Online matchmaking has radically changed the way people search for love.
Digital marketplaces for romance offer more choice, fewer constraints, and potentially less risk than “traditional” ways of finding prospective mates. How much has this changed the nature and quality of people’s romantic relationships?
In a similar way, digital labour market platforms change matchmaking for workers and employers, and how work is organised. But how much will they change the nature of employment relationships and the quality of jobs?
Maybe we can find some answers, or at least some good questions, by looking at the rise of online matchmaking.
This striking chart is from Disintermediating your friends, a new National Academy of Sciences research paper by Michael Rosenfeld, Reuben J. Thomas & Sonia Hausen. It presents USA data for heterosexual couples aged 19+ from the How Couples Meet and Stay Together (HCMST) surveys of 2009 and 2017.1
How heterosexual couples in the USA met, by year of relationship start
Within a generation, meeting online became the most common way for heterosexual relationships to start. They disrupted the old market in two waves, “disintermediating” friends and workplaces from their role in matchmaking. Families (mostly mothers), neighbours, churches and schools were already going out of business.
The first wave of online matchmaking kicked off around 1995 with graphical internet browsers and the unforgettable (no matter how hard I try) schmaltz of You’ve Got Mail (1998). The proportion of new relationships that started online plateaued around 20% in the mid-naughties and up to this point, they hadn’t much affected the role friends played in setting up relationships.*
Smartphones triggered the second wave, shifting the dating market from the desktop to everywhere. Relationships started online overtook meeting via friends by 2013 and reached nearly 40% by 2017. Phone dating apps such as Tinder were now replacing rather than complementing the role of friends.
For same-sex couples, the change was greater and much faster. Meeting online surpassed meeting via friends in 2001, rocketing to nearly 70% by 2009. This next chart is from Rosenfeld and Thomas’s 2012 analysis of the first 2009 wave of HCMST data (I’ve not found an update using the 2017 data).2
Three key drivers revolutionised the market for love:
- It happened because people prefer it. A great many people choose online matchmaking because they consider it offers benefits that outweigh its downsides. Compared to family, friends and other personal networks, online matchmaking offers more choice of potential partners, more discretion and anonymity, and less social pressure in gathering information, making first contact, and declining or breaking things off.
- People in thin markets, and “outsiders” to established systems benefit most and adopt fastest. Gay and lesbian people are searching for a small minority of people in the crowd. So are middle-aged heterosexuals, as their demographic is mostly partnered already. These are the groups most likely to use meet their partners online, despite what you hear of those tech-savvy millennial hooker-uppers.3 People seeking same-sex partners can also face risks and costs to being open in their search, and traditional systems (church, family workplaces) never served them well. Hence their incredibly rapid adoption of online matchmaking.
- Tech changes multiplied each other’s effect. Online matchmaking took off like a multistage rocket: slow at first, then accelerating in stages as new technologies built upon each other from text internet to graphical browsers, broadband, AI matching, geo-tracking and smartphones. Imagine the impossible task of a “market regulator” observing and trying to respond to the pace and direction of change at any stage in the launch sequence.
Technological changes that affect something as socially fundamental as sexual relationships and family formation are bound to raise big questions and prompt concerns, just as they do in relation to the future of work.
Societies will differ widely, but for the USA, the HCMST research suggests that fears a tech-driven dating apocalypse4 is undermining stable relationships are over-hyped or simply false. Matchmaking has changed, but relationships themselves are going steady.
- Heterosexual couples who met online are more likely to move in together and to marry, to do so sooner, and to report slightly higher marital satisfaction than those who met through friends.
- There is no association between how couples meet and the longevity of relationships.
- Cheaters seem to prefer the old methods. Of the married heterosexuals who reported dating or hooking up with people other than their spouse, few did so using dating apps (16% for men, 12% for women).
- “Hook-up culture” may be a real thing, but most heterosexual singles are not dating extensively. And people’s dating behaviour changes with time – generally towards seeking longer-term relationships. And it appears that young people are having less sex5, to the extent that some worry online technology may be getting in the way.
