Stanford sociologist Michael Rosenfeld is known for his research into online dating. Today the author of The Age of Independence: Interracial Unions, Same-Sex Unions, and the Changing American Family is running a National Science Foundation-funded study of how couples meet. He talked with Cardinal Conversations about matters of the heart. “It’s fun to be a go-to guy for Valentine’s Day,” he says. “There are worse things.” Excerpts:
Is it too late to find a date for Valentine’s Day?
It’s never too late! A lot of what people post [online] is, “I have two tickets to a concert tonight. Who wants to come with me?” It’s sort of like, “Who’s free this afternoon?” There’s definitely been a little bit of a buildup in the online chat sites about Valentine’s Day. It makes people anxious, just like the traditional December holidays do, if they don’t have a plan. Of course, the great thing about the online marketplace is usually whatever you’re looking for, you can find some facsimile of it. Some people feel like Valentine’s Day reminds them how glad they are not to be in a relationship because their last relationship was needy and greedy of their time. They don’t want to be in a relationship, but they want to go out to dinner with someone. They post things like that. The funny thing about love and romance is it’s never too late because other people also are looking for it. And there’s no niche too small to find romance.
So who is meeting dates online?
It’s the middle-aged heterosexuals who find themselves single or the older people who aren’t around single people all the time. If you’re 45 years old, and you’re divorced, most of the people you know are partnered. The partnership rate for people in their 40s is about 85 percent. So they’re in a thin market, a market where potential partners are hard to find. A traditional thing for heterosexuals is the office, but the office is not that big. The office is kind of a hazardous place to start dating adventures. The middle-aged people are the heterosexuals who tend to use the web more. Another group who are struggling to find partners are older women. They don’t always have the technological savvy to know how to use the web. A lot of those women, they weren’t necessarily in the workforce 30 years ago when computers were introduced. A lot of them are unpartnered because their partner has passed away. One of the things social science has learned about love and romance is you’re never too old for it. People never get tired of yearning for partners.
There’s even The JMom.com for mother’s to fix up their Jewish kids!
One of the most interesting patterns in dating behavior is the long-time decline in family influence. If you go back to the 1940s, family was the No. 1 way people met their partners. There were a number of reasons. People had bigger families. People married younger, so you were more likely to marry someone who was from your neighborhood or your church. Your family was more likely to have a connection to them. [Now,] we’re more likely to meet partners who live a thousand miles away from where we grew up, so family doesn’t help as much. It’s true that because the web has room to serve everybody, it also has room to serve the moms who want to set you up. But it isn’t actually doing anything to stem the decline of the influence of moms. In the past you usually had to have a family member or friend to find that person for you.
Why are there so many sites, from eharmony.com for the marriage minded to cougarlife.com for older women looking for younger men?
The human experience is a rich pageantry of different needs and interests. The web pretty accurately reflects that. There are some places where you can go where you’re really supposed to be a single person looking to marry and settle down. There are other places you can go where later this afternoon is not immediate enough.
And that’s good?
Yes. The segmentation allows people to find more of what they’re looking for. Before the Internet—and this is analogous to the market for books and records—if you were looking for something that was out of print or hard to find, you weren’t going to find it. It didn’t exist. Bookstores had a small fraction of all the books that have ever been written. The Internet came along, and then it became easy to find the out-of-print book. The web allows people [to find something] that’s hard to find. If you need someone who climbs mountains and speaks Hindi, the web helps you find that narrow segment. Among same-sex couples, the percentage who have met online is very high. [It] is more than 60 percent. That’s because they’re always looking for something that’s hard to find. Same-sex partners are a pretty small minority of all potential couples. They’re more benefited by the web than most heterosexuals are.
But a lot of heterosexual couples meet on the web, too, right?
The percentage of all heterosexual couples who have met online in the past two years is about 22 percent.
Many people worry that they’ll meet a serial killer online, and meeting strangers can be frightening. What about the fear factor?
Whatever the downsides of dating and relationships are, and heaven knows there are downsides, I don’t think those downsides are any worse online—or even as bad as being set up by your mom. It turns out the information you get from friends and family may not be that great. In the Internet era, you may do more research on this person online. You may know them better than your mom could. Relationships that start online are not any more fragile than those that start through the introduction of friends. It doesn’t really matter how you meet. If you like each other and you can make it work, how you meet becomes irrelevant.
The world of strangers is a scary place, and there’s no way to make it less so. On the other hand, people really want a partner. The human need for romance and affection is so great that we overcome the fear, generally speaking. It’s true that possibility of ending up with a creep, at least on the first date, is certainly substantial. Part of what people who [are] online dating have to go through is [going on] a lot of first dates and [communicating] to find who really makes their motor run. What’s really different about the web rather than trying to meet somebody in a narrow market of your church or your school is that it’s possible to take in a lot more first dates. There’s more first dating and more communication that goes on as people try to weed through multiple possibilities and find their version of the diamond in the rough.
How did you and your wife find each other?
I got married in 1993. We met before there was a web. We actually met in a kind of an old-fashioned way, through friends at college.
There isn’t a best way. The best way is whatever works. When I started this research on how people meet, I kind of assumed college students would be meeting a lot of partners online. I see them with devices all the time. But it turns out that people who are 21 are not actually meeting partners online very much. They’re around single people all the time. They’re not in the same market.
Many people are nervous about posting their photos on online dating sites. What do you think?
In the early birth of online social networking, people really interacted with each other in a text format. It was easier to imagine a utopian interaction, where the Internet was going to make class and race irrelevant. But of course, that hasn’t been the case. [On] dating sites, you do need to have a picture, and the picture codes your race and your gender and other things pretty quickly. The photo matters, too. What should the photo look like? How casual?
What about fibbing—people who use a photo where they are 20 years younger and 20 pounds lighter?
People have done research on whether the self-reported age and weight is accurate. It turns out that it’s about as accurate as people’s in-person self report. If you’re actually going to meet somebody, it doesn’t really do you any good to be lying. I could say I was a 6-foot-4, blond supermodel, but when you met me, the disappointment would be palpable. If you say you’re 20 pounds lighter than you are, and they meet you, they can tell that you’re not. That leaves kind of a bad taste.
How do people do their filtering?
One of the big ones is grammar. There’s a shorthand that goes along with texting where all the words are shortened and everything is lowercase. Some people want to see that in an email response you can use a full sentence. In the singles bar, maybe it had to do with the perfume you were wearing and how much eye shadow you had on.
I like that it’s more literary!
On the other hand, there’s a whole seamy bathroom-wall side of the Internet, where people are sending each other naked pictures. That’s not necessarily more literary.
But you can choose not to date them, right?
Right. And you can do so with discretion. It does increase safety in the sense that you can keep the people you don’t want to meet at arm's length. The [online] analogy to being harassed at the bar is that someone who’s mad at you [on craigslist personals] will start posting angry things on the Internet about you. That harassment can go on for a long time. I’ve talked to women who have dated off the personals, and inevitably some guy is a disappointed suitor who makes angry posts. They just kind of shrug their shoulders. In an electronic world, it doesn’t seem to be as scary to be barked at in the town hall of craigslist as it is to have someone following you home and being angry at you that way.
It sounds risky.
What makes it risky is you’re dealing with people. That risk is always there. You’d be taking the same risk if you were dating the guy your mom introduced you to who is the son of [a woman] at church she doesn’t know anything about.
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Photo: Courtesy Michael Rosenfeld
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