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.

7 thoughts on “How successful is online dating?

  1. The question of the impact of RSVP on the marriage rate focusses on the ‘quantity’ impact of such websites while overlooking the potential for a ‘quality’ impact. Lots of people got married in the olden days but perhaps they settled on their partners more easily. In theory, sites like RSVP could lead to no increase in the marriage rate but an improvement in the quality/compatibility of partner matching. Perhaps this could be tested by considering the divorce rate? Either way, I guess it’s not clear whether the social and demographic changes of recent decades (to which RSVP is a recent addition) have done more to improve the quality of partner matching than they have done to make people fussier. Another impossible question.

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  2. You might expect that an information exchange like RSVP would facilitate people initially matching each other more easily or at least having access to a wider population to consider. The information on RSVP, while covering many more people, might however be more shallow than is available through other dating mechanisms.

    Anecdotally, a couple of my friends have used RSVP which seems to have facilitated them meeting people – I think that one of them is very happily in a relationship with someone they met through RSVP.

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  3. The statistics you are looking for are largely available from RSVP, which is why it sold for millions a couple of years ago.
    For young people who have not yet married, RSVP seems to be an additional way to meet people. For mature people, especially those who are single after a long term relationship, it is often the only way to meet other single people interested in dating. Regardless of the number of coffee meetings that end up as a marriage, the courage required to meet potential partners on RSVP is still easier than sitting at home because married friends can’t get their heads around inviting a single person to anything. Online dating is here to stay because it is successful.

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  4. It would be interesting to see what impact Facebook might have in the long term as well. While it’s not a dating site, it certainly allows people to chase down others with similar and often eclectic interests and sift through people in their extended social network.

    Could a strengthening of positive assortative mating and social ties result as these social networking tools remain an important parts of life for my generation as we age?

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  5. Online dating has benefited from social networking in the sense that sites such as facebook have helped to familiarise people with the concepts of connecting, sharing information, emailing or chatting with others who have a common friend, interest or otherwise. What is interesting to see on the sites that offer online dating services is the offerings that are extenidng now beyond one on one dating … RSVP for example have just launched communities. Its a similar concept to groups excpet singles are essentially clustered into interest based communities and have visibility amongst a smaller group. It certainly makes sense, whether people will then look to extend their friendship circles online in the way the friendship sites are looking to extend into dating will be interesting. Personally, I think sites like RSVP work so well because they really offer a group of real realtsionship seekers – you can find contacts or connections anywhere. Its the ‘cutting to the chase factor’ that works for them.

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  6. Who says “success” from online dating should be measured by permanent cohabiting relationships? What about hot casual sex? Without establishing the intentions of online dating site users first, you have no basis for analysis. Not everyone wants or is seeking the claustrophobic interdependence of cohabiting relationships. The number of registered site users quoted is meaningless as many accounts are defunct and many users have multiple accounts, each with profiles constructed to represent concurrent desires (eg a casual relationship and a long term one) or to highlight various personality traits (to appeal to different social demographics).

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