Online Dating - Past, Present and Future.

The YCombinator’s Startup Ideas We’d Like to Fund article by Paul Graham got me thinking about one of his ideas - Dating Sites. Most of us will agree that all the existing online dating sites are broken. Some will say it’s not the dating sites but it’s people who are broken. Well, we can’t really fix people but we can definitely learn from our real world social setup to create an online environment that encourages responsible behavior and discourages irresponsible behavior. 

Internet is being used for online dating almost from day one of its existence through bulletin board service and newsgroups. The first major dating website is probably founded by Gary Kremen in 1993. After eighteen years and thousands of attempts through all kinds of general purpose and niche dating websites, the online dating is still an unsolved problem. It’s not that these sites aren’t making money. Online dating is the third largest revenue producer out of all paid content sites. The problem is that they aren’t solving their customer’s problems. So, what’s wrong with these dating sites and what can be done to develop a next generation dating service that doesn’t suck? Let’s explore.

It would be nice to see how dating issues are handled by three major social environments today - Colleges/Universities, Social Networks and Dating Sites. Without a doubt colleges and universities provides the best environment for dating. There is something about it. A group of young people at same stage of their lives interact in a trusted social setup. Friendship and love prosper in such environment. 

1. The trust factor.

Trust is the one of the most important factor in relationships and plays a major role in choosing dating partners, especially for females. They way current dating sites work you can’t really trust your potential dates. Most of the profiles are fake. You can never be sure that the hot guy you are talking to is actually a guy or a lesbian girl. It can also be a 50-year-old uncle or in worst scenario an alien. Married people seeking affairs will often pose as singles. There is no reason to trust anything that is mentioned in the profile. Apart from that there is also a security risk involved. The guy on other side can be a criminal and you can be exposed to crimes such as internet fraud, blackmailing, women trafficking or sexual violence.

Social networks like Facebook tries to solve this problem by encouraging you to operate in trusted network of people you know - your friends and their friends. If there is some mutual friend who knows your potential date personally, you can verify his credibility. 

In colleges, everyone knows everyone else. 

Lesson learned: Dating prospers in trusted network of friends and their friends, where some kind of social verification is possible.

2. Irresponsible behavior.

When no one knows your real identity and there are no mutual friends, there is no disincentive to antisocial behavior. It allows people to behave irresponsibly. Some of these irresponsible behaviors include spamming, indecent behavior, use of abusive/threatening language, flirting with multiple people and hypergamy.

Both social networks and dating sites encounter these problems in some way or another. Things are different in colleges because most of the time people behave better offline.

Lesson Learned: There must be some kind of social disincentive and pressure on an individual to behave in socially acceptable manner.

3. Zombie Profiles

Majority of online dating sites includes inactive profiles in their search results. Even if the user haven’t logged in since a year the profile still comes up in search results. It makes it look like there are more available members than there actually are. Dating sites will often advertise the number of “registered members” while having only a fraction of that many active users.

People are usually very active on Facebook and even if they aren’t it don’t affect the user experience in any way. In colleges, if you can see someone, they must be active real human and hopefully not a zombie. 

Lesson Learned: People are interested in active users and there must be some mechanism to keep people active on site or temporarily deactivate accounts that aren’t active from long time.

4. Evaluating Potential Dates.

There are many factors people consider before choosing a date - looks, personality, behavior, occupation, humor and much more. Even if profile is genuine, it still tells very little about the person, his personality, likes and dislikes. Online chatting helps but it is a well-known fact that people are very different in real life. Acting cool online is much easy than being cool in reality. I know few people who can chat online for hours but can’t keep a real life conversation alive for more than 5 minutes. 

Both dating sites and social networks don’t help much in evaluating potential dates though social networks are a bit better. In college everything is in open to be seen and explored.

Lesson Learned: We need better method to find and evaluate potential dates. Building a psychological profile similar to MBTI and matching people on basis of that can be an option. We should also take likes and dislikes of users into consideration.

6. Communication

Most dating sites don’t let members having free accounts to communicate with other potential dates. Even if a premium member tries to contact with a member having free account that person won’t be able to view or reply to his message. That is so annoying. Also, the primary communication methods on dating sites and social networks are text-based - private messages, chat, email, wall posts. Nice but not good enough. We need more.

Lesson Learned: We need more options accessible to everyone - Email, Instant Messaging, Video Chat and other possible ways to take this communication offline. May be we can help them plan an outing by suggesting them places to visit, events to attend or some fun activities they both like to do together. A group outing with mutual friends can also be a good intermediate step.

7. The problem inherent in the word “dating”.

In many countries and cultures, “dating” is still not considered as a respectful thing to do. The whole idea of joining a “dating site” projects a person as a desperate individual. In particular, many females don’t like to be projected as a desperate women looking for a date online. We need to get this “dating” word out-of-the-way while still helping people to date effectively. For example, people date through Facebook but it isn’t a dating site, it is a social network. 

Lesson Learned: Don’t use the word dating. Call it something else, like, hanging out, outing, social networking etc.

So, these are the major issues in online dating space and we now know how dating sites and social networks are handling these issues. There is a room for improvement and I see the next generation of effective dating sites as an extension of social networks that let users take their improve their online relationships and help them to shift it offline. In my another blog post, I will tell you about my vision for a dating site and how to solve the chicken and egg problem.

Please share your views on the topic. What are other problems you notice with online dating? How it can be improved? 

Thanks for reading.