I purchased this book for personal use.
I'm part of the trend, having re-encountered my wife on Match.com in 2003. (She designed costumes for a 1996 show I was in, but she was living with an undercover FBI photographer at the time and, well...) My twin brother met his wife through eHarmony a year later. Many of my friends met their partners online as well, including one couple who made an Arizona-to-New York connection via the Prodigy bulletin boards in the 1980s.
Dan Slater, author of Love in the Time of Algorithms, traces the history of computer dating services from their invention in the late 1950s to the present, covering the industry that makes its money by helping subscribers like me find love.
History and Development
Computer-assisted dating services seem like a recent phenomenon, but like many good ideas they have their roots in the earliest days of computing. In 1959, two Stanford engineering students used the school's IBM 650 to match 49 men and 49 women based on their answers to a survey. In 1965, Harvard students created a similar setup which was successful enough to convince future Supreme Court Justice Douglas Ginsburg to leave school for a year to found a dating service named Operation Match.
The industry evolved, as they tend to do, to include firms such as Match.com, eHarmony, OkCupid, Jdate, Christian Mingle, and numerous other services. What I didn't know, but seems obvious in hindsight, is that many of these sites are built on top of back-end technology that's licensed from a single provider. All you need to do is create (or have created) a front end that emphasizes your target demographic, hook it into the existing code, and off you go. This "white box" approach makes a lot of sense and provides stability in a field where developing your own matching algorithms would be difficult.
Those With Power and Those Without
As the field matures, online dating firms grapple with the problems of abandoned profiles, liars, stalkers, con artists, and (I'll be kind) marginal personalities. Computers and easy international travel also help men from America and other rich countries find wives from countries that are less well off. For example, a group of 16 men (15 American and 1 Canadian) shelled out $1,595 each to go on a junket to Medellin, Colombia to attend social mixers where the women outnumber the men 20-to-1. Slater notes that only eight of the men expressed an interest in finding romance -- the others were there for a week of fun.
Mail-order brides have always been something of a joke to many of us, but some guys have a hard time finding the right person. For example, a 56 year-old doctor from California noted that:
So who are the Colombian women chosen for the events? Except for the professional models paid to attend a beauty pageant put on by the tour company, they mostly come from the bottom tiers of Colombia's social ladder. Colombian society is divided into six stratos, with 1 being the poorest and 6 the wealthiest. Only the members of the top three stratos pay taxes and, according to Slater, the majority of women recruited for the events are from stratos 2 and 3. The author also notes that, with the exception of a few cosmetic enhancements, Colombian women are naturally beautiful. The poverty from which these women come, however, brings motivation to the fore.
Most of the men Slater quoted came to Colombia to get away from American women who, according to his interviewees, are gold diggers interested in nothing more than having a good time on their dime before ditching them and taking what they can in alimony. The problem with that rationale, the author notes, is that the women have no reason to sign up for these events other than to find a husband who can provide for them and take them away from the poverty they grew up in.
You'll notice that I haven't named the company or the service Slater went through to research this part of his book. He made a deal with the company to write about them in a tone that was "somewhere between neutral and positive" and named the company. He notes that the company probably didn't care what he said as long as he got their name out there. I appreciate that he made this quid pro quo explicit and don't have a problem with the deal he made to get this part of the story. I won't add to their publicity -- if you're curious about the name of the company and the tour, you can find them in the book.
Also, for the record, Washington state has a law that requires international dating firms to send public record information, such as criminal history, to the women who attend the events Slater described. My home state of Oregon is considering passing a similar law.
After the middle chapter on international dating, Love in the Time of Algorithms examines how the industry sustains itself. Slater notes that a satisfied customer is a former customer, which is my experience as well. As soon as my future wife and I started dating seriously, I stopped going online and didn't renew when my year's subscription expired. Yes, I paid for a year -- I had no idea if it was going to work. Nothing else had.
Love in the Time of Algorithms is a well-written, intriguing book. I appreciated it from the twin perspectives of analyst and (former) participant in the online dating scene. Highly recommended.
Curtis Frye is the editor of Technology and Society Book Reviews. He is the author of more than 30 books, including Improspectives, his look at applying the principles of improv comedy to business and life. His list includes more than 20 books for Microsoft Press and O'Reilly Media; he has also created over a dozen online training courses for lynda.com. In addition to his writing, Curt is a keynote speaker and entertainer. You can find more information about him at www.curtisfrye.com.