Why Dating Sites Are Broken

Catherine Cook, myYearbook

I met my current boyfriend four years ago in the elevator of our Georgetown dorm. Our friendship slowly grew until we went on our first date, more than two years after we first met. I like becoming friends with a guy I’m interested in first – it’s the only way to know if you might enjoy spending time together or not, and you just can’t do that on a dating site. That’s why they’re broken.

A recent study published last week found that online dating sites were deficient at determining whether people would have chemistry and make a match. The study, published in the journal of Psychological Science in the Public Interest, found that online dating sites encourage a shopping mindset, which is not compatible with two people finding a strong connection. The lead author of the study, Eli J. Finkel, Ph.D., even told CNN: “Not only is there no scientific evidence, despite the claims, [but] my team of co-authors have become pessimistic that there could ever be in principle an algorithm that could match people well based on the approaches these sites take.”

We found a very similar result in a recent survey of 4,000 myYearbook members. Overwhelmingly, people prefer to start out as friends before jumping into a romantic relationship. Friendship is the filter to finding a compatible match with 89 percent of men and 96 percent of women preferring to be friends before lovers. Sure, it may well be that girls are cultivating friendships and guys are cultivating future options, but it’s a critically important part of the courting process.

This really shouldn’t surprise anyone. If you don’t enjoy someone’s company, if you don’t like their jokes, if you can’t stand their conversation, you shouldn’t be with them. Starting out as friends is obviously the better way to do relationships. I for one would trust a conversation over an algorithm any day, and that’s the existential problem facing the dating site.

Of course, I’m not suggesting that traditional dating sites become obsolete overnight — far from it. One out of five people, some studies suggest have dated someone that they met online. No one could possibly argue that dating sites aren’t an efficient and pervasive way to meet people, but what I would argue is that they are no better at determining chemistry than picking people out of a list, and they don’t encourage friendships. And I think that is the writing on the wall for the dating industry at large.

Dating sites may be making more money than ever before, but it was only in 1999 that the music business peaked – years after the medium that would kill it first emerged. The rise of social networks and the ubiquity of mobile devices have given way to a new crop of mobile social networks – the Meeting Networks – which threaten to eat the dating industry’s $4 billion lunch by making them a subset of a larger “meet new people” space. (Full disclosure: I am both biased and wildly optimistic as a founder of myYearbook – one such meeting network.)

These Meeting Networks enable people to start out as friends through more casual interactions and relationships. They’re social networks not of your friends and family — like Facebook — but of people you might want to know, and they’re growing fast. It is with dramatic scale where Meeting Networks can realize their full promise: to engineer serendipity based on interests and hyperlocal connections. To the extent a free meeting network helps you discover the people around you on the subway platform, in the coffeehouse, or on the street, it would be difficult to see why people would pay to pick people out of a list on an algorithmic dating site. The question is only whether there will be a dominant winner in the Meeting Networks space, as there has been in the friends-based social networking space.

Large players in this space include Badoo and Tagged, but there are plenty of new competitors added to the mix seemingly every week, from Shaker to Banjo to Highlight. Unlike traditional dating companies like Match.com, eHarmony, and Spark Networks, which look to create intimate relationships and skip the friendship steps, these Meeting Networks emphasize casual relationships and let the users decide if and when they would like to turn it into something more. It’s a low-stress, entertaining way to meet new people.

In the graph below, the Meeting Network is the top-left quadrant, combining casual relationships with the people you want to know, and they’re already proven to be dramatically more engaging than traditional dating sites.

If a Meeting Network is an online bar, a traditional dating site is more like a speed date event. You can go to a bar for a variety of reasons. You may want a new friend, a one-night stand, or just a good time. On the other end of the spectrum, speed dating makes you feel like you’re on display, judging the success of the night by if you met “The One” instead of by the company you kept and the fun times you had.

At Meeting Networks, members aren’t just looking for “The One.” It’s more casual than that. 70 percent of Badoo members are looking for friendship, which helps to solve the churn problem endemic to traditional dating sites. Since the goal of a traditional dating site is to find a significant other, it is common for their users to deactivate their profiles once they find someone; in other words, you join a dating site with the goal of leaving it. In contrast, members of Meeting Networks can keep making new friends even if they happen to pursue something deeper with someone. Similarly, I’m not going to stop going to bars just because I have a boyfriend, but I certainly won’t go speed dating.

There has always been a thin line between friendship and romance. A recent survey found that 60 percent of men would make out with a female friend if given a chance (which feels a little low). So maybe Billy Crystal is right — maybe men and women can’t be friends — but Meeting Networks let them start out that way.

Catherine is the co-founder of myYearbook, a social network built around meeting new people, that recently merged with the Quepasa Corporation (QPSA: NYSE AMEX).

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