After a rough breakup last January, I was sad and single in the Big Apple. Valentine’s Day was approaching, and this city of more than eight million people was feeling oddly lonely. With some goading from a friend — who somehow convinced me that the stigma against online dating was no more — I joined OkCupid and started scanning the thousands of matches that popped up on my screen.
With the number of visitors these sites get each month, that increase is pretty significant: Some current estimates report between 10.5 and 23.8 million unique visitors per month for two major dating sites. Between 2007 and 2012, the number of people using online dating sites doubled, from 20 million to 40 million, and about one third of America’s single people participated in some sort of online dating last year.
But despite these numbers, it’s unclear if online dating is any more effective than, or really any different from, meeting someone offline. In many ways, online dating resembles offline dating — the resulting relationships are no different. It's simply the process itself that's altered. So why do so many millions turn to the Web to find love?
Is It All in the Algorithm?
While many dating sites claim the ability to find your perfect match, social scientists aren’t buying it. Research suggests that, while it is possible to predict whether two people could enjoy spending time together in the short term, it’s (nearly) impossible to scientifically match two people for long-term compatibility. The strongest predictors of a good, functional relationship are how a couple interacts, and their ability to handle stress — two things that science says current dating website algorithms can't predict and online profiles can't demonstrate.
It doesn’t help that these algorithms are closely guarded trade secrets. The majority of the surveys, studies, and reports evaluating online dating sites’ efficacy are paid for by the companies themselves, leading to some possibility for biased results. Plus, many big sites have been hesitant to allow independent researchers to look at their matching algorithms in depth.
Whether or not the algorithms work, it's perhaps even more important if online daters think they work. Of the 13 online daters I talked to for this article, only one believes algorithms can make successful matches. The rest were skeptical, to say the least. “I don’t believe that an algorithm can match me up, and I don’t want an algorithm to match me up. I want to match me up,” said Jason Feifer. A senior editor at Fast Company, Feifer met his wife Jennifer Miller, a freelance journalist and author, through OkCupid after narrowing his search criteria to two requirements: "Jewish" and "journalist."
Feifer and Miller told me they didn’t start using OkCupid with the hopes of finding their soulmates. Instead, both joined the site after ending long-term relationships and moving to a new city without many friends. They both used the site to meet more people and go on more dates, while using their limited free time efficiently.
But even if algorithms aren’t the answer, there’s no doubt that online dating has led to successful relationships — my own included. The question is: Are those first dates and relationships really any different from connections made in more traditional ways? I'd argue not.
Is It Really All That Different?
Even though the number of budding Internet relationships is increasing, the overall rate of partnership is not increasing at all. This suggests that online dating is proving to be no more effective at creating lasting relationships than the old standards.
“I really didn’t see it as any different from the way that people met each other for decades past," said Feifer. "The thing that… creates a relationship, is not the way you meet, it’s what happens after meeting.”
Other daters agreed, and so does Alex Mehr, a co-founder of the dating site Zoosk. "Online dating doesn't change my taste, or how I behave on a first date, or if I will be a good partner. It only changes the process of discovery," says Mehr in Dan Slater's new book "Love in the Time of Algorithms: What Technology Does to Meeting and Mating." (Slater notes that Mehr was the only dating exec he interviewed who felt this way.)
It’s the efficiency of this “process of discovery” that’s appealing to many daters. “I guess maybe the promise of online dating is that it allows you to get out and have those experiences and make those mistakes and hopefully learn a lot from them,” said Slater. “What online dating can do for people… is to get [them] out there and get them to socialize.” Sure, you might encounter some horrific experiences — but hopefully you’ll learn from them and those lessons will benefit your search for a partner in the long run.
“Even if I had married someone that I had met through a friend or whatever, online dating still would have been fun,” said Feifer. Miller agreed, saying: “And it accomplished what I wanted to do, which was go on a lot of dates."
While online dating sites give people another tool to find potential mates, the dates themselves are not very different, other than maybe knowing a bit more about the other person before officially meeting. “It’s no different than if you meet someone on the street. The same rules apply,” said Steven C., a yoga instructor who met his partner on Love@AOL (a dating site that’s no longer active) 15 years ago.
The majority of the daters I interviewed (and Slater, too) at some point referred to online dating as a tool, and that’s just what it is. A dating site is not a magic “fix” for your dating problems. “If you don’t have a personality, it’s going to come across in an email, a phone call, or across a table,” said Larry K., 46, who met his wife on Match.com nine years ago.
These sites can serve as a way to practice those skills and build up self-confidence, too. “[Sites like] OkCupid give people a mechanism to combat the anxiety of being single,” said Ana B., 24, of New York City. “Maybe it’s not the best means to the end of finding the best relationship, but it gives people a way to do something about their situation. It may or may not be the best shot at finding what you want, but it’s a shot.”
Even though it’s impossible to scientifically match people for the long-haul right now doesn’t mean it will never happen. “I think there is a possibility [that these algorithms] could evolve to better predict long-term compatibility. There’s just a disconnect between what social science says is actually possible, and what the sites say they can do,” said Slater.
The good news is that it’s probably only going to get better with time. Slater believes that, as the popularity of mobile dating apps increases, sites will learn how to gather more valuable information. “I think it will enable sites to get users to input information on how the date went because they can do it as they’re leaving the date. Even if it’s as simple as a thumbs up or thumbs down. And that’s a world of information that could enrich the algorithms a lot," he said.
Have you tried online dating? Do you think it can set people up for the long haul? Join the conversation in the comments below, or tweet with the author @ksmorin!