The Age of Digital Love

Samir Nazim & Chris Persaud Online Dating in the Digital Age

Samir: Hello and welcome to InQUERY podcast. My name is Samir Nazim, and I’m here with heartbroken Chris -

Chris: I’m not heartbroken, and I told you not to bring that up on air

Samir: I’m bringing it up because I decided that we will talk about online dating. This digital phenomenon has become a fixture of the modern-day romance plot and especially yours Chris.

Chris: Who would want to listen to a podcast about online dating?

Samir: Who would want to listen? Let me enlighten you on some statistics. In the early ’90s, just one percent of new relationships began online. By 2009, that number had grown to around 20 per cent for heterosexual couples, and 60 per cent for same-sex matches (Engelhart, 2013)

Chris: So what topics surrounding online dating do you want to cover this show?

Samir: Thanks for asking Chris, this is why we are such a good team. Today’s show will cover topics about how online dating sites work behind and on the front-end. How data from dating sites are used for consumer research. What are the security and risks in online dating, and lastly, how does all of this tie into our social world and culture.

Chris: But none of this will help me understand why this girl won’t just text me back

Samir: Well how did you two meet, fill me in on this story.

Chris: Okay so I signed up for OkCupid, a popular dating site and filled out my information, then -

Samir: Slow down. What information? This is necessary to understanding the process behind how online sites function.

Chris: Well, these sites have advanced search engines, ‘scientific’ matching services, and algorithms. And these dating sites instantly find compatible matches based on values, personality styles, attitudes, interests, race, religion, gender, and ZIP codes (Mitchell, 2009).

Samir: So much of these dating sites like OkCupid utilize some form of ICT’s to match you with potential women. Well maybe not so potential seeing as she won’t text you back.

Chris: Yea exactly, I remember reading in this article called SimRank: A Measure of Structural-Context Similarity, and they describe SimRank theory as “[assumes] two users are similar if they contact similar users. The similarity can be defined by many means such as the number of common partners or the commonality amongst the partners’ profiles (Chen 408).”

Samir: So it is similar to the whole idea of the mutual friends tab on Facebook.

Chris: Each site has a unique approach to these idea of matching potential mates. Match.com says the site does its best to suggest people based on the information they supply. The site cross-references users’ preferences and also tracks what profiles they click on, in an effort to ensure that their online habits jibe with their stated preferences. eHarmony, in turn, says its team of data scientists and psychologists look at multiple “points of compatibility” between applicants. Prospective members fill out psychological tests based on categories like emotional status, character, self-perception and conflict resolution.

Samir: This is interesting, but I feel like finding and matching you with a potential partner is only a small part of the true equation. Online dating allows us to give each other a first impression about ourselves without directly speaking to that person.

Chris: So you are talking about the user profiles that you have to create on these dating sites?

Samir: Exactly. By communicating with individuals online for the purpose of finding romantic and/or sexual partners, constitutes an exciting new realm in which to re-examine traditional interpersonal theories of self-disclosure and relationship formation as well as more recent theories of computer mediated communication (CMC) (Gibbs, 2006).

Chris: You are describing the concept of “selective self-presentation” and “selective-speech”

Samir: Yea, I mean it is these concepts that truly allow us to understand the allure to online dating. For instance, this concept of selective self-presentation has an emphasis on more controllable verbal and linguistic cues compared to Face-to-Face (FtF) interactions. In the realm of online dating, user profiles provides more verbal and linguistic control, and leads to online self-presentation that is “more selective, malleable, and subject to self-censorship in CMC than it is in FtF interaction”

Chris: I’m going to be honest with you Samir, and to all the viewers listening. I Googled and theorized on the best possible description to write in my bio.

Samir: What did you end up with?

Chris: Single and ready to mingle.

Samir: I’m beginning to understand why this girl won’t text you back. But back to my point.

If selective self-presentation allows us to curate our profiles to the best of our ability, selective-speech enables us more time to consciously construct communicative messages. Therefore, as a form of manipulation, users are given the power present themselves positively and deliberately.

Chris: It is fascinating when you put it that way. Evidently, a lot of these sites depends on the users to have an awareness of these fundamentals. Simply signing up and creating a profile won’t exactly score you a date. So if we are talking about selective self-presentation, and the idea of curating a profile.

One Match.com feature, for instance, a multiple choice question like “When it comes to style, I like a man who dresses like this” is followed up with a list of photographs of men with various styles. Other questions let members choose from a range of voices and photographs of celebrities.

Samir: This is a lot of data these sites are collecting. Singletons online seem eager to overshare.

