The Curious Incidents on Matrimonial Websites in India

A successful marriage requires falling in love many times, always with the same person.
Mignon McLaughlin

People say ours is an arranged marriage. In a way, our meeting was arranged by our parents but eventually it was the two of us who decided on the marriage. We met and went out together for a few times. We dated for a while and then agreed to marry…
Madhuri Dixit 

Mignon McLaughlin was a pioneer American journalist. Madhuri Dixit is one of the most popular Indian film actresses in recent memory. They are both women who have led very public lives and they have also had long and happy marriages. Yet, their quotes offer an insight into the very different ways in which they began their marital lives. Unlike the West, love is not inextricably linked to marriage in India. A number of factors such as class, race, caste and financial considerations come into the picture in matrimony – it is not far-fetched to think Ms. Dixit’s parents would not have introduced her to her future groom if he did not fulfill certain criteria.

This makes internet-enabled disruption extremely complex. Any system that aims to disrupt needs to take into consideration systemic elements. E.g. Uber needs to consider fuel prices, regulations, economic fluctuations and real-time demand while setting their prices. However, when unpredictable emotions, sociology and psychological states of not just the individuals involved in the union but also others such as their families come into the picture, things become incredibly complicated. This gives rise to a number of unwanted situations from fraud to blackmail. At the same time, websites such as Jeevansathi.com and Shaadi.com continue to gain more users – an indication that a lot of people have found their life partners on these platforms. To gain an understanding of this situation, let us first ask a question – who is the modern Indian?

Identity Crash

In their contribution to the 2002 book Building Virtual Communities, Dorian Wiszniewski and Richard Coyne first put forth the concept of the mask in the context of online interactions. The authors stated that idiosyncrasies of internet interactions – lack of physical presence, relative anonymity etc. – allowed individuals to reveal more about self-identity than conventional social interactions [Renninger, K. A., & Shumar, W. (2002). Building virtual communities: Learning and change in Cyberspace. Cambridge University Press.]. In particular, the authors point out that the choices that online contributors make regarding their profiles, style of writing and topics that they follow represent an ideal version of themselves as opposed to their offline social identity which depends more on the perceptions of others about the individual.

Perhaps no-where is this more evident than the modern online media landscape in India. A look at some of the most popular content on the Indian sub-sections of Buzzfeed, Huffington Post and YouTube presents a revealing picture of modern young India that runs counter to the conventional notion of family-centricity and social conservatism. Channels such as Being Indian on YouTube that has videos asking Bengaluru citizens about penis sizes and Mumbaikars on office romances, content produced by popular Buzzfeed authors such as Rega Jha and Sahil Rizwan and hard-hitting editorials from outlets such as Quartz and Huffington Post regarding love, marriage, sexuality and abuse reflect an undercurrent of social liberalism that is unseen in conventional social circles.

But for all that online liberalism, a 2013 survey commissioned by the Taj Group of Hotels and carried out by market research agency IPSOS revealed that 75% of Indians in the age group of 18 to 35 preferred arranged marriages. What explains this apparent cognitive dissonance? A possible answer comes from a study commissioned by the UK government in 2013. The study called ‘What is the relationship between identities that people construct, express and consume online and those offline?’ posits that it is easier to deconstruct online identities compared to offline ones – upload pictures, share content, post status updates. The offline identity, on the other hand, has a sense of permanence associated with it and more difficult to rebuild. In clash between a malleable identity and a permanent one, the permanent one wins out [Miller, D. (2012). What is the relationship between identities that people construct, express and consume online and those offline?].

This gives rise to an interesting conundrum – is it possible for one to take a decision for their offline identity based on information provided by someone who is representing their online self?

Shaadi

Anupam Mittal was working in a business intelligence firm in America during the dot com boom. Every year he used to visit his family back in India. On one of these visits in 1997, he had a chance meeting with a match-maker. After wriggling his way out of the encounter (there were many uncomfortable personal questions for his liking), he came up with an idea for a portal where prospective brides and grooms would be able to upload their profiles and cut out the middleman in India’s marriage ecosystem. This idea led to sagaai.com, which would eventually become shaadi.com.

