A couple of months ago, I was sitting at a bar minding my own business when the woman next to me did something strange. Surrounded by potential partners, she pulled out her phone, hid it coyly beneath the counter, and opened the online dating app Tinder. On her screen, images of men appeared and then disappeared to the left and right, depending on the direction in which she wiped.
I felt a deep sense a rejection -- not personally, but on behalf of everyone at the bar. Instead of interacting with the people around her, she chose to search for a companion elsewhere online.
I wondered to myself, is this what online dating has done to us? Is it creating a new reality in which people actively avoid real-life interactions?
Of course, others have worried about these sorts of questions before. But the fear that online dating is changing us, collectively, that it's creating unhealthy habits and preferences that aren't in our best interests, is being driven more by paranoia than it is by actual facts.
"There are a lot of theories out there about how online dating is bad for us," Michael Rosenfeld, a sociologist at Stanford who has been conducting a long-running study of online dating, told me the other day. "And mostly they're pretty unfounded."
Rosenfeld, who has been keeping tabs on the dating lives of more than 3,000 people, has gleaned many insights about the growing role of apps like Tinder. They are important today — roughly one of every four straight couples now meet on the Internet. (For gay couples, it's more like two out of every three). The apps have been surprisingly successful -- and in ways many people would not expect.
In fact, by several measures, online dating has proved even more useful — both to individuals and society — than the traditional avenues it has replaced.
I spoke with Rosenfeld to hear more about his research, to learn about the ways in which the rise of online dating is defining modern love, and to talk about the biggest misconceptions people have about online dating. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You have one of the most unique data sets about modern romance. What have you learned about how people date today?
Well, one of the first things you have to know to understand how dating — or really courtship rituals, since not everyone calls it dating — has changed over time is that the age of marriage in the United States has increased dramatically over time. People used to marry in their early 20s, which meant that most dating that was done, or most courting that was done, was done with the intention of settling down right away. And that’s not the life that young people lead anymore. The age of first marriage is now in the late twenties, and more people in their 30s and even 40s are deciding not to settle down.
The rise of phone apps and online dating websites gives people access to more potential partners than they could meet at work or in the neighborhood. It makes it easier for someone who is looking for something very specific in a partner to find what they are looking for. It also helps the people who use the apps by allowing them to enjoy a pattern of regular hookups that don’t have to lead to relationships. I think these things are definitely characteristic of modern romance.
Part of what you have uncovered during your research is how drastic the rise of online dating has been. That's something not everyone thinks this is a good thing. Why are many people skeptical?
The worry about online dating comes from theories about how too much choice might be bad for you. The idea is that if you’re faced with too many options you will find it harder to pick one, that too much choice is demotivating. We see this in consumer goods — if there are too many flavors of jam at the store, for instance, you might feel that it’s just too complicated to consider the jam aisle, you might end up skipping it all together, you might decide it's not worth settling down with one jam.
What do you think?
I don’t think that that theory, even if it’s true for something like jam, applies to dating. I actually don’t see in my data any negative repercussions for people who meet partners online. In fact, people who meet their partners online are not more likely to break up — they don’t have more transitory relationships. Once you’re in a relationship with somebody, it doesn’t really matter how you met that other person. There are online sites that cater to hookups, sure, but there are also online sites that cater to people looking for long-term relationships. What’s more, many people who meet in the online sites that cater to hookups end up in long-term relationships. This environment, mind you, is just like the one we see in the offline world.
There’s no obvious pattern by which people who meet online are worse off. And, conversely, online dating has real benefits. For people who have a hard time finding partners in their day-to-day, face-to-face life, the larger subset of potential partners online is a big advantage for them. For folks who are meeting people everyday—really younger people in their early twenties—online dating is relevant, but it really becomes a powerful force for people in thin dating markets.
In a 2012 paper, I wrote about how among heterosexuals, the people who are most likely to use online dating are the middle-aged folks, because they’re the ones in the thinnest dating market. It’s harder to feel alone when you’re 23, because everyone is a potential partner. But when you get to 40, most people your age are already settled down.
So it’s fair to say that the experience, at least from a bird’s-eye view, isn’t as different as we make it out to be? At the very least, it isn't worse in the way many say?
Yes, I think that’s definitely right.
