Modern technology has become a MAJOR hit in the dating scene.
While researching my dating advice book, Your Ex-Boyfriend Will Hate This, I discovered quite a bit of startling information about online dating.
Much of this revealed the often-ridiculous subconscious reasons why we choose some people over others. For instance, studies have shown that something as arbitrary as the color of our clothing or the direction we face in our profile pictures can significantly influence our appeal.
(Without going into detail, men should face away from the camera if they want to improve their response rate, and both sexes benefit from wearing red.)
When the first comprehensive survey on the subject was conducted by the Pew group in 2005, online dating was mostly considered a “fad”, useful only for those whose social ineptitude made normal mating rituals impossible.
It was such a niche phenomenon in 2005 that only 3% of all US marriages had begun online. Less than a decade later, a survey found that online dating accounted for 22% of marriages in the previous year alone.
I’m providing this back story to demonstrate that, not only is web dating a relatively new phenomenon, its role in modern society has grown exponentially with each passing year, quickly making the idea of “traditional” courtship (i.e. meeting some random person at a bar, party or church social, for instance) seem about as quaint as the word “courtship”.
Yet despite the fact that online dating grows and evolves at a speed which defies our ability to make pompous authoritative pronouncements about it, every year or so a new study emerges claiming to provide the final word on its value.
As example, let’s examine two of the most hotly-debated studies of the last few years, each purporting to answer a question as old as online dating itself — are these websites strengthening or disintegrating our romantic bonds?
The first of these studies was conducted in 2013 by The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The study culled the responses of 20,000 participants, and returned with news sure to ruin the day of the “get off my lawn” luddites who claim that cold technology like online dating heralds the decline of western civilization.
Not only didn’t online dating threaten the “sanctity” of marriage, the study found that couples who met online were 25% less likely to divorce than those who met through traditional means.
But, as anyone who follows political polling knows, if you don’t like one set of results, chances are good there is another set eager to reinforce what you “know” to be true.
October of 2014 brought new research with findings sure to warm the old-fashioned cockles of the anti-tech set, when a highly-publicized study by two prominent American universities compared the break-up rates for relationships begun online versus those begun under more conventional circumstances.
A survey of 4,000 Americans found that online couples were both less likely to get married and more likely to divorce than couples who met without the aid of technology.
So how did two studies, conducted barely a year apart, yield such contradictory findings? Those overseeing the 2014 study immediately pointed to those funding the 2013 study as the source of the difference.
As it turns out, The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, received their financial proceeds for the 2013 study from Eharmony, a company whose entire business model rides on an algorithm which claims to create better matches via a questionnaire roughly the length of the average college entrance application. For supporters of the 2014 study, the queasily-synergistic relationship between the researchers and their corporate benefactors rendered the 2013 study indelibly “compromised” (a polite was of saying “a complete load of crap”).
While that certainly casts some suspicion on the corporate-funded findings, there has been no attempt to disprove the specific data or the methods of the 2013 research. Instead, there has only been the insinuation of institutional bias and data corruption to discredit the disharmony (pun intended) between the two studies.
So whom is the impartial outside observer supposed to believe?
The most honest, useful answer is probably “neither”. An authoritative determination of the superiority of online versus “traditional” dating methods is only possible in a vacuum where time, culture and society stand still.
Gender, age, race, economic class and level of education are just a few of the factors which can influence attitudes toward online dating. For instance, women have accepted online dating as “normal” much faster than men have.
A Pew research survey found that women were nearly twice as likely to seek their friends’ advice with their online profiles than men were.
A similar survey found that women also spend about twice as much time reading profile descriptions of prospective matches than men do, with men spending 65% more time looking at profile pictures than their female counterparts.
Given these statistics, it’s safe to say that women have been first to recognize the enormous potential that online dating holds to enrich our lives. Instead of putting most of our faith in chance encounters, often involving less than optimal circumstances (like having to shout awkward small talk to a stranger over a loud, crowded bar of individuals roughly as inebriated as you are), or the dubious matchmaking abilities of friends and family, we suddenly have the potential to meet multitudes we never could’ve met before.
In doing so, we have the opportunity to find what we truly want in a partner, not just the closest option which capricious fate decides to toss our way.
So before we put too much credence in the next “definitive” study about the comparative merits of online dating versus romantic “tradition”, we should consider the folly of appraising the viability of any innovation before its full potential can be properly understood and embraced by all.
If we had made our final determination on the value of the airplane less than 20 years after the Wright brothers’ first successful flight, we would still be buzzing around in zeppelins — contraptions whose sluggishness (speed topped out at a less-than-blistering 78 miles-per-hour) were matched only by their ability to burst into flames without warning (see: Hindenberg, the).
So how can we possibly evaluate online dating when we have barely a decade of research on the subject, and half of us (my dumb gender, specifically) still use it with the sophistication of a caveman swinging a sniper rifle at a water buffalo, because he thinks it’s a new kind of club?
On a personal note, online dating allowed me to meet my own girlfriend Stacie, a wonderful person whom I never would’ve discovered without the aid of the “cold”, “civilization-destroying” technology which many people still inexplicably fear.
Perhaps by the time Stacie and I are celebrating our ten year anniversary together, the “truth” about online dating will be obvious — love isn’t lessened by the method of its discovery, but the chances for finding it surely can be if we ignore all the means available to us.
Blue Sullivan is the author of the recently-released dating advice book, Your Ex-Boyfriend Will Hate This, available here via Amazon.