Online dating is changing the very fabric of society, study claims
How did you meet your partner? If I’d asked that question in 1994 – overlooking the fact that I’d have been a quite impertinent ten-year-old to ask – your answer would most likely be one of the classics: a friend of a friend, or met in a bar. In 1995, Match.com opened its doors as an online expansion of the lonely hearts column, and things have been gradually changing ever since.
As you can see from the graphs below, meeting online has now surpassed hooking up with co-workers, neighbours, school friends, friends of family and churchmates. Only meeting through friends and bar or restaurant chat-ups eclipse online dating in heterosexual couples, and in the gay community meeting online is by far the most likely way for a relationship to begin.
That has interesting knock-on effects about how society functions. Geography is no longer the bar it once was, and the chances of coupling up with a complete stranger is significantly higher too. This is something that interested Josue Ortega from the University of Essex and Philipp Hergovich from the University of Vienna, and their paper The Strength of Absent Ties: Social Integration via Online Dating explores some of the interesting consequence of this sociological sea change.
How do you measure online dating’s impact?
Acknowledging that people who meet online tend to start as complete strangers, Ortega and Hergovich analyse what this does to traditional social networks. The previous models for meeting people would result in strong local groups of friends and neighbours, and weaker links to a small number of distant people. “Those weak ties serve as bridges between our group of close friends and other clustered groups, allowing us to connect to the global community,” the authors explain. But with online dating, these are entirely new bridges connecting us to people we would likely never have any chance of meeting otherwise.
To examine the impact of online dating on society as a whole, Ortega and Hergovich looked specifically at racial diversity. Why? Because historically this has been a useful way of measuring social distance. “Understanding the evolution of interracial marriage is an important problem, for intermarriage is widely considered a measure of social distance in our societies,” the researchers explain.
The researchers created a simulated social network made up of men and women from different races, randomly distributed throughout the community. The rules of the model were that every node wants to marry a node of the opposite sex (for simplicity’s sake, presumably) but they can only hook up with a node that they’re somehow connected to. The result? Very few interracial marriages.
The researchers then mixed things up by adding a series of random links between nodes from different ethnic groups, simulating the revolution of online dating. The result was a huge flourishing of interracial marriage. “Our model predicts nearly complete racial integration upon the emergence of online dating, even if the number of partners that individuals meet from newly formed ties is small,” say Ortega and Hergovich.
Curiously, the model also predicts stronger marriages – based on the average distance between partner nodes. “Our model also predicts that marriages created in a society with online dating tend to be stronger,” the researchers say.
Putting the model to the test
So that’s what the model predicts, how about the reality? Well first things first, there is research to suggest that people who marry after meeting online are less likely to break up as the model predicts – though causation is nigh on impossible to trace for obvious reasons.
More significantly though, the rise in American interracial marriage does seem to follow Ortega and Hergovich’s model. Rates are still low – in part because it was illegal in some states until 1967 – but a sharp increase seems to follow important milestones in online dating history. “It is intriguing that shortly after the introduction of the first dating websites in 1995, like Match.com, the percentage of new marriages created by interracial couples increased rapidly,” explain the researchers.
That rise increased even more sharply in the 2000s with the founding of OkCupid, eHarmony and the like, but it really took off again in 2014 – which coincidently lines up with when Tinder hit critical mass, growing from 8 million monthly active users to 17 million.
This doesn’t prove that online dating is responsible for the changes, but there are two things worth noting. The first is that it’s completely consistent with Ortega and Hergovich’s model. The second is that while you’d expect interracial marriages to become more likely as the US population becomes more diverse, it doesn’t match the rate at which the change is occurring. “The change in the population composition in the U.S. cannot explain the huge increase in intermarriage that we observe,” the researchers explain.
That means that online dating is very likely driving significant change – and the bulk of it will be harder to measure than interracial marriage rates. If that is indeed the case, that change – whatever it may be – is only just beginning.