Is the continued existence of involuntarily single people proof that online dating is a failure?

At a dinner party last night (officially a “Hanukkah party” but suspiciously held on Christmas Eve), a 26-year-old guy was talking about how effective online dating has become and, in his opinion, is dramatically more acceptable to people than it was just 3-4 years ago. I pointed out that Internet access is nearly universal in the U.S. (at the very least, a person can use the Web at the local library), online dating goes back at least to 1995, and yet there are plenty of single people who say that they want to be married. Ergo, online dating is a failure.

Obviously there are a lot of people who have met future spouses online, but perhaps those folks would have managed somehow prior to Internet dating. http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/nvss/marriage_divorce_tables.htm shows that the rate of marriage has been falling since 2000 and, according to http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/mvsr/supp/mv43_12s.pdf , has fallen even more dramatically compared to 1990.

[One obvious flaw in online dating/personal ads is that people should not be allowed to describe themselves. What difference does it make what a person thinks of himself if others don't share that view? That's why I wrote a personal ad for a friend (see http://philip.greenspun.com/romance/clarissa/ ) a few years ago. The ad worked and she celebrated her first wedding anniversary last summer.]

10 Comments

  1. rif

    December 25, 2011 @ 5:17 pm

    1

    Is this a serious argument?

    “There are people who want to work as brain surgeons but have no training and no license and so no hospital will hire them. Therefore, the entire process of training brain surgeons is a failure.”

    How does the mere existence of some unsatisified participants in a market indicate that that market is a failure? I would like to have a 2010 Porsche 944 for $20. Does the fact that I can’t get one mean the auto market is a failure?

    I empirically observe that many people are successfully meeting spouses via online dating. This is pretty strong prima facie evidence that online dating is not a failure; even if these people “would have managed somehow” without internet dating, the evidence supports the idea that people find online dating a relatively easy, low-cost way of meeting potential spouses and this is enough to make is a “success”. [I had an atlas in my car 15 years ago, and I could "manage" with it, but this doesn't make Google Maps on my phone a failure]. The ancillary fact that I might like to have a threesome with lingerie models but online dating doesn’t satisfy this desire doesn’t make it a failure either.

    In summary, I’m not sure if you were serious in the first place.

  2. philg

    December 25, 2011 @ 5:39 pm

    2

    rif: Maybe it wasn’t a good argument, but it was serious. I think this is different than brain surgery training because (1) signing up to online dating is quicker than going through medical school and residency, (2) signing up to online dating is often free whereas medical school is not. If online dating were somehow better than what single people had in the past you’d think that there would be fewer involuntarily single people than in the past.

    Online bookstores have made it a lot easier to find unusual or out-of-print books. I’m wondering if there is any evidence that online dating has actually made the process of finding a mate easier or more reliable.

  3. Fazal Majid

    December 25, 2011 @ 5:58 pm

    3

    I’ve been married 3 years now, and we met online (I lived in SF and she in London, no less, it took a year to get the paperwork out of the way). There is no way we’d have met pre-Internet.

    The fact the dating market is not perfect does not make it a complete failure either. There are also latencies involved, just as in real estate a key metric is “days on the market”. Until we reach the absence of social hangups about hooking up of Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World”, a significant level of friction is unavoidable.

    For starters, many people who claim they want to get married are not actually sincere (or just kidding themselves). Many women prior to their mid-thirties also suffer from “grass is greener” syndrome and rah-rah syndrome about not settling inculcated in their childhood, and don’t have realistic expectations of marriage, the compromises it entails, and traits what really matter in a life partner.

    Secondly, many men (and not a few women) on dating sites are primarily interested in no-strings-attached sex, and get it in spades. From their perspective, it is a success.

    Part of the problem is it is hard to separate the players from those genuinely interested in marriage, and as you point out, most people lie on their profiles, even before discounting for self-deception. Most dating sites are quite shady, don’t prune inactive profiles, and some go as far as hiring actors to interact with customers under false pretenses just long enough for the latter to renew their yearly memberships.

