02 Apr 2012  Research & Ideas

Do Online Dating Platforms Help Those Who Need Them Most?

The $2 billion online dating industry promises the possibility of a priceless product: romantic love. Associate Professor Mikolaj Piskorski investigates whether these sites are helping the lonely—or just making life easier for young singles who are popular already. Key concepts include:

  • Researchers studied a random sample of 500,000 OKCupid members, focusing on two important stages of forming a relationship: spotting a potential mate, and initiating contact.
  • Older, shorter, and relatively overweight men tended to view more profiles than their younger, taller, slimmer counterparts. However, those who were most likely to view lots of profiles were least likely to initiate contact with an e-mail message.
  • Some of the features on OKCupid helped users to overcome the normative restrictions of the offline world, while others only served to help those who really needed the least help.

 

Over the past decade, socially-focused websites have attracted hundreds of millions of users and changed the social fabric in fundamental ways. The likes of eHarmony and Match.com enable us meet new people. Platforms including Facebook, Path, and Zynga help us strengthen relationships with people we already know. The functionality of these businesses is clear, but their immense popularity can be perplexing. After all, people managed to get married and maintain friendships for eons before the Web ever existed.

So, are these virtual social platforms truly necessary? And whom do they really help—those who face most problems interacting in the offline world, or those who generally have little trouble meeting people? Does the Web serve to equalize access to potential relationships, or does it make the playing field even harder?

"It is presumably harder for older and overweight people to identify potential partners in the offline world, and the online worlds are helping them do that, thereby potentially equalizing access to romantic relationships."

Harvard Business School Associate Professor Mikolaj Piskorski has studied these questions for the last five years, and he finds that the answers depend on the platform. Some products help those who need the most help. Some help only those who have little trouble interacting in the real world anyway. And some platforms offer certain features that help those who need it most, along with other features that offer help to those who need it least. (He is documenting his findings in a book, due to come out in 2013.)

In a recent seminar at HBS, Piskorksi shared some findings on the online dating industry, where the research opportunities are nearly endless for a scholar of social platforms. Along with old standards like eHarmony.com and Match.com, there's Farmers Only, aimed at rural lonely hearts; The Atlasphere, connecting Ayn Rand fans since 2003; and EquestrianCupid.com, for lovelorn riding enthusiasts. In fact, the $2 billion online dating industry comprises more than 14,000 businesses, according to the consultancy IBISWorld.com.

Piskorski decided to home in on OKCupid, a general-interest dating site that boasts more than 3 million members. The site allows all of its users to browse each other's profiles, but uses comprehensive quizzes and algorithms to help them find the most compatible matches.

The company provided Piskorski with information about its members, covering user demographics such as age, gender, height, and body type. The data also included usage patterns—how users learned about one another's profiles, how many profiles they viewed on average, and how many introductory messages they sent after viewing those profiles. (The data were anonymized, scrambled, and password-protected to protect user privacy.)

Piskorski studied a random sample of 500,000 OKCupid members, focusing on two important stages of forming a relationship: spotting a potential mate, and initiating contact.

The initial results showed that older, shorter, and relatively overweight men tended to view more profiles than their younger, taller, slimmer counterparts. With the female sample, tall women were the ones who tended to view the most profiles. (In the seminar, he reported only the results related to heterosexual matching.)

"I was very encouraged by these results," Piskorski said. "It is presumably harder for older and overweight people to identify potential partners in the offline world, and the online worlds are helping them do that, thereby potentially equalizing access to romantic relationships."

However, the increased viewing behavior did not lead to increased messaging behavior.

Piskorski found that the older, shorter, overweight crowd sent out relatively few messages after viewing hundreds of profiles, as compared to the taller, sportier men. "Basically, the big finding is that men who view most profiles are least likely to message." Piskorski said. "These results show that people who expect rejection may simply refrain from writing, unless the site gives them an encouragement to do so."

The results were similarly discouraging for female users. "Even though women look at as many profiles as men do, they message men much less," Piskorksi said. "It seems that these sites have done little to overcome a very restrictive social norm that makes it inappropriate for women to make the first move."

Quiver, Visitor, and QuickMatch

OKCupid already provides such encouragement through some dedicated functions. First, there is the "Quiver" function, whereby the company algorithm recommends three members it deems most compatible with the seeker. Piskorski found that women, and in particular older ones, were most likely to write to a man once they saw him through Quiver. This finding suggested that the Quiver functionality helped women to overcome the normative restriction of making the first move. Quiver essentially made the first move for them, providing more of an excuse for contact.

Second, there is the "Visitor" function, which lets members know when someone visits their profile. Piskorski found that this function was effective in getting men to write to women, and this was particularly the case for the shorter, older, and overweight men in the sample. "This was a great finding, because it indicated that social sites can encourage people to contact each other, particularly those who would be least likely to do so in the offline world," Piskorski said.

