Her name is Dating. Launched by the company Facebook in the fall of 2018, it has joined a long list of apps specializing in connecting romantic and sexual partners. “Facebook: how will its dating service work” ( Le Monde, May 2, 2018); “That's it, Dating is finally up and running!” ( 20 minutes, September 22, 2018): The press followed its launch like a soap opera, as it does for all appearance of a service of this kind. After the pioneer sites, Match, Meetic or AdopteUnMec, now places mobile and geolocated applications: Grindr, Tinder, Happn or Bumble.
Appeared in the United States in the mid-1990s, these platforms quickly spread to other countries, including France. The first sites intended for a French audience were called Netclub.fr (1997) and Amoureux.com (1998). They are quickly followed by others: a 2008 census found no less than 1,045 French-speaking dating services. This multiplication of the offer testifies to their success. A 2013 survey estimated that 18% of people between the ages of 18 and 65 had used one of these sites, which represented around a third of people who are single, divorced or widowed (1). Since then, these numbers have surely increased with the growing popularity of mobile applications. The same survey shows that, among people (aged 26 to 65) who met their spouse between 2005 and 2013, just under 9% got to know them via a specialized site. This places these services in fifth position in the ranking of meeting spaces, after places of study or work (24%), evenings with friends (15%), public places (13%) and home (9 %). Without having become the dominant mode of pairing, the use of these platforms is now a common way of forging relationships.
From the “French Hunter” to Tinder
The emergence of these tools has sparked off strong reactions. They have been accused of encouraging “relational zapping (2) ” and even of fueling a “phobia of commitment (3) “. Exposed to a large supply of potential partners, users would be pushed to adopt a consumerist attitude and constantly tempted to look “better” instead of building a relationship. Online dating would thus have given rise to a real sexual and emotional market.
These criticisms will hardly surprise historians. At the end of the 19th century, the emergence of marriage agencies and marriage announcements raised similar concerns. Commentators at the time accused them of making marriage a lucrative business, and questioned “the legality as well as the morality of 'pimping for the good' (4) “. Le Chasseur français published its first marriage ad in 1892. This monthly magazine aimed at the rural world would later become one of the first newspapers to open its pages to singles in search of a soul mate. The discredit cast on this new mode of encounter condemns it, however, to marginality. In the mid-1980s, less than 1% of French people had known their spouse through this means, and a very large majority of people totally excluded using them. (5)
These services today represent a flourishing market. . As in many other developing sectors, new players are quickly bought up by dominant groups. This is the case with Meetic and Tinder, both owned by Match, itself owned by a large business conglomerate, Interactive Corp (IAC), which has a large portfolio of supposedly competing brands. Listed on the stock exchange, this group posted sales of nearly 800 million euros in 2018, including 400 million for the Match subsidiary alone, with an increase of 36% compared to the previous year.
new entrants have taken up the technical choices made by the pioneers, without really renewing them. For example, there is a great similarity between mobile applications: most display large profile photographs that the user scrolls either to the left (to reject them) or to the right (to request contact). A match or a crush tells him that the interest is mutual.
Finally, this market is characterized by strong segmentation, with a targeting of niches such as seniors, VIP (hear: the rich), the North Africans or the Jews. This phenomenon is said to illustrate a desire for self-esteem and a rise in communitarianism. In reality, it corresponds above all to proven entrepreneurial strategies, which consist in attacking dominant players through lateral competition (by occupying market segments) and not head-on (by targeting the general public). As the manager of a North American site explains, “It is an economic question, you have to see it from the point of view of entrepreneurs: you are more successful if you focus”. The result is a proliferation of sometimes surprising services (for geeks, for ecologists, for supporters of the left or the right…), most of which are doomed to disappear. Only a minority, capitalizing on pre-existing self-logic, welcomes a large audience; This is the case with denominational sites or those targeting the upper classes.
Does this capitalism, experienced as omnipresent and which, every day, spread its net, disrupt our practices? It’s less certain. While the designers offer sometimes very targeted selection criteria, which could reinforce homogamy, and despite the apparent social mixing on the Internet, which could on the contrary mitigate this trend, couples formed online are, all things being equal. elsewhere, as homogamous as those formed elsewhere. In other words, we observe for them the same probability of settling with a partner of the same social status (6). The classic logics of couple formation have therefore not been subverted.