By 2008, Shaadi.com was one of India’s five most popular websites. It had over 300 million page views each month and 6000 profiles were added every day. Since then, the online matrimony market has become more segmented and numerous clones have cropped up – most notably, Jeevansaathi.com and BharatMatrimony.com. While this has somewhat taken the sheen off from Shaadi’s dominance, the portal still remains the market leader in India.

In the numerous interviews that Mittal has given since the launch of Shaadi, he always attributes the success of the portal to one attribute – it makes the process of marriage easier. This statement, however simple it may seem on the surface, actually encompasses a number of factors – a wider pool of prospective spouses, circumventing match-makers, objective representation, and testimonials of satisfied clients. However, collating a large number of prospective brides and grooms and facilitating the union is not a new phenomenon. It has been around for years in India – centuries in fact.

For a very long time, parents who wanted their children to be wedded in India would contact a marriage broker. This individual (or in some cases, agency) would keep on record the details of a large number of prospective life partners. Thereafter, much like a recruitment agency, they would match the details to the request of their clients and arrange a meeting. As news media began to grow in prominence in the nation, matrimony-seekers started to find a way around marriage brokers. This led to the emergence of matrimonial ads in newspapers [9]. The main advantage that matrimonial ads had was that they allowed people access to a huge number of prospective spouses – a much larger pool than those of marriage brokers [10].

To understand why matrimonial websites supplanted both brokers and newspaper advertisements one has to look at the deficiencies in both systems. Brokers while primarily only facilitating introductions actually impact every facet of the wedding. They would make the wedding arrangements, find the purohit (priest), fix the guest list, determine astrological suitability and (in the past) even negotiate the dowry. In each of these transactions, the broker has a profit motive, which is what makes brokers a very troubling medium – they have an incentive to do what is best for them and not for their clients. At its best, this might involve getting more expensive flowers for the ceremony. At its worst, they may knowingly push a bride into a marriage they know is unsuitable but would yield them greater profits.

Of course, if one wanted to not get into this system, they could always put out a matrimony ad in the newspaper. Except, the greatest advantage of matrimonial ads is also their greatest weakness. While it’s true that putting out an ad in a newspaper opened up a large number of choices for a man or woman, it also opened them up to the general public. Instead of having a broker narrow down their options to a few people, the advertisers would now have to sift through a plethora of propositions – many of which they would never even consider. Shaadi was a game-changer in both these aspects. Customizability allowed users to pick and choose who was able to view their profiles on the website – thus eliminating solicitors who did not meet their criteria for a spouse. At the same time, Shaadi’s revenue model limited its operations to only facilitating a meeting between the two parties. This kept in check the profit incentive that was inherent to brokers. By identifying weak points in both models and catalyzing a beneficial change for the user, Shaadi.com (and other matrimonial websites) were able to gain a foothold in India’s marriage industry.

With over 2 million unions that were initiated online since the inception of Shaadi.com, it would seem as though online matrimony is a success [Albright, J. M., & Simmens, E. (2014). Flirting, Cheating, Dating, and Mating. The Oxford Handbook of Virtuality, 284.]. However, there is a dark side to this phenomenon – a 2012 report by the Economic Times found that almost half the divorces in metros were by couples who met through a matrimony website. Unsurprisingly, the main reason for this was misrepresentation of details on online profiles.

While the increasing acceptance of online matrimony points to its popularity and the success of decision-making based on the representation of the self-identity of individuals, the high number of divorces suggests that there are clear gaps in the system that can lead to some very uncomfortable situations. An examination of the decision-making process for internet-based tractions is required to understand why online matrimony-seekers make the decisions that they do and the consequences of those choices when it comes to marriage.

Choices

Economic theory bases decision-making on the principle of utility maximization. Fundamentally, given a set of choices we would pick the option that gives us the greatest benefit for the lowest cost. Individuals weigh benefits on a set of criteria that are subjective in nature and differ from person to person – Akash may like 2 chocolates and 1 ice cream for Rs. 10 but Megha might prefer 2 ice creams and 1 chocolate for Rs. 10 instead.