But other features on the site were actually detrimental to those who needed the most help in the dating world. Take for example OKCupid's optional "QuickMatch" feature, which lets you rate other members on a scale of one to five. If you bestow a four or five rating on someone's profile, that member will receive an automatic message that says you think he or she is hot. This feature is seemingly helpful in that it serves as a time-saver; an automatic message is quicker than a manual one. But data showed that only the young, athletic men were very likely to take advantage of QuickMatch.

"For women, if it's already normatively incorrect to send a personal message first, an impersonal automatic message is even more in-your-face," Piskorski explained. "Guys who are short and a little overweight are also shying away from this feature, suggesting that the feature is not helping those who search for others most."

Piskorski hopes that entrepreneurs and academics alike will keep these findings in mind when evaluating and building online social platforms in the future.

"If you're asking whether these sites help the people who need the most help to communicate, the answer is that it really depends on the individual site and the functionality it provides," he said. "We have incredible amount of control in structuring these online environments and we should use this power to meet social needs of those who cannot get them met elsewhere."

About the author

Carmen Nobel is senior editor of Harvard Business School Working Knowledge.

Comments

    • Joey
    • USA
    there is the "Visitor" function, which lets members know when someone visits their profile. Piskorski found that this function was effective in getting men to write to women, and this was particularly the case for the shorter, older, and overweight men in the sample. "This was a great finding, because it indicated that social sites can encourage people to contact each other, particularly those who would be least likely to do so in the offline world," Piskorski said.

    I don't doubt this is true, but I don't consider it a terribly penetrating new insight into human behavior. For all the qualities in a woman that a man might find attractive, one of the biggest attractors is simply whether the woman will like him back. That's what this Visitor function lets the man know.

     
     
     
    • Misiek

    Joey,

    There are two findings here. First, the visitor function helps all men... That is not surprising and consistent with your comment. Second, it helps shorter, older and non-athletic men MORE... This is encouraging, because data show that these men write to women less...

    Misiek

     
     
     
    • Anonymous

    I am very proud to say that I met my Fiancee on an online dating forum. With lots of work, a daily 4-hour commute and a disdain for the bar scene, the on-line option made sense for me. Also, I get to choose whom I want to contact and that is critically important to me since I was looking for something and for someone really special. I was searching for a specific physical profile, (a bbw or ssbbw) but I was also looking for beauty, brains and a heart of gold. Not an ordinary combination of attributes but the "TAG" on-line social network was the perfect meeting place for me and a great lady that is now my Fiancee.

     
     
     
    • Shan G.
    • Consultant

    I think the online dating services should also provide "training programs" as some fitness centers do. The "training programs" not only guide users on how to date, but only help users identify liers from the online sites in order to reach a happy ending goal. It is hard to verify a person's true identity within a short period of time. We you start to date online, you can only know / believe what the other person says. I think one of the biggest challenges for online dating services is how to ensure people a happy ending by ruling out liers.. I believe creating customized programs is a way to go.

    If any of you are interested in discussing this topic further with me, please feel free to email me at sgao.sg@gmail.com.

    Regards, Shan

     
     
     
    • Anonymous

    Perhaps they started out that way, but I started using one of these after a friend related that eHarmony allows you to get to know someone better than meeting them in a bar where superficial physical attraction will be the main force. So far, it is terrific and now I have many fewer "duds" which used to take me weeks to identify. I have also connected with some very accomplished and terrific people there.

     
     
     
    • mingxuemei
    • student, SNU gsis

    One of the interesting phenomenon is that the increased viewing behavior did not lead to increased messaging behavior according to the report.

    And it were the ones who are not that young,not that tall...who can not show up with a slim bodyshape as well as an attractive appearance that especially need an extra encouragement to give a try.

    I do agree that what Pro.Piskorski pointed out in the end. He said:"If you're asking whether these sites help the people who need the most help to communicate, the answer is that it really depends on the individual site and the functionality it provides."

    There are already a lot of dating platforms for us including the offline ones. (like TV matching programmes)

    "We have incredible amount of control in structuring these online environments." Since the online dating platform has its own advantage and the target audience, "use this power to meet social needs of those who cannot get them met elsewhere" is inevitable.

     
     
     
    • Julie Ferman
    • Founder, http://www.CupidsCoach.com

    These innovations and adaptations to the love search process are heart warming.

    Professional matchmakers and online dating executives are finding better and better ways of...finding people...and these online dating algorithms are enabling us to do a better job for our clients.

    These tools that enable us to "inventory" and access the right people for our clients -- that's the next frontier and it's fun to be part of its design.

     
     
     
    • SoCal

    I am engaged to a woman I met via e-Harmony. As a 48 yr old man, I reached e-Harmony's 800 match maximum in 90 days (with a 15 mile radius and specific criteria). I learned that there were >30 women to every man on the site. That said, I found a mate who I will marry this year.

    There are other sites, however, that should be shut down. We have a mutual friend who paid $3,000 for 6 dates (yes, I know, not smart), but in 3 months time, hasn't had a single date that meets her broad criteria. A scam indeed.

