Our analysis of the use of online matrimonial services for arranged marriages reveals the possibilities created by technology and how they are appropriated by users. To many, the change may appear to be glacial in pace, but against the backdrop of a society that has a history and traditions dating back several millennia, they show shifting roles, changing traditions and convergence with the more modern view of marriage and family held by western culture. Information technology in the form of matrimonial Web sites creates both online and off-line possibilities for users as they go about the traditional process of finding life partners and new members for their families.
Families seeking partners for their marriageable son or daughter typically operate in an information-sparse environment. Reliance on the friends and family network meant that much of the information was subjective, by word of mouth but embedded in the social context. The cryptic nature of information from classifieds and the commercial nature of third-party services created many challenges for families. The digital world, where space is not at a premium, creates a more information rich environment in which the search can be conducted. The relative anonymity and privacy provided by using the service at home or an Internet cafe reduces concerns about any social stigma that may be associated with having to rely on such services rather than social networks. Moreover, our data suggests that as the institution ofjoint family recedes from family life, any negative association about the use of such services is disappearing.
With online services, the role of immediate social network, classifieds and third-party brokerage services is disintermediated. Technology allows users to cut across boundaries created by distance and social networks allowing creating a larger pool of potential candidates. To ease the process of selection, all Web sites provide search tools for users to specify their criteria. All Web sites capture and allow search across traditional criteria of religion, caste, community, language in addition to age and economic background. This reflects the influence of social context on the design of Web sites. At the same time, the technology is reducing the need for this information. In an information-sparse environment, the application of these criteria as filters served as surrogate indicators of compatibility, ensuring that the families of the bride and groom had similar values and traditions. In an information-rich environment where all kinds of information about habits, likes and dislikes is available, the need for surrogate indicators diminishes. This allows families and potential partners to express their subjective preferences that are more direct and reflect more rational criteria. As many of the Web sites are modeled after online personals popular in western cultures, these design elements in the form of such content and ability to communicate directly using e-mail and chat appear to engender a cultural convergence between western and Indian notions of partner selection. Some of the Web sites, as an indicator of such cultural convergence, provide dating services in addition to matchmaking services. Video profiles are also becoming an option that is used by some users on these sites.
The roles played by different family members in the process are also adjusting with the use of technology. Parents and/or other family act as gatekeepers to control the information flow from various sources as well as information about prospective matches. In the digital world, the information is (persistent) always available online and easily accessible to all members of the family. This weakens the role of parents as gatekeepers. It also changes the nature of the flow, which is more continuous as compared to the more episodic flow of classified advertisements and meeting with relatives or brokerage services. The continuous flow of information creates more opportunities for interaction among family members over casual conversations. The increased communication surfaces concerns of different family members, bridges role boundaries and generation gap, and helps creates a greater consensus within the family.
Perhaps one of the more significant changes made possible with online services is the ability to have direct communication with potential partners and their family. Online communication does not bear the same credence as face-to-face meeting in formal social settings. The relatively anonymous and informal nature of interaction reduces the
Figure 1. Change in SMI processes with the use of matrimonial Web sites
Infornution rkh mworwTVfit Provided enonymiry jnd privacy
Onuncf and geography no bar m finding the perfect match
Gender, role and cultural stereotypes persist in matrimonial ads
lmjil. chat jnd phone mtr*jetton [«tended courtship
Virtual dating may precede matchmaking limited parental supervision
Interaction brings to the fore credibility issues in online information
Background checks may still be performed offline
Family interaction reduced
Easier to disengage If match does not work
Reduced stigma in disengaging
perceived risk of adverse social consequences of allowing prospective partners to communicate directly. Furthermore, devoid of the context provided by traditional social networks, families feel the need to allow more extensive communication between prospective partners to assess compatibility. This also allows the prospective partners to play a greater role in assessing compatibility and making choices further disintermediating the role of other family members in matching and selection. Figure 1 graphically presents the results of our study.