Research on Internet Dating
By Kara Miller
What does the newest research tell us about online dating?
We look at the huge business of online dating. Why is the industry so powerful? How does it work? And what’s the best way to actually find someone? We look at why people are lured online — and what sites really work. Kara Miller talked with Bob Seay about Harvard Business School professor Mikolaj Piskorski's research on the topic.
Bob: We're looking at the world of online dating and new research in the field. How big is the online dating business?
Kara: It’s huge — about $2 billion in revenue every year. And there’s obviously a tremendous range of sites. Some cater to different religious groups or various ethnicities, some try to position themselves as more casual dating sites and some are for more serious, long-term relationships.
Bob: And why have people embraced online dating, even though there’s lots of ways to meet people in real life?
Kara: That’s a fascinating question, and I put it to Mikolaj Piskorski, a professor at Harvard Business School who has looked at why online dating is so appealing. He says that in the first place, online relationships — even relationships on Facebook, which are often not romantic — let you slip outside the bounds of real-world or “offline” interaction. With all of the information people put on their profiles, you can find out things that it would be inappropriately nosy to ask about directly.
Bob: Websites like Facebook often do let you get around social conventions.
Kara: Yes, and Piskorski says that’s part of the key to a website’s success. It has to offer added value and give you something you just can’t get in the real world. That ability to look at people’s pictures and read about them is a kind of secret pleasure that both Facebook and dating sites allow.
But dating sites also have incorporated “real-world” ways of meeting people into their structure. So Piskorski says that there are essentially three types of dating sites: sites that orbit around shared activities, sites that act as a mutual friend and help set you up with a few people who might be good for you and sites that feature lots of pictures of people and are a little like online bars.
Bob: Is there a site that works best?
Kara: It depends a bit on who you are. Let’s take the bar-like sites like OKCupid and match.com. Many people who are most likely to get asked out at an actual bar are most likely to get asked out online. But, interestingly, the people who are least likely to find a match in the offline world tend to look at the most pictures and information about potential dates. Piskorski says that part of the reason for this is that they’re being careful. These are also the people who are mostly likely to not receive an email back from someone they’d like to go out with. So those sites can end up really injuring self-esteem and making people doubt their attractiveness and ability to get a date.
Bob: It sounds, then, like online bars have some real downsides.
Kara: They do. However, research shows that some of the same people who do poorly on those sites often do much better on sites like eHarmony, which acts like a friend setting two mutual friends up on a date. The idea there is that because they know a lot about you, they’re well equipped to say that person A has a chance of liking person B.
Bob: So, does the research indicate that it’s better to meet someone online or offline?
Kara: What online companies excel most at is bringing you advantages that don’t exist in the offline world. So, for example, there’s no bar that you could walk into in Boston and see thousands of people, along with profiles. And while sites like eHarmony act as mutual friends, they know far more single people than anyone’s real friends could. So that’s their advantage.
Piskorski says that when people ask him what sites give them the best chance of finding a long-term partner, he recommends sticking with the sites that limit the number of contacts you get and help you navigate the process — like eHarmony or Chemistry.com. The idea is that bar-type sites can do people a disservice because people come in thinking that they want to go out with someone who looks a certain way. But real attraction is often unexpected, so being willing to break out of the mold that you initially think is essential can end up being very effective in online dating.
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About Innovation HubEach week, Kara Miller talks to Boston's most innovative thinkers, examining new ideas and potential solutions to today’s many challenges. Topics range from education to health care to green energy. Join us on Saturdays at 7 a.m. and Sundays at 10 p.m.
As a radio host, Kara Miller has interviewed thinkers from E.J. Dionne to Howard Gardner, Deepak Chopra to Lani Guinier. She is a panelist on WGBH-TV's "Beat the Press," as well as an Assistant Professor at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. Her writing has appeared in The Boston Globe, The National Journal, The Boston Herald, Boston Magazine, and The International Herald Tribune.
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