Dial Your Match: The Tinder of the 80s

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Bulletin Board Systems. A term that means as little to the younger generations as the floppy disk, and yet it means so much to those who experienced it. Users would log on to share short messages with one another about literally anything. These Bulletin Board Systems, or BBSes, although seemingly prehistoric, are synonymous with today’s social media platforms in this way. However, BBSes were not only used to discuss different topics or play games. A specific type of BBS known as the Dial Your Match, or DYM, became popular among the partner-seeking population. After browsing some BBS archives, I came across a Dial Your Match BBS that was active in Miami, Florida during the 1980s. Although no messages or graphics from this specific BBS were available, its creator left a detailed summary of his BBS. It seemed to serve as his farewell letter to his BBS, as he laid out the birth and death of his system in a particularly nostalgic fashion. 

The BBS was quite popular in Miami, Florida. However, just as with all technology, there were some wary spectators. John Arnold discusses these fears in his article in the Miami Herald in 1985. Hacking and other cyber-crimes among these fears. Ranging from a restless teenager breaking into the Florida Department of Education’s computer system to neo-Nazi and child pornography rings exchanging information about their organizations, the wonders of the BBS were somewhat repressed by those who took malicious advantage of its freedom. Moreover, these crimes are not the only worry surrounding BBSes. As the government was moving to create laws regarding BBSes, system operators themselves were anxious. As Arnold wrote:

“The Problem, say board operators, is that the government could cast too wide a net. The operators fear they could be held criminally liable for illegal material – a stolen credit card number, for instance – posted on their board as a private message without their knowledge” (Arnold).

John Arnold, “Bulletin Boards Are the Talk of Computer Users.” Miami Herald, 28 Sept. 1985

The fear was not only concentrated around cyber-crimes, but also around who would be held responsible for these criminal actions. Despite the negative aspects that some associated with BBSes, they were still a massive technological leap. Mark Markovitch took advantage of this advancement by creating his Dial Your Match BBS.

In 1983, Mark Markovitch created his DYM. Even though it was strikingly different from dating apps like Tinder or Bumble, it contained the fundamental properties that define online dating. In 1984, Charles Petzold from the Philadelphia Daily News published an article that described a DYM in great detail. He titled his article “Cupid’s Busy on Love Network” – suggesting that the then-popular TV show “Love Boat” had a new digital competitor. The first time someone logged onto a DYM, they were asked to complete a questionnaire similar to those found on modern dating sites. The caller would outline their height, weight, sexual preferences, and many other identifying factors and characteristics. Then, the computer will match the caller’s answers with answers from other callers and display these “matches” to the original caller. Much like apps like Tinder, the caller must choose if they desire to learn more about these matches, and whether or not they want to send a message or arrange a meeting (Petzold). This is online dating stripped down to its core. You are presented with the most basic, surface-level information about a stranger, and you must decide whether or not pursuing this person is worth your time. In the case of these DYMs, you didn’t even get a picture ahead of time.

An advertisement for a DYM for gay men (source: https://slate.com/technology/2014/08/lgbtq-nerds-and-the-evolution-of-life-online.html)

Mark Markovitch’s Miami-based DYM had the standard culture of the other BBSes. He does make a note about the popularity of his BBS, describing how “[His] system was so popular that [he] used to sponsor parties once a month and 50-60 people used to come.” This idea of group meetups was not outlined in Petzold’s article, although I am sure that it is not unique to Markovitch’s DYM. However, it is still an incredibly interesting concept. Technology in 1983 had its limits, and the idea of talking to a total stranger and then meeting up with them must not have appealed to everyone. On the other hand, meeting up with a large group of individuals all looking to find some form of romance was a practical solution in a world without FaceTime. Markovitch suggests that his DYM had a welcoming culture. Like all online dating services, it most likely had some disreputable users. Overall, however, Markovitch had created a popular dating service for Miami’s lonely hearts.

Nevertheless, Markovitch’s DYM eventually made its last match. In 1990, he moved to Daytona Beach, Florida and could not continue to run his system. He attempted to find a replacement operator, but as he bluntly put it, “[He] tried to find someone to continue running the system and after finding some and giving them the system they shut it down because it was a lot more work than they thought and there was no pay.” He realized that the only way to continue running his system would be for a profit, and the only way to earn a profit would be to connect the BBS to the internet. This process was too costly for Markovitch at the time, however, as Sprint was charging 1,600 dollars per month per line. Thus, just before the dawn of the World Wide Web, Markovitch’s BBS shut down forever. Messages were exchanged and matches were made, but the age of the Dial Your Match system was coming to an end.

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