Online Dating's Siren Song

Dan Slater, author of Love in the Time of Algorithms, talks to Renee Montagne about the history of computer matchmaking. He says online dating users get "lured in, in a way they never imagined." Slater says falling in love with an Internet profile is actually fairly common.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

The University of Notre Dame football star Manti Te'o is at the center of a national media drama. For months, national media outlets like ESPN and Sports Illustrated told the story of his girlfriend's death and his triumph on the field after that loss.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

As we've been reporting, the whole story was a hoax. The 21-year-old linebacker has maintained that he was duped. But today on ABC, he will admit to becoming part of the lie.

Here's a clip from Katy Couric's syndicated talk show.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "KATIE")

MANTI TE'O: This girl, who I committed myself to, died on September 12th. Now I get a phone call on December 6th saying that she's alive and then I'm going to be put on national TV two days later, and they asked me about the same question. You know, what would you do?

MONTAGNE: That's just one of many questions surrounding Manti Te'o's story. But Dan Slater, who's written a book on the history of online dating, says falling in love with an Internet profile is actually fairly common.

DAN SLATER: The story that he tells is similar to the story that I got from a lot of the online dating users that I interviewed for my book. They got lured in, in a way they never imagined that they would have. But I just think that loneliness is a powerful affliction. I think that relationships can be very powerful, and certainly even a relationship that occurs only online can be very meaningful.

MONTAGNE: Dan's latest book is out today. We reached him yesterday to talk about "Love in the Time of Algorithms."

Good morning.

SLATER: Hi. Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Now, most of us think of online dating as something rather new. But you write in the very beginning of the book that the first computer-based program for dating started back in the 1950s.

SLATER: That is right. Actually my mother and father met through the second ever computer dating system, invented in '65. And back then, the questionnaire was written, it wasn't something you filled out online because there was no Internet yet. But you would get a questionnaire slid under the door of your dorm room that looked like an SAT sheet. It had the bubbles next to the questions.

You filled out the questions and then you returned the questionnaire to the person who ran the company with a three or four dollar subscription fee. And they took the answers to the questionnaire. They put it on a punch card, and then they ran it through these enormous room-sized computers. And the machine would spit out a sheet with six matches and you would receive that in the mail. And then it was up to you to initiate contact or wait for one of those six people to contact you.

MONTAGNE: So it was a way of doing something that's in its way quite old-fashioned, ancient even, which is matchmaking. But what about online dating? Why is it so successful?

SLATER: I think the reason online dating is so successful is because it expands the pool so much. And certainly when the Internet arrived in the early '90s, and then when Match, you know, arrived in around 1995, all of a sudden you went from perceiving your mating pool as relatively limited, to this enormous online population of people available to you.

And I also think that accounted for the stigma, you know, to some extent, just because it was scary, and it felt like it of the Wild West of dating. And I think it still does for a lot of people.

MONTAGNE: Right, but for a lot of people there have been enough success stories that it also feels kind of comfy.

SLATER: Yeah, I know. I think that the reason that the stigma is now eroding is because it works.

MONTAGNE: What about these algorithms? Have you found any evidence of some that found - what would you call it - the special way of putting people together that works?

SLATER: Well, it's sort of a complex answer, between what psychological science says is possible and what the dating sites say that they can do. So what a lot of dating sites say they can do is they can take a couple of strangers who've never met, and they can match them up for lifetime compatibility. What the academics say is that is not possible.

I think what is happening at the moment is that dating sites are getting better at predicting whether two people who never met can hit it off on a first date. And I think the more data that dating sites accumulate, the better they'll become at matching people up.

MONTAGNE: Dan Slater's new book is "Love in the Time of Algorithms." Dan Slater, thanks very much for joining us.

SLATER: Thank you so much for having me.

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