Online dating: efficiency, inequality and anxiety

My contribution to an Atlantic.com forum on online dating, originally published here.

White men are the most sought-after group on OkCupid, while black women are the least.

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ABC

Even in Super Sad True Love Story—the Gary Shteyngart novel where everyone wears an “äppärät,” a device around their necks that broadcasts to everyone around them their credit history, income, cholesterol, and how attractive they are compared with everyone else in the vicinity—even in that world people fall in love. And we’re not quite there yet.

Executives in the middle of a growing business can be forgiven for overstating trends—as can individuals used as anecdotal launching pads for trend pieces—but readers should take it a little slower. So rather than go right to “online dating is threatening monogamy,” as Dan Slater argues in his article in The Atlantic magazine, maybe we could agree with the less alarmist conclusion that people who engage in rapid serial online dating are probably less likely to make commitments because they won’t settle down. And then we could look at how that trend fits in with the larger questions we face.

Efficiency

First, I’m skeptical of the claim that, as one executive put it in the article, “the market is hugely more efficient” as a result of online dating. Plenty of the people who spend all day online are interacting with real people less than they used to. They waste huge amounts of time dealing with online daters who lie, mislead them, stand them up, or dump them on a moment’s notice.

In a terrific 2003 New York Times article by Amy Harmon, a fourth-grade teacher, retold the statistics of her four-months of online dating: messages exchanged with 120 men, phone calls with 20, in-person meetings with 11—and 0 relationships. That’s not efficient at producing relationships—but it is efficient at producing anxiety. My favorite sentence from that article:

It’s amazing how all women say they’re slender when a lot of them are overweight,” said one 79-year-old Manhattan man who lists himself as 69 on his Match.com profile.

On the other hand, back in the days of dating, women entering college in the 1950s reported an average of about 12 dates per month (three per week) with five different men. These women were grossly outnumbered in college, and most women didn’t go to college, so it wasn’t a system for the whole society. But it tells us something about efficiency: Since dating reliably ended in marriage within a few years, it was pretty efficient, but that’s because of the attitude and expectations, not the technology.

For people who are intent on being choosy, online dating might be more efficient than meeting people in person, but people in urban areas have been finding alternative partners for a long time. For example, we have known for several decades that people are more likely to divorce when they are presented with more, or better, alternatives. In the 1990s researchers discovered that “the risk of [marital] dissolution is highest where either wives or husbands encounter an abundance of spousal alternatives.” They concluded, “many persons remain open to alternative relationships even while married.” This has been shown not only by looking at the composition of the surrounding urban area, but also by simply comparing the divorce rates of people who work in gender-mixed versus gender-segregated occupations (the former are more likely to divorce). Marriage hasn’t been unleavable for quite a while.

Still, maybe online dating speeds up the turnover process, and this might contribute to the trend of delaying marriage going on since the 1950s.

Inequality

Second, I think it’s possible that—in addition to undermining what’s left of monogamy—the spread of online dating will widen some social inequalities. Remember those left behind by Jacob’s wandering webcam eye in the article? When he wanders off to a new partner, he leaves one behind. She might or might not have the same options to exercise. In this rapid-turnover process, the richer, better-looking, healthier, better-lying, etc., might make things miserable for more people than they used to be able to. Jacob’s efficiency might be their wasted months and years.

But remember, divorce rates have probably been falling more or less continuously since about 1980. And it is the less well-off who have been marrying less and divorcing (relatively) more. The people who are divorcing more—or marrying less—are the ones who aren’t going to do as well in the “efficient” competition on dating sites. They aren’t going to gain much from this onlinification.

A few years ago I reported on an amazing analysis of message patterns by the dating site OkCupid. It showed that black women got the lowest response rates to their messages on the site. Here is the pattern—with each cell showing the percentage of men replaying to messages from women, according to the race of the sender (left) and the recipient (top). For example, black women got a 32 percent response rate from white men, whereas Middle Eastern women got a 47 percent response rate from white men.

