Public attitudes toward online dating have changed.
Since their emergence in the mid-1990’s, online dating services have become an increasingly popular way for Americans to seek romantic partners and lifelong mates. While people have been finding love online since the earliest days of the internet, through newsgroups, chat rooms, games and other online communities, the meteoric development of the commercial dating industry has brought millions of paying users and mainstream exposure to the activity. The Online Publisher’s Association reported in 2004 that dating websites created more revenue than any other paid online content category, as they netted roughly $470 million in consumer spending, up from about $40 million in 2001.11 Revenue growth has slowed in recent years, but the industry continues to maintain a robust base of users, many of them willing to pay premium fees for access to specialized services.12
All the while, online dating has also been solidifying its image offline, not only through features in movies, television, and advertising outlets, but also through the influence of daters’ personal success stories, which have percolated through family, friends, and coworkers, and have contributed to the momentum and social acceptance of the practice.13 A 2003 New York Times letter to the editor, written in response to a feature article on online dating, describes this ripple effect firsthand:
“The success of Sascha Segan, mentioned in your article, in meeting his fiancee, Leontine Greenberg, on Nerve.com persuaded a mutual friend of ours to try the service, and she convinced me.
Next year, I’m getting married to a man I met on Nerve.com. Two nights ago at a party, I ran into a friend of a friend and her new Internet-acquired boyfriend, who are the next step in the chain reaction started by Sascha and Leontine.
My thanks to Sascha for being so open about looking for love in cyberspace. May we all be so lucky.”14
The appeal of online dating undoubtedly varies from user to user, but convenience has been a key selling point in the marketing of the services. As some of the most popular online dating services suggest, users enjoy access to a pool of potential mates that is larger and easier to navigate than the offline world, and only costs as much as “the price of a couple drinks.”15
Some early concerns about the potential risks of online dating still linger, but deception seems to be the exception rather than the rule.
Online dating has not always had the best reputation. When online dating activity was observed in the mid-1990s, some attention focused on the ease with which people could deceive others. One article in the St. Petersburg Times on Valentine’s Day 1995 stressed:
“But be warned, cyberdaters. You might find yourself having an erotic chat with someone named Bambi4You, who is really a man pretending to be a woman. [O]f course, you could be a woman pretending to be a man, or a man who is looking for a cross-dresser . . . the combinations are numerous.” 16
Coincident with that kind of concern were those who suggested that the quest for dates online could be socially harmful. Typical of this sentiment was a 1999 article in the Washington Post that sounded some dire warnings:
“While Internet use can expand the number of
relationships—intimate or not— and reduce the costs
of long-distance communication, habitual use can also
reduce a person’s social contacts with family members
and in-person friends, experts say. In extreme cases,
spouses, children, neighbors are pushed aside.”17
While the success of online dating services suggests that these extreme cases have been the exception rather than the rule, some of these initial concerns about finding a partner online still resonate today. In an October 1996 advice column, Ann Landers cited a warning from a writer who advised those considering online dating to verify their date’s identity, and to look out for signs that would-be daters are actually predators. The writer advised users to meet any dates arranged online in public places and to be wary of those who refuse to divulge both their work and home telephone numbers before meeting.18 Likewise, the current “Safety Tips” page on Match.com in 2006 cautions that users would be wise to do some background research on their potential dates before meeting—asking for photos and phone numbers and possibly even paying for a background check. Even more imperative, the site cautions, one should always meet in a public place for the first date.19 While the site acknowledges that deceptive daters are undeniably part of the mix online (in the same way one might encounter ill-intentioned suitors at a nightclub or party), they recommend that users exercise the same discretion as they would in any offline dating situation.
Similarly, the same 2003 New York Times article that prompted a glowing letter to the editor also yielded a letter of warning about dishonest daters from another reader:
“As a member of the online dating world, I can
attest that there is a frequent disconnect between
who people say they are and the truth. What’s
most frustrating is not the outright lying
but the masterful deception.
“I met a woman who described herself as a
‘striking blonde.’ She was plain-looking
but an excellent bowler!”20
This dater’s experience is more indicative of the tradeoffs that many daters accept as simply part of the game. While this user had some disappointing experiences with dishonesty, it was not the type of deception that resulted in physical harm (though notably, this letter was written by a man). He still sees enough benefit to continue to be a regular “member” of the online dating world, and he suggests that the redeeming aspects of someone’s personality may resolve that person’s exaggerated physical description. In this way, the risks and payoffs of the online dating world more closely resemble the basic realities of dating in the offline world.
Recent coverage in the popular press has reflected this. It is not clear exactly when public attitudes started to shift, but an ever-growing share of stories about people finding dates, romance, and even marriage partners online began to emerge in the early 2000s.
This study helps fill a gap in the research on online dating.
The academic literature and marketing research that documents the rise of online dating and its impact on society has also been emerging at a swift pace. Internet romance has been the subject of several recently issued books, many journal articles, and a considerable number of graduate theses and dissertations.21 Yet, much of the available work is either quite specialized in scope or is based on proprietary data, creating challenges for researchers who wish to examine general patterns that might be comparable with other national data on social trends. Furthermore, there was a need to benchmark the broader use of the internet for dating-related activities, which extend well beyond the confines of online dating services.
Given that little data on public attitudes and experiences had been gathered through nationally representative surveys, the Pew Internet & American Life Project decided to explore this subject in a survey in the autumn of 2005, after being approached by Dr. Phillip Morgan from Duke University and Dr. Seth Sanders from the University of Maryland. Both researchers had encountered this gap in available data while conducting work on designing new models to explore technology’s impact on relationship formation and family change. The Pew Internet Project, having a shared interest in studying this aspect of the internet’s social impact, was uniquely poised to gather new data for the field. The results are the basis for this report.