Posted on December 29, 2007
Filed Under Culture & Technology |
The modern dating scene has been impacted greatly by online dating services like Match.com and online social networks like MySpace. Back in 2003 I almost got involved with an online dating venture and thus I’ve given some thought to the online dating phenomenon a number of times over the years. After reading a Reuters article yesterday about an anthropology professor’s study of Canadian women over the age of 30 who are using online dating services, I decided that it would be worthwhile to analyze what has become a part of mainstream culture that affects the way many people are interacting and building relationships.
Why Has Online Dating Become So Popular?
I believe the popularity of online dating is driven by four primary factors:
- A fast-paced society. It’s difficult for many of us to balance family, friends and work. We’re preoccupied with our own lives, careers, interests, etc. This often makes it hard to meet new people and to consistently participate in activities that are most likely to introduce us to interesting people.
- Large numbers. As much as we might hate to admit it, dating has always been, to a certain extent, a numbers game. It can be hit or miss, so having access to large pool of eligible singles seems desirable and services like Match.com and MySpace aggregate this large pool virtually. There’s no need to leave your home; you can log on and browse through the profiles of thousands of other eligible singles in your area.
- Perceived efficiency. It seems like having access to thousands upon thousands of online profiles with detailed information can make finding suitable singles more efficient. Nobody likes wasting time and in theory the information found in online profiles can serve as a powerful “filter” for weeding out singles who are of no interest. Whether you’re simply looking for tall, dark and handsome or for somebody who loves listening to an obscure band as much as you do, you’re potentially just a few clicks away from finding that special someone.
- “Relationship” culture. The notion of a “soulmate” is one that many people buy into in modern society. While a discussion about relationships (and codependency) is outside the scope of this post, I do feel comfortable stating that there is a large number of people today who feel that it’s necessary to be in a relationship (or who feel pressured by friends and family to be in one).
Recognizing these things, online dating was an attractive business opportunity for me, and from a business perspective there’s no doubt that the most popular subscription-based online dating services like Match.com have reaped the financial rewards. Social networking services like MySpace, which have a different business model and aren’t explicitly about “dating,” also owe a great deal of their success to their appeal as destinations for meeting members of the opposite sex.
Does Online Dating Deliver?
Outside of the viability of online dating services as bona fide businesses, which is clearly established, I’ve listened to online dating stories and read studies about online daters with intrigue because of the social and cultural issues online dating brings up. My conclusion is that online dating may not be as helpful to singles as it would appear to be in theory. Why? There are a host of reasons:
- A profile can convey a lot, but there’s an intangible aspect to human interactions that only becomes apparent through face-to face dialog. It’s an ethereal thing we call “chemistry.” Have you ever met somebody with whom you had a lot in common, yet when engaged in conversation, could not find anything to talk about for more than a minute? Have you ever met somebody with whom you had little in common but could converse with all day? If you’re human, the answer to both questions is “yes.” This often perplexing universal experience highlights the fact that the chemistry two people are likely to experience cannot accurately be predicted through tangible information, such as common interests. In fact, the science of rapid cognition tells us that many of our judgments about others take place within a “” when we first meet them. Therefore the appeal of a profile as a predictor for compatibility between two individuals is overrated in my opinion; online profiles are no substitute for real interactions. Even if you share similar backgrounds and interests with another person, if you can’t hold a stimulating, enjoyable conversation for hours on end, what good are all the similarities?
- Online profiles reflect the image that their authors have of themselves. Profiles leave out a lot of information, both tangible and intangible. Few people readily promote their flaws and many people lie, so an online profile is not likely to present a full, accurate portrayal of the entire person. For instance, most people describe themselves as intelligent, funny, adventurous, etc. but you’ve probably met a self-proclaimed genius, comedian or adventurer who you very quickly found to be less-than-intelligent, less-than-funny and less-than-adventurous once you had interacted with them in person.