Online dating doesn’t lead people to shed all their preferences and habits for dating within their own ethnic, religious and class groups. Some researchers have been surprised at how little such dating preferences have shifted. But if intermarriage is the goal, there’s been progress. Ethnic intermarriage in the USA stepped up following the launch of successive new matchmaking platforms: Match.com in 1995, OKCupid in 2004 and Tinder in 2012.6
Percentage of interracial marriages among newlyweds in the US
Lessons for digital labour market platforms and the future of work
Digital platforms aren’t just changing how people find love. They offer an expanding variety of matchmaking services for employers and workers, freelancers, consumers and businesses.
The rise of new matchmaking technologies for romance may offer insights for our inquiry into how technology may change the future of work.
First, a “but”. Work is not romance. The motivations and power dynamics of employers and workers searching for matches on labour market platforms are different and may not be as symmetrical as those in dating markets.
That said, here’s my list of take-outs. Feel free to add your own.
- Tim found that we’re not yet seeing signs that a new wave of tech change is disrupting employment patterns or firm dynamics. Yet sometimes the future really is different. New tech can indeed cause rapid disruptive change, especially when complementary technologies amplify each other.
- As in dating markets, changes in how workers and employers find, select and do deals with each other can happen very fast. In this sense, digital labour market platforms may be more “disruptive” to existing jobs, firms and business models than technologies (e.g. automation) that change what work is to be done but which diffuse more slowly through the economy.
- Change is likely to happen fastest where existing labour market systems are poor at meeting people’s specific needs, restrict people’s choices or treat some people as “outsiders”. The biggest potential winners from new work-matching technologies are likely to be workers and employers in thin labour markets: with niche needs or skills, needing flexible arrangements, or who have struggled to find opportunities with the old systems.
- Detecting changes can be difficult, especially with measures premised on old technologies. The data in the charts above came years after the relationships in question were formed. Real-time data about online dating platforms was patchy and held as trade secrets. We may need new and different measures to spot emergent trends in how technology affects work patterns and employment relationships.
- The negative social impacts of new ways to arrange work are prone to overstatement. Tinder hasn’t replaced all long-term committed relationships with causal hook-ups. Likewise, long-term employment relationships won’t all be replaced by casual precarious gig work. Enduring employment relationships still offer many benefits to both workers and employers.
- People will hold legitimate concerns about the potential for digital labour market platforms to undermine job quality. Employment relationships initiated on digital platforms can certainly be different to those organised in more “traditional” ways. But they needn’t be “worse”. Like romantic relationships started online, work arranged using new technologies may be more plentiful, faster, easier to find and a better match to people’s desires.
* The HCMST survey allows multiple responses. Meeting a partner through friends’ social media networks would tick both boxes, so the first wave of new matchmaking technology often complemented the friendship networks. Similarly, the rise in bar/restaurant meetings since 2000 is entirely due to online matches meeting in person at these venues.
- Rosenfeld, M., Thomas, R.J., and Hausen, S. (2019) Disintermediating your friends research note. Draft date: July 15, 2019. Forthcoming in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. https://web.stanford.edu/~mrosenfe/Rosenfeld_et_al_Disintermediating_Friends.pdf Appendices: https://web.stanford.edu/~mrosenfe/Rosenfeld_et_al_disintermediating_appendices.pdf
- Rosenfield, M., and Thomas, R. (2012) Searching for a Mate: The Rise of the Internet as a Social Intermediary, American Sociological Review, 77(4) 547 https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0003122412448050
- Rosenfeld, M. (2017) How Tinder and the dating apps Are and are Not changing dating and mating in the U.S. Presented at 25th National Symposium on Family Issues “Families and Technology” Penn State University. October 2017. https://web.stanford.edu/~mrosenfe/Rosenfeld_Tinder_and_dating_apps.pdf
- Sales, N.J. (2015) Tinder and the Dawn of the “Dating Apocalypse” Vanity Fair. 6 Aug 2015. https://www.vanityfair.com/culture/2015/08/tinder-hook-up-culture-end-of-datin
- Julian, K. (2018) Why Are Young People Having So Little Sex? The Atlantic. Dec 2018. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2018/12/the-sex-recession/573949/
- Hergovic, P., & Ortega, J. (2017) The Strength of Absent Ties: Social Integration via Online Dating, ArXiv 14 Sept 2018. http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3044766
- Meet Markets: How the internet has changed dating. The Economist 18 Aug 2018. https://www.economist.com/briefing/2018/08/18/how-the-internet-has-changed-dating
John MacCormick is a principal advisor with the Productivity Commisison.