Facebook And Dating: It’s (Not) Complicated

Finding one’s soulmate isn’t easy.

In fact, physicist, NASA roboticist and “What If” author Randall Munroe says that, scientifically speaking, it’s impossible. The math behind his claim suggests that finding someone’s honest-to-goodness soulmate is a once in every 10,000 lifetimes kind of thing.

That does make it seem kinda hard.

But it hasn’t stopped people from looking.

Or intermediaries from helping them make that impossible dream their reality — or a reasonably suitable facsimile of it.

Before online matchmaking intermediaries like Match.com and Tinder tried their hand at increasing those odds, there was Frigyes Karinthy, SixDegrees, Friendster, not to mention village matchmakers.

And now, Facebook.


Please Don’t Make Me Kiss a Thousand Frogs

For millenia, people living in isolated villages and towns found it hard to meet anyone beyond the borders of the small communities in which they lived and worked, never mind their perfect soulmate. Village matchmakers would seek input from the parents of children of marrying age in those villages and then use their networks across many villages to find a suitable match. The practice that most describe as “arranged marriages” was often less about “arranging” to a set of strict parent-led criteria but using an intermediary to fish for a possible mate in a much larger pool of eligible candidates.

The first use case for social networks, started after the birth of the commercial internet, was helping people find the perfect mate (well, seriously, these were started by guys, so the idea was to help them find girls).

The basic idea occurred about seven decades before the first online social networks.

In 1929, Hungarian author, Frigyes Karinthy, published a series of fictional short stories, one entitled “Chains.” In that story, Karinthy posited that any two people could be connected by, at most, five personal acquaintances and illustrated that through a game he created and wrote about.

His idea was that these personal, social networks would become even more expansive and powerful as the inevitable advances in mobility and technology made it easier to make and then share those contacts.

Over the years, economists, statisticians and mathematicians evolved this concept more rigorously. But Karinthy is credited with naming and popularizing the social network theory that gave rise to the first online social network some 68 years later.

In 1997, SixDegrees.com launched.

Its founder, Andrew Weinreich, is given credit for launching the first social intermediary that invited people to join, create and share a profile online, and then invite their friends to join too. Friends of friends were visible to any friend of those friends in the network. SixDegrees provided users with a new way of expanding the size of their own social networks by making it much easier to meet new people — particularly, possible dates and soulmates.

But not just any people.

People who were more trustworthy than the average Joe or Jane, because a connection was made via a friend they knew firsthand and trusted too.

SixDegrees.com grew to 3.5 million members and was sold two years later for $125 million dollars.

Weinreich said growing the user base became difficult, constrained by its ability to keep users engaged. Sharing photos and content was clunky in a world devoid of smartphones with digital cameras, and the lack of broadband connections necessary to support content-rich sites made it hard to run the site on the desktop computers with dial-up connections people had in their homes at the time.

But it’s Weinreich’s Six Degrees patent — giving people the ability to see people they do not know by making the friends of their friends and their friends’ friends visible online — that’s become the underpinning of online social networking.

In 2002, three years after SixDegrees shut down, Friendster would emerge with the same premise — an online, members-only site where friends and friends of friends could find each other and share updates. While finding a soulmate wasn’t its explicit purpose, striking up new relationships that turned romantic was a frequent occurrence.

Friendster shut down five years later in 2009, owing its lack of success to technology challenges that made the user experience slow and cumbersome in the face of a more powerful and focused Facebook challenger that launched two years after they did. Ironically, a year later, Friendster sold its social networking patents to Facebook for $40 million.

The story of Facebook and its rise over the last 14 years as the world’s most powerful social network icon is, of course, well known.

Zuckerberg and his co-founders chose an ignition strategy that, first, built critical mass one college campus at a time. Students were invited to join by creating a personal profile with their picture. Access to the user’s personal network was at their own discretion after receiving an invitation from someone to join it.

Like Friendster and SixDegrees, friends of friends of friends were visible to users and their own network of friends.

Like Friendster and SixDegrees, access to a trusted network of those friends of friends of friends was the big draw.

Updates from those friends and across those social networks could be seen, liked, shared and commented on, creating the user engagement that would sustain and grow Facebook over the next decade-plus.

More important, the new online friendships Facebook fostered could be easily converted to offline friendships and meet-ups, since everyone went to the same school or one close by.

Including friendships that turned romantic.

Unlike the online social networks that came before it, Facebook asked its users for one piece of information that is, today, the cornerstone of the dating app it will soon launch.


Not So Complicated: The Power of Relationship Status

When users create their Facebook profiles, they can declare any number of relationship status options: single, married, engaged, divorced, in a relationship, “it’s complicated” and many more. Users can also opt to leave that part of their profile blank.

Zuckerberg is reported to have told his co-founders in 2004 that no one walks around advertising their relationship status, and asking about it in person can be awkward. An online user profile with a relationship status feature not only eliminates that awkwardness but telegraphs who’s available and who’s not.

It also gives users important and accurate information they can act on — or not — depending on their own interests and relationship status.

In 2014, Facebook added an “Ask” icon next to a user’s relationship status, inviting others to ask someone they might have more than just a passing interest in getting to know for more details.

It seems a safe bet that watching user engagement with that feature was one of many data points that led to Facebook’s decision to make finding someone’s soulmate a more formal part of its platform.

Along with having a lot of eligible fish in the Facebook pond for those unmarried eligibles to find.

