How successful is online dating?

Over the last few years there has been a huge proliferation in online dating sites. RSVP, for example, advertises that it has 1.3 million singles to meet, with a thousand more joining every day. And the basic idea seems like a good one, using modern technology to greatly expand the pool of potential partners beyond the more limited range produced by normal social contexts.

If online dating was successful in leading to more permanent relationships, we might expect it to be showing in social statistics. Yesterday the ABS put out the latest marriage statistics. And indeed the number of marriages in 2007 was the highest since 1990. The biggest absolute increase in marriage since 2004 has been among men in the second half of their 30s, and the 2006 census confirms that the percentage of men in their 30s who are single had declined slightly since the 2001 census.

Social statistics on relationships that don’t involve legal ceremonies or cohabiting have always been weak, and this is a particular issue with judging the success of new dating technology where many relationships would be relatively recent, and not at the move-in or marriage stage. I can’t think of any comparable source of data from the past, but the latest HILDA statistical report confirms that many of the people classed as ‘unmarried’ in ABS surveys are part of non-cohabiting couple relationships. Of all such people, 24% are in couple relationships, with a bit over a third in the 18-34 age group.

The problem with analysing these trends is that because eventually most people get married anyway (last year, there were 33 men aged over 75 who married for the first time) it is hard to infer causes from surveys that don’t ask how couples met. A slight increase in marriage could be due to many other factors, including better economic conditions over the last few years. Perhaps the most we can say about online dating is that it is not obviously a poor substitute for the traditional methods.