Does online dating work?

"Does Not Work"

It’s a simple question and a common one — one whose answer could determine the fates of both a multi-billion dollar industry and millions of lonely hearts. It’s a question that seems distinctly answerable: we have user data, surveys, clear metrics for success or failure, entire books full of colorful charts.

And yet, just this week, a new analysis from Michigan State University found that online dating leads to fewer committed relationships than offline dating does — that it doesn’t work, in other words. That, in the words of its own author, contradicts a pile of studies that have come before it.

Starts the Washington Post article… This is the start of much of my thoughts dotted throughout my blog. A while ago I stood up at a conference and said

There is no compelling scientific research indicating online dating algorithms work.

Well the new analysis by Michigan State, leads nowhere new. The answer to the question is complex…

We don’t actually know.

Some of the reasons for that ambiguity are clear in this latest study. For starters, there’s this greater cultural issue of how we define relationship success: Is it marriage? Is it monogamy, a la Patti Stanger? Is it what OkCupid’s data team calls a “fourway” — four messages back and forth between two semi-interested parties? That’s a tough one to parse, and different studies have defined it different ways

So the success criteria isn’t clear but if one thing was clear it would be around matching algorithms.

Most paid sites claim, for instance, that it’s their highly scientific matching algorithms that lead people to serious relationships; in his 2013 book on the subject, however, the journalist Dan Slater concludes that most of those claims are bunk. (“Everyone knows that all personality profiling is bull****,” a former Match executive told him. “As a marketing hook, it works great.”)

And as I’ve been banging on about for years… Why pay for online dating? They simply make bumping into random people more likely, just like most social networks.

In reality, dating sites are most effective as a kind of virtual town square — a place where random people whose paths wouldn’t otherwise cross bump into each other and start talking. That’s not much different from your neighborhood bar, except in its scale, ease of use and demographics.

Hence the popularity and rise of the social dating apps and services.

Author: Ianforrester

Senior firestarter at BBC R&D, emergent technology expert and serial social geek event organiser.

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