The basic assumption in this model is that the choices are well-defined, i.e. there is no hidden information that might change the decision-maker’s opinion. Any hidden information changes the context within which the decision is taken – Megha certainly would not prefer to have ice creams if it was very cold that day. This has serious implications for a medium where decision-making is governed by trust on the parties furnishing the decision-maker with the facts upon which to make their choice.

Although there are many factors upon which an online suitor would base their decision to pursue a potential spouse, evidence from the operation of matrimonial websites has found that there are actually six criterions that matter the most – education, religion, age, height, work area and caste. Evidence about misrepresentation among these six factors in Indian matrimony is sparse. However, research into western dating websites suggests that most of the fudging tends to occur for height, age and weight . It should come as no surprise that these are the hardest factors to verify – a bride’s family may ask to see proof of the groom’s employment and education but would think twice before asking to measure his height or test his age.

Ensuring honesty on a matrimonial website is a difficult proposition. The profile creators are governed by the same economic theory of decision-making that was laid out earlier. If a prospective suitor thinks he would get a better spouse by increasing their height by a couple of inches or decreasing their age by a few years, why wouldn’t they lie? On the operators’ end, verifying the truth behind any of the claims is also problematic – how do you gauge the veracity of someone’s age by a picture? The problem on the operators’ end goes much deeper though and this is where the situation starts to get murky.

While physical characteristics are the easiest ones to be deceptive about one can also lie about their educational and employment credentials. The mandate of matrimonial websites is to connect brides and grooms. The onus of verifying the truth behind the claims made by either party lies on the opposite group and not on the operators of the medium. Besides, verifying whether someone went to a particular university or not or is employed in the same capacity as their claims requires resources that matrimonial websites do not possess. This gives rise to the most troubling aspect of such websites – fraud.

Deception

In 2014, a Mumbai-based woman met a man named Michael Williams who claimed to be based in the United Kingdom on BharatMatrimony.com. After some weeks of courtship, Williams had swept her off her feet. In late July of that year, he informed her that he would be visiting India but upon his arrival, he informed her that he had been detained by the customs department for carrying excessive foreign currency and would require an ‘anti-terrorist certificate’ in order to be allowed in the country. He asked her for some money – the customs department required Indian currency – and she obliged. However, after receiving her assistance she did not hear from him again. Williams had duped her out of 2.93 lakhs.

Upon contacting BharatMatrimony.com, the portal informed her that they had suspended Williams’ profile and the responsibility of verifying his claims lay with her. After a protracted legal case, the Mumbai High Court ruled that the portal was not liable for fraud.

This is not a unique case. Several cases of fraud, sexual abuse and harassment have occurred on matrimony websites. Users have tried several mechanisms to verify the details that they are provided with on these sites. From asking probing questions to discern any possible duplicity to even hiring detectives to find the truth about their possible spouses and (more recently) checking social media profiles, men and women on matrimonial sites go to extreme lengths to determine the veracity of the information that they have been provided with. However, not everyone is as vigilant and quite a few times terrible experiences ranging from theft to sexual assault have begun through a meeting on a matrimonial website.

The lack of clear regulation and policy coupled with India’s lax laws governing online transactions make it difficult to draw a line where the responsibility of the websites end and that of the users begin. Fortunately, this situation is changing.

Oversight

Governments in most countries have an unusually significant role to play in an institution that is supposed to be between two people. From inheritance laws to prohibition of certain types of unions – most prominently and controversially the Defense of Marriage Act in the United States – governments straddle a complicated middle ground between having too much influence in marital affairs to having too little.

Even so, the Indian government’s involvement in marriage in especially extensive. From anti-dowry legislation to prohibition of child marriage, the government has always had a vital role to play.

In November 2015, the Indian government decided to set up a panel that would make recommendations for the regulation of matrimonial websites in order to check abuse. The initiative is an undertaking of the Women and Child Development (WCD) ministry. The panel consists of members from the WCD ministry, Home ministry and Department of Electronics and Information Technology along with representatives from matrimonial websites such as Shaadi.com and Jeevansathi.com. Ministry officials pointed out that the growing number of cases of fraud and abuse occurring on such websites was the prevailing reason for the formation of the panel.