    What would be needed is a “Yelp” for the dating market, and there were some attempts to deliver just that, but the libel liability issues probably make this impracticable in our litigious society.

  4. kkrv

    December 26, 2011 @ 12:36 am

    4

    Isn’t the falling marriage rate a reflection of baby mommas and rampant divorce in the lower social classes? This is more a social policy and moral observation than anything to do with the dating market, no? (Get rid of welfare, child support, and default female child custody, and then marriage rates will go up and single motherhood way down.)

    Personally, I don’t understand how online or paper based dating works efficiently in any form. The “Oh it’s on” moment is all about one-on-one interaction: subtleties of eye contact and voice. Pheromones are likely important. It’s more lizard brain, butt sniffing stuff than resume review and pretending otherwise will trip you up. Sex exists primarily for immunological reasons.

    Why are so many Americans single? Probably because they’re fat and androgenized. They dress the same, work the same jobs, and have the same blobbish form. It’s hard to get excited enough to bother.

  5. pdwalker

    December 26, 2011 @ 1:57 am

    5

    Also, marriage no longer is of benefit to men. In a time where more women initiate divorce and a man is raked over the coals for it, is it any wonder that marriage rates are down?

    (as for Clarissa, that’s a heck of an endorsement)

  6. guest from maine

    December 26, 2011 @ 6:44 pm

    6

    Tried it once and couldn’t handle it. Not even close to the online photo. Nearly 10 below zero out, some wind, the coffee house is several blocks away. As appealing as anyone you could hope to meet a talented person with a profound interest in reading far beyond the level I could ever match. Works as a crafts person in a pottery studio and supposedly lives in a shivering cold apartment with a room mate in what might be a rather meek setting, or of misfortune. This was the nature of meeting a person online through topical email of trying to first understand the others well being, and the assumption of then deciding to make an introduction was not so simple as planned, at least beyond a point of meeting at a designated place. Only to be hindered as a first impression where a false impression by seeing with whom you plan to introduce yourself is made before actually meeting. For me, that is not the same as a relation where there is at least the way in which to have become familiar with one another before moving towards what is wanted as a romantic intention. Next off, is that time is a false constraint where a common interest of dating is a comfort zone of where you live is now a matter of distance as much as conveniences. The intrigue can stay with you and lost within the mere click of a mouse.

  7. mishka

    December 26, 2011 @ 10:10 pm

    7

    pdwalker — right on. guys that girls want don’t want to be married (rightly), and guys who want to get married (to secure some kind of girl) are the ones no girl wants. that’s not a problem with online dating. that’s a problem with the society norms and laws.

    oh, yeah. i am married. i don’t have to be always rational.

  8. Brian Gulino

    December 30, 2011 @ 3:43 pm

    8

    (I’m 62 years old)

    My Parents:
    1 income family, spouse at home full-time.
    Kids played outside unsupervised 5 hours a day.
    Public Schools were safe.
    Public universities were high quality.
    Job and retirement guaranteed assuming no massive screw-up.
    Lifetime health insurance.

    Me
    Both parents work for middle class life
    Kids constantly supervised by parents or at about 8$/hr cost
    Public schools dangerous.
    Public universities harder to get into and lower quality
    No guaranteed income, job or retirement.
    Insurance and health care problematic.

    Much harder to raise a family today. I don’t see computer dating as helping with these problems

  9. jseliger

    January 6, 2012 @ 7:29 pm

    9

    I suspect this shows a lot of people aren’t able or willing to compromise, which is another way of saying that they overestimate their value in the mating market; they’d rather in essence “exit” the market than remain.

    (Norah Vincent has interesting ideas about this in her book Self-Made Man; notice chapter 4, “Love,” in particular.

  10. philg

    January 7, 2012 @ 12:39 pm

    10

    jseliger: A hedge fund manager friend says “When markets give people an answer they don’t like, they declare ‘market failure’” (see U.S. house prices, for example!). Unfortunately the opportunities for heroic politicians intervening in the dating market as not as obvious as for intervention in financial markets. Maybe an $8000 tax credit for people who lose their virginity?

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