Online dat­ing

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - By Chris­tian Rud­der ALEX BELOMLINSKY/GETTY IM­AGES Twit­ter: @chris­tian­rud­der Chris­tian Rud­der is the au­thor of “Dat­a­clysm” and a co-founder of OkCupid.

Once upon a time, online daters were mocked as lonely losers, or worse. Not any­more. To­day, at least 40 mil­lion Amer­i­cans are look­ing for love on the Web. But that doesn’t mean we know what we’re do­ing. Like sex, love and at­trac­tion, online dat­ing is an ob­ject of fas­ci­na­tion and con­fu­sion. Some com­men­ta­tors credit it with help­ing sin­gles feel more se­cure and con­fi­dent, while oth­ers blame it for “ru­in­ing ro­mance,” “killing com­mit­ment” and con­tribut­ing to the rise of the hookup cul­ture. As the head of OkCupid, I worked dili­gently to un­tan­gle many of the mis­con­cep­tions about find­ing love on the In­ter­net. But some per­sist; here are the most com­mon.

1 Men aren’t in­ter­ested in women in their 30s (or, God for­bid, their 40s).

The raw data is un­de­ni­able. While women gen­er­ally pre­fer men around their own age, men are most at­tracted to 20-year-olds, pe­riod. That’s why the Daily Mail calls straight women over 45 the “plank­ton gen­er­a­tion”— at the bot­tom of the ro­man­tic food chain. Time mag­a­zine ed­i­tors found the no­tion of men dat­ing women in their 30s so baf­fling that they in­vited 15 ex­perts to ex­plain the phe­nom­e­non.

But as I learned at OkCupid, men don’t nec­es­sar­ily end up dat­ing young women, even if they think they’re gor­geous. Men on the site tend to mes­sage women closer to their own age; very few men over 30 ac­tu­ally reach out to 20-year-old women. And while it’s true that be­ing older and sin­gle means you face a “thin” ro­man­tic mar­ket, both on the Web and off, the sheer scale of online dat­ing mit­i­gates this. Af­ter all, the best way to beat long odds is to take lots of chances, and even for older users, dat­ing sites pro­vide mil­lions of ro­man­tic op­tions.

2 Online dat­ing is to blame for our hook-up cul­ture.

It’s an all-too-com­mon trope: Online dat­ing has made ca­sual sex easy but re­la­tion­ships hard. One some­what hys­ter­i­cal Van­ity Fair ar­ti­cle re­cently claimed that sites like Tin­der have brought on a “dat­ing apoca­lypse,” with young men and women meet­ing online, get­ting to­gether for sex, then never talk­ing again. The Guardian warns that these sites have cre­ated a “throw­away dat­ing cul­ture.”

This is silly. Peo­ple have al­ways sought out ca­sual sex— flings are key plot points in “Pride and Prej­u­dice” (1813) and “The Fires of Au­tumn” (1942). One so­ci­ol­o­gist found that col­lege-age stu­dents are hav­ing no more sex to­day than they were in 1988. In fact, online dat­ing has made it eas­ier for those seek­ing long-term com­mit­ments to find each other. Ex­perts say that one-third of re­cent mar­riages in the United States started online. Those cou­ples tend to be hap­pier, too, re­search sug­gests.


Ev­ery­one lies online.

This as­sump­tion is so preva­lent that MTV has an en­tire show, “Cat­fish,” de­voted to in­ves­ti­gat­ing whether peo­ple in online re­la­tion­ships are rep­re­sent­ing them­selves hon­estly to their part­ners. In one ex­treme ex­am­ple of an online lie, Notre Dame football star Manti Te’o was tricked a few years ago into vir­tu­ally dat­ing a woman who never ex­isted.

But while it’s tempt­ing to shave off a cou­ple of pounds or add a cou­ple of inches, stud­ies show that online dat­ing pro­files are, fun­da­men­tally, quite hon­est. Gwen­dolyn Seidman, writ­ing in Psy­chol­ogy To­day, ex­plains it well: “Online daters re­al­ize that while, on the one hand, they want to make the best pos­si­ble im­pres­sion in their pro­file, on the other hand, if they do want to pur­sue an off­line re­la­tion­ship, they can’t be­gin it with out­right false­hoods that will quickly be re­vealed for what they are.”

