Is online dating’s stigma finally dead?

  • Online dating has a history of stigmatization in the U.S. 
  • Today about a quarter of Americans say online daters are desperate
  • Is it time to put our misgivings to rest?

The advent of online dating during the late ’90s was received by the majority of Americans as just another techy fad. Soon the sites would fade away only to be replaced by some other, even more gimmicky dating service. Most of the media coverage of online dating helped validate the naysayers by depicting online dating as a sad, lonely place where social rejects went to find other outcasts to date.

In the end, of course, they were wrong. But really, their pessimistic view towards online dating wasn’t unfounded; since the mid-twentieth century, many other dating innovations had been released only to be scrapped a couple years later.

dating and technology’s rocky relationship

First, in the ’60s, came Operation Match. A project out of Havard University, Operation Match took colossal IBM computers and cross-analyzed a relatively small number of response sheets that male and female participants filled out. The machines then matched up participants based on their shared responses–sounds simple right? Well…it wasn’t.

This early attempt at technologically-enhanced dating ended when the number of applicants exceeded the processing power of the IBM supercomputers. And soon, Operation Match closed-up shop.

Then there were the classifieds: personal ads (or “personals”) taken out in local newspapers by singles looking for eligible partners in their area. Though there has been some form of the classified ad for as long as the modern printing press has existed, their popularity surged in the ’70s and reached their peak in the ’90s.

The ads soon shifted towards finding sex, though, and by the early 2000’s classifieds too were cast out of the dating world.

Around the same time that classifieds were taking off, another dating innovation hit the market: video dating. Thanks to some (O.K.–a lot) of cringe-worthy footage now posted on YouTube, even most millennials understand the premise of this dating innovation of the ’80s.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, video dating’s rise was ephemeral and more of a niche than a fad. Apparently, single women weren’t gung-ho about mustached, plaid-wearing men awkwardly telling them about their ideal (and often unrealistic) vision of a wife. Who’d have thought?

love @ first byte

Given these past tech-dating mashups, it’s not hard to imagine why the yuppies of the ’90s saw Gary Kremen, the founder of Match.com, who promised the site would “bring more love to the planet than anything since Jesus Christ” as a bit overly optimistic. And he was at first. Early media coverage of Kremen and his hyperbolized personality was tongue in cheek. Soon this would all change though.

By the 10th anniversary of Match.com’s launch, it had registered 40 million people. And the site’s success inspired a swath of online dating newcomers like eHarmony, Zoosk, and PlentyOfFisheach of which garnered users who responded to their respective site’s unique twist on the online dating experience.

The era of “love at first byte” had dawned.

At the same time that this online revolution was taking place, it may surprise phone-obsessed 20-somethings (myself included) that no one was discussing it. Online datingas popular as it was even thencarried over the stigma that had once been attached to previous dating platforms like classifieds and video dating. While thousands of couples were meeting online, most were embarrassed to admit it in real life.

Cover stories had become an enduring feature in the Online Dater’s Handbook. Even today people fabricate cover stories so they don’t have to tell mom and dad they met the man of their dreams on a Tinder hook-up. (Although I wish they would because that’d be so much more interesting than “through mutual friends,” or “we both went to school together”. We know you’re lying, hun…just saying).

Some serious swiping

In any case, even today a lot of couples seem loath to admit they met on a dating site. It certainly has gotten better, but why are so many still uncomfortable saying “We met on PlentyOfFish,” or “She messaged me on Bumble”? Maybe it’s just a remaining vestige of past stigmas.

Are relationships initiated online considered less serious than those initiated offline?

Certainty the game-like interface of many of these apps and sites don’t give them a “serious” image; on Tinder, you’re literally scrolling through a deck of cards featuring other users’ headshots.

But the easy-going designs of such sites are more reflections of the current dating culture than they are of the matches made online. Millennials are marrying later, having fewer children, and overall more comfortable with casual dating than previous generations. When the average millennial logs onto Bumble they aren’t looking for a soon-to-be husband.

So, yes, dating sites may look less committal, but that’s because the new generation using them wants that.

Online dating is the epitome of modern dating. And, for a country like the U.S. which is still considered relatively conservative compared to other democratic nations, it seems to undermine past ideologies on what is “natural” when it comes to love and marriage. Conservatives have been sounding off on the supposed “marriage crisis” for years. Hook-up culture has been credited with the death of dating. A lot of hyperbole and little substance.

A large majority of millennials still plan on tying the knot at some point and hook-ups often lead to steady dating. In fact, in a recent survey, relationships initiated online were found to transition into marriage faster than those that met offline.

And what about safety online?

Maybe the stigma comes from the perception that online dating sites are filled with grifters and imposters. TV shows like MTV’s “Catfish” and MSNBC’s “To Catch A Predator” further exploit a darker narrative of seeking love online. But some data indicates that online daters are already aware of the risks of online dating.

For instance, one survey of a national random sample of Match.com users found that many online daters assume that other users are misrepresenting themselves on the site. And for the most part, the lies that people tell online are meant to boost their self-image, not to take advantage of the users they message.

Stop sniping the swiping

With 30 percent of marriages beginning online, it’s time for people to drop the animosity, or perhaps insecurity, towards online dating. Yes, it’s a little weird, fairly new, and still being fine-tuned. But it’s also doing a hell of a lot better than Operation Match in the ’60s or classifieds in the ’90s.

There’s no doubt that online dating still carries a stigmanearly a quarter of people say online daters are desperatebut the sites continue to grow in popularity. The massive adoption of online dating speaks for itself in many ways: people need dating apps and sites for something they aren’t accomplishing on their own.

To swipe or to be single? Soon that will be the real question. And to those people in the Anti-Online Dating Camp, I wish you luck. You may need it.

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