Online Dating Sites Find Selling Serial Monogamy More Profitable Than Marriage

January 4, 2013

The last 24 hours has brought a rush of new traffic to HUS thanks to a nice new link in the Atlantic. 🙂

Alexis Madrigal, Senior Editor in charge of Technology, has challenged the legitimacy of one of the Atlantic’s own articles. In the most recent print edition, Dan Slater’s A Million First Dates claims that online dating is the death knell for monogamy, primarily due to the overwhelming supply of opportunities on offer. He shores up his argument with numerous interviews with executives in the online dating industry, and with the profile of a prize named Jacob. 

Madrigal takes apart Slater’s argument in his new article There’s No Evidence Online Dating Is Threatening Commitment or Marriage

First the ad hom fun part:

One guy’s commitment issues don’t mean the end of monogamy for the country.

…Narratively, the story focuses on Jacob, an overgrown manchild jackass who can’t figure out what it takes to have a real relationship. The problem, however, is not him, and his desire for a “low-maintenance” woman who is hot, young, interested in him, and doesn’t mind that he is callow and doesn’t care very much about her. No, the problem is online dating, which has shown Jacob that he can have a steady stream of mediocre dates, some of whom will have sex with him.

Jacob, a self-described average looking guy in his early 30s, confessed that he figured being in a relationship was better than being single and having to meet new women. According to Madrigal,  “Past girlfriends had complained about his lifestyle, which emphasized watching sports and going to concerts and bars. He’d been called lazy, aimless, and irresponsible with money.” 

His most recent relationship with a 22 year-old ended when she moved out, but it was a blessing in disguise: as the lazy son of doctors he was uncomfortable with her blue-collar military background. He turned to online dating and is now happy as

Now on to the logical debate. Madrigal cites Slater’s premise:

The argument is that online dating expands the romantic choices that people have available, somewhat like moving to a city. And more choices mean less satisfaction.

Does online dating increase or decrease commitment or its related states, like marriage? 

Madrigal correctly points out that the online dating executives opining on the subject have a huge conflict of interest.

As Slater notes, “the profit models of many online-dating sites are at cross-purposes with clients who are trying to develop long-term commitments.” Which is exactly why they are happy to be quoted talking about how well their sites work for getting laid and moving on.

Here are some quotes from industry players:

“The future will see better relationships but more divorce. The older you get as a man, the more experienced you get. You know what to do with women, how to treat them and talk to them.”

SW: That’s what Booth Jonathan said!

Dan Winchester, the founder of a free dating site based in the U.K.

“Historically, relationships have been billed as ‘hard’ because, historically, commitment has been the goal. You could say online dating is simply changing people’s ideas about whether commitment itself is a life value.”

Greg Blatt, the CEO of Match

“I think divorce rates will increase as life in general becomes more real-time…It’s exhilarating to connect with new people…People always said that the need for stability would keep commitment alive. But that thinking was based on a world in which you didn’t meet that many people.”

Niccolò Formai, the head of social-media marketing at Badoo

“Societal values always lose out…As we become more secure and confident in our ability to find someone else, usually someone better, monogamy and the old thinking about commitment will be challenged very harshly.” 

Noel Biderman, the founder of Ashley Madison

As always, follow the money trail. There was a time when Match was eager to promote the number of marriages it could take credit for. Apparently, they’ve shifted to a strategy of promising poon instead in the hopes of creating more repeat business. Ladies, beware, that’s going to mean more Jacobs putting up profiles.

Justin Parfitt, a dating entrepreneur based in San Francisco, puts the matter bluntly: “They’re thinking, Let’s keep this fucker coming back to the site as often as we can.”

Madrigal proceeds to look at the data (that’s where we come in):

First off, the heaviest users of technology–educated, wealthier people–have been using online dating and networking sites to find each other for years. And yet, divorce rates among this exact group have been declining for 30 years. Take a look at these statistics. If technology were the problem, you’d expect that people who can afford to use the technology, and who have been using the technology, would be seeing the impacts of this new lack of commitment. But that’s just not the case.

Madrigal cites other sources which support the role of the internet in promoting the formation of relationships and marriage.  “The possibility that the relationship “market” is changing in a bunch of ways, rather than just by the introduction of date-matching technology, is the most compelling to me. [A] 2008 paper found that the biggest change in marriage could be increasingly “co-ed” workplaces.” Other influences potentially include changing gender norms (the “end of men,” hookup culture), the economy, the rising marriage age, geography (77% of Millennials say they want to live in big cities), and the role of religion in America (declining church attendance but increasing evangelical fervor). 

Maybe Jacob doesn’t want to get married. Maybe he wants to get drunk, have sex, watch basketball, and never deal with the depths of a real relationship. OK, Jacob, good luck! But that doesn’t make online dating an ineluctable force crushing the romantic landscape. It’s just the means to Jacob’s ends and his convenient scapegoat for behavior that might otherwise lead to self-loathing.

Madrigal says his piece is the first in a series. I look forward to future installments (with or without links) as he explores the changing nature of dating and relationships in America.

Update: Stuart Schneiderman just alerted me to Amanda Hess’ hilarious takedown of the Slater piece at Slate:

Online Dating is a Horrific Den of Humanity