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When I was in school, I was never the biggest fan of history unless it was something I cared about. English royalty, the Salem Witch Trials, Greek mythology? Yes, yes, and yes. The Crusades, the Mayan Civilization, Confucius? No, no, and no.
In terms of online dating, I’d give it a yes — I am in the industry, after all. It’s fascinating to think about how the process got started and where it’s at now. In this article, I’ll walk you through everything that has to do with the history of online dating — from personal ads to dating apps.
According to a PBS infographic, a British agricultural journal was the first publication to publish personal ads. One was written by a “gentleman about 30 years of age” who “would willingly match himself to some good young gentlewoman that has a fortune of 3000£ or thereabout, and he will make settlement to content.” That’s some real 17th-century romance right there.
Since homosexuality was illegal during this time, but newspaper ads were the main way to meet someone, gay men would use code words to avoid being persecuted or even executed, according to a PBS infographic on the history of love and technology. In addition, whenever gay men wanted to meet up, they would go to what was called a Molly House, where they could drink, dance, and have sex.
Until Helen Morrison came along, it was mostly men who were posting personal ads, with women or gay men answering them. Helen’s ad appeared in a Lonely Hearts Column in the Manchester Weekly Journal, and it simply said she wanted “someone nice to spend my life with.” Instead of getting a response from “The One,” the mayor responded and sent her to an insane asylum for four weeks, according to an article in the Huffington Post. Guess she shouldn’t have been so forward, huh?</sarcasm>
Throughout the 1800s, personal ads grew more and more popular, starting with noblemen and noblewomen and reaching the middle and lower classes once publications like The Wedding Bell, The Correspondent, Matrimonial Herald, and Marriage Gazette came out.
However, with this popularity also came fraudsters wanting to take advantage of nice people looking for love. Sounds similar to some of the experiences of online dating now.
In the late 1800s, The Matrimonial News in San Francisco became the first newspaper exclusively for singles — where they could read stories about the latest romantic goings-on and post ads for a mate. This was free for women to do, while men had to pay a quarter.
At the start of the 20th century, personal ads became even more of a necessity — as lonely soldiers serving in World War I would use them to find not just wives but also pen pals and friends. Personal ads for homosexual activity, which was still illegal, were increasing as well — causing authorities to conduct more investigations into the content in newspapers. In fact, they shut down the United Kingdom’s original lonely hearts monthly, known as The Link, in 1921 because they believed the paper’s personal ads contained hidden messages for gay men.
Introduction was a company in Newark, New Jersey, that is said to be the first one whose main method for creating matches, or “social equivalents,” was based on data. It also only cost a quarter for someone to receive a suggested match’s contact information.
In the mid-1900s, two Stanford students named Jim Harvey and Phil Fialer took Introduction’s work a step further as part of a school assignment, according to an eHarmony infographic. They used a punch card questionnaire and an IBM 650 mainframe computer to more accurately pair 98 men and women. Their process was never made mainstream, but eHarmony says this is known as the first attempt at creating an automated matchmaking service.
Just six years after the Stanford experiment, Jeff Tarr and Vaughan Morrill, both students at Harvard, conducted Operation Match. They used their own questionnaire and an IBM 1401 computer to match people (for $3) based on their similar likes and dislikes.
According to the PBS infographic, Operation Match was used by more than 1 million daters during the 1960s.
From 1965 to 1990, in-print personal ads kept up a steady pace until an invention came along that would change all of our lives forever — the internet. With the development of the world wide web, singles could connect via sites like AOL, Craigslist, Prodigy, and other online chat rooms and forums, and there was no turning back.
While AOL and Craigslist revolutionized the way people met, they still needed an easier way to get specific about their individual wants and needs for a date or partner. That’s where Match.com came in.
As the first online dating site ever, Match was able to streamline the process, allowing singles to select things like their match’s preferred gender, age range, location, hobbies, and lifestyle habits. The site has been paving the way for others to follow suit ever since. Today, Match has 30 million members, sees over 13.5 million visitors a month, and is responsible for the most dates, relationships, and marriages than any of its competitors.
In 1998, the movie “You’ve Got Mail” hit theaters all over the country, and it wasn’t just a cute rom-com — it also normalized online dating. We all know the story: Kathleen, played by Meg Ryan, and Joe, played by Tom Hanks, meet and fall in love in an online chat room using their AOL screen names Shopgirl and NY152, respectively.
“You’ve Got Mail” was uplifting and showed people that online dating was another great avenue for finding a date or partner. On a side note, thinking about this movie also makes me kinda miss the glorious sound of a computer dialing up.
Five years after Match launched, eHarmony, a dating site with its own way of doing things, arrived on the scene. Not only was it meant for singles who only want a long-term commitment, but it also matches them via a one-of-a-kind in-depth survey that takes 29 dimensions of compatibility into consideration. These include a person’s emotional energy, adaptability, intellect, physical energy, and conflict resolution skills.
The questionnaire, as well as the site, was co-founded by Dr. Neil Clark Warren, a relationship counselor, clinical psychology, Christian theologian, and seminary professor. Another unique aspect to eHarmony was that it found and delivered all of the matches for its members — no searching required on their part. Years later, eHarmony is going stronger than ever.
Launched in 2004, OkCupid was another unique dating site to come onto the scene and give men and women a different process to try. Here, users would answer a question, indicate how they wanted a match to answer that question, and determine how important that question was to them. All three steps were given a certain number of points, and that math was used in an algorithm to create the most compatible pairings possible. OkCupid is still using this method today and is one of the most beloved dating sites.
Two wonderful things happened for online dating in 2007: smartphones, particularly the iPhone, were brought to the masses and Zoosk was founded.
These events go hand in hand because Zoosk was one of the first dating sites to also offer a mobile app — which has now been downloaded more than 30 million times on iTunes and Google Play. On Zoosk, users can sync their Facebook or Google+ profiles, making signup super quick, and the Carousel matching feature makes it easy to say “Yes,” “No,” or “Maybe” to a lot of members in one sitting.
While online dating allowed singles to meet compatible people from the comfort of their own homes, dating apps allowed them to do so no matter where they were in the world.
Another innovation in the online dating industry was the swipe-for-matches craze Tinder started in 2012. In Tinder’s case, you’re shown a match (his or her photo, age, and gender) and you can swipe right for yes or left for no depending on whether you would consider meeting them in real life. Tinder also took location-based matching to the next level. While dating sites and apps have always let users search by location, Tinder shows matches who are in your area in real time.
The methods for finding a romantic connection have evolved drastically over the past 300 years. We’re no longer limited to placing an ad in a newspaper as were our ancestors, or even our parents. And those methods are only going to continue evolving. According to the Statistic Brain Research Institute, more than 49 million people have tried online dating, and according to Forbes, there are almost 8,000 dating sites on the web. Who knows, maybe one day we’ll be meeting our matches via hologram, and we’ll be able to teleport to a date. No matter what it is, though, I’m definitely interested in seeing where online dating goes.
Photo sources: easydatingprofiles.com, crushable.com, espnfivethirtyeight.wordpress.com