Facebook has more than 2 billion active users who visit the site each month, 214 million of whom are in the U.S. These users check Facebook an average of 14 times a day, spending 50 minutes each day on the site.

Many of whom are also looking for love.


Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places?

The Census Bureau reports that 45 percent of adults over the age of 18 in the U.S. are unmarried — that’s about 111 million unmarried people. It also stands in stark contrast to the state of marital bliss just a few decades before. In 1960, only 28 percent of the adult population was unmarried.

Helping singles find a mate is a niche that online matchmaking sites like Match.com, eHarmony and Tinder emerged to help fill, using algorithms based on user profile information to make those perfect matches.

People have taken the bait.

It’s been reported that roughly 50 million people in the U.S. — or nearly half the unmarried population if those numbers are true — use dating apps. Tinder reports about 46 million users and has seen a 100 percent increase in subscribers since 2015. Match.com reports 7 million users.

Those singles are said to check those dating sites an average of 11 times a day, spending 90 minutes a day, or some 10 hours a week, in search of Mr. or Ms. Perfect.

Finding a soulmate on those platforms, however, comes down to how well these online intermediaries can solve a pretty simple math problem.

Too much qualifying criteria applied to too small a pool of eligible singles means too few potential Mr. or Ms. Rights for users to see and get to know.

Opening the aperture too wide means presenting users with too many potential Mr. or Ms. Wrongs who don’t match their criteria.

Add to that the problem of embellished profiles and profile pictures that make a potentially exciting first date a disappointing last encounter — and users get frustrated and leave.

It’s not surprising that dating apps aren’t the way most people say they’ve had the most success in finding the love of their life.

Most people — 39 percent of singles — say what’s worked best for them is having friends of friends fix them up. Roughly 15 percent of people find a relationship at work, 12 percent at a bar.

Only 8 percent say dating apps have been the onramp to a satisfying relationship.

That’s why Facebook has more than just a shot at making a killer dating app to help singles find a new relationship — while also finding a new way to monetize its platform beyond selling advertisers access to its user base.


A Bigger Pond With More Fish And Lots Of Green

Facebook as a dating platform has the same simple math problem to solve as any other dating site: having enough eligible singles to increase the odds of any of its users finding a suitable, compatible mate.

But Facebook has something else that no other dating platform has: a network of friends of friends of friends of friends who can vet any potential match.

Six degrees of separation on a site as humongous as Facebook means it’s also highly likely that someone in its massive network of friends of friends of friends can vouch that Joe’s status is complicated because he really isn’t single and Jane is a great gal but has just been too busy to meet and find someone special.

And that Joe isn’t a lying, cheating son of a gun or that Jane is a lot more like Glenn Close’s character, Alex, in “Fatal Attraction” than Meg Ryan’s in “Sleepless in Seattle.”

Of course, dating sites conduct basic vetting and background checks, but they’re no substitute for a friend who can vouch for the character of someone they — or a friend of their friend — knows firsthand.

That means Facebook has the potential to deliver the online dating trifecta: relationship status, an extensive friend network to vet and vouch for a potential match and a whole lot of potential matches from which unmarried people can choose.

It’s why Match.com’s stock price took a nosedive when Facebook’s dating app news was announced.

For Facebook, having dating as a formal part of the Facebook experience also delivers a monetization trifecta — something that’s increasingly important as regulators beat up its ad-supported model.

An easy monthly subscription sell for singles on the platform today who want a safer and more trusted intermediary to help them find their soulmate. Ten dollars a month times even 10 or 20 percent of the number of unmarried adults in the U.S. is an enormous number — and, if the experience is effective, it’s a number that will only grow.

A way to increase the engagement of existing users whose eyeballs on the site have value to its core advertising business — as well as a way to revive dormant users with an existing Facebook profile. Ad revenue is what keeps the Facebook revenue engine humming. And if Facebook manages to capture even a sliver of the time that singles spend on dating sites today, adding dating to Facebook has the potential to drive user engagement to new and record levels.

A way to monetize intent around the commerce opportunities that dating can unlock. I wrote earlier in the year that 2018’s power brokers are those that can monetize intent and that Facebook as a content distribution platform doesn’t really create any intent to buy.

Dating sure does.

Singles looking for a soulmate want things to do on those first, second and third dates. Booking dinner reservations, flights to see a potential Mr. or Ms. Right in another city, arranging for a romantic weekend away, tickets to concerts or sporting events — all viable commerce experiences both on and offline. Leveraging the payments capabilities of digital payments platforms could turn dating into the catalyst for the payments and commerce experiences that Facebook has, to date, failed to ignite.

Despite Facebook’s well-publicized data scandal, consumers still trust the platform with their data and remain loyal.

A new Reuters/Ipsos study released yesterday states that half of Facebook users in the U.S. haven’t adjusted their usage at all and that 25 percent of users now use it more — at least right now — muting the 25 percent who say they reduced their engagement or removed their profile entirely from the site.

That trust, provided it holds, will become a helpful tailwind as Facebook makes its move into one of the most trusted activities of all: dating.

That combination — a trusted intermediary with a network of trusted connections — is what made the village matchmaker effective and her skills in demand hundreds of years, even centuries ago.

Facebook is sort of like that village matchmaker today. It’s just that its village has 2 billion or so people in it — with potentially a lot more to offer than helping someone find her soulmate.