worlds-fair

Online dating: Over 40 years old already

July 11, 2011 at 4:54 PM ET

Decades before eHarmony made potential soulmates fill out an hour-long questionnaire, New York City's first computer-generated dating service required those looking for love to cough up $5 and answer more than 100 multiple-choice questions.

In the pursuit to find The One, algorithms that magically help pair us have been around for far longer than anyone might expect. Not quite a timeless pursuit, but one that has been around decades before people started browsing Match.com, OK Cupid, AreYouInterested.com, Sugar Sugar, PlentyOfFish and countless other dating sites as part of the mating ritual.

The New Yorker's Nick Paumgarten wrote an extensive story (as if there are any other kind in The New Yorker) on the history of online dating, which surprises with how far back this kind of matchmaking goes. It begins with the Queens World's Fair in 1964, which served as the muse for an accountant to develop Project TACT (Technical Automated Compatibility Testing) with the help of his friend, an IBM programmer.

Together, Lewis Altfest and Robert Ross paved the way for future lovebirds with their questionnaire, which gave hope to New Yorkers in the late 1960s for finding love in all the right places. Ross even found love, indirectly, through the service, with a reporter interviewing him about it. But even he told Paumgarten, "he considered computer dating to be little more than a gimmick and a fad."

But my oh my, how it's grown.

Paumgarten's premise is nothing new, especially in an era when people subject themselves to making out with a houseful of strangers and proposing to one after a few weeks: "Online dating sites, whatever their more mercenary motives, draw on the premise that there has got to be a better way."

And, we see the success stories online, like today's story about the couple who met and married through the "Hot or Not" Facebook app, or another recent story about two people who found love again late in life (82 and 90 years old) through Match.com. 

One of the first sites that comes to mind with even a whiff of online dating is Match.com, which went live in 1995 and now owns 30 other dating sites. Paumgarten reports on the big business of modern day dating.

"In 2010, fee-based dating Web sites grossed over a billion dollars. According to a recent study commissioned by Match.com, online is now the third most common way for people to meet. (The most common are “through work/school” and “through friends/family.”) One in six new marriages is the result of meetings on Internet dating sites. (Nobody’s counting one-night stands.) For many people in their twenties, accustomed to conducting much of their social life online, it is no less natural a way to hook up than the church social or the night-club-bathroom line."

Another report, this one done in collaboration with eHarmony, reported that by 2009, more than 30 percent of couples who have access to the Internet met through online dating. And while online dating has technically been around for almost a half-century, it really only took off after 1997. 

And faster than sites that copy Groupon are sites that have taken the general model of online meeting-and-greeting and zeroed in on the niche factor. 

Paumgarten mentions ScientificMatch, Ashley Madison and Grindr, but JDate, BlackPeopleMeet and KoreanCupid also are out there for those who have a specific type in mind. And that's just scratching the surface. Seems like, if folks have any kind of preference, it's out there.

He goes over things that those even remotely familiar with online dating know: people lie. What you see online is not necessarily what you get in real life meetings. But it is interesting to see how sites like OK Cupid and eHarmony devised their methodology, and very unromantic and clinical finding love can be.

It's a long story that straddles the line of Wordy McBlather territory, but it does provide one perspective on the evolution — some might call a devolution — of dating and relationships.

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Check out Technolog on Facebook, and on Twitter, follow Athima Chansanchai, who has dipped into online dating, but never really gotten in the deep end. But she has been to weddings that began with it.

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