time people relied on a more cobbled-together series of possible-love-connection venues.

But what’s interesting about online dating, whether it looks more like OkCupid or more like Tinder, is that it has the potential to be a lot more managed, and a lot more top-down, than its real-world alternatives. If the landscape of parental influence gave way to a landscape of disorganized partygoing and drink-having, then the new landscape of services that bring people together based on certain rules and algorithms looks almost … parental.

 

Some dating sites grill potential partners about their intentions just like parents used to. And even the more laid-back ones have the potential to be more controlled — and possibly controlling — than running into someone on the street.

Maybe the future of fully social-networked online dating will be just as decentralized and scattershot as a bar scene. Then again, the most successful dating services tend to be the ones with the most users — and between a world of a bunch of tiny social networks and a world of big, huge powerful ones, I know which one the V.C. money’s behind.

Which means that a few online dating networks — whether linked up to our existing social networks or not — are going to have a lot of influence over how human mating works. They may not choose mates for us the way parents sometimes used to, but they’ll have an influence over how we choose.

Take OkC’s recent  move to allow users to “filter” their matches by body type. For an extra fee, you can now see only matches who describe themselves as “skinny” or “curvy” or one of around 10 other types. “People have strong preferences on body type,” co-founder Sam Yagan told the “Today” show. “We might as well just let them admit that and save everyone some time.”

Plenty of people do have such preferences, and certainly they do a kind of “filtering” in real life. But online (and I’m far from the first to point this out), a filter might mean you never see people who don’t match your criteria. You don’t have the opportunity to decide if a certain person is the exception to your self-imposed rule, because all such people are effectively dead to you (and, significantly, the body type descriptions you can choose among are dictated by the site itself).

 
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