“So, how did you two meet?” It’s the rare small-talk question that’s actually interesting. Single people hoping to shed single status want to know how couples get together, for obvious reasons, but it’s also a question that social scientists closely monitor and study. The data that results can make armchair social scientists of us all. The latest addition to this body of work arrived this week in the form of research out of Stanford University (highlighted on Twitter by journalist Derek Thompson) that presents new data and conclusions about how the internet is changing dating and relationships.
Michael Rosenfeld, Reuben J. Thomas, and Sonia Hausen’s report, which is available online as a draft, used a 2017 survey of American adults to show that online dating has overtaken meeting through friends as the most popular way of meeting a partner. (They estimate the shift happened in approximately 2013.) Moreover, the researchers found that meeting via the internet is “displacing the roles that family and friends once played in bringing couples together.” They had hypothesized that friends and family might continue to facilitate relationships, only now doing so with the help of the internet, but they found that by and large, the internet could do the job all by itself. Don’t worry: The researchers clarified that “despite the disintermediation of friends and family from the matchmaker role, friends and family of course have many other important functions.” Glad to hear friends and family are not obsolete quite yet.
The real showstopper of the report, though, is the line graph at the end (highlighted by Thompson’s tweet), which illustrates how straight couples have met from the 1940s up to now. (There’s much less historical data on same-sex couples, although the report does note they moved more quickly than opposite-sex couples to online matchmaking.) It’s fascinating to see much of the history of the past century distilled into simple rising and falling lines: the surge of women in the workplace, the decline of church, the ascent of the internet. The data overflows with tangents to disappear into. People used to meet through neighbors? Why did people stop dating co-workers? Do people not have friends anymore? Smaller events can be easily observed from the chart as well: The soaring red line that represents the internet picks up in 1995, the year graphical web browsers were introduced, and again around 2010, as smartphones hit the mainstream. (As for the people who met on the internet before the early ’90s: That’s impressive, email us!) And the apparent rejection of old-fashioned ways to meet is not entirely the internet’s fault; in truth, things were changing before the internet arrived: “The most traditional ways of meeting for heterosexual couples, i.e. meeting through family, meeting through church, meeting in the neighborhood, and meeting in primary or secondary school, have all been declining sharply since 1940,” the authors report.
One quirk in the data really surprised me: More people are meeting in bars and restaurants since 2010? What bars and restaurants are those? In fact, survey takers could check more than one box on the survey, so, the researchers explain, the “apparent post‐2010 rise in meeting through bars and restaurants for heterosexual couples is due entirely to couples who met online and subsequently had a first in‐person meeting at a bar or restaurant or other establishment where people gather and socialize.”
Not only has the internet dating age changed the ways people meet; it’s changed the ways people tell those stories. The researchers have translated this fact into numbers in an ingenious way: by phrasing the question as open-ended and counting how long couples’ answers were. Between 2009 and 2017, the average length declined from 67 words to 37. If more people are meeting online, that makes sense; it doesn’t take a whole lot of words to explain that, and more and more people will have the same simple answer. (In my experience, people are also much less likely than they once were to accompany their story of meeting online with 50 words of “I know it sounds crazy, but lots of people are dating on the internet now …”) Even presidential candidates aren’t immune to this lack of narrative oomph. But if lack of narrative is the trade-off for meeting online, it’s one the majority of people dating today agree to make. Why yearn for the old way when this way is so much more efficient? People don’t need to screen dating prospects through friends and family anymore. Now we screen them through … screens.