April 18

When Gary Kremen, founder of Match.com, did his first big TV interview nearly 20 years ago, he promised that his site would “bring more love to the planet than anything since Jesus Christ.”

Neil Clark Warren, a theologian and couples therapist, would never claim to upstage Jesus. But with his commitment-focused dating site, eHarmony, he did set out to single-handedly lower the divorce rate. “That’s Neil’s vision,” his business partner said when the company launched, “literally to change the world.”

The rise of dating sites — 59 percent of Americans think they’re a good way to meet people, up from 44 percent in 2005 — comes at a time when the country is becoming more accepting of gay relationships. About three weeks ago, these two forces appeared to merge, if only briefly, when OkCupid, a popular dating site, helped galvanize support for the ouster of Brendan Eich, the chief executive of tech giant Mozilla.

Those who tried to visit OkCupid through Mozilla’s search engine, Firefox, saw a letter stating that Eich opposed “equal rights for gay couples,” evidenced by his $1,000 donation to support Proposition 8, the now-overturned 2008 California ballot measure that banned same-sex marriage. In the letter, OkCupid said it would “prefer that our users not use Mozilla software to access OkCupid.” Two days later, Eich resigned.

The Eich affair signals an evolution in the online-dating industry, in which sites have become advocates for the civil rights and sexual preferences of their customers. But OkCupid’s letter — regardless of whether it was genuine or a PR stunt — doesn’t make the site a gay rights activist. Dating sites may go to bat for certain interest groups, but only when doing so is (a) easy, (b) cost-free and (c) consistent with building a brand and expanding a user base. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Consider the story of eHarmony, a fascinating example of how one dating company responded when its core constituency — older, conservative, marriage-minded — clashed with business prerogatives and a shifting culture. In the early 2000s, eHarmony’s rise was aided by James Dobson, the evangelical founder of Focus on the Family. Dobson regularly hosted Warren, the eHarmony founder, on his radio show. Back then, Dobson’s far-right religious demographic was consistent with the eHarmony brand. But as the site grew and became more diverse, the relationship with Dobson became limiting. So in 2005, Warren dumped Dobson and repurchased the rights to the three Warren books that Dobson had published.

“I think there is something very incredible about Jesus,” Warren said at the time. “I don’t back away from that. At the same time . . . the public we want to serve is the world.”

From 2006 to 2008, the company spent millions to fight efforts by gay daters who demanded that eHarmony cater to them. EHarmony’s lawyer, the conservative Ted Olson, finally persuaded the dating site to capitulate.

“At some point a company has to decide if its resources can be used all the way to the end of the line,” Olson said, referring to the expense of a Supreme Court battle. (Olson would later help defeat Prop. 8 in a case that went to the Supreme Court.)

In fact, in the 20-year history of the online-dating industry, eHarmony has been virtually alone in its willingness to risk resources and sacrifice customers over politics. The industry, populated largely by people who are less than half Warren’s age, is known for its ruthless pursuit of whatever sells — which can still work to the benefit of the romantically under-represented.

The very existence of certain dating sites can be its own kind of advocacy, for better and worse. Noel Biderman, the owner of Ashley Madison, a site for cheaters, uses his platform to support marital infidelity. Infidelity already existed, of course, but discreetly connecting the like-minded has made him a millionaire. Statistics on cheating are hard to come by and even harder to trust. But every time Biderman goes on a TV talk show or puts out a news release about how popular infidelity is, traffic on his site spikes.

On the other end of the spectrum is Laura Brashier, a survivor of cervical cancer. After her treatments left her unable to have intercourse, she set up a dating site, 2Date4Love, for people who can’t have sex but still seek a mate. The very fact of her site, although it’s a for-profit company, in a way gives voice to people whose conditions make it extremely difficult to find a partner.

There are thousands of niche dating sites covering every special interest you can imagine. Sites for the disabled. Sites for people with STDs. Vegans. Trekkies. Vampires. In many cases, disparate niche sites are owned by the same person, a tech maven who, unlike Brashier, probably doesn’t have a personal connection to the demographic.

“As online dating plays an increasingly central role in how we fall in love, dating businesses have a growing responsibility to advocate for their customers,” says Brian Schechter, co-founder of How About We. “This of course involves advocating for equal rights and respect for all sexual orientations.”

Come one, come all.

danielbslater@gmail.com

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