That’s not to say ev­ery pro­file is the gospel truth, of course. Peo­ple do ex­ag­ger­ate, just as they do in per­son. OkCupid has found, for ex­am­ple, that men and women more or less uni­formly add two inches to their height. In any hu­man in­ter­ac­tion, there will al­ways be some amount of pos­tur­ing. But online dat­ing isn’t es­pe­cially vul­ner­a­ble to our col­lec­tive weak­ness for self-flat­ter­ing fibs.


Online dat­ing is dan­ger­ous.

Grim sto­ries abound. In 2010, Bos­ton’s “Craigslist killer” was charged with mur­der­ing a woman he had met online (he later com­mit­ted sui­cide in jail). In 2013, Mary Kay Beck­man sued for $10 mil­lion af­ter a man shemet on­the site came to her Las Ve­gas home with a knife and an in­tent to kill.

But de­spite the oc­ca­sional bad press, the num­bers sug­gest that online dat­ing is very safe. OkCupid cre­ates some­thing like 30,000 first dates ev­ery day, and com­plaints about dan­ger­ous meet­ings are ex­tremely rare. I re­mem­ber only a hand­ful in my 12 years at the com­pany. Although there are no com­pre­hen­sive num­bers, ex­ec­u­tives with other sites re­port sim­i­larly low lev­els of abuse. Ad­di­tion­ally, dat­ing sites have taken steps to re­spond to con­cerns., for ex­am­ple, now checks its users against the Na­tional Sex Of­fender Reg­istry and deletes the pro­files of any­one found on the list.

Online dat­ing al­lows peo­ple to browse part­ners from their own homes. Com­pare that with meet­ings at bars or par­ties, where peo­ple might be a few drinks in when the flirt­ing starts (stud­ies show that al­co­hol use in­creases the risk of sex­ual as­sault). Also, peo­ple al­most uni­ver­sally pick public places for their ini­tial online dates: cof­fee shops, restau­rants and the like. It’s very de­lib­er­ate — af­ter all, you’re look­ing for a part­ner through an in­ter­face — and that cre­ates a safer en­vi­ron­ment.

5 Photos are the best­way to tell whether you’ll be at­tracted to some­one.

It seems ob­vi­ous, right? This premise is so well-worn that sites like Tin­der, Hinge and Cof­fee Meets Bagel of­fer lit­tle in­for­ma­tion about users be­yond a col­lec­tion of pic­tures and a two-line pro­file. “Online ser­vices en­able a down­right Se­in­fel­dian level of su­per­fi­cial nit­pick­i­ness,” one For­tune ar­ti­cle lamented. They’ve “given rise to a pick-and-choose shop­ping be­hav­ior that pri­or­i­tizes looks more than ever be­fore.”

In re­al­ity, how some­one looks in a cou­ple of pic­tures is no in­di­ca­tor of whether you’ll be at­tracted to them. That point was driven home for me dur­ing a small pub­lic­ity stunt OkCupid ran to pro­mote a blind dat­ing app; we called it Love Is Blind Day. The premise was sim­ple: For a day, we re­moved all the pro­file pic­tures on the site. Users howled— site traf­fic dropped more than 80 per­cent that day. But those who stuck around had much deeper and more pro­duc­tive con­ver­sa­tions than nor­mal. Replies to mes­sages came fast, and dates were set up more quickly. We saw the same thing among peo­ple who used our blind dat­ing app. A per­son’s at­trac­tive­ness had no cor­re­la­tion with how well a date went. All in all, OkCupid worked bet­ter with no pic­tures.

The catch, of course, was that, with­out pic­tures to keep users happy, OkCupid would go out of busi­ness. So we turned the photos back on, giv­ing peo­ple the dat­ing ex­pe­ri­ence they wanted: su­per­fi­cial, skin-deep and prob­a­bly worse.

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