You’ve probably heard that ol’ chestnut of water-cooler conspiracy theories that pharmaceutical companies don’t cure certain illnesses–from the common cold to cancer–because they make more money treating illnesses than they do curing them. It makes a certain sort of cosmic sense: For every person they cure, pharmaceuticals lose a customer. Of course, the same is said for every patient that dies, so, the logic goes, big business keeps you just alive enough to still need their product.
That theory, of course, is an enormous crock. Some of the largest-selling drugs in the world are vaccines that cure measles, mumps, chickenpox, tetanus, and a wide array of once-common illnesses. Just as well, the big diseases that tend to get mentioned in these theories are AIDS and a variety of cancers, who’s treatments are usually so specified as to not be made by the big vaccine-producers, namely, Merck, Pfizer, and GlaxoSmithKline.
However, it got me thinking about a different industry that might also profit from a sustained-level of misery: Dating sites. Think about it: OKCupid, Tinder, Match.com, and, yes, DateAFarmer.com all rely on the bevy of 95 million single adults in the US. The more people get married, the more their customer pool shrinks down. Much like the fictional Big Pharma overlords of basement-dwellers’ fears, it would seem dating sites have a profit incentive to keep you in the middle ground between happily ever after and forever alone.
Depending on your lifestyle, this could be great. Maybe you are just looking for a quick hookup and plan on using these services to move from one mate to the next. This was the thesis of The Atlantic’s Dan Slater, who theorized that online dating was a threat to monogamy itself in his 2013 book, Love In The Time of Algorithms. He talked with executives at Match and eHarmony and found an uncaring world that held a solipsistic idea of commitment’s importance:
Explaining the mentality of a typical dating-site executive, Justin Parfitt, a dating entrepreneur based in San Francisco, puts the matter bluntly: “They’re thinking, Let’s keep this fucker coming back to the site as often as we can.” For instance, long after their accounts become inactive on Match.com and some other sites, lapsed users receive notifications informing them that wonderful people are browsing their profiles and are eager to chat. “Most of our users are return customers,” says Match.com’s Blatt.
While notifications for inactive users is pretty common practice (Facebook loves to remind you exactly how long you’ve been ignoring it), Slater’s findings reflect what has always been a staple of Silicon Valley: Keep them begging for more. The moment you’ve left the dating world, these companies lose another customer.
The difference between dating sites and, say, Twitter or Tumblr is the former requires deep emotional action. Most of social media requires the state of a frivolous mind, either always producing content or always consuming it (both extremes being equally noxious to a personality and profitable to advertisers).A dating service, however, at least implies real world commitment to an action. It’s easier to fund a movie on Kickstarter than it is to build a relationship.
So when Tinder and even gay-male-hookup app Grindr operate in this capacity, they need your dating life to be busy enough that you’re always looking for more with essentially the same addictive fervor you might check your News Feed or Reddit inbox. In comparison, a committed relationship is the least-profitable thing to come out of a dating site.
This business model doesn’t speak well for the user bases of these services, however. While Grindr and–in a more subliminal manner–Tinder pride themselves on reducing courtship to a swipe left or right, dating sites like OKCupid and J-Date are structurally opposed to you getting the product they’re selling. As a fact of their business model, they don’t want you to find your soul mate: They just want you to find their listing in the Play store.
In fact, one could even postulate that sites which attempt to calculate a good match (such as OKCupid’s Compatibility Score) may have a degree of planned obsolescence. Unlike Facebook, Snapchat, or other Silicon Valley strongholds, dating sites are in a boom-and-bust business. Once you have what you need, you no longer need them.
In much the same way Apple and Samsung structure their software and phones so they are out-of-date–either literally or just fashionably–after only a year or two, could OKCupid be working to keep your relationships short?
The arguments against this claim are a) surely visitors would stop using a dating service after enough failures and b) I have no evidence to support this claim. But the fact that such a feature even makes sense as a business plan for a dating site is enough to raise skepticism towards the format as a whole.
If you’re looking for love online, more power to you. Studies have found over one third of new marriages start online and they tend to report better levels of happiness than their IRL counterparts. But be aware that, as much as your data is up-for-grabs at Facebook and Google, your relationship status is the entire hinge of a stranger’s pocketbook.