Endless options in digital dating not always better

Online dating may throw up unlimited possibilities and potential partners, but it does not necessarily make people happier, as they do not have the processing power to deal with the huge numbers. Dating is not simply about finding like-minded people,
Online dating may throw up unlimited possibilities and potential partners, but it does not necessarily make people happier, as they do not have the processing power to deal with the huge numbers. Dating is not simply about finding like-minded people, but about limiting your potential set of choices.ST FILE PHOTO

Here are some ways to use Tinder: Swipe right on everyone; swipe left on everyone; screenshot guys who pose with guns or on treadmill desks in their profile photos and make a collection to laugh at with your friends at dinner; sit uncomfortably at a cocktail gathering when a man announces to the group that he saw your profile and was torn over which way to swipe.

You can also use it to message people and then, when they get filthy or bizarre right away, post those conversations on Twitter for everyone's entertainment.

Oh, yes, you can use it to meet people too.

As modern dating evolved over the last century, a problem became clear: Dating is often terrible.

The hardest part? Meeting someone. It's worse than a matter of chance. It's chaos.

What if we could change dating by letting people meet even more people? We could defy the random laws of attraction by matching people to their algorithmically determined ideal mate.

But what if it turns out that relying on algorithms doesn't make dating less chaotic, but more so, in a whole new way?

What if, instead of finding our way to a partner, following certain algorithms leads us only further away?

Computerised dating first appeared in class projects in 1959, and emerged as a paid service in 1965 with Operation Match at Harvard and Project Tact (Technical Automated Compatibility Testing) in New York City.

These early systems had singles fill out questionnaires, then converted their answers into punch cards that were sorted by huge computers the size of small rooms and then matched.

Internet dating began to take off in the 1990s through newsgroups, bulletin board systems, mailing lists, chatrooms and questionnaire-based matchmaking services.

Match.com, one of the first online dating sites and now the largest, went live in 1995. Hundreds followed.

All featured profiles and many were subscription-based.

Tinder was something different. The app was created in 2012 at Hatch Labs and is unapologetically about sex, at least as a starting point.

Zip through a quickie set-up, facilitated by your Facebook account, and you're swiping at the screen of your phone on your way to hook-ups, scanning for people in the vicinity - it shows user locations anywhere up to 160km away, depending on the settings you choose.

Swipe right for maybe, swipe left for never - all based on a few photos and a handful of words.

You won't know who swiped on you unless you both swipe right on each other and match. Then you get a message option.

The company claims 10 million matches a day.

Tinder's most revolutionary aspects were to nix the Web and questionnaires. The experience - mobile only - feels like playing a game. In fact, it is: With each match, a screen pops up asking if you'd like to "keep playing".

I tried Tinder on a lark.

"You'll hate it," a girlfriend said. "It's all 25-year-olds looking to hook up. I mean, that's why I'm on it, but I am 25."

I signed up anyway. There were a lot of 25-year-olds, but also people in their 30s, like me.

Whenever I see a man in his late 30s, or a divorced dad with kids, I wondered: What was he doing there? What was I doing there? Should we be on OkCupid? Were we too old to be playing a hook-up game? Did it matter?

At first it was strangely exhilarating. Each time I got "It's a Match!", I'd punch the "Keep Playing" button as if I were winning the Desirability Olympics.

Then a guy friend told me: "Most dudes swipe right on almost everyone."

I continued judging potential matches, swiping like mad, still trying to win.

Dating is a numbers game, people say, but the direction it is taking online and in apps means ever bigger numbers.

The number of people you'd never talk to in a million years. The number of men who message every woman, because maybe one will have sex with them.

The chances someone will anonymously talk about a date with you to 150,000 people on @Tinderfessions.

As your profile or location is crunched into numbers and algorithms and equations, the possibilities are endless.

Here's the problem with bigger numbers and endless possibility: They don't go well with humans.

We don't have the processing power. Dating is not simply about finding like-minded people, but about limiting your potential set of choices.

When we're making a selection from what sociologists call a bounded set of choices, we can "satisfice" - that is, reach a kind of threshold of satisfaction.

Once we find something above that level, great, let's try it.

When the number of options increases, we become maximisers - unsatisfied with those options, and wanting more.

On Tinder, we can judge, swipe and date as if there is an unlimited number of matches. When faced with boundless choices, can we ever choose?

"Success" in online dating can mean many things to many people - and to many companies.

Some sites or apps want to help you go on a date. Some want you to answer their entire compatibility questionnaire.

And some want to create a "sticky" experience, bringing maximisers back, getting them to peruse even more choices to see if there's a better, hotter, more perfect match.

Digital dating allows us to increase our numbers of suitors and objects of interest - Tinder says it has made two billion matches to date.

But unless you're a math genius or a hacker who can beat these algorithms at their own game, more isn't necessarily the answer.

It's about finding good matches in smaller sets.

Even without computers and phones, long before screens, we've always wondered, "But is there someone better?"

There's a simple reason for that, although the simple reason does not have a simple solution: Dating involves humans.

We are strange creatures, sometimes brutal, not always photogenic, often delicate.

We're fascinated by metrics, big pictures and endless horizons of possibility. And we always, always, want more.

NEW YORK TIMES

The writer is an ethnographer who specialises in relationships and technology.