Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Early Indications June 2009: Love, Online

Love and work are the cornerstones of our humanness.
-Sigmund Freud

How have the technological changes of the recent past affected these two facets of our existence? As economies around the globe attempt to generate "good" jobs in the face of steep declines in such traditional sectors as news and media, automotive, and even law, the nature of work is at once a policy, economic, and existential question. As for love, we have seen misplaced romantic e-mail damage the careers of public figures including CEOs and a governor. Finland may show us the wave of the future: in 2006 the prime minister met a woman through an online dating service then broke up with her via SMS a few months later, stating economically, Että se ("that's it").

Let's take the love question first; we'll tackle work next month. I was struck by the number of anecdotal cases among my acquaintances involving structured dating services such as match.com or eHarmony. A little research shows how big these services have become, not counting the vast amount of flirting within the big social networks: paid online dating sites were essentially a billion dollar industry in 2008, according to Forrester, putting it ahead of pornography and making the industry slightly more than half as big as digital music and gaming.

Countries around the world are getting involved: in Japan, dating sites must register with the police, and over 1600 such companies did so. Between January and September 2008, eHarmony and Match combined to spend $140,000,000 on advertising. According to New Media Age, UK traffic to online dating sites grew 13% between September 2008 and February 2009: total visitors number about 5m, reaching 13% of the total UK online population. Harris Interactive estimates an average of 236 eHarmony users get married - every day. Match.com, part of InterActiveCorp, was recognized in 2004 as the largest site in the world and reported 1.35 million paying members as of May 2008.

Online matchmaking has many variations. One can search for potential spouses, for religiously or culturally similar partners, for friends, for same-sex prospects, for uncommitted physicality, or, at Toronto's Ashley Madison, be guaranteed an affair - or your money back. The various market segments each have multiple providers, varying by geography, matching method, and revenue model. Based only on online comments from users rather than any personal experience, claims of differentiation between different sites' matching accuracy and inventory may be inflated: many people use multiple sites and find the same people matching their profile.

Late last month, the American Press Institute convened a meeting of newspaper executives to discuss the state of their industry. They placed substantial blame on Google for being the "atom bomb" to the news industry. Left unlisted were the papers' many losses in the bigger content picture. The report did not acknowledge how many readers are defecting from the bundle model in favor of specialty providers: ESPN et al for sports, the likes of Edmunds for car-buying, Yahoo Finance and many other money sites for stock quotes, Realtor.com to house-hunt, eBay for used cars and household goods, Craigslist for apartments, etc. Personal ads are clearly a part of this erosion: Match, eHarmony, and the rest did not cannibalize all of that $957 million from newspapers, but clearly papers have lost some of their mojo in that department.

As for magazines, college alumni periodicals' listings appear to be shrinking. The New York Review of Books has long featured personal ads that were almost a parody of themselves. I found that, through the magic of the Internet, people can still browse for such appealing specimens as:

LOS ANGELES: bright, playful professional/academic MWM, 50s, tall, fit, good-looking, warmhearted, engaging, open, and present. In emotionally untenable marriage. Seeking woman, 40–58, with good heart, curious mind, sensual, open to exploring possibilities with like-minded good soul.

Some independent newspapers maintain a strong singles presence, as witness the Chicago Reader or The Onion. Mainstream papers, meanwhile, take a variety of approaches. Boston.com (the Globe's online operation) franchises singles from Yahoo. The LA Times points readers to eHarmony. Many papers, including the New York Times and Dallas Morning News, have no personal ads.

Just within my casual contacts, two adults have married based on their use of the services. One is an innkeeper in a small coastal town, while the other is a medical professional in a relatively remote market. In both bases, geography-based dating is problematic both in terms of sparse "inventory" and in terms of privacy given these individuals' relatively public day jobs. As a divorced charter boat captain told me of his use of Match, "It's great for people like me: in small towns like these, everyone knows everyone else's business. And while you can date the tourists, it's a bit tough starting a new relationship every week when the rentals turn over." The decoupling of physical location from the search process is a very big deal for market "thickness," not to mention the overall sense of romance and adventure in the process.

Secondly, the use of algorithmic matching tools is enhancing the matching process: eHarmony's "scientific" survey instrument includes 400 questions, far more than I ever answered on any unsuccessful first date (or the successful one, for that matter). As we will see, however, the comprehensiveness of the surveys has many implications.

Not surprisingly, the online dating phenomenon has generated sometimes hilarious commentary in the form of vast numbers of blog entries and a few books. Such titles as MatchDotBomb: A Midlife Journey through Internet Dating, Millions of Women Are Waiting to Meet You: A Memoir, and numerous how-to volumes (including a Dummies guide) testify to the pervasiveness of this cultural phenomenon.

The unintended consequences are fascinating to watch.

-Is it ethical for pay sites to count non-paying (former) participants in a match panel?

-How sustainable are the various business and operational models? Might one technology, celebrity endorsement, or other factor prove decisive in a particular market?

-What happens to my profile after I quit the service, either because it worked or because it failed? What rights do I have to my profile on either free or paid services a) after a month, b) after a year, or c) after the company goes bankrupt or gets acquired?

-What are the de facto (when people meet in person) and de jure (in court) standards for truthfulness? eHarmony, for example, insists that applicants be single: legally separated individuals are excluded, and could be banned if they lie to get on. We have a family friend who's a tall woman using some Internet dating resources, and her stories of men's various versions of their height and weight are funny and troubling. "Truth in advertising" has many nuances in this domain.

-What exactly are people paying for? What are the guarantees, warranties, or lack thereof?

-How can and will various systems be gamed? Some services have been accused, without proof, of employing "ringers" (professional first-daters) to exaggerate the quality of available singles.

-What will my profile be used for? Cross-selling opportunities, for example, are numerous and more than a little spooky.

-While the nightmare blind date has become a cultural stereotype, the prospect of meeting truly dangerous people online is more than a little scary, as the Boston Craigslist crimes suggest. It's also possible for bad first encounters to facilitate stalking. I have a colleague whose "thanks for coffee" and the implied "have a nice life" after a meeting drove the candidate to look her up using available search methods. He later turned up on her doorstep unannounced.

The role of such civic institutions as churches, service clubs, and bowling leagues in the wake of suburbanization, television, and more women in the workplace has changed slowly but significantly over the past 50 years. The matchmaking process has changed as well, and the state of online dating businesses will bear watching. In addition, the place of Facebook in 20-somethings' lives is undoubtedly generating its own set of changes to courtship.

As my former boss once said, "digits never die." The prospect of a lengthy profile, and potentially e-mail communications within a dating site, being brought into a congressional confirmation hearing or other process 10 or 20 years from now might give some of those millions of users a pause before they declare yet another preference or "fact" about their life.