Online dating in the time of smartphones: Mobile Cupids, or modern imps?

May 12, 2011: 1:11 PM ET

Dating sites, social networks and the mobile devices -- even cars -- we use to connect to them let us be distant or callous to fellow singles in a whole new, yet familiar, way.

FORTUNE -- As a tech writer, I'm impressed by the industry and the rate at which companies innovate. Fifteen years ago streaming high-quality video content was a pipe dream squeezed by the reality of 56K modems; the power of the social graph remained largely untapped a decade ago because mainstream social networks simply didn't exist to tap it; and as recently as five years ago, the mobile experience hosted by Palms, BlackBerries, and "candy bar" phones only hinted at the fluid, touchscreen-optimized, app-driven experience we take for granted today. Tech pushes us forward  on multiple fronts, but there's one area I'm not sure it's helped much, and that's romance.

A good friend -- let's call her "Kathleen" -- suggested I check out a TV spot for the 2011 Chevy Cruze that highlights the compact car's delivery of "real-time updates" to the driver.  In the commercial, the car's owner had instant access to his date's Facebook Newsfeed, so when she updated her status ("Best first date ever!"), he knew within minutes. Kathleen argued the commercial was heart-sinkingly awful -- not because of its premise but the notion that technology, in this case hyper-connectivity, was eroding an element that matters to many of us -- the mystery and serendipity that often goes with dating.

While the Cruze ad was schmaltzy, it got me thinking about how big a role technology now plays even in this, um, corporeal aspect of our lives. A good chunk of people still meet significant others the old-fashioned way, but many of us now turn online for help. A recent study conducted by the University of Oxford reports that nearly one in three Internet users have visited an online dating site, while one of the leading online dating services, Match.com, which claims nearly 1.6 million subscribers and raked in $400 million in revenues last year, claims that online dating now accounts for at least one in six marriages and one in five committed relationships.

Wreaking havoc on the discovery process

In some ways Match makes it incredibly easy for users to be choosy -- not a bad thing in and of itself -- but people are presented like they're stock photos in a yearbook, with pages upon pages of faces that make it incredibly easy for daters to treat them less like human beings and more like easy commodities. Many – myself included – may need the opportunity to highlight our personalities beyond a small pic and one or two initially viewable sentences. In the case of dating and finding a match, a photo simply does not and can not say it all.

This nouveau romantic discovery process encourages those of us with the Seinfeldian ability to fixate on the smallest physical "flaw" to write someone off even quicker. Receding hairline? Meh. Slightly crooked teeth? Pass. When it comes to the personal information people do put down, dating sites rarely encourage any sort of creativity, beyond listing likes and dislikes. Loves Joni Mitchell, cat embroidery designs and kittens named Lady Chatterley? No, thanks.

And while I know I'm not alone in thinking along these lines, I wonder whether I end up overlooking people I'd have in-person chemistry with simply because someone hotter, smarter and funnier might be on the next Web page. Because I'm pretty sure if online dating had existed back in the 1980s, my parents -- who validate the old adage "opposites attract" to a tee -- would never had met.

Tech offers people a layer of distance and anonymity in dating they can't find elsewhere, which in turn affects etiquette. Even if our photos are up there, our contact information isn't. We don't have to worry about the consequences of hurting someone's feelings the same way we would if we were picking up someone up at a bar. The lack of actual in-person interaction, at least initially, emboldens online daters to be ruthlessly honest. On OKCupid, one person I was interested in sweetly replied, "EW, GOD. NEVER," which was enough to send me to the local 7-Eleven for a pint of Haagen Daaz to nurse my bruised ego.

People are also increasingly doing their research with Google search. Sure, we want to check that we're not about to spend our evening with a black widow or Jack the Ripper, but sheer curiosity also means we'll research the heck out of these dates, to the point where it's essentially a background search, sapping serendipity out of the discovery process. Meanwhile, more and more people Facebook Friend their dates right after or even before meeting them -- which seems a tad premature given things may not work out.

Dumping 2.0

Dumping has quite simply never been easier, thanks to the proliferation of communication channels and devices. I've seen friends stood up via text five minutes before the date was supposed to start, observed college break-ups via Facebook message followed by ugly Wall-to-Wall conversations -- the 21st century equivalent of public blowout at a restaurant -- and I've taken friends out for conciliatory drinks after they've received fanciful texts like, "sory 2 do this but its not werking out. ur great tho. good luck."

People clearly hide behind technology to avoid doing the deed face-to-face. I know this, having been on the receiving end, and having spinelessly done it once or twice myself with emails like: "You're a brilliant, kind person, but I didn't feel the chemistry you and I both know are required to make a relationship great. … No doubt, you will make someone very happy." (Not my proudest moment.)

The dating site Chemistry.com offers what amounts to a dumping feature for "First Meetings," or first dates arranged through the service. Say you're just not that into them: fill out some feedback online, and once your date does the same, they get a standard cookie-cutter message telling them to move on. Better than never getting back to them at all, but not by much. The feature is sort of the modern-day equivalent of giving someone you were talking to in a bar the number from the dry-cleaner awning across the street -- the wrong number does the dirty work for you.

Of course, all these services and devices aren't solely to blame for our modern-day misadventures. Match, Facebook, and that nifty smartphone are just tools -- means to ends -- intended to make life easier. As many couples will attest, they have: success stories abound, crediting technology in one way or another as their 21st century Cupid. (They don't lie. One of my friends found her soul mate on MySpace.)

But the responsibility still falls on us to act decently, online and in person, even when it's now become possible to write someone off based on a thumbnail photo or quirky hobby; to dump someone in 50 characters or less; or to stalk a person from the comfort of our snazzy new Chevrolet.

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About This Author
JP Mangalindan
JP Mangalindan
Writer, Fortune

JP Mangalindan is a San Francisco-based writer at Fortune, covering Silicon Valley. Since joining in 2010, he has written on a wide array of topics, from the turnaround of eBay to the evolution of net neutrality. A graduate of Fordham University, Mangalindan has also written for GQ, Popular Science, and Entertainment Weekly.

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