Online dating hasn’t been novel for a few years now. It’s now the most common way people meet, and it’s only becoming more central to the way modern romance works. But the next shift is already beginning, as the internet begins to move out of the social networking phase and into whatever this crypto, metaverse, Web3 thing is going to become.
Dushyant Saraph, Match’s chief product and revenue officer, is in charge of figuring out what that shift looks like for dating and relationships. That means, yes, the metaverse! (Whatever that turns out to mean.) It also means finding ways to foster connection over long distances, on screens and through headphones. It means combining the digital and physical worlds in ways that make sense to users from all sorts of backgrounds and age brackets.
For the final episode in our monthlong series on how tech is shaping dating, love, sex, marriage and what relationships of all kinds look like in an increasingly digital world, Saraph joined the Source Code podcast to talk about VR dating, video chat, why we don’t need legs to have a good time in the metaverse and much more.
You can hear our full conversation on the latest episode of the Source Code podcast, or by clicking on the player above. Below are excerpts from our conversation, edited for length and clarity.
What I really want to talk to you about is the actual process of bringing people together. A) I think that is the thing that is changing the most quickly right now. And b) it’s wild and weird and metaverse-y and we get to get into fun sci-fi stuff.
It seems like you and Match are really focused on how to create I guess what you call virtual dates. To actually have people spend time together in these digital spaces, rather than make the goal to get people off of the app and into the world as soon as possible. The world just seems to be changing in such a way that that's not necessarily such an obvious goal anymore. Is that how you're thinking about it right now?
I think for us it's: How do we facilitate interactions that happen within the app that are better at gauging compatibility between two people? If you look at the broad set of dating apps today, I would say 90% of them rely on sending likes, getting matches, messaging people in a text-based format, and then hopefully hoping that that leads to an outcome. And if you actually look at the success of that sort of a user journey when it comes to dating, that's not very organic in terms of how you would date someone in the real world.
You don't walk into the bar and send a like to someone, and hope they send you a like back, and then text-based chat with each other. And so inherently, dating apps are not very organic at forming those connections. And so when we've been thinking about the future for Match, it's really, for us, about how we put folks on fewer dates but better dates. And largely that's going to come from better gauging compatibility and interaction through our products.
Whether that is in a virtual space — we do think that there is a place for that — or whether that is actually facilitating an interaction that leads to an in-person meetup, that is all important to us. So it's really multiple different ways to get to the same outcome, but generally very differentiated from how dating apps work today.
Even the idea that a Zoom date, or FaceTime chat, or any of these things is more close to what you would call a “good date” is totally fascinating to me. For so long, all of the digital stuff was a means to an end, right? But the last couple of years, all there has been to do is chat on FaceTime. So I think people are getting used to that sort of behavior. But just the idea that all of these things are closer to solving that problem than we realized a few years ago feels like a pretty big shift in how we think about this stuff.
Yeah, absolutely. And to really lean into that shift: If you look back to pre-pandemic, something like video dating was viewed as awkward and weird. There were not a lot of dating apps that had video dating as a core component. In our research, we found only 6% of folks were open to dating using video dating before the pandemic. And that number is now at 75%.
So just in the course of two years, you've seen this transformation of something as simple as video dating. Now, you sit here and you look back, and of course this is the better way of doing it! You get to see the person, hear their voice, see if you have compatibility and then go commit to that in-person date. But that's a huge transformation that's happened only in the last two years.
It does seem like that first interaction between two humans is the hardest and most important nut to crack there. And this is true no matter where you are, right? It's how do you go from “that person is attractive, and seems interesting, and just looked at me,” to “we are having a conversation.” Since time immemorial, that has been hard. And now we have all these tools that make it theoretically easier to start a conversation or have a video date or whatever. But there’s still that one moment that it feels like, if I’m Match, that's the thing I'm spending a lot of time thinking about: How do you get over that first hump?
I think that's right. It's the cold start problem. And I think there's multiple areas of innovation happening there in terms of, when is the right time to introduce voice and video? How do we leverage things like interests and passions and even locations near you to help drive some of that conversation and make it more organic, finding like-minded individuals that have something in common to share as part of the conversation? And so there's a lot of thinking going into that. And we think that that's going to help ease that organic transition, versus, having hundreds of matches and seeing the same “Hey” show up in your inbox like 100 times.
One thing I thought was interesting was Tinder’s Swipe Night thing. They're doing a ton of work to say, how do we make it really easy for people to meet as quickly and low-stakes as possible? And separately, I'm fascinated by Netflix watch parties and things like that, where you hang out digitally in a way that feels like you're actually doing something together. You’ve done less of that. And I think that's probably just a virtue of who your users are. But what kinds of stuff do you think is even sort of interesting in this space?
It’s really about finding commonality. That leads to more organic interaction. So for Match, for example, we've really looked at your interests and what you're passionate about, in terms of what you speak about on your profile, to help facilitate that conversation and make that feel more organic.
I always like to say, if we were to create an event that was positioned around wine tasting, and it just happens to be that there's going to be singles there, I think you're more likely to go than if we were to position it around a “singles event” more explicitly. Because what's the worst case that could happen? You're going to have a glass of wine and enjoy it. So we're really looking for those commonalities, and trying to de-risk the weight of meeting somebody new for the first time.
