How the Smartphone is Redefining Dating Norms

on February 17, 2016
Reading Time: 3 minutes

Many of us covet that classic love story: meet unexpectedly, fall madly in love, age gracefully together.

But the average age of marriage is creeping up. And the when, where and how we’re meeting our spouse-to-be is changing too, driven by the digital age we’ve been thrown into.

Today’s dating environment is more diffuse and more competitive than ever, as dating apps compete for our attention and affection, all the while gathering and analyzing our information. It is fundamentally redefining the dating norms we’ve known for the past half century. But is the data driving us to make the right romantic decisions?

Digitizing the matchmaking process makes us more reliant on data than ever. Before Match.com launched in 1995, chemistry — with an assist from serendipity — was the primary driver of matchmaking throughout most of modern Western culture.

The first generation of dating apps put the onus of finding a match squarely on the user: scroll through pages of profiles, scanning photos and examining other sundry details. Today’s dating apps rely on GPS, algorithms and, increasingly, how you use the service to define compatibility, make a match and motivate a first date.

Tinder, one of the most well-known and heavily used dating apps today, has 50 million users in 196 countries and produces 26 million “matches” a day. In November, Tinder released a new algorithm that incorporates both technical and informational data points.

Digital dating platforms provide the illusion of having unlimited choice, challenging traditional dating norms. Today’s dating app users are accustomed to having multiple, simultaneous digital conversations. This dating behavior would be nearly impossible to do in public but is incredibly common in spaces enabled by digital communications.

Perhaps as a way to fight the illusion of unlimited choice and capitalize on dating data, some dating apps like Hinge and Coffee Meets Bagel are limiting the number of recommended matches they provide.

Today, about five percent of Americans in a marriage or committed relationship met online and 15 percent of Americans have used online dating sites or mobile dating apps. And the rapid rate of growth in digital dating suggests this figure is poised to increase. However, like love itself, digital dating isn’t all rainbows and butterflies.

Roughly one-third of online dating service users have never actually gone on a date with someone they’ve met online. Many users seem to be only marginally connected and committed, making it harder to find the signal through the noise.

It is much easier to like someone in the digital universe of matchmatching because it is equally easy to stop liking them. Online dating cycles are much shorter than analog courtships. In almost all instances, you simply click “unmatch” and you can be disconnected from them entirely because the social norms that exist in the physical world do not apply.

First impressions have been replaced by digital images, which have become incredibly important elements of the digitization and redefining of dating norms, thanks in large part to the proliferation of, and the ease of use of, smartphones with cameras, filters and photo editing software.

Dating apps allow you to share multiple photos with would-be matches. Like a peacock spreading its feathers to attract a mate, we do the same with a collage of photos. But in the digital realm, it’s subtly different: We get to choose (and digitally enhance) the feathers we portray. We pull from a million photos until we have the perfect array and then use these photos as a sort of dating “resume”.

In almost all instances, these types of photos tell us a lot more about what the person is looking for in a match than about themselves. Before we’ve even said hello, we know more than any opening conversation could have provided historically.

The full ramifications of the new digitally defined era of dating are still coming to fruition.

Some studies suggest couples who meet online are three times more likely to divorce. Only time will tell if statistics like these hold as the popularity of the medium grows.

While there have always been unspoken dating norms, they are being defined (and often redefined) by smartphone apps and internet sites. Because the rules are fixed within the parameters of the software, what were once loosely understood norms are becoming strictly enforced parameters.

In a highly competitive environment, apps are finding new rules to implement in order to differentiate themselves and, consequently, are redefining dating norms as a result.

Digitization continues to bring us numerous new markets, and in the process redefine some, like matchmaking, that are as old as time.