The introduction of new technologies in a society is often met with both hopes and fears. Enthusiasts expect the technology to alter the society for the better, whereas detractors expect to change it for the worse. Consider, for instance, television. When it was first introduced, television was touted by some as a means to bring families together, and criticized by others for substituting imaginary relationships (with TV characters) for real ones.
The recent popularity of online dating has given rise to a similar rhetoric. Proponents argue that online dating will drastically improve romantic outcomes by matching people with their ideal partners through foolproof algorithms. Opponents fear that online dating will destroy the element of mystery and serendipity inherent to romance, and promote a serial dating mentality.
As was the case earlier with television, these notions are overstated in that they ascribe too much influence to the technology (and too little to the users), and simplistic in that they disregard other meaningful psychological, social, and cultural factors. There is no doubt that online dating has transformed the quest for love in the 21st century, with millions of people finding dates, short-term, and long-term partners via online dating services. Yet the effects of online dating are more subtle and contextualized.
It is important to recognize that building romantic relationships is a process that includes several stages. It begins with relationship initiation, when partners meet and get to know each other, continues with relationship maintenance, when partners navigate day-to-day life and significant life events, and inevitably ends with relationship termination, due to a break-up or the proverbial “death do us part.”
The effects of online dating are clearest and most significant during the initiation phase. Online dating does in fact broaden access to potential partners, in several ways. First, it identifies people who are interested in pursuing relationships, thus removing the guesswork involved in assessing the availability status of a new romantic interest. Second, it collects these singles in one easily accessible online location, substantially reducing the time and effort otherwise required to meet people (e.g., sustain an active social life, go to bars, ask friends to set you up, etc.). Third, it broadens the pool of potential partners. Research shows that physical proximity is a critical predictor of relationship initiation, with most people dating those who are literally around them (e.g., work colleagues, classmates). Online dating removes this constraint, allowing people to date those with whom they would not intersect in everyday life.
The increased access provided by online dating, however, should not affect people uniformly. It should be most beneficial to those who, for one reason or another, have restricted social opportunities (e.g., busy professionals with limited time, older individuals whose social circles include mostly couples, those who have relocated to a new place and have few social connections). Conversely, individuals who have abundant access to potential mates (e.g., college students, highly extraverted people with large social circles), should be less affected by this feature of online dating.
While online dating does increase access to partners, there is currently no evidence that its matching algorithms improve partner selection. Research shows that people prefer partners who are similar to them in terms of values and beliefs, but there is no scientific model that predicts compatibility based on personality characteristics (which is what many online dating sites do). More importantly, even if such compatibility could be demonstrated, it should account for only a small portion of a relationship’s success. Long, stable, and happy relationships depend on partners’ ability to grow and mature together, to resolve life’s inevitable challenges, and to develop healthy interaction patterns. The unfolding of this maintenance stage of relationships cannot be predicted by dating services. It depends largely on partners’ communication patterns and evolving maturity, and also on the unique life circumstances they encounter.
When it comes to romance, online dating can also have complicated effects, depending on users’ characteristics and their patterns of use. On the one hand, it is entirely possible that online dating promotes a candy-store mentality, whereby users will wish to “sample” as many dates as possible to the detriment of committing to one person. This should be true especially for online daters in large metropolitan areas, with access to hundreds of potential dates, and for singles who are non-committal to begin with. On the other hand, communicating with partners online, without face-to-face contact, can be a great aphrodisiac, with daters idealizing their partners and falling swiftly in love. Of course, romance may suffer upon finally meeting partners face-to-face, particularly if they diverge from their online personae.
Online dating has advantages and disadvantages, and affects different users in different ways. The effect of online dating is strongest in the initiation phase of relationships. Its ability to connect singles with potential partners, with a low investment of time and energy, is remarkable. Long-term effects depend on daters’ ability choose wisely among potential partners and to develop healthy relational dynamics, as a couple.
Read more in this debate: Noel Biderman.