We’re thinking through an experience called Meet, for example, where you'd be able to go into the product and actually see virtual events that are available at a given time in a given week, and be able to participate in those. So you're able to connect with other like-minded individuals who are also willing to participate in a similar event, leading to a successful outcome. We will leverage things like audio, things like video, things like shared interests, even something as simple as the willingness to say, “Hey, Thursday night or Friday night, I'm open to grabbing a coffee or grabbing a beer with someone and just getting to know them.”
That's super powerful. And we think we can facilitate those interactions in a virtual and digital space. But the best compatibility will happen when you have that in-person conversation.
If you cast forward a few years, VR starts to make a lot of that stuff way more real to me. I think looking at a screen is always going to feel a little like looking at a screen. But I'm increasingly coming around to thinking that metaverse and VR dating apps are going to be a thing that is actually successful for people. Tell me what you’re thinking about that right now.
I think we're still a few years away from having the tech adoption for VR to play a bigger role. But I do think the idea that experiences is what drives the ability to gauge compatibility with someone, and VR is going to be able to enable having experiences with someone in a new way, is probably what is going to drive better organic interactions with folks.
At the same time, dating is super human. And I always come back to that. I think it will still come back to the organic human way of meeting someone. VR may play a role in facilitating, just like video has, but at the end of the day, I think it's: Do you have the compatibility? Do you have chemistry? And sometimes you have to meet in person for that.
I think that’s totally true. The idea that whole relationships will be conducted online is sort of dystopian. But to me, VR has real potential to solve that cold-start problem, where it's like, instead of having to flip on cameras and suddenly you're staring at my face and I'm seeing yours, we can be our avatars and play ping pong in VR together. And I would argue that's actually a much better way to determine compatibility: making conversation while you do something together. And then if it sucks, there's a much easier out: You just take off your headset!
The closest parallel is just grabbing a beer with someone, grabbing a coffee with someone. These are all experiences that you're having with another individual. And in the process, it's an alibi to get to know them in a better way, which is probably the best gauge. And so I think VR is going to play a big role in enabling that, even more so than video has done, because there's things that you can do in VR that you can't do over video. And so there is this evolution that will take place all towards this more human, organic way of getting to know each other, versus the more superficial sort of world that dating apps created in some ways.
I look at some of the developments that we're seeing in the gaming space, and often think, you know, what are the alibis within the dating world that would allow for those sorts of connections to take place? When folks are coming to Match, they're already coming with an intent of, “I'm looking for a partner.” And so we just have to create and facilitate those organic connections.
Now, you also see all these crazy things around skins and how I can buy various things that will allow me to show off a little bit in this virtual world. And I think we see that in dating, too, a little bit of peacocking.
Have you been doing much work with the Hyperconnect folks since they've joined?
So we have been integrating some of the Hyperconnect technology into our platform. They are both a dating and a social app developer. But they also have developed a platform of technologies that they have historically leveraged to launch their own products, whether that's things like video or audio.
They're exploring this concept of Single Town, which is in this metaverse space that we've been talking about. And so we're really excited at a group level to help drive our international growth, our adjacency, into social a little bit more than just the core dating apps that we've been focused on, and the technology platform that Hyperconnect brings and makes available to all of our apps.
Historically, we've worked with multiple different vendors and multiple different partners. And this technology integration becomes very complicated. And so with Hyperconnect, we have the ability to start leveraging their platform to power a lot of our experiences. And so we've started with video and started moving our video technologies to leverage their platform. Long term, I think their platform, as they're continuing to evolve and innovate to drive some of the products that they're building, will also be able to help drive a lot of the new experiences that we want to drive across the group. So that's, I think, the strength of the platform and tech strategy that Hyperconnect brings to the group.
Obviously all this is early. But are you seeing anything out there that feels like the beginning of something big and cool, whether it's Single Town or otherwise? Have you seen anything that you're like, “Oh, there's something there.”
It’s super early. Single Town, I think, is going to be really interesting.
To me, the most unique thing that I'm seeing is around those experiences that can take place in virtual worlds that will actually enable us to better gauge compatibility and do activities that will actually help with connecting folks. And so that's what I'm curious to see as it develops, and we're going to be keeping a close eye.
Do you worry at all about the sort of dystopian world that exists if you follow that path all the way out? Where we turn around 10 years from now and everybody is having these exclusively digital relationships, and it's very “Ready Player One”? I don't think anybody wants to end up there, but it does seem like there's a slippery slope and you're gonna have to be clever about being like, “OK, now it's time to take off your headset and go meet in the world.” And that transition gets harder as these virtual worlds get more interesting.
I think that's largely true. And even today, there is a dystopian world of sending lots of likes, getting lots of matches — I don't know if you've seen these Reddit threads where folks are posting the stats of their outcomes, swiping thousands of times, zero meetups in person, zero conversations.
And so we're already in this world of, send lots of likes, get lots of matches, feel good about yourself, but that doesn't really go anywhere. And then you come back and you do it again. And so I think we're going to see a complete transformation. And what I expect is a large swing the other way, back towards more intentionality, fewer and better dates. But there is that risk that if that happens, including with something like VR, that you end up in this place of not really solving the problem we set out to solve and folks have just taken it in a different direction. And so it's something we have to be mindful of.