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If this system is efficient at finding perfect matches, it is also efficient at sorting people according to existing social hierarchies—applying what Alexis Madrigal in The Atlantic called “algorithmic perversity.” Some people will use online dating to constantly trade up—maybe ditch a sick or unemployed spouse—and that will also speed up other processes, like the widening of social inequality.

Reflexive responses

There’s no reason not to overhype a trend. The reward in attention is much greater than the penalty down the road if it turns out you’re wrong. But put this in perspective. Granting that the situation may be changing fast, let’s just consider that in 2006 the Pew Center published a report on its survey of 3,215 adults. Of those who were married or in a committed relationship, 3 percent had met their partner online, and of those, just 41 percent—or 1 percent of the total—met through a dating website.

So online dating may be affecting a fair number of Jacobs and their partners, but it hasn’t remade all of our relationships yet. Articles like this, however, increase the pressure on people to consider—and reconsider—their choices. The same happens with articles about parenting, or biological clocks, or cohabitation—all the family decisions for which choices appear to be multiplying. And it may be true that people are less content when they have more choices—but I bet it’s also true that the effect is magnified when the extent of their choices is hyped and rehyped, and evaluated by competing experts.

6 Comments

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6 responses to “Online dating: efficiency, inequality and anxiety

  1. Graceful Swallow

    In my view, more choice does not necessarily lead to better “outcomes.” More choice might be better, if one assumes most of us know how to evaluate those choices for our best interest. The allure of more online options can also lead me to think there is a “perfect” or nirvana situation.

    As a male, my experience of online dating was encountering an inordinate amount of conditions and unrealistic expectations many women set forth for a mate and relationships. In other words, a belief that I can have what I want, the way I want it. Relationships can be messy and uncomfortable. People (both men and women) today seem less inclined to go through the tough moments of a relationship because they may have to compromise or balance the good with the bad. This means accepting our part in the relationship. Something many of us have a hard time doing.

    I met my partner online. And, we emailed only twice and immediately met in person. We have a great connection. While I met many sincere good women, after a long period of online dating, I was sorely tried with disingenuous and misleading profiles, mixed messages, and never ending emails threads. Regardless of the medium, “successful” dating is due in part to one’s capacity to know thyself, have realistic expectations, and offer empathy.

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  2. Rebecca

    I’ve been on-line dating for about 6 months and find it terribly disappointing. Even taking into account the “10-year / 10 kilo (20 lbs) rule”, most people look nothing like their profile picture(s) in real life. Both sexes make themselves taller and younger, and filter potential contacts based on these bogus characteristics. You can’t get to know someone through e-mail (really… it’s a lie!)… meet these people face to face, then start to find out more about them. What makes them tick and how they view life; not how much they earn and how much child support they pay. I am often ashamed from afar (There’s a great German word: “Fremdschämen” for that) at how shallow many women are and how they discard potential mates for trivial reasons (“He had nose hair” or “He wore brown shoes”.). Ouch… As long as we THINK we have choices people will keep searching for that elusive perfect partner.

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  3. Daniel

    Great post Rebecca: I couldn’t agree more: it was the same thing on gay sites. I also found the emphasis to be on the negative side and most people are not who they say they are: they are a reflection of what they think they can pass off as themsleves for the longest amount of time before the real ugliness gets out .. Rather frustrating … I always had a recent pic (within the year), that looked like me – in person – and am always honest about my weight .. Hey, if they’re not even going to be honest about those things, how could they possibly be honest about the “real” things that count?

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  5. Heather

    My experience has been different and I am wondering why. I met two people online and in one case I was the aggressor. The first person I met became a friend. The second person I met online is my husband and we have been happily married since 2008 with a child. I joined the site, sent him my personal email, and killed the account (I wan’t about to pay for online dating). He looked exactly like his picture and my picture was current as well. I think one factor that could be considered is age. Do people in their 20′s know what they really want… or even some people in their early 30′s. Personally I was enjoying life and had no interest in settling down (no string attached) until my mid-30′s. I guess I agree with the Graceful Swallow, know thyself.

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