Dating site dissed you? Tango takes on the touchy subject.
Anyone who's tried online dating knows that sooner or later, they'll probably be rejected—by a potential suitor. Yet over one million would-be daters have been blocked from joining online dating site eHarmony.
Now rival dating site Chemistry.com is capitalizing on the site's rejection policy, with a 10 million dollar ad campaign calling attention to the fact, and positioning itself as a welcoming, come-one-date-all alternative.
Dave Evans, an online dating industry consultant calls the ads "an eye opener." eHarmony's rejections were "never a secret, but people didn't realize that they were doing this," he says.
One ad directly addresses eHarmony's stated policy of refusing gays. Another suggests that the site rejects non-Christians, and those with other seemingly random personality quirks.
In actuality, about one in five people who answer all 436 of eHarmony's probing questions receive an immediate electronic Dear John letter reading "We are unable to match you at this time."
The company, which has about 14 million registered users and claims "thousands" of happy marriages, says that about a third of the people they reject are married, and almost another third are under 21. They also screen out applicants who have been divorced several times, and people whose multiple choice answers, according to the company's algorithm, indicate that they may be depressed or dishonest.
The site, founded by evangelical Christian Dr. Neil Clark Warren, has publicly denied that it discriminates based on religion. In an online essay, Warren emphasizes that eHarmony's goal is good marriages and fewer divorces, whether you're Christian, aspiritual or "belong to a small sect of Judaism or Hinduism or Protestantism."
eHarmony maintains that its criteria are consistent and based on research designed to lead to long-term, stable marriages, and have asked media outlets to stop carrying the ads. So far, most have refused. And in this day and age, damage is viral—and done.
The videos are on YouTube, and the issue is on the table: Is eHarmony obligated to find a match for everybody? And what kind of fallout will recriminations, or lawsuits, from spurned members have on the site's future?
Despite the site's it's-not-you-it's-us disclaimer ("We are not able to make our profiles work for you"), eHarmony's cast-offs often report feeling stung by the brush-off, like one woman who joked that she would "wear a big R on her chest the next day," and a man who sighed, "Well, I guess I am hopeless."
Susan Isaacs, who blogs at susanisaacs.blogspot.com, is a self-described "Jesus loving gal," and she was rejected by eHarmony three times. Isaacs suspects she was booted for answering questions "too honestly" at a time when "life sometimes felt meaningless." Finally, she got in, after telling one little white lie: I "fibbed a bit that 'life is always great!'" she says. Then, after all but giving up on internet dating, she met her husband on the site Christian Cafe.
"I don't know which of my answers flunked me," says Texan Barbara Szalkowski, adding, "I was devastated. Being told I was 'unmatchable' was pretty harsh."
Harsh, but unfair? "We judge people in real life, and this site is doing that for you," says Evans, who blogs at onlinedatingpost.com. "Technically, no, it's not fair. But it's their company, and they're private."
California lawyer Jeremy Pasternak disagrees. "People have this impression that private businesses can do whatever they want, but it's just not true. We have non-discrimination laws that apply to companies, and they have to be enforced," says Pasternak, who is petitioning for a class action lawsuit against eHarmony after one would-be user, Linda Carlson, discovered that the site refused to help her find a lesbian match.
The obvious question: Why not seek out any of number of sites catering to your dating needs? Say, those targeted at gays and lesbians? Pasternak makes the distinction that eHarmony is not simply a niche singles' marketplace that allows people to browse and self-select at will, but a company selling a proprietary matchmaking method.
"They've spent tens of millions in advertising money saying that there's no one selling their matchmaking method," Pasternak says, "and when you're selling a service, you can't decide who you sell your service to."
Non-discrimination law covers sexual orientation in the state of California, but not in most other states. What then? And what about those banished for slightly fuzzier reasons?
Clay Shirky, from NYU's Interactive Telecommunication Program says the issue points to new questions that life on the web brings to light. Legality aside, he says "There's an issue of 'okay-ness,' and I think that's where the fight is to be fought."
Internet interactions mirror the real life friction society has always had between what is allowed, and what people find acceptable. "That problem of 'okay-ness' is probably centered around eHarmony's seemingly inclusive ad campaigns—and exclusive practices. Their advertising is pervasive in a way that other niche sites aren't," he explains. "It's kind of in your face with ads everywhere, and then you get there and find out it's behind some kind of velvet rope. That doesn't sit well with people."
Tango's Take: Just as it's taboo—but not illegal—to lie to a potential date about your age, marital status, or amount of remaining hair, a dating site should present itself honestly. If eHarmony has succeeded in crafting an algorithm that helps you weed out unsuitable partners, why not tout the fact that membership is quasi-exclusive?
The controversy here seems to lie in the gulf between perception and practice. eHarmony should be free to reject you or me, for just cause, but suggesting they've rolled out the red carpet to anyone looking to shake their single status is a bit misleading.