There's No Evidence Online Dating Is Threatening Commitment or Marriage

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One guy's commitment issues don't mean the end of monogamy for the country. The first in a series of responses to Dan Slater's article "A Million First Dates."

madrigal_onlinedating_post.jpgLinda and Jeremy Tyson, a married couple who met on eHarmony, take a pedicab ride in New York City in 2010 (David Goldman/AP Images)

The question at hand in Dan Slater's piece in the latest Atlantic print edition, "A Million First Dates: How Online Dating is Threatening Monogamy," is whether online dating can change some basic settings in American heterosexual relationships such that monogamy and commitment are less important. 

How technology is changing love and marriage. See full coverage

Narratively, the story focuses on Jacob, an overgrown manchild jackass who can't figure out what it takes to have a real relationship. The problem, however, is not him, and his desire for a "low-maintenance" woman who is hot, young, interested in him, and doesn't mind that he is callow and doesn't care very much about her. No, the problem is online dating, which has shown Jacob that he can have a steady stream of mediocre dates, some of whom will have sex with him.

"I'm 95 percent certain," Jacob says of a long-term relationship ending, "that if I'd met Rachel offline, and I'd never done online dating, I would've married her.. Did online dating change my perception of permanence? No doubt."

This story forms the spineless spine of a larger argument about how online dating is changing the world, by which we mean yuppie romance. The argument is that online dating expands the romantic choices that people have available, somewhat like moving to a city. And more choices mean less satisfaction. For example, if you give people more chocolate bars to choose from, the story tells us, they think the one they choose tastes worse than a control group who had a smaller selection. Therefore, online dating makes people less likely to commit and less likely to be satisfied with the people to whom they do commit. 

But what if online dating makes it too easy to meet someone new? What if it raises the bar for a good relationship too high? What if the prospect of finding an ever-more-compatible mate with the click of a mouse means a future of relationship instability, in which we keep chasing the elusive rabbit around the dating track?

Unfortunately, neither Jacob's story nor any of the evidence offered compellingly answers the questions raised. Now, let's stipulate that there is no dataset that perfectly settles the core question: Does online dating increase or decrease commitment or its related states, like marriage? 

But I'll tell you one group that I would not trust to give me a straight answer: People who run online dating sites. While these sites may try to attract some users with the idea that they'll find everlasting love, how great is it for their marketing to suggest that they are so easy and fun that people can't even stay in committed relationships anymore? As Slater notes, "the profit models of many online-dating sites are at cross-purposes with clients who are trying to develop long-term commitments." Which is exactly why they are happy to be quoted talking about how well their sites work for getting laid and moving on.

It should also be noted: There isn't a single woman's perspective in this story. Or a gay person's. Or someone who was into polyamory before online dating. Or some kind of historical look at how commitment rates have changed in the past and what factors drove those increases or decreases. Instead we get eight men from the industry that, as we put it on our cover, "works too well."

But hey, maybe these guys are right. Maybe online dating and social networking is tearing apart the fabric of society. How well does the proposition actually hold up?

First off, the heaviest users of technology--educated, wealthier people--have been using online dating and networking sites to find each other for years. And yet, divorce rates among this exact group have been declining for 30 years. Take a look at these statistics. If technology were the problem, you'd expect that people who can afford to use the technology, and who have been using the technology, would be seeing the impacts of this new lack of commitment. But that's just not the case.

Does it follow that within this wealthy, educated group, online daters are less likely to commit or stay married? No, it does not. 

Like I said, there's no data to prove that question one way or the other. But we have something close. A 2012 paper in the American Sociological Review asked, are people who have the Internet at home more or less likely to be in relationships? Here was the answer they found:

One result of the increasing importance of the Internet in meeting partners is that adults with Internet access at home are substantially more likely to have partners, even after controlling for other factors. Partnership rate has increased during the Internet era (consistent with Internet efficiency of search) for same sex couples, but the heterosexual partnership rate has been flat.

So, we have, at worst, that controlling for other factors, the Internet doesn't hurt and sometimes helps. That seems to strike right at the heart of Slater's proposition.

A 2008 paper looked at the Internet's ability to help people find partners and postulated who might benefit the most. "The Internet's potential to change matching is perhaps greatest for those facing thin markets or difficulty in meeting potential mates." This could increase marriage rates as people with smaller pools can more easily find each other. The paper also proposes that perhaps people would be *better* matched through online dating and therefore have higher-quality marriages. The available evidence, though, suggests that there was no difference between couples who met online and couples who met offline. (Surprise!)

So, here's the way it looks to me: Either online dating's (and the Internet's) effect on commitment is nonexistent, the effect has the opposite polarity (i.e. online dating creates more marriages), or whatever small effect either way is overwhelmed by other changes in the structure of commitment and marriage in America. 

The possibility that the relationship "market" is changing in a bunch of ways, rather than just by the introduction of date-matching technology, is the most compelling to me. That same 2008 paper found that the biggest change in marriage could be increasingly "co-ed" workplaces. Many, many more people work in places where they might find relationship partners more easily. That's a big confounding variable in any analysis of online dating as the key causal factor in any change in marital or commitment rates. 

But there's certainly more complexity than that lurking within what was left out of Jacob's story: how about changing gender norms a la Hanna Rosin's End of Men? How about changes that arose in the recent difficult economic circumstances? How about changes in where marriage-age people live (say, living in a walkable core versus the exurbs)? How about the spikiness of American religious observance, as declining church attendance rates combine with evangelical fervor? How about changing cultural norms about childrearing and marriage? How about the increasing acceptance of homosexuality across the country, particularly in younger demographics?

All of these things could bring about changes in the likelihood of people to meet and stay in relationships. And none of them have much to do with online dating. Yet our story places all of the emphasis for Jacob's drift on his desire to browse online dating profiles.

Is online dating a  trend that's worth us looking into? Certainly. And there are even things that online dating sites may be able to do within their technical systems to negate the effects of thinking about possible partners as profiles rather than people. Slater cited Northwestern's Eli Finkel, who appears to have legitimate concerns about the structure of search and discovery on dating sites.

But the jumps and leaps from that observation--and Finkel's academic assessment in a recent paper--to blaming online dating for "threatening monogamy"? There's just so little support there. 

And if you are going to make a hard deterministic argument, you better have some good  evidence that it is the technology itself that is the actor, and not someone or something else. At any time in this big old world, there are lots of changes happening slowly. So many trend lines, so much data. In that world, there appears some undeniably shiny new thing: a technology! People--TED