In June 2016, the panel made its recommendations. It was now mandatory for websites to keep track of the IP addresses of its users. Documentation from users would now also be solicited to verify their identity and curb instances of fraud. Matrimonial websites are also required to now explicitly spell out that they are for matrimony and not for dating.

While the government has cited that these regulations are to protect users of these websites, the operators of these websites have so far declined to comment on the guidelines (at the time of writing of this essay, the full list of guidelines has not yet been made public and have not formally been presented to the operators of matrimonial websites). However, any protestations from operators notwithstanding, regulation will be an integral part of the future of matrimonial websites in India. This brings us to an important question – what indeed is the future of these websites? Will they withstand the crime that occurs on them or will they become an irreplaceable part of life in India?

Future

The online matrimony industry in India is estimated to be worth $225 million by 2017. In 2013 over 50 million new subscribers registered across these websites. Despite, the stories of fraud and abuse that start on these portals and end in courts, matrimonial websites are growing and are here to stay.

Operators of these websites are undertaking various market development exercises to bring in new customers. The most visible of these is the segmentation of the market – BharatMatrimony and Shaadi, have launched a number of targeted community driven portals such as PunjabiMatrimony.com, EliteMatrimony.com, Bengalishaadi.com among others.

In an interview of February 2015, Gourav Rakshit Chief Operating Officer of Shaadi.com laid out operational changes that the market leader is contemplating implementing. To prevent deceptive information provided by users, stricter guidelines regarding the upload of photographs on the website are being implemented as well as the implementation of a screening procedure for profiles and the development of a stronger relationship with the cyber-crime branch of law enforcement agencies.

The final cog in the future of matrimony websites is technology. Mobile and real-time engagement strategies are being actively considered by these websites in their quest to drive up their user base and find new streams of revenue.

But this not where the journey of matrimony websites ends. As with every great voyage, its conclusion is the beginning of another great expedition. Just as Shaadi.com and others had rode the early wave of disruption in the Indian wedding industry, so too are a number of new and upcoming internet-based services. Companies such as 7Vachan, Big Indian Wedding and ShaadiMagic offer a host of options for banquet halls, priests, makeup artists, photographers etc. These startups simplify the long process that is planning an Indian wedding. Would-be brides and grooms or their families can easily connect with vendors, make their final choices and organize every aspect of the wedding in a pristine manner instead of the general chaos that ensues while planning a wedding. As these companies prove, the disruption of the wedding industry that was started by matrimonial websites will continue in the foreseeable future .

Conclusion

In the March 2005 issue of New York magazine, a New York-based author of Indian-origin chronicles her and her family’s trysts with arranged marriage. The article titled ‘Is Arranged Marriage any worse than Craigslist?’ is an examination of the experiences of the Indian diaspora with an institution that is deeply ingrained in their identity. In it, the author recalls an experience from her childhood wherein she had fallen out of the window of their home as a baby and had broken her arm. According to her father, the primary concern of her mother was that they should never mention this incident to anyone as it would greatly increase the dowry her family would have to pay her husband. Aside from being an event that shows the contradictions that Indian expats face in a western countries, it also shows how deeply the institution of marriage is rooted in Indians’ identity.

According to UNICEF, 90% of marriages in India are arranged. Parents center their children’s lives on the event right from the outset. To industrialize an environment that has such deep emotional connections within it is fraught with dangers and the online matrimony business has had to deal with fraud and abuse. But along the way, they have permanently disrupted the way Indians get married. The growing popularity of these websites are a testament not just to their efficacy but also to the spirit of a new India. Government intervention and the oversight of website operators is bringing about greater improvements in fraud detection and abuse prevention on these websites. As the market continues to evolve, bring in more users and cater to new audiences, online matrimony will continue to thrive in India for a very long time to come.

 

Originally published on The Centre for Internet and Society (CIS) website 

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Abhimanyu Roy Written by:

Abhimanyu Roy is a researcher who specializes in the social applications of emerging technologies for the urban poor. His work has been featured at conferences at MIT and the World Bank and in publications by Harvard University.

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