The Internet Dating Market

The Internet has clearly made it faster and more efficient to shop, to look up news, and to send brief notes to people. But what about dating? Clearly people use OK Cupid and (I met my wife on the latter) but does it really change things?

Michael J. Rosenfeld and Reuben J. Thomas say that it does, concluding that home Internet access is positively correlated with being in a relationship even with demographic controls, and that especially large effects are visible for gays and lesbians who face a “thinner” dating market:

This article explores how the efficiency of Internet search is changing the way Americans find romantic partners. We use a new data source, the How Couples Meet and Stay Together survey. Results show that for 60 years, family and grade school have been steadily declining in their influence over the dating market. In the past 15 years, the rise of the Internet has partly displaced not only family and school, but also neighborhood, friends, and the workplace as venues for meeting partners. The Internet increasingly allows Americans to meet and form relationships with perfect strangers, that is, people with whom they had no previous social tie. Individuals who face a thin market for potential partners, such as gays, lesbians, and middle-aged heterosexuals, are especially likely to meet partners online. One result of the increasing importance of the Internet in meeting partners is that adults with Internet access at home are substantially more likely to have partners, even after controlling for other factors. Partnership rate has increased during the Internet era (consistent with Internet efficiency of search) for same-sex couples, but the heterosexual partnership rate has been flat.
A related issue that I’ve been noodling over is the impact of online dating on the urban form. One of the main things that people are looking to do in their 20s is date people and eventually settle down. In a traditional dating paradigm very large cities have certain key disadvantages in this regard, simply in virtue of the fact that an unmanageable number of people live there. The majority of the people you encounter on a daily basis in an enormous city are going to be people you have no meaningful social linkage to and may never run into again. But as people switch to purposeful Internet-based searching as an initial screen for potential partners, this becomes less of an issue and the more relevant question is simply “how many different people would it be logistically feasible to meet up with for a drink after work.” In a very large, very dense city that’s a lot of profiles you can click through. In a smaller community it’s not that many people, and the fact that thicker more robust social networks exist in the smaller community is a less relevant countervailing factor as digital technology makes us more efficient searches.