Look, there’s always a fear that comes with a new technology. The idea that the new technology is going to undervalue some really important social values is real and rampant. People have had that fear about the telephone and the automobile. They have even had it about things like washing machines. If people weren’t going to go to the laundromat to wash their clothes together, how would we spend time together? That was something people were legitimately concerned about. But now that we have washing machines — and know that people still talk to each other — it’s clear that that fear was overblown, that it was unnecessary.
I think the same fears are expressed a lot about the phone apps and Internet dating. The worry is that it's going to make people more superficial. If you look at apps like Tinder and Grinder, they mostly function by allowing people to look at others’ pictures. The profiles, as many know, are very brief. It’s kind of superficial. But it’s superficial because we’re kind of superficial; it’s like that because humans are like that. Judging what someone else looks like first is not an attribute of technology, it’s an attribute of how we look at people. Dating, both modern and not, is a fairly superficial endeavor.
When you walk into a room, whether it’s a singles bar or a church, you’re making these same sorts of judgments, the same kind of subconscious evaluations. It's not the technology that makes people superficial. How someone else looks is important to us — it always has been. The visual cortex of our brain has a very powerful hold on how we interact with the world around us. There’s nothing wrong or really new with prioritizing that.
One of the most interesting things you have found is that online dating, despite its reputation, actually seems to usher people toward marriage in a way real life dating doesn't. Can you elaborate?
That's right. One of the things I have found out as part of my research is that people who meet online actually progress to marriage faster than people who meet offline. I think this is happening for many reasons.
No. 1: You can be more selective because you have a bigger group to select from. When you’re using online dating, and there’s the possibility of selecting on characteristics that you know you’re going to like, you’re going to know a lot more about people before a first date.
No. 2: There tends to be extensive communication before the first date. A lot the information-gathering that courtship is really about is sped up by the information you can gather from the profiles and from a person before actually meeting them.
What’s the difference in terms of the timetable — between how quickly people marry through online and real-life dating?
If you look at the couples who stay together, about half of the couples who meet through online dating have transitioned to marriage by year four of the relationship. If you look at people who didn’t meet through online dating, the time frame is much longer — half of those couples transition to marriage by year 10 of the relationship. So there’s a substantial difference.
This is because there are couples who meet online who get married right away. I mean, that happens with people who meet offline, too. But when you look at the data, it’s just more common online. And I think that’s because online you do this big, calculated search for your soul mate, and find someone else who agrees and then transition to marriage much more quickly.
Is there also a bit of a self-selection process? Is it possible that people who meet online are marrying faster because they tend to be more marriage-driven from the start?
Yeah, I mean that certainly could be. I think it’s likely that people who look to online dating sites are more intent on finding a partner, especially those using sites like Match.com and eHarmony.
What’s interesting is that that kind of undermines the image that critics of the new technology try to put on the new technology, which is that online dating is all about hookups and superficiality. It turns out that the Internet dating world replicates the offline dating world in a lot of ways, and even exceeds it in others. There are a lot of places you can go where people are looking for more long-term relationships, and there are a lot of places you can go where people are looking for something else.
It’s not just superficiality that the Internet is about. People looking for longer-term relationships exclusively tend to choose the dating websites where profiles are more lengthy and text-driven. If you're looking for a life partner, online dating is pretty good for that.
So there’s a misconception. In aggregate, it’s actually doing a lot of good.
The need for love, romance, relationships and sex — these are pretty basic human needs. And the ability to match people who would have otherwise not found each other is a powerful outcome of the new technology.
About 75 percent of the people who meet online had no prior connection. They didn’t have friends in common. They’re families didn’t know each other. So they were perfect strangers. And prior to the Internet, it was kind of hard for perfect strangers to meet. Perfect strangers didn’t come into contact in that intimate sort of way. One of the real benefits of Internet search is being able to find people you might have commonalities with but otherwise would never have crossed paths with.
If we’re meeting perfect strangers in ways we weren’t before, is there anything to be said about online dating and the bringing together of people from different races, cultures, religions?
One of the most interesting questions about the Internet as a sort of social intermediary is whether it brings different kinds of people together more than would have been brought together before. If you think about the traditional technology of family, which was the marriage broker of the past, the family was very selective in terms of its reliance on introducing you to people of the same race, religion and class as potential partners. What’s more, if you were marrying young — at the age of 20 or younger — you really could only marry people from within your close network, from your neighborhood. These were the only people you knew, and they were probably very much like you.