     
     
     
    • Anonymous

    I have to say that match.com led me to my man of 10 years--who is now my life partner. The bar scene didn't do it for me--it makes so much more logical sense. We both wanted to narrow the search to people who met our criteria first, rather than depending on a physical attraction at a bar first only to find out that we had little in common. We're both busy professionals that traveled a lot, and it was perfect for us!

     
     
     
    • iamlisawong

    So essentially, if I understand correctly, in the world of online dating, typical dating behaviour still largely mirrors that which would normally occur offline, sort of a microcosm of the real world. This shows that the online dating communities have not fully leveraged the potential of the platform to help those daters who need help the most or who need the most help.

     
     
     
    • Brian
    • Owner, http://www.stuffonlinedaterssay.com

    Have had some decent dates but nothing clicked. The one time a female took the initiative to write me, it all ended up being a bad experience, where the person wasn't who they said they were. So, I've been really hesitant to try it again. That whole experience inspired me to start the humor site StuffOnlineDatersSay. Have heard some horror stories and funny stories from friends. Thought this would be a great destination to share such stories.

    Brian Founder http://StuffOnlineDatersSay.com

     
     
     
    • Michael
    • CEO, TruConnection.com

    I think it's hard for conventionally less attractive people to showcase themselves on mainstream dating sites. There is a tendency to look at a photo and a detailed profile, form an opinion, and move on. This online shoe shopping mentality is the reason online dating still has a stigma after all these years.

    A new approach: Members share only photo + writing/creative expression (artwork, photography). They can write about anything, or write based on a daily topic. This opens a window into who someone is more so than self-description or answers to dating questionnaires ever could. It's an attempt for the first impression to be more 'real'.

    I put this premise into action at www.truconnection.com . Launched in February in Boston area and NYC. 100% free. Check it out!

    Mike

     
     
     
    • Kapil Kumar Sopory
    • Company Secretary, SMEC(India) Private Limited

    Online dating platforms are not needed by those who are accepted as partners as a matter of course,i.e., in the normal course without hindrance. Only the ones who are left out otherwise take to the online platforms for this purpose. Online dating can help finding and matching physical attributes. But a successful marriage requires much more than that. In India and many other countries there is no open dating and matches are decided initially by family elders, etc. Brief before-the-event meetings are arranged and that's all. And, such marriages are successes more often as love created through give and take is more lasting. Notwithstanding such a scenario, there are instances where hindrances are created and nothing gets fixed in the normal course. It is here that online dating comes handy. If the site is reliable and data/information exchanged and emotions expressed are based on truth and nothing but truth, the outcome would benefit all concerned. We have, however, to be wary of fraudsters the existence of whom cannot be ruled out.

     
     
     
    • VSM Nair
    • Director, VMA Consultants Pvt. Ltd.

    A recent analysis in The Economist ( Feb 11, 2012) , referring to a paper published by a team of psychologists with Northwestern University , USA challenges the validity of the claims of internet dating claims.

    The difference in the level of happiness between the couples with compatible personalities ( as determined by the process of dating sites ) and those with dissimilar personalities was a mere 0.5%.

    This study challenges the crucial assumption that what people think they want ( as specified in the questionnaires used by the dating sites ) is what they actually need.

    In fact, people's stated preferences at the beginning of the process do not well match the characters of the individuals they actually like.

    Even the very volume of alternatives may be a problem. Studies on consumer choice from chocolates to wine lists show that less is more. An internet dating service may come up with thousands of allegedly suitable matches will confuse the participants.

    There has been no independent scientific evidence that any internet dating site's algorithm for matching people together does enhance the chance of their hitting it of when they meet.

     
     
     
    • Karinna
    • Owner, Sacred Love, Inc.

    "If you're asking whether these sites help the people who need the most help to communicate, the answer is that it really depends on the individual site and the functionality it provides,"

    In addition, it depends also to how the single men and women uses the online dating site as a tool in finding their soulmate or to empower their relationships.

     
     
     
    • Anonymous

    I met my husband online. I am a conservative, career-minded, 40ish woman who didn't want kids. It was IMPOSSIBLE to find anyone who didn't already have/want kids and had my similar interests (e.g., business/traveling/academia/culture). One day, I was surfing the internet, and decided to enter "my perfect man" into one of the dating sites...and up popped my husband's profile. Bingo! I paid the fee in order to write him, we dated, and were married 2 years later. I've never been happier!

     
     
     
    • R. Nembhard
    • Founder, Whybealone, LLC.

    First I must say thanks for sharing this article.

    Now, as for the questions: Are these virtual social platforms truly necessary? The answer is YES - Each day lives are being changed in ways many of us would never imagine because of social media. In fact, had it not been for online dating I would not have met my beautiful wife eight years ago.

    And whom do they really help? Everyone, I do believe that we all benefit from these sites either directly or indirectly.

    R. Nembhard Founder http://www.whybealone.com