An Exhaustive History of Dating Apps
Every year for the past 11, Helen Fisher, Ph.D., a biological anthropologist and chief science advisor for Match.com, runs a study called Singles in America.
As part of the research, Fisher and her Match.com colleagues ask more than 5,000 Americans about 200 questions. Stuff like "Do you think you could have a relationship with someone who has very different political views from yours?" "Did the pandemic change your feelings about having children?" and "Do you follow any dietary restrictions?" Although questions vary from year to year, one question the researchers ask without fail is "Where did you meet your last first date?"
Since the study began, one method of meeting prospective romantic partners has outshined all others.
"For the last seven, eight, maybe 10 years, the single main way of meeting people and being introduced is through the internet, whether apps or dating sites or some other form," Fisher said.
While online matchmaking apps like Tinder may reign as the most popular avenues for meeting potential significant others, they've been around for only a decade or so. But the idea of leveraging technology to find romantic connections spans hundreds of years.
The 1600s: Lonely hearts ads
The origins of online dating can be traced all the way back to the 1600s, when personal advertisements (want ads) began popping up in newspapers. In the centuries that followed, matrimonial ads continued to flourish in rapidly expanding industrialized cities such as London and Boston.
Not dissimilar from dating apps, lonely hearts ads tended to include information about advertisers such as their age, jobs and traits they were seeking in a potential mate. Compared to modern-day app profiles, however, early ads typically emphasized social and economic considerations over physical beauty or romantic love. The bolder advertisers might request a "good physiognomy," "pleasing figure," "no bodily deformity" or the positively scandalous "shapely ankle preferr'd," as author Francesca Beauman wrote in her book about early personal ads.
1965: Operation Match
Somewhat incredibly, the print ad remained the primary technology for advertising desire for human connection for almost three centuries. The first computer-based matchmaking technology wouldn't come until the fall of 1965, when a trio of Harvard University students created Operation Match, a dating service that ran on a five-ton IBM 1401, one of the earliest mass-market computers.
The service worked like this: Coed lonely hearts answered 75 questions about themselves and another 75 about their ideal match. For a $3 fee (about $22 in today's dollars), participants mailed in their surveys to have them converted into punch cards and analyzed by the 1401. The living-room-size computer matched them with five other participants, and the results were sent in the mail.
Considering how ahead of its time Operation Match was, it did pretty well. For its first run in 1966, Operation Match received more than 8,000 questionnaires, 52 percent of which were submitted by women. By the following year, it had received more than 100,000 surveys from college students around the country.
1976: Videocassette dating
An oft-forgotten piece of the long road to online dating, videocassette dating nevertheless deserves a mention, if only because the idea is so wonderfully '80s. The first video dating company, Great Expectations, based in Encino, California, reportedly launched on Valentine's Day in 1976, taking a sizable step into the future of romance.
To join, participants drove to a franchise's windowless "interview room" to record a three-minute interview introducing themselves to potential matches. Once the video was recorded, it was shown to other members. If there was a match, one member could send the other a postcard, reading something like, "Please come in for a viewing. You've been requested by Thelma." And back they'd go to the office to view Thelma's tape.
Video dating thrived over the next few decades. At one point in the early '90s, Great Expectations owned 49 franchises and was raking in $65 million in annual revenue. But it was no match for the powerful, impending force that was online dating, and the company shuttered within a few years after the first internet matchmaking sites went live.
The next giant leap toward the future of dating was Match.com, the earliest surviving online dating platform, launched April 21, 1995. Open to anyone older than 18 with an email account, Match.com allowed members to browse and find matches based on personal criteria. The service was initially a free, advertisement-based service with the plan to transition to a monthly subscription-based model as it grew. Grow Match.com did: Within the first six months, it attracted more than 100,000 members and became one of the most recognizable domain names of its time.
The free-to-use OkCupid was founded in 2004 by a small group of Harvard students. OkCupid sets itself apart from competitors with the robustness of its questions, said Michael Kaye, associate director of global communications at OkCupid.
"[OkCupid] requires you to answer 15 minimum matching questions before you even move on to the rest of your profile, so we actually do make you work a little bit before we show you any other daters," he said.
Basic questions include "Do you like scary movies?" "Are you always on time?" and "Are you close to your family?"
"But we also have questions about education reform, reproductive rights, gun control and LGBTQ," he added. "We ask if people believe in climate change. We ask if they are supporting the Black Lives movement, if they support marriage equality and if they think the government should defund Planned Parenthood."
2012: Tinder and beyond
When Tinder became available for iPhone users in 2012 and for Android users in 2013, it unleashed geolocation-assisted matchmaking into the mainstream. Tinder took the dating world by storm, reaching 1 million matches by the start of 2013 and 55 billion matches to date.
Tinder paved the way for a deluge of subsequent dating apps, including successful ones such as Hinge (2013) and Bumble (2014), and many, many less successful ones.
The impact of apps on the dating game cannot be overstated, said Steve Dean, an online dating consultant and the founder of Dateworking, based in New York City.
"It's strange to think about how far we've come since the days of not having access to this third space in the cloud where we can instantaneously connect with people with little more than a photo," he said. "The ability to open an app and within less than a minute being able to see people who are single, available and potentially even ready to meet up within the hour within your area, that's completely unreal."
However, Fisher doesn't think apps have fundamentally altered the way we form connections. All these dating apps ads really do is introduce you, she said.
While the technology through which we are introduced to people has transitioned from print ads to videocassettes to swipe-y apps, the way the brain falls in love and forms attachments remains the same.