Stanford Law School ran a study October, 2011, and researcher Jonathan Mayer discovered that OkCupid was actually leaking personal data to some of its marketing partners. Information such as age, drug use, drinking frequency, ethnicity, gender, income, relationship status, religion and more was leaked to online advertiser Lotame.

Chris: There is a price to pay for using these sites to find love. You have the choice between subscription based sites, or using free sites, but at the end of the day there is data being sold. I mean, just look at the figures.

Reuben J. Thomas, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Mexico states that the dating industry is now worth about $2.4 billion, with revenue split between advertising and subscription services, up revenue up around 5% per year, according to a report by research firm IBISWorld. Of that, around $1.1 billion is from online dating, $576 million is from mobile apps such as Grindr and Tinder, and the rest is made up mainly of matchmakers and singles events.

http://www.marketwatch.com/story/10-things-dating-sites-wont-tell-you-2013-02-08?page=1

Samir: Okay so just to recap what we covered so far. We talked about the matching process behind these sites. On the front-end, users plug in multiple strings of data to locate their potential mates. And on the back-end, algorithms like SimRank track users together based on simple things like mutual friends.

We discussed the idea of selective self-presentation, and selective-speech, and how online dating profiles and texts allow us to optimize the impression we leave on others. And as we just finished talking about, the online dating industry is full of big data and much of it is being sold to marketing strategists – so technically used against us – in the name of profit.

Chris: Can we also add that this girl still has not texted me back yet.

Samir: Chris, why are you so into this girl? It is just one girl.

Chris: I have needs Samir. Where are your needs? Why aren’t you on dating sites? I’ve been telling you to download Tinder for months now.

Samir: Why should I bother?

Chris: Well, The popularity, acceptance, and amount of users of online dating services has risen exponentially over the past few years, and this should come as no surprise, since access to online dating services is easier than ever, thanks to smartphone applications.

Samir: Like your beloved Tinder.

Chris: Exactly. The Tinder application is one of the most dating apps available for download. In fact, “New research shows [that Tinder has] 50 million active users […] who check their accounts 11 times per day and spend an average of 90 minutes per day on” (Newall).

Samir: We both know you spend more time than that on tinder.

Chris: Well, okay, maybe my four daily hours is a tad bit excessive, but for me and other users, Tinder has helped accumulate over “26 million matches per day”, and over “9 billion matches in total” (About Tinder).

Samir: But how does it work exactly?

Chris: Well, the short answer is, I just swipe right on every profile until my hands are numb. The long answer is, I made a profile, which used my Facebook account to verify my identity, and was then able to browse the profiles of others, based on the personal limits I have for the age of girls I’m looking to date, and the distance away from my current location that I’d like them to be within. Then, Tinder will show me pictures of girls that meet that criteria, while using mutual friends and liked Facebook pages to show me more things that we have in common. While browsing, I can choose to either swipe left to “Pass” each profile, or swipe right to “Like” each profile. Finally, once a girl and I mutually swipe right on each other’s profiles, we’ll match, and only then, can we send each other messages.

Samir: Sounds simple enough.

Chris: It’s very simple, but that same simplicity comes with some major drawbacks. While Tinder may be an effective way for users to meet new people, some studies suggest that the app, and others like it, may be contributing to the rise of STD/STI’s spreading.

Samir: That sounds horrifying.

Chris: It is. Due to Tinder’s ability to create potential matches based on geographic location, many users, to my envy, have begun to use the app for casual-sex relationships.

Samir: Here we go.

Chris: But with these casual-sex relationships, there also comes the risk of spreading sexually transmitted diseases.

Samir: But can’t all sexual endeavors can potentially lead to these diseases?

Chris: They certainly can, but some professionals insist that the use of hook-up apps like Tinder, and Grindr are to blame in the rise of STD outbreaks. Lynn Beltran, the epidemiologist at the Salt Lake County STD clinic told The Guardian that because of the increase of STD infections, “The perfect storm has been brewing […] It is becoming more socially acceptable to have casual sexual partners […] with apps like Tinder” and adds that “People who are interested in anonymous sex […] has it right [at] their at their fingertips” (Gabbett).

Samir: Everyone but you.

Chris: That may actually be a good thing, because as a result of these app induced hook-ups, STD/STI outbreaks have been on the rise across the world.

Samir: Like where?

