Relationships

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.

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