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. I wondered to myself, is this what online dating has done to us? Of course, others have worried about these sorts of questions before. For gay couples, it's more like two out of every three. 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. 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. 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. What do you think? There are online sites that cater to hookups, sure, but there are also online sites that cater to people looking for long-term relationships.
This environment, mind you, is just like the one we see in the offline world. 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.
At the very least, it isn't worse in the way many say? 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. That was something people were legitimately concerned about. 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. The profiles, as many know, are very brief. Dating, both modern and not, is a fairly superficial endeavor. 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.
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.
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. You can be more selective because you have a bigger group to select from. 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.
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. This is because there are couples who meet online who get married right away. I mean, that happens with people who meet offline, too. 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. 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. 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. 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. So they were perfect strangers. And prior to the Internet, it was kind of hard for perfect strangers to meet.
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. 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.
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. These websites use algorithms to try to figure out who you like. 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.
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. Online is tremendously more efficient for gays and lesbians.
What about socioeconomic class? Are people more likely to partner with people of different socioeconomic backgrounds when they meet online? Whereas in the actual attractiveness of their photo, there is. So social class turns out to be kind of a secondary factor.
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? 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 s, when they hit their peak. 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. 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. 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.
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.
Nor, as it happens, have I found it to be the consequence of online dating. Ferdman is a reporter for Wonkblog covering food, economics, and other things. He was previously a staff writer at Quartz.