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.
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?
"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 online sites. He says that 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 learn more about what he has found.
Q: You have one of the most unique data sets about modern romance. What have you learned about how people date today?
A: 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.
Q: Why are many people skeptical of online dating?
A: The worry 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. 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.
Q: What do you think?
A: I 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.
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.
Q: So it's fair to say that the experience isn't as different as we make it out to be?
A: There's always a fear that comes with a new technology, that it is going to undervalue some really important social values. 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?
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 are very brief. But it's superficial because we're kind of superficial. 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.
Q: You have found 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. 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 of 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. 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.
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.
Q: Is it possible that people who meet online are marrying faster because they tend to be more marriage-driven from the start?
A: Yeah, 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. 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.
Q: So there's a misconception. In aggregate, it's actually doing a lot of good.
A: 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. 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.
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.
Q: I want to bring back the jam analogy. 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?
A: 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 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. The declining divorce rate is among many signs that the rise of this technology is not ruining relationships.