The death of online dating

I argue today in AdAge that the dating industry as we know it is dying:

Despite the undeniable fact that the social era has arrived — mutual friends, followers, first-degree connections, APIs — the dating sites wallow in primordial username soup (so that’s where you’ve been hiding, nycprince03!) and refuse to hook up to the social graph.

The result? An antisocial network.

Instead of connecting with people you know, you set up a username to mask your identity, hope no one you know sees you, and spend the whole time filtering. Age. Location. Income.

Some members make it through to the date filter, then you filter them out, and if you’re lucky you find a mate and get the hell off the site.

So dating sites grow the only way they can by paying to acquire you, so you can pay them (a subscription!) to spend your time avoiding people you don’t know, hoping to find your match.

Otherwise sensible filtering criteria, like who you know in common, is not possible in a world of usernames, so you’re left with “10 miles from 10005” and mysterious matchmaking algorithms.

Usernames are why dating sites can’t grow on their own, like social networks. They have to grow in spite of themselves. By advertising!

One correction that one online dating executive pointed out to me:

“Advertising-based category” is code for “also pays to acquire users,” “does not grow organically” and “not a social network.”

“Advertising-based category” means ad-supported, meaning  dating companies that make revenue from running ads on their site (versus making money on member subscriptions). OKCupid, which is a free site, is considered among traditional dating industry players a success at growing without advertising, organically if you will.

I still stand by my broader assertion – that dating sites that can’t come to grips with the social graph will eventually be left in the dust.

Jezebel, one of my favorite blogs, picked up my piece and focuses on this social graph/anonymity debate, asking: Would you date online if it wasn’t anonymous?

When you think about it, anonymity in online dating actually is kind of weird. When you meet someone at a party or a bar, one of the first things you tell them is your name. And yet online, daters routinely withhold this information, disclosing seemingly more personal things like their income and desire for children first. There are good reasons for this — your dating site profile is potentially accessible to way more people than you might meet in a bar, and so arguably the risk of stalking and abuse goes up. But some of the reasons online dating remains anonymous likely have to do with stigma. The online space is seen as scarier than the real world, even though, unfortunately, daters face risks from people they meet at bars and parties too. And online dating itself still gets portrayed as slightly suspect, even as more and more people try it. Not everyone is comfortable publicly declaring that they’re dating online — and using one’s real name on a dating site would be, in a lot of ways, such a declaration.

Read the full post in AdAge.

And if you are feeling nostalgic, read this 2003 BusinessWeek gem, A Dud in Cupid’s Online Quiver? from 2003:

Friendster may be the hottest to show up since Google. Silicon Valley entrepreneur John Abrams started as a way of making it easier to meet friends of friends and avoid the “creepy” feeling he associated with online dating — and his concept quickly caught fire. Abrams hasn’t spent a penny on marketing, yet Friendster has attracted 1.8 million members since its launch last March — 1.7 million more than Barry Diller’s (IACI ) attracted in its first year.


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