September 25, 2012

I used to joke about creating an emoticon that would resemble a real, human face. Its meaning: no relationship that began on the Internet would ever amount to anything. Never particularly hilarious, the joke has grown increasingly redundant over the past decade, as the blossoming and festering of relationships born within the digital sphere have become commonplace. It turns out that Cruel Intentions’ Sebastian valmont was wrong—the Internet isn’t just “for geeks and pedophiles.” People, myself included, now freely admit to browsing OkCupid or Match.com, to stalking crushes on Facebook, and to supplementing our love lives with an occasional dip in the digital dating pool. But how did we get here?

Where dating “online” actually began is debatable. Last July in The New Yorker, staff writer nick Paumgarten traced the roots of computer-assisted courtship to the mid-1960s, when accountant Lewis Altfest and his IBM programmer friend Robert Ross developed the first computer dating system. Others trace online dating as we know it to the mid-1990s, with the popularization of the World Wide Web. Before the web metastasized, AOL subscribers met and dated using the messaging system known as their Buddy List, and before that, some of us used newsgroups and Internet Relay Chat (IRC) to get together with people we otherwise might never have met—to share interests, meet for coffee, and maybe even get a hand job in our dad’s Pontiac. Even earlier, Bulletin Board Systems (BBS)—into which one dialed up with a modem, left messages, traded files, chatted, and gamed—provided forums for dating, or at least hooking up. There were basic computer systems involved in the party lines advertised in the back pages of free newspapers as early as the 1980s. So where did it really begin? The answer may lie between tech oracle Marshall McLuhan’s dictums that “the medium is the message” and that we tend to drastically interfere with ourselves “by every technology we could latch onto.” It makes sense, then, to start with the technological advancement that permitted the transmission of ones and zeros into exes and ohs: the modem, and the first dating services that made use of it.

JON BOEDE, CO-FOUNDER OF MATCHMAKER.COM: In 1984, my friend and I were running two dial-up bulletin boards. One of them was dial-Your-Match, which he purchased out of the back of a biker magazine. He worked at Radio Shack, and came home one day with a computer that allowed three or four people on at the same time. It was an accidental, brilliant stroke because it ran on the operating system Unix. You could add more and more lines to those things.

With the help of this new machine, Boede designed a system that essentially created a BBS for matchmaking.

We got to the point where we had 64 phone lines running through these modems. Around 1987, I started licensing the software. If someone in Florida wanted to try it, I would get them a license so they could operate the Tampa Matchmaker. It was tied to geographical locations because the Internet didn’t exist yet. When the Internet came along, it was an asteroid that obliterated the dial-up bulletin board world.

GARY KREMEN, FOUNDER OF MATCH.COM: I started Match in ’93. I noticed that a lot of rich people owned newspapers, and I wanted to be rich. The Match concept involved all of the classifieds that were in newspapers: autos, housing, property, legal notices, whatever.

Kremen was looking to partner buyers with sellers using their Match.com email addresses. He also had the foresight to register hundreds of domain names, including Autos.com and Sex.com.

I had this idea: If I put all of the women in the world into a database, I could sort them by special criteria. In 1990 or ’91, I was selling software and started getting purchase orders from women by email. I was using a lot of “900” numbers [for dating], and I started thinking, if I could convince women to send their pictures, I could do a dating service through email. I was trying to solve my own problem—I needed to get married. I wrote some software that matched people through email and attached profiles. The customers were horny men and, strangely enough, pretty attractive, professional women from San Francisco. I set up one couple who later got married.

The couple, Jane and John Doe, like many of Kremen’s early clients, both worked in Silicon Valley.

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