- Online correspondence may be one of the least efficient and appropriate ways to get acquainted with a new person. Online personalities may differ considerably from real-life personalities. Whether the confident man you’re emailing turns out to be timid in real life or the polite woman you’re corresponding with turns out to be rude at the dinner table, there’s no guarantee that the personality exhibited in emails is going to show up for your first date. Additionally, emails lack context (body language, vocal intonations, etc.) that may be crucial to interpreting the meaning of a conversation. For example, imagine corresponding with a sarcastic person whose sarcasm you were not familiar with. Harmless sarcastic comments might be read as insults. As such, it’s not difficult to recognize that two people could “get off on the wrong foot” simply because email does not always provide the best means to “get off on the right foot.”
- Expectations are hard to live up to. If we accept that a person corresponding with a potential date online builds his or her own internal portrait of that other person and we accept that the real picture of that person almost certainly differs in some way, no matter how small, it’s not unreasonable to consider that any difference is interpreted negatively at a subconscious level when these differences become evident in a real-world interaction. By nature, humans thrive on expectation. When our expectations aren’t met, we’re disappointed. Interestingly, I suspect that two people who may have “hit it off” had they met offline (and had no expectations) might not “hit it off” when they meet online (and had certain expectations). Metaphorically, even if you receive a delicious sorbet, you’d still probably be slightly disappointed if you had been expecting a chocolate soufflé instead.
- Superficiality still exists online. An acquaintance who was realistic in stating that he wasn’t Brad Pitt or Donald Trump explained that he joined an online dating service because he thought that the ability to highlight his positive personality traits would help him meet women. Unfortunately, he found out that appearance and social status apparently still do account for a lot and was left disappointed that his “detailed” profile didn’t pull in many responses. I would suggest that in the online environment, where there is no ability to demonstrate positive qualities through a true exhibition of your personality, looks and social status probably play an even bigger role, especially since the singles viewing your profile can “comparison shop” other profiles and it’s likely that there are other users who, on a superficial level, are more “attractive” in terms of appearance and social status.
- There are far too many options and some are simply “playing the field.” Most of the people I’ve spoken with have mentioned that there are men and women whose profiles have been posted on dating services for a long time (some reportedly for over a year). The interesting thing is that these men and women are often described as being some of the more “attractive” singles. Are they not serious? Are they too picky? Is it possible that it’s difficult for them to “choose” because they have so many “options”? For any user of an online dating service emailing another user, the thought might occur: “If they are as great as they sound and they’ve been using this service for a while now, ostensibly going on dates with other users, why haven’t they met somebody, and what are the chances I’m going to be ‘the one’?” It has been established that humans are notoriously bad at making decisions, especially as the number of perceived options increases. If you meet somebody who is nice but who isn’t “perfect,” it’s easy to retain the impression that Mr. or Ms. Perfect could still be just a click away, thus causing you to quickly reject individuals with whom a great relationship could otherwise have developed. I wonder if this doesn’t play into the mindset of “serial daters” who feel the need to keep “exploring” in hopes that they will find somebody that realistically doesn’t exist.
- Too many people are trying too hard. Many find truth in the Biblical phrase “Seek, and ye shall find.” One of the things that humans instinctively seek is companionship; nobody wants to be lonely. It’s wonderful to feel loved and desired, but many people take the process far too seriously. In my opinion, it’s typically unhealthy to actively “search” for a husband or a wife. There are some things you just can’t make happen and trying to make them happen typically leads to less-than-satisfying results. As poet Carl Sandburg said: “Nearly all the best things that came to me in life have been unexpected, unplanned by me.”
I believe the above conclusions are fairly accurate and representative of the average online dating experience. Scientific studies are validating this. An article entitled “The Truth About Online Dating” in the February 2007 issue of Scientific American Mind, for instance, makes for a fascinating read. Among its conclusions:
- A significant number of online daters engage in deception. Studies show that there is a strong psychological rationale for deception. Carnegie Mellon researchers have suggested that online interactions are “disinhibiting,” meaning that people engage in behaviors they might otherwise not in real life, and researchers at Rutgers and Georgetown have found that users of online dating services have a tendency to create an “ideal self” that doesn’t reflect their true self. From little distortions of truth to full-blown lies about marital status, age, education, income and appearance, the bottom line is that deception is the rule, not the exception, when it comes to online dating. Although deception exists offline, certain things, like height and weight, are difficult to lie about when meeting someone in person (for obvious reasons). Additionally, the online medium encourages lies; populating a form with deceptive information is much easier than actually convincing someone of that information during a real interaction.
