Those of you who know me well likely know I am fascinated by online dating, mainly because I have never done it before and I am afflicted with FOMSS (Fear of Missing Something Syndrome). So here we are at SXSW 2012, where I get to learn about what the online dating terrain looks like, how it’s meshing with new technologies and how it’s influencing the way humans romantically connect. And because journalism is ultimately about connecting with people, the lessons this can teach us about new-new media are in here if you think about it.

THE PREMISE: “Traditionally, dating sites have used algorithms that rely on user profiles and personal preferences to create matches, but what if the information submitted isn’t true? Sites such as Match.com are evolving their methods to provide more accurate results – like pairing algorithms with user behavior. We’ll hear from innovators in the digital dating world and get unique insights from people who’ve searched for love online. We’ll also see how technology is changing the dating game.” - Session desrciption 

HOW ONLINE DATING WORKS: Sign up, answer questions, pay a fee and you get matches. Our moderator/tester registered for a slew of sites. Apparently, eHarmony takes the longest compared to Match.com and OKCupid, and takes much much longer than the newer sites (see below). OK Cupid is apparently pretty cool in that their questions are user-generated and their profiles include some data visualizations. And in recent years, various niche dating sites have started up, aimed at the over 50 market (OurTime.c0m), the Jewish market (JDate) and weed smokers (420Dating).

THE AGONY AND THE AWKWARDNESS: Online dating changed the way people interacted with the internet, helping usher in social networking as users became more accustomed to sharing their lives online. But online dating sites seek almost exclusively to match you up, which can be awkward. Match.com’s Mandy Ginsburg:

“They don’t do it because it doesn’t feel natural. They don’t trust that a computer will allow them to find that perfect love or spark, or it feels like it’s not serendipitous so there’s no romance … so how can we make the whole experience as natural as possible?”

Do online dating platforms need to exclusively be matchmakers? Could they just be a third social space? Just as Starbucks became a space between work and home, could the online dating sites become a non-bar or club type place where people who don’t know one another can meet?

THE NEW CYBER-DATING LANDSCAPE

Nerve Dating. Main focus is starting conversations, not necessarily matches. Users get to answer questions over time, not all at once. Your profile builds itself over that time, as you engage with different features or express opinions on various subjects. “Just as you change everyday, so does your profile, so it’s a much less static experience instead of upfront profile work you need to do,” said Sean Mills, CEO of Nerve Dating.

HowAboutWe.com. Main feature of the site is proposing a date idea. “It shifts the emphasis off do you like me or not, which is a pretty awkward thing to say … and shifts it to, do you want to go do this? You’re not rejecting someone, youre just saying that’s something I’m not interested in doing,” said Brian Schecther of HowAboutWe. It’s online dating to facilitate offline dating experiences based on the notion that the idea for a date is an incredible first impression. Like Nerve, there’s no big profile to fill out when you start. It lists people by recency and trending date ideas, so it encourages participation. Also, instead of searching for people you can search for something you want to do: Type in “sushi” and you can find all the folks who proposed sushi-eating date ideas that you can join up with. How About We is now partnering with online publications like New York Magazine, allowing the partners to implement the API.

Sparkology. An invite-only site that strives for quality, not quanity. It will likely become more open after it builds up a stable community first. A few things that make it cool: Every woman on the page when you show up is a paying member and active user — a lot of older sites host a bunch of ghost profiles or inactive profiles. Your profile questions to begin with are easy: About Me, Something You Did Last Weekend, Date Idea, Basic Stats. You can also share who you like with someone else and get a second opinion from another user. To reduce spam or inbox inundation, you also have to spend $3 to sent a “spark” message to another user. (The pricing structure is different for men and women.) Sparkology also has “life concierges” as part of its service, who encourage date feedback. After a date, you can let the concierge know if you had a good time and discuss your date’s honesty level. If the date is consistently dishonest,  the service will take action. “If you’re a liar, we have no problem taking you off our site,” said Sparkology founder Alex Furmansky.

So, given the way the landscape is changing, here are some recommendations for…

HOW TO JUDGE A DATING SITE

Ease of Entrance. How easy is it to get started on your site? eHarmony feels like work.

Perceived Value. What am I getting besides just access? Sparkology gives me concierges.

Level of Engagement. Is it natural and familiar like other sites I use on a daily basis?

THE FUTURE

We’ve seen staggering growth in online dating in the last decade. From 2005 to 2008, the user adoption rate of  online dating sites for those who are 18-29 went from 16% to 67%. By May 2010, the adoption rate was 86%. Here’s what the cultural observers out there expect to happen in this space:

1. More active participation. Less front loading and more dynamic interaction between users and the dating platforms, so that they are constantly adding information.

2. Coexistence. New dating sites and dating giants will influence and learm fron each other.

3. Evolution. Match will learn to build features like Nerve has, and better embrace social elements that are making upstarts successful.

4. Mobile dating and the Death of Desktop. 40% of match.com users access the site through a mobile device.

5. Location Based Hookups. Apps such as Grindr and Blendr help faciliate a social network that connects you with people you don’t know but are near your location. Users of Grindr, for example, can identify other users at the same block or in the same neighborhood who are interested in meeting up. We want to cruise digital spaces in the same way we cruise real spaces.

Tags: , , , , , ,