One Possible, Troubling Outcome of Online Dating: More Social Inequality

White men are the most sought-after group on OkCupid, while black women are the least.

the dating game 615.jpg
ABC

Even in Super Sad True Love Story—the Gary Shteyngart novel where everyone wears an "äppärät," a device around their necks that broadcasts to everyone around them their credit history, income, cholesterol, and how attractive they are compared with everyone else in the vicinity—even in that world people fall in love. And we're not quite there yet.

How technology is changing love and marriage. See full coverage

Executives in the middle of a growing business can be forgiven for overstating trends—as can individuals used as anecdotal launching pads for trend pieces—but readers should take it a little slower. So rather than go right to "online dating is threatening monogamy," as Dan Slater argues in his article in The Atlantic magazine, maybe we could agree with the less alarmist conclusion that people who engage in rapid serial online dating are probably less likely to make commitments because they won't settle down. And then we could look at how that trend fits in with the larger questions we face.

Efficiency

First, I'm skeptical of the claim that, as one executive put it in the article, "the market is hugely more efficient" as a result of online dating. Plenty of the people who spend all day online are interacting with real people less than they used to. They waste huge amounts of time dealing with online daters who lie, mislead them, stand them up, or dump them on a moment's notice.

In a terrific 2003 New York Times article by Amy Harmon, a fourth-grade teacher, retold the statistics of her four-months of online dating: messages exchanged with 120 men, phone calls with 20, in-person meetings with 11—and 0 relationships. That's not efficient at producing relationships—but it is efficient at producing anxiety. My favorite sentence from that article:

It's amazing how all women say they're slender when a lot of them are overweight," said one 79-year-old Manhattan man who lists himself as 69 on his Match.com profile.

On the other hand, back in the days of dating, women entering college in the 1950s reported an average of about 12 dates per month (three per week) with five different men. These women were grossly outnumbered in college, and most women didn't go to college, so it wasn't a system for the whole society. But it tells us something about efficiency: Since dating reliably ended in marriage within a few years, it was pretty efficient, but that's because of the attitude and expectations, not the technology.

For people who are intent on being choosy, online dating might be more efficient than meeting people in person, but people in urban areas have been finding alternative partners for a long time. For example, we have known for several decades that people are more likely to divorce when they are presented with more, or better, alternatives. In the 1990s researchers discovered that "the risk of [marital] dissolution is highest where either wives or husbands encounter an abundance of spousal alternatives." They concluded, "many persons remain open to alternative relationships even while married." This has been shown not only by looking at the composition of the surrounding urban area, but also by simply comparing the divorce rates of people who work in gender-mixed versus gender-segregated occupations (the former are more likely to divorce). Marriage hasn't been unleavable for quite a while.

Presented by

Philip Cohen is a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, College Park. He writes regularly at Family Inequality and is the author of The Family: Diversity, Inequality and Social Change

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

The Best 71-Second Animation You'll Watch Today

A rock monster tries to save a village from destruction.

Video

The Case for Napping at Work

Most Americans don't get enough sleep. More and more employers are trying to help address that.

Video

A Four-Dimensional Tour of Boston

In this groundbreaking video, time moves at multiple speeds within a single frame.

Video

Who Made Pop Music So Repetitive? You Did.

If pop music is too homogenous, that's because listeners want it that way.

Video

Stunning GoPro Footage of a Wildfire

In the field with America’s elite Native American firefighting crew

More in The Sexes

Just In