Editor’s Note: This article is a revised version of an article that appears in the May 2012 issue of The Social Media Monthly. If you like it, you might want to download The Social Media Monthly iPad app or iPhone app and subscribe, or order a print subscription.
Nary an arrow from Cupid’s quiver has stung as much as the volleys launched by dating sites against each other.
While one side is armed with complex personality tests, its opponents call them “gimmicks” and “pseudo-scientific love formulas.” “No algorithm can pinpoint exactly what makes two people spark,” another proclaims. Meanwhile, eHarmony – with its compatibility matching based on 29 dimensions of personality – boasts of being responsible for 5 percent of all marriages in the United States.
At stake in this battle is survival, the spoils of a multi-billion-dollar industry, and a title as the best dating site. So what really makes two people love each other? From Aristotle to today’s heartbroken teenagers, everyone has a different theory. Yet dating sites are implicitly answering this question by the ways they match people and by the information on profile pages. This article explores the philosophies of love at work beneath all the heart imagery, flattering photo angles, and never-ending quizzes.
Industry giant eHarmony was founded in 2000 by Dr. Neil Clark Warren, who spent over 30 years counseling married couples. This is when he discovered those 29 dimensions of compatibility that inform the site’s matching. eHarmony works by identifying your “core traits,” which probably won’t change, and your “vital attributes,” which are more pliable. To keep up with the latest science, eHarmony put together a team of PhDs in 2007 to head up eHarmony Labs. The Labs conduct research on relationship dynamics, some of which helps improve eHarmony itself.
With over 20 million registered users, eHarmony takes an active stand against other dating sites’ approaches, like interest-based matching. “eHarmony matches singles based on a deeper level of compatibility, not likes and dislikes,” the site explains. “Do you and your potential mate resolve conflict in a similar fashion? Are you both romantics at heart?” It also denounces chemistry: “Almost all marriages start out with good chemistry, yet 3 out of 4 couples end up unhappy or divorced.”
Match.com has spawned two dating sites that have a similar philosophy. Chemistry.com is based on the research of Dr. Helen Fisher, TED speaker and author of “Why We Love.” Its personality test asks about traits like risk aversion, spontaneity, and emotional intelligence, and also makes hopeful singles measure their index and ring fingers and judge smiles for phoniness. Based on that, you’re assigned one of four personality types:
- “Explorers are spontaneous, creative, and open-minded.
- Directors are decisive, focused, and independent.
- Negotiators are imaginative, empathetic, and nurturing.
- Builders are social, loyal, and dependable.”
On the other side of the battlefield are the skeptics: they doubt that these personality tests can predict long-term relationship bliss, and instead talk about chemistry (in one form or another).
Brian Bowman, theComplete.me’s founder and CEO, says that “recent research has shown that none of the ‘scientific’ compatibility formulas used by the leading dating sites actually work.” He’s referring to a January 2012 paper in Psychological Science in the Public Interest, whose conclusions are slightly less strong. Although dating sites keep their algorithms secret, the paper explains, the types of factors they use to match people – mainly similarities and differences between them – are “unlikely” to have more than a small effect on long-term relationship success.
Sparkology, the elite dating site where men from top universities pay to message women, belongs to the same school of thought. “You, our human client, are far too complex to be predicted by a personality test,” their website says. Rather than do matching, Sparkology just reorders the profiles you see based on your clicks, views, messages, likes/dislikes, and blocks on the site.
Despite eHarmony’s protests, many dating sites have come to the conclusion that shared interests fuel romance. TheComplete.me, which pulls “likes” from your Facebook profile, shies away from predicting who will catch your eye other than using basic factors like age, sex, and location. Instead, it encourages singles to browse the site and connect based on shared interests, activities, passions, and beliefs.
TheComplete.me falls into ranks with tons of other niche dating sites: religion-based sites like Jewish JDate, VeggieDate for vegetarians, Cupidtino for Apple fans, The Atlasphere for Ayn Rand fans, and FarmersOnly for, well, farmers only. The list goes on.
Try as they might to get love to blossom across a computer screen, some dating sites know that it’s hard to calculate which couples will have that “spark” in real life – or the “zsa zsa zsu,” as Carrie Bradshaw put it in “Sex and the City.” So they are taking online dating offline.
For example, Match.com recently introduced The Stir: live events like happy hours, cooking classes, wine and tequila tastings, bowling nights, and dance lessons coming to cities nationwide by September. The company chooses who attends each event based on an algorithm similar to Sparkology’s: it tailors your matches based on the way you browse and interact on the site. This technique works because while a woman might say she’s looking for a dark-haired family man, she could spend her evenings fawning over the Match.com profiles of rebellious blonde guys.
Going a step further, HowAboutWe wants you to skip all the awkward messaging and false expectations and put yourself out there. You post date ideas starting with “How about we…” – from as tame as “go for coffee” to as wild as “watch a cockfight in Calcutta, find the elusive jaguar shark, and then dance around to Michael Jackson” (and more).
Cheek’d reverses traditional online dating by selling sets of sleek, black business cards to hand out at the bar, with lines like “Act natural. We can get awkward later” or “I’m hitting on you” or “Emotionally available.” If your crush is intrigued, they can log onto Cheek’d to see a simple profile with some cute factoids about you, like your latest passport stamp and most played iPod song.
Meanwhile, Nerve tries to make the online environment just like the offline one, filling it with chats, conversations, and Q&A. “There is some kind of invisible magic to compatibility that continues to defy reason, explanation, and above all else, what people think they want,” says Nerve’s Mike DiBenedetto, marketing. “Talk to anyone using these dating sites about their experiences, and you'll hear the same story again and again. They loved everything about this person on paper, but when they got to having a conversation with them, there was just no spark.”
Friends Know Best
The latest trend in online dating is taking us back to the past: the days when your best friend set you up on a blind date with her cute next-door neighbor. This includes sites that limit the dating pool to friends of friends – arguing that you’ll have more in common, it’s safer, and it’s more natural.
“The user experience with traditional online dating is not much better than abysmal, as singles find themselves afloat in a sea of unreferenced e-strangers,” says Friendlylook co-founder Trevor Chidester. “Friendlylook is modeled exactly on how we socialize with our single friends in real life.” On sites like Friendlylook and LikeBright, you can digitally “vouch” for your friends and help them change their relationship status.
As more and more dating sites emerge, the battle between the personality testers and the skeptics will continue. It’s ultimately up to psychologists to settle the issue. In the meantime, though, user loyalty is what matters. So whose side are you on, singles?