Another sign of stability: the marital standard remains strong, despite the alarm from the press, which can read: “How dating sites have killed 'love' (Huffington Post Quebec, January 13, 2015). Young people continue to see an ideal life in the couple, even if the first unions are formed at later ages than in the past. And, while separations have become more common, so have re-pairings. Love is not dead: it is the emotional journeys that have become more discontinuous. Having experienced two or more romantic relationships at the age of 25 is now common: 36% of women and 29% of men born between 1978 and 1982 are in this case, while it was a very minor experience in the generation of the 1950s (6% and 9%) (7).
The novelty lies elsewhere. The attention given to the most spectacular aspects of sites and applications – such as the mass of registrants, the standardization of profiles or the methods of choice – leads to missing out on an otherwise more significant characteristic: their insularity. Online dating takes place outside and often without the knowledge of social circles. As such, they operate a break. Traditionally, intimate relationships have been formed in living spaces such as work, study, outing, or leisure places. With the sites and the applications, the search for partners becomes a private matter, which one carries out in a discreet face-to-face with his smartphone, out of sight of the surrounding glances.
Escape from social control  This privatization of dating is an important, although rarely emphasized, factor in the success of sites and applications. First, with younger people, for whom these services allow them to flirt, experiment and find partners far from the eyes of peers and parents. Unlike those that take place in sociable contexts, such as nightlife or school, online dating doesn't make “fuss.” This is how Alix, 21, a student, explains that she does not want “to go out with a guy from college” because she does not want “to see him again every day. days if it goes wrong “: ” That's why I really prefer it to be outside of everything, “ she said.
Relationships thus formed become erotic more quickly than those that begin in other contexts, and they are often short-lived. Discretion indeed facilitates access to sexuality, especially non-marital sex. As soon as external social control is less and relationships are less of a consequence, the partners engage in them more easily. This is especially true for women, whose bodies continue to be subject to greater control than those of men.
This dissociation between friendly and professional networks on the one hand and sexual partners on the one hand. Elsewhere is also attractive to older people, but for partly different reasons. With advancing age, dating opportunities decrease. Not only is the entourage poor in singles (the majority of people are already in a relationship), but sociability is concentrated in narrower circles: festive outings give way to dinners with friends. As Bruno, 44, welder, explains, “when you have a certain age, a professional life (…), it is not always easy to meet someone once 'we went around our friends. ” This is how sites mainly favor re-pairing: the romantic relationships formed through them are mostly second unions.
Although recent, this form of dating is part of a long evolution. Since the second half of the 20th century, there has been a migration of sociability practices from public places to private spaces and closer circles. Old balls, for example, have given way to evenings at private homes (8). The same tendency has been well described in the working classes (9) and is also observed among young people, all classes taken together, with the trend shift from a “street culture” to a “Bedroom culture” (10). Far from embodying a new “digital ball”, online dating is accentuating this movement.
Marie Bergström Research fellow at the National Institute for Demographic Studies, author of the book Les Nouvelles Lois de l ' love. Sexuality, couples and encounters in the digital age, La Découverte, Paris, 2019.
(1) “Study of individual and conjugal paths” (EPIC), National Institute of Demographic Studies – National Institute of Statistics and economic studies, 2013-2014.
(2) Pascal Lardellier, Le Cœur Net. Celibacy and Love on the Web, Belin, coll. “New worlds”, Paris, 2004.
(3) Cf. eg Eva Illouz, Why Love Hurts. The love experience in modernity, Seuil, Paris, 2012.
(4) Claire-Lise Gaillard, “Marriage agency”, in Louis Faivre d'Arcier (under the direction of), Weddings, Éditions Olivétan, Lyon, 2017.
(5) Michel Bozon and François Héran, “The discovery of the spouse. II. Encounter Scenes in Social Space “, Population, vol. 43, n ° 1, Paris, January-February 1988.
(6) The only exception concerns unions formed at the place of work or studies, which, compared to those resulting from the sites, have more chances of bring together two partners with similar professions or levels of qualification.
(7) Wilfried Rault and Arnaud Régnier-Loilier, “La first vie en couple. Recent developments “, Population & Societies, n ° 521, Paris, April 2015.
(8) Michel Bozon and Wilfried Rault,” De la sexualité au couple. The space of romantic encounters during youth “, Population, vol. 67, no 3, 2012.
(9) Olivier Schwartz, The Private World of Workers. Men and Women of the North, Presses Universitaires de France, coll. “Quadrige”, Paris, 1990.
(10) Sonia Livingstone, Young People and New Media. Childhood and the Changing Media Environment, Sage, London, 2002.
Also read the letters to the editor in our May 2019 edition.