The question about Internet dating specifically is whether it undermines the tendency we have to marry people from similar backgrounds. The data suggests that online dating has almost as much a pattern of same-race preference as offline dating, which is a little surprising because the offline world has constraints of racial segregation that the online world was supposed to not have. But it turns out online dating sites show that there’s a strong preference for same-race dating. There’s pretty much the same pattern of people partnering with folks of the same race.
What’s unclear is how much of this tendency online is really a result of preference and how much is due to the websites feeding you potential partners that are of the same race as you. These websites use algorithms to try to figure out who you like. And if they assume you’re going to prefer people of your own race, they might feed you a steady diet of potential matches of the same race. Since the algorithms tend to be proprietary — they don’t share them — we don’t know whether this is skewing the data.
There are other aspects in which online dating leads to different results than offline dating. One is that people are more likely to date someone of another religion. I think that’s because you can’t tell what someone’s religion is from their picture. On online dating, the picture marks you with gender and race pretty clearly, but religion is something that you have to dig through to figure out.
The other big difference is that same-sex couples are much more likely to meet their partner online. In my data, about 22 percent of straight couples met online. For gay couples, it’s about 67 percent. Online is tremendously more efficient for gays and lesbians. And that’s because it’s much harder for them to identify potential partners offline.
What about socioeconomic class? Are people more likely to partner with people of different socioeconomic backgrounds when they meet online?
In my data, it’s pretty much the same. The preference for partners of similar socioeconomic and education backgrounds has always been there, but it’s never been an overwhelmingly strong preference. It’s never been the case that people who married someone of a greater or lesser education level were ostracized in the way other attributes might have been.
From what I can tell, there’s a little bit of a tendency for people — especially women — to prefer people who claim to make a lot of money. But the truth is that most profiles don’t report income, and in the income ranges where most people live there isn’t that much of a difference in profile attractiveness. Whereas in the actual attractiveness of their photo, there is. So social class turns out to be kind of a secondary factor.
I want to bring back the jam analogy, if that’s okay. When there are more jams to choose from, do people end up trying more jams than they would otherwise before figuring out which flavor they like best? In other words, are people dating several people at once more often now because of online dating?
Relationships are different from jam in that when you get involved with somebody, they have feelings too, they have a claim on you more than the jam does, right? The jam doesn’t care if you try another jam next week, but if you form a relationship with somebody, they would or at least might care.
I haven’t seen that the rise of this technology has made people more skittish about commitment. One of the things that we know about relationships in the United States, contrary, I think, to what many people would guess, is that the divorce rate has been going down for a while. They have been going down since the early 1990s, when they hit their peak. So during the Internet era, during the phone app and online dating era, it’s not as if people are leaving their marriages and going back out into the dating market. Even people who are regular online dating users, even people who are not looking to settle down, recognize that being in the constant churn finding someone new is hard work.
It’s not all sunshine in the hookup culture. But I don’t think that it defines online dating. That’s not what the data say. The declining divorce rate is among many signs that the rise of this technology is not ruining relationships.
I don't know about multiple partners, specifically, but I wouldn't be surprised if that were true. The people whom I have interviewed about Tinder and Grinder, some of them are on a steady diet of short relationships, where they meet a person, hook up, and then the next weekend they’re looking for somebody else. Part of what’s cool about the phone apps is that it’s not only easier to meet people, it’s easier to block people and then get them out of your space. There’s a sort of safety enhancement that I think allows people to stop someone else from following them around. It makes hookup culture easier.
You speak to a lot of people as part of your research. You hear a lot of their stories. Have any stood out that somehow encapsulate the spirit of modern dating? Or is there something you've learned that others don't seem to appreciate?
I think we have a tendency to assume that settling down is what everybody wants. That’s an assumption that’s built into the way in which we narrate people’s life histories and the way Hollywood crafts movie endings, where people end up together. They might not get married, as they tended to in most older movies, but at the very least the male protagonist and the female protagonist tend to be united by the end. That kind of theme, we assume, is what everybody wants.
There’s a little bit of a tendency now to put off settling down. I don’t see that as problematic. Nor, as it happens, have I found it to be the consequence of online dating.