Even for those of us who are old enough to have memories of a time before the internet, it's sometimes hard to really remember what life was like before we all were walking around with supercomputers in our pockets. Take dating, for instance. Twenty years ago no one met online. These days one third of marriages start with a few clicks or a swipe.
Because that change seems entirely natural to us now, it's easy to forget how big a shift this represents. And even easier to forget to wonder how it's changed things when it comes to romantic relationships.
Thankfully, a pair of international researchers, Josue Ortega of the University of Essex and Philipp Hergovich of the University of Vienna, are on the case. As the MIT Technology Review recently reported the pair have been busy hypothesizing about how the rise of online dating might affect society and then comparing these predictions to real-world data. And while they haven't proven anything entirely yet, their work does suggest Tinder, OKCupid and the rest are shifting marriage in two significant - and positive - ways.
1. More interracial marriage
In the old days, most people met their partner through friends of friends or acquaintances. You ended up marrying your best friend's cousin or your golf buddy's wife's friend. These days, thanks to technology, many more of us end up paired up with people who were perfect strangers before some algorithm brought them to our attention.
One knock-on effect of this is increasing rates of interracial marriage, the researchers suspect. We are much less likely to travel in the same circles with people of very different backgrounds than we are to meet such folks online, after all. So more online pairings should lead to an increase in marriages between very different people.
The data seem to back this up. "It is intriguing that shortly after the introduction of the first dating websites in 1995, like Match.com, the percentage of new marriages created by interracial couples increased rapidly," the researchers note. Then again, in 2014, the number of interracial marriages jumped again. The likely cause? Wildly popular and very random dating app Tinder.
2. Stronger marriages
Though the article goes into less detail on why this might be so, Ortega and Hergovich's models also predict that the strength of marriages should go up in a world where a great many people meet online (perhaps because we have a wider pool of possible partners to choose from?). This too jives with observed reality.
"Research into the strength of marriage has found some evidence that married couples who meet online have lower rates of marital breakup than those who meet traditionally. That has the potential to significantly benefit society. And it's exactly what Ortega and Hergovich's model predicts," notes the MIT write-up.
While this research is obviously in its early stages and it's far too early to say anything definitive about the total effect of online dating on society, these initial findings are a happy dose of optimism at a time when many negative, unintended consequences of the tech revolution are coming to the fore.
Fake news might be tearing us apart, complicated algorithms few understand are making life-altering decisions on our behalf, and internet companies are collecting vast troves of poorly secured data on us, but at least next time you're suffering through a bad Tinder date, you can at least tell yourself you're participating in a trend that might be helping to heal some of society's deepest divisions and make lifelong, mutually supportive unions more common.