Chris: In Road Island, “The number of syphilis cases in the state rose by 79% from 2013 to 2014, while incidents of gonorrhea swelled by 30%” and “Newly infected HIV cases increased by 33% in the same time period” (Gabbett). Also, in Utah, cases of gonorrhea “Infections [increased] 700% over a three-year period” (Gabbett). In addition, cases of syphilis, which “By 2000 […] was on the brink of elimination in both the US and the UK” has “More than 3000 cases a year” in the UK, and “More than 16,500” cases in the US” (Bhattacharya).

Samir: And these online hook-up apps are to blame?

Chris: Yes. As Shaoni Bhattacharya explains in his journal article Swipe and Burn for New Scientist:

“For all the fun and spontaneity, a darker side is emerging. The rise of such apps has coincided with a surge in outbreaks of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) that had long been under control, and an increase in other rare diseases. Public health officials are now pointing the finger of blame at a combination of relaxed attitudes towards safe sex and the easy access to partners provided by these apps” (Bhattacharya).

Samir: But how?

Chris: Bhattacharya claims, that the use of these apps has caused users to be less health-conscious when it comes to having protected sex, because the apps have made having casual sex easier than ever.

Samir: That sound logical, but how can they be so sure?

Chris: There is actually some solid evidence to prove the correlation between the users of hook-up apps and STD/STI infection. For example, in Winnipeg, Doctors who asked patients for the contact information for their recent sexual partners, so that they can notify them of their potential risk, have found that “50 per cent of people being treated for syphilis said they had met sexual partners through [hook-up apps]” (Bhattacharya).

Samir: Wow.

Chris: I know. The association between Hook-up apps like Tinder and STD’s has become so popularised, that in a recent ad campaign, the Aids Healthcare Foundation made a billboard showing two figures kissing, with one of the figures labeled as Tinder, and the other as Chlamydia, “Encouraging users of dating apps [such as] Tinder […] to get tested for sexually transmitted diseases” (Brait).

Samir: That’s very graphic. Something doesn’t add up though, if the risk is so high, why do you even use it, and more importantly, why are you recommending it to me?

Chris: With great risk, comes great rewards Samir. Also, you could easily avoid this risk if you’re smart enough to just use a condom. Speaking of which, I just got a match now.

Samir: What are you going to say to her?

Chris: Well, nothing yet. Come on Samir, I don’t want to seem desperate. I’m going wait a few minutes before I say anything. Then, fingers crossed, when the time comes, I’ll use protection, and not have to worry about STD’s.

Samir: Don’t get to ahead of yourself. I have to say, STD’s aren’t my only concern with online dating. I’m also worried about all of the other threats, like scams, catfish, and privacy issues.

Chris: What do you mean? What are catfish?

Samir: Well, as the Scientific American describes:

“The term catfish was made popular by the 2010 documentary film by the same name (which has also morphed into a series on MTV). It refers to a person who is intentionally deceptive when creating a social media profile, often with the goal of making a romantic connection. This deception can be elaborate, and may involve the use of fake photos, fake biographies, and sometimes fictitious supporting networks as well” (D'Costa).

Chris: And people do this often?

Samir: In an article published by VentureBeat.com, it was reported that “On some dating sites, as many as one out of 10 profiles is a scammer” (Farr). There are articles about it happening all over the internet, and MTV’s Catfish TV series has done several investigations into them.

Chris: That’s shocking. Why would people do this?

Samir: Well, as Dr. Chris Fullwood, who is a cyber psychologist at the University of Wolverhampton told BuzzFeed News, “By creating a false identity, some people are trying to narrow the gap between their imagined ideal self and how they actually see themselves” (Smith). He adds that “We have different selves that relate to different environments and different individuals. In the online world these boundaries become more difficult to navigate” (Smith).

Chris: I see. So, the people behind these fake accounts, use fake identities to live the fantasy of being someone else?

Samir: That is often the case, but in more severe instances, there can be more malicious intentions behind online dating fraud. Sometimes scammers use online dating as a forum to trick people into sending them money.

Chris: And how do they manage to do that?

Samir: In many cases, innocent people come across profiles on online dating sites and connect with a person that they are interested in. After being in contact with these potential partners for a long enough period of time, they start to fall for these scammers, and that’s when things start to go south. Once the scammers find that the person that they are setting up has feelings for them, they start to ask for money, and many people are tricked into sending it. In fact, according to Forensic Magazine “A 2013 Federal Trade Commission report cited complaints that totaled $105 million in losses to romance scams alone” (Allocca).

Chris: That is shocking.

