It's Valentine's Day, and tech has taken over our relationships

Dating hasn't just been turned upside down by technology, it's being dominated by it.

Ian Sherr Contributor and Former Editor at Large / News
Ian Sherr (he/him/his) grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, so he's always had a connection to the tech world. As an editor at large at CNET, he wrote about Apple, Microsoft, VR, video games and internet troubles. Aside from writing, he tinkers with tech at home, is a longtime fencer -- the kind with swords -- and began woodworking during the pandemic.
Ian Sherr
7 min read
James Martin/CNET

This is part of CNET's It's Complicated series about the role technology plays in our relationships. It was originally published in 2017, but has been updated for 2019 with new statistics and information. In the past few years, however, little has changed in the world of online dating. 

If you had to explain dating in 2019 to a time traveler from the 1950s, what would you say?

"I would explain texting first, and how it takes five minutes now for people to decide they want to hook up," says comedian Nikki Glaser. "I would tell women, 'Buckle up, bitch, this is not going to be a fun ride.'"

Glaser, 34, has made a professional study of dating sites like Tinder and the hookup culture that experts say has reshaped many people's sex lives. It provides lots of fodder for her comedy routine.

For past generations, relationship milestones meant things like "going steady." Today's relationships can strike up after a few minutes of text chats.

And since nearly everything is done using an app on a phone, "you can have a relationship with someone and never hear their voice," Glaser says.

So this is dating in the modern age. Having fun yet?

Dating apps are so commonplace now that swipe right, the way you show you like someone on Tinder, has become part of our everyday language. "Swipe right" now means "anytime you make a good choice or approve of something," according to Urban Dictionary.

The internet has been "transformational" to the way we have relationships, says Pepper Schwartz, a professor of sociology at the University of Washington who studies dating and is also one of the matchmaking experts on the reality TV show Married at First Sight. She's noticed, for example, the speed at which technological trends ripple through our culture, and how quickly people become adopters.

"It changes us," she said. "It's a very powerful presence in modern life." That's particularly true in courtship and dating, Schwartz said.

Go back a couple hundred years, and the world was transitioning from arranged marriages to "love." (Schwartz said researchers could tell because children weren't getting married in order of oldest to youngest anymore.) Up until the automobile, airplane and mass education, people usually married someone nearby, such as a neighbor, a fellow churchgoer or the girl next door.


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But these shifts fractured many communities. That, along with sex education, family planning and, in some places, egg freezing as a company-provided health benefit, has meant many people are waiting longer before they settle down.

Who hasn't read about how millennials are less religious, have fewer kids and, despite the popularity of Tinder and the less formal dating culture it's helped introduce, may even be having less sex? The term "cybersex," which used to mean people describing sexual experiences to each other over chat, has morphed into "sexting" -- and it's a far more accepted part of life. Varying sexuality and gender identity are more accepted today as well.There's a site for dating based on the contents of your fridge.

So as time passes and people move around, the traditional pools from which you'd normally find a partner pretty much disappear, Schwartz said. That leaves today's relationship seeker with few options other than to look online.

It's no wonder then that over 90 percent of America's more than 54 million singles have tried online dating, according to the Statistic Brain Research Institute. And 80 percent of people who have used online dating told Pew in 2015 that it's a good way to meet people, with 62 percent saying it's a way to find a better match than other methods because you can potentially learn more about someone up front. 

Over the past decade, dating services have been set up for pretty much any interest. If you wanted to date only people who like Star Trek, normally you'd have to weed through several p'tahks before finding someone to join your crew, as it were. Now there's a site for pretty Star Trek fans, as well as sites for vampire enthusiasts, gamers and even devotees to the writings of Ayn Rand.

Samsung's new Refrigerdating app aims to help you find a date based on the contents of your fridge. There's even a site for supporters of the president of the United States. It's called TrumpSingles.com (It's not fake).


You might imagine that a time traveler from the 1950s might ROFL over the way we date these days.

James Martin/CNET

Rapid change

Tinder's simple but addicting formula of swiping right on a profile you like, and then getting an alert if that person swipes right on you, has become such a cultural sensation that Glaser began doing skits about it.

Watching how friends and coworkers used the app, she developed a theory that a not-small number of men would be willing to say pretty much anything in a text message conversation if they believed they might hook up.

So she tested it in a segment called Tinder Tapout for her late night Comedy Central show, Not Safe with Nikki Glaser, which ran for 20 episodes in 2016.

She and her team created fake profiles of good-looking women, then struck up conversations with real-life men. The joke: See how long the men stick with the conversation as the fake women say increasingly crazy things.

Glaser started one conversation by having a fictional female celebrate that she'd just sold a stolen wheelchair. In another, she told a marine she had PTSD, "Party Till Severely Dumber." He responded, "What's your favorite color?"

"People went further than you would ever think," Glaser said. Her theory is that the men had so many conversations going that her character was "another fish in the sea to them."


Tinder isn't unique, it's just one of the most well-known dating apps. Others, such as Grindr, used by the gay community, and Bumble, where women make the first move, have joined staples like OkCupid, Match.com and eHarmony as go-to dating services on the web. Even Facebook has gotten into the dating game, testing a new feature for its website last year.

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Amber Kelleher-Andrews heads up the matchmaking service founded by her mother, Jill Kelleher, three decades ago.

Kelleher International

Not everyone likes the seeming minefield of internet dating, though. That's when they turn to Amber Kelleher-Andrews and her matchmaking service, Kelleher International, founded by her mother Jill Kelleher in 1986 just outside San Francisco. With prices ranging from $25,000 to $300,000, her clientele skews toward the rich and famous. But she said many people come to her after having given up on the app world.

"There are people who it isn't working for," she said. "The people who come to matchmakers are highly frustrated."

Kelleher, who met her husband while working at a supper club in Los Angeles despite her mother's attempts to match her with other men, is considering bringing a lower-priced version of her service onto the internet too. One idea she's considering is taking over the management of a person's online profile, and then helping select dates among the swipes and winks that pile up.

"People are really bad at choosing by themselves," she said.

The new normal

It's easy to forget  smartphones came on the scene only a little over a decade ago, when Steve Jobs unveiled the first iPhone. The mobile app boom came afterward, helping make services like Uber, Twitter, Instagram and Tinder household names.

We're still feeling the effects that technological change is having on our culture and how we communicate, said Nicole Ellison, a professor at the University of Michigan School of Information.

For example, people routinely strike up a conversation about something someone said online, like if a colleague posted about his child's birthday on Facebook. A few years ago, that might have been considered creepy. Now it's pleasant and thoughtful.

We may reach a point where tech helps us more easily find people in our daily lives, Ellison said, and not just find someone to meet up with later. Imagine, for example, an app that points out a fellow Game of Thrones fan at a party, so you can more easily chat.

"We have more information about people than ever before, and many of us have these supercomputers in our pocket that have geolocation capabilities to see who's around us in space," she said.

Together, that information could help us more easily talk to each other and find common ground. "That would be my hope," she said.

There is a dark side to it all, however. Some of these apps have been used by cyberstalkers to harass and intimidate strangers too, an issue the industry is just starting to understand.

In the meantime, people like Glaser are asking for less ambitious technologies to fix some of the inconveniences of today's dating scene. At the top of her list is an undo button for text messages, like how Google's Gmail gives you 30 seconds to cancel an email after you press Send.

"We've all sent off things we regret," she said. "It's crazy that that can make or break a relationship."

Then again, maybe not. Time travelers beware.

First published Feb. 10. 2017. 
Update, Feb. 12, 2019 at 11:30 a.m. PT.  

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