- None of the services that claim to “scientifically” match couples have actually been validated through a peer-review process. Philip Zimbardo, a former president of the American Psychological Association, for instance, debunks many of the claims made by online dating service eHarmony and notes that “it would take 346 dates and 19 years to reach [a] 50% chance of getting married” based upon the number of matches eHarmony typically delivers each month.
- Surveys show low satisfaction levels amongst online daters. Jupiter Research, for instance, found that “barely one quarter of users reported being very satisfied or satisfied with online personals sites.” This is, of course, the most telling statistic of all.
Other studies have revealed equally fascinating data:
- Research conducted by weAttract.com, Inc. only one in five online dating service subscribers surveyed as part of a study met someone who they dated for at least 2 months.
- A Pew Internet & American Life Project study found that while nearly half of online dating users surveyed felt online dating made dating easier and more efficient, almost an equal number felt that it didn’t provide this benefit.
- A University of Chicago and MIT study found that physical appearance was the most important factor in the online dating selection process for both men and women. Interestingly but perhaps not unsurprisingly, only 1% of the 22,000 users covered in the study believed they had “less than average” looks. Other physical and social status characteristics played non-negligible roles in the selection process as well. For instance, taller men and men with incomes over $50,000 received more emails, as did women with an “underweight” BMI (body mass index) and women with blonde hair.
The online dating study that I have found to be the most salient was conducted by researchers at Harvard, MIT and Boston University. It addresses many of the topics discussed here but it is the conclusion that most deserves mention:
Why does online dating fail to live up to expectations? We suggest that this disappointment is due in part to a crucial mismatch between the experience of online and offline dating. Dating offline involves navigating the world together and sharing experiences, providing opportunities to engage in direct interaction and observation, allowing individuals to evaluate others for their relationship potential (Berger, 1979). Online dating, on the other hand, follows a consumer model of choice, where each option has a set of features (e.g., height, religion, hobbies) from which consumers must create an overall impression. In some sense, this is like asking people to predict the taste of food while restricting them only to the information on the packaging (grams of fat, number of calories, amount of fiber): While one might have some sense of how that food will taste, only sampling it for real can provide an accurate, holistic impression.
The study found that “Participants reported spending an average of 5.21 hours per week searching through profiles and another 6.73 hours writing and responding to emails, all for a payoff of just 1.77 hours of offline interactions.” And because online profiles aren’t great predictors for chemistry, “On average, then, people’s high expectations based on reading each other’s profiles online were not met when they met in person offline, leading to decreased enthusiasm for their partners. Even the rare real-world contact made through hours and hours of effort on online dating sites fail to live up to expectations.” In short, online dating is unfulfilling for most because it takes a considerable amount of work to produce a limited amount of real-world interaction and the real-world interactions usually aren’t memorable ones.
Online dating services provide an additional medium for meeting new people and that’s a good thing. The problem, however, is it appears that the benefits of online dating have been oversold. For lonely souls looking for love, online dating services don’t seem to be a panacea. There’s no shortcut to finding that special someone, as it will always require a little bit of luck, a lot of human interaction and a willingness to invest in building a relationship.
My personal belief is that while meeting somebody offline may be difficult for many, the benefits of meeting another person through a face-to-face interaction are considerable. Meeting online may have some perceived benefits, but there are a significant number of disadvantages and complexities that negate many of these perceived benefits. Call me a romantic, but I can’t help but think that when it comes to meeting someone special, the key to a connection is still far more likely to be a smile or a laugh than it is to be a click or a keystroke.
Print This Post