Today, 76% of the adult population in advanced economies own a smartphone.
In a remarkably short period, we have come to rely on it for purposes far beyond the calls and text messaging services it first offered.
Looking for love? Hop online to search for your soulmate. In need of a friend? Like-minded people can be found on platforms tailored to those sharing the same interests or experiences.
As attitudes towards technology’s role in our lives have shifted, so too have the ways in which we seek intimacy with others.
By 2013, four out of ten new relationships in the UK had begun online, with the figure predicted to rise to 50% by 2031. In the US, it’s a similar story: a third of modern marriages now start digitally.
Rachael Lloyd, senior PR and communications manager at dating giant eHarmony, emphasises the seismic nature of the shift that has occurred.
eHarmony’s Rachael Lloyd says online dating no longer carries a stigma. Picture credit: Rachael Lloyd
“Ten years ago it was still a bit of a wilderness,” she says of the stigma that online dating used to hold.
“It was seen predominantly as a place where last chance saloon singles went to find somebody.”
Now, she notes, it’s not only socially acceptable, but it’s become commonplace, particularly for younger generations who have grown up with smartphones.
The new normal
In a survey, 94% of respondents believed online dating had become normal.
From casual meet-up apps to dating sites boasting sophisticated algorithms to match their users, there are now a plethora of possibilities for meeting new people, all facilitated by our phones.
Kathy Holiday, a writer in her 50s, turned to online dating after her divorce.
During a three month trial with Match.com, she was beginning to feel burnt out – despite keen interest from her younger co-workers, who made a spreadsheet detailing each man she messaged.
Then she saw Joey’s profile. Looking at his photos, she realised he owned the plumbing company that had worked on her house.
“I sent him a text through Match mentioning that I thought he might have a large portion of my kids' college fund in his company,” she says.
“He texted back asking if I would consider getting some of it back with a dinner.”
In the pre-digital days, Ms Holiday doubts they would have met. Although she knew Joey’s business, they shared no mutual friends. Instead, they were introduced by an algorithm.
Virtual Valentine: Kathy Holiday found love online. Picture credit: Kathy Holiday
“Online dating seemed very superficial to me, but after going out to bars with my friends for some months, I realised dating is superficial,” says Ms Holiday.
“At least with online dating, I would have access to people I may never meet in a bar, and be able to take a look at some of the things that were important to them before ever striking up a conversation.”
Her success in meeting someone beyond her social circle reflects recent research that revealed the progressive side of online dating.
In a 2018 study undertaken by eHarmony and Oxford University, 150,000 profiles and a decades worth of data were analysed to understand behavioral changes among single Brits.
They found online dating lets you cross paths with a diverse range of people, far beyond your narrow clique. As such, users showed a growing openness to meeting someone from outside their usual social strata, including different religions, ethnicities and income brackets.
Even as technology has widened the pool of available people, it also proves a helpful accomplice in screening partners.
On sites like eHarmony, users fill in a detailed questionnaire that works out their key personality traits and values based off a points system.
Once that’s been determined, an algorithm evaluates these traits and matches people who share similar percentages in the same areas.
“Crucially, unlike many swipe apps, we’re not about quick flings or short-term commitments,” says Ms Lloyd. “We are the experts you come to when you want something longer term.”
One of her favorite success stories is a transatlantic couple who struck up a conversation after eHarmony calculated their compatibility to be 100%. Nine months later, they were married and living together in the UK.
This supports eHarmony research, which suggests that shared core values and personality traits increase the likelihood of romantic happiness.
For Kathy Holiday, this was certainly the case. Two and a half years after their first date, she describes Joey as the love of her life.
“We are such a better match than I was with my ex-husband,” she says. “I feel more like myself than I did for nearly two decades.”
It’s not only romantic relationships that are increasingly formed online.
After the birth of her first child, Michelle Kennedy found herself longing for the support of other women who were going through the same experiences. As a former director of Bumble, she’d seen technology’s ability to make connections between strangers.
Using her experience in building dating apps, she founded Peanut, a location-based social app that connects mothers with other women in their neighborhood based upon their shared interests.
If you build it: Michelle Kennedy (right) wanted to meet new mums like herself – so she built an app called Peanut. Picture credit: Peanut
“In every other part of my life I was using tech that we take for granted, from ordering food to ordering a taxi to doing my shopping online,” she says.
“I could do all that in the palm of my hand and yet when it came to motherhood… [nothing] felt like it fit the purpose.”
In two years, the Peanut community has expanded to include 500,000 women across North America, Australia and the UK.
For Kennedy, the most exciting part of its growth has been watching online connections flourish offline. One US member launched a free baby group when she moved to a new area and found that all the existing classes cost money. Other matches between mums have led to business partnerships or lasting friendship.
Come together: The platform has helped whole groups form in the real world. Picture credit: Peanut
“There’s a lot of rhetoric around whether tech and social media are making us lonelier,” says Ms Kennedy.
“The answer to that has to be it’s the way you use it and what you use it for. If you are using social media as a way to look at other people’s lives, then the inevitable self-comparisons will come and that will have an impact on your ability to connect with people in real life.”
“But if you’re using tech as a way to support your social discovery, i.e. people to meet in real life, then I think that can only be a good thing.”
eHarmony’s Rachael Lloyd echoes this belief – but says to be effective, it’s important to move an online match to an in-person date. It should be a support for forming relationships – not a substitute.
“We see the relationship between technology and human relationships as compatible rather than one or the other,” she says.
“They should be complementary.”
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