Samir: I agree. Even the Federal Bureau of Investigations website FBI.gov explains that online dating users get scammed by criminals "Based on personal information [that they upload to] dating or social media sites” (Beware of Online Dating Scams). They explain that “The pictures [they] were sent were most likely phony [and were] lifted from other websites” and then states that “The profiles were fake as well, carefully crafted to match [their] interests” (Beware of Online Dating Scams). The FBI also notes that:

“In addition to losing your money to someone who had no intention of ever visiting you, you may also have unknowingly taken part in a money laundering scheme by cashing phony checks and sending the money overseas and by shipping stolen merchandise” (Beware of Online Dating Scams).

Chris: I’ve heard of a scam like that, except it’s even worse.

Samir: What can be worse than falling for someone, only to discover that the person that you have feelings for, is actually a fake person, created to take advantage of you, and scam you out of money?

Chris: The ASIS, which is a leading organization for security professionals worldwide reported another scam called “Ransomware”. These scammers use “A computer virus that could take a computer hostage by rendering it inoperable until the victim makes an online payment” (Purvis). They also suspect that Ransomware can be used to collect personal and financial information.

Samir: So basically, scammers can use their own virus as ICT to steal information from users, and disable the victim from using their computer until they pay a fee?

Chris: Exactly, but it gets worst. The Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) also reported another dating extortion scam, where online dating users would meet someone on the internet, and would then be asked to converse on specific social network. Then “Users were baited into engaging in intimate, sexual conversations […] and after exchanging explicit photos, messages and personal information, the victims would receive a text message saying their information was posted online” (IC3 Scam Alerts).

Samir: So they engage in conversation, wait until the victim is vulnerable, and then blackmail them?

Chris: Yes. After the scammers had enough material to extort users, they would send the victims a link to a website where they would be able to view the explicit photos and messages that they sent, as well as their telephone numbers. There was an even an “Option to view and buy the posted conversations for $9. Victims were also given the option to have their names and conversations removed for $99” (IC3 Scam Alerts).

Samir: You’re right, that is worse. That reminds me of the recent Ashley Madison hackings.

Chris: Wait, what’s Ashley Madison?

Samir: I’m surprised you don’t know about this! Ashley Madison is an online dating service that caters to married people hoping to have affairs.

Chris: Sounds like my kind of party.

Samir: Well, maybe not, because hackers recently broke into their system and leaked

“9.7 gigabytes” worth of user data to the internet (Zetter). This data included “Account details and log-ins for [approximately] 32 million users [… and] Seven years’ worth of credit card and other payment transaction details” including “Names, passwords, addresses and phone numbers submitted by users of the site” and “Millions of payment transactions going back to 2008, [such as the] names, street address, email address and amount paid” (Zetter).

Chris: I’m starting to think that online dating may not be the euphoria that I once thought it was. My Tinder match just sent me a message though. I knew my bio was perfect! I have them messaging me first!

Samir: What does it say?

Chris: It says “Hey, I want to have sex with strangers who are skilled and are also very intimate in bed. If you are of the same interests like mine, well spare time meeting me at… I can’t read that website on air. This is definitely a scam. I should’ve known, her bio says she likes rock climbing. Nobody likes rock climbing.

Samir: No, you should have known it was a scam because she liked you, and no one likes you.

Chris: There we go! I knew she’d come around. I’m going to go get coffee with her, I’ll talk to you later Samir.

Samir: Wait! Before you go, I want to end this podcast with an overall comment about the world of big data that we live in. It is such a beautiful….

Chris: Here we go…

Samir: I read a beautiful blog post about the age of big data and what it means in terms of restructuring the way we write history. I would like to leave all our viewers with this insight to think about.

Samir: Our knowledge of history is traced through those who made the deepest impact in mankind. Conquerors, tycoons, martyrs, saviors – their lives are used to explain a larger story. They become our markers of human progression. Yet for the rest of mankind, the everyday citizen, their existence wasn’t worth recording. However, big data is shaking down this paradigm. Through the use of dating and social media sites, the common citizen is beginning to write the history of the future. As the internet has democratized journalism, photography, comedy, and other personal endeavors, it will eventually democratize the human narrative. Big data will not change the course of history, rather it will change how history is told.

The people using these dating sites, social sites, and news sites are living their lives as they always have. Only now - they do it on phones and laptops. As mankind’s timeline progresses, a unique archive of information is being created. Archives around the world storing years of yearning, opinion, and chaos. We are now given the ability to analyze this data in the fullness of time, but with a flexibility unimaginable from just a decade ago. Analyzing through terabytes of data, the idea is to detach our understanding of ourselves away from the narrative – and think in such a way that numbers and data become the narrative

Samir: That is where I’ll leave this podcast. Thank you for tuning in, my name is Samir.

Chris: And my name is Chris, thank you for tuning in to this episode of InQuery!

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