In 1700, barely a decade after the invention of the modern newspaper, the first matrimonial service was created. These services ran ads on behalf of single men and women who were desperate to find a good husband or wife.
At the time, being single past 21 carried with it a deep stigma and turning to a matrimonial service, for either sex, was seen as an act of desperation. Still, many matches resulted from these services and many members of 18th-century society found love this way, even if it was something rarely talked about during its time.
The matrimonial services from that century were just the beginning of the pairing of technology and dating. Newspapers would also provide personal ads, which often relied on the telephone to send/receive messages, VHS brought us video dating and, more recently, the Internet brought us online dating.
Of course, the use of the Web to find romantic partners should surprise no one. Perhaps more than any other revolution in communication, the use of the Web for dating makes sense. Not only does the Web allow us to find people in our area, but it allows us to see, hear learn a great deal about them. With images, audio and databases of personal data, the Web is not just a new way to meet others, but an incredibly efficient one.
This doesn't mean that online dating has lost all of its stigma. In some circles meeting a boyfriend/girlfriend or even a spouse online is viewed as a sign of desperation. However, that stigma is slowly lifting. As more and more people meet their significant others online, the stigma against it is deteriorating.
As that happens, more and more individuals will be willing to try it, making it both more common and even more useful.
A Brief History of Online Dating
The Internet was being used for dating almost from day one. Even before the Web itself was created, bulletin board services and newsgroups played host to a variety of Internet dating activities, many of them unintended. In addition to newsgroups and forums created for posting of personal ads, similar to what was going on in newspapers at the time, locals were meeting in city-oriented rooms and people with similar interests were meeting and becoming attached in forums of similar interest.
Much of this was spurred on by the Internet service providers themselves. Services such as Prodigy and America Online offered chat rooms and forums for singles and heavily advertised these features. Because of this, even before the Web became widely used, the Internet had a robust, if technically limited, dating culture.
The first major Internet dating Web site is widely held to be the combination of kiss.com and match.com, which were both registered by the same person in 1994 and 1995 respectively. Though there were other dating sites at the time, most focused on international dating and had more in common with "mail order bride" services than the dating sites we know today.
However, from there, the market quickly exploded. By 1996 there were 16 dating Web sites listed in Yahoo!, which was a directory at the time, and other powerhouses such as Friendfinder.com and OneandOnly.com had already started up.
In 1998, Internet dating got a cultural boost with the release of the movie "You've Got Mail". The movie, which reunited "Sleepless in Seattle's" Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, focused on two business rivals who hated each other in person but fell in love over the Web. Though the movie didn't focus on Internet dating directly, it put meeting someone on the Web in a positive light and showcased the Web as a tool for bringing people together, even those who don't like each other in the physical world.
Riding on a wave of growing public acceptance, Match.com and OneandOnly.com were acquired by Ticketmaster Online-Citysearch for an undisclosed sum. This legitimacy caused the major Internet players, including both Yahoo! and AOL, to work on their personal/dating section. During the dot-com boom of the late 90s and early 2000s, there were several other high-profile dating site acquisitions
However, as with most budding Web businesses, the dot com crash in 2001/2002 brought much of the frenzy to an end and changed the online world. However, for dating sites, the change came more from the launch of Friendster and Myspace in 2002. With those sites, the idea of online "social networking" was born and online dating was a byproduct of that. People could meet potential boyfriends or girlfriends on the Web without going to a site dedicated to the cause. Social networking carried with it a much smaller stigma, since it is also used by those not seeking a partner at all.
But despite this wave of social networking, which included the founding of Facebook in 2004, online dating has continued to thrive. In 2007, Americans spent over $500 million on online dating, making it the second highest industry for "paid content" on the Web, behind pornography.
However, the current online dating climate is one of balkanization. Currently the market has been segmented out to an ever larger number of sites focused on an ever-smaller niche audiences. Currently, there are sites for virtually every city, every sexual orientation, every desired relationship, every religion, every race and almost every hobby.
The end result is that, according to Online Dating Magazine, nearly 20 million people visit at least one online dating site every month and 120,000 marriages every year take place, at least in part, due to online dating.
In 2002, Wired Magazine predicted that, "Twenty years from now, the idea that someone looking for love won't look for it online will be silly, akin to skipping the card catalog to instead wander the stacks because 'the right books are found only by accident.'"
The prediction does not seem to be that far off as it is exactly where we are heading with both online dating and social networking.
The Future of Online Dating
The stigma of online dating has been slowly lifting, due in large part to the rise of social networking. Though the majority of marriages still meet through more traditional means, nearly everyone on the Web has met someone or made a friend online. This has helped decrease the shame of meeting a potential spouse or partner on the Web by showing the value of the Web as a tool for introducing similar people.
However, in a strange way, online dating has come full circle, back to the personal ads which preceded it. Currently, sites such as Craigslist are among the most popular for posting online personal ads due to their popularity, anonymity and ease of use. Where an online dating site may require one post an extended profile, upload several images and answer a questionairre, one can post an ad to Craigslist in a matter of minutes and receive emails almost instantly.
This convenience and anonymity allows individuals to toy with online dating without having to risk co-workers or friends knowing what they are doing.
At the same time, the rapid growth of both Facebook and Myspace, as well as the applications built around them, only serve to centralize most introductions on the Web, including romantic ones. In an era where almost everyone has at least one social networking profile, and many have multiple, searching for a partner via those services is becoming more and more attractive, especially since there is no stigma and no need to set up a new account.
In the face of this, it seems that it is the niche sites that are poised to thrive. They provide a concentration of desirable candidates that Facebook nor Craigslist can provide and may be worth the extra trip and the extra money for those that fit the description.
That being said, general interest dating sites such as Match.com and free ones such as PlentyOfFish are still thriving on the Web. Alexa lists both sites well within the top 500 on the Web.
Still, given the popularity of social networking and online classified sites, it appears that the general dating site, for many, has been replaced by Facebook, Myspace or a different social networking site.
Online dating is here to stay. It is going to be a growing part of our lives and our relationships in the future, whether it is something we do deliberately, through sites like Match.com, or through broader social networking sites or even by chance meetings in forums or via email. Finding a significant other onilne is no longer the unusual nonoccurence it once was, it is becoming increasingly common and seems only destined to grow.
In the end, the use of the Web to find love should not surprise anyone. Given how technology and communication tools in the past have always been turned to matching people together, there was no reason the Web should be any different.
If the Web is different from video dating, personal ads and the other technological solutions to finding a mate, it will be because the Web is both widely accepted as a means for finding and broadly effective.
In short, online dating isn't the first time that technology has been used to help people find love, but it may be the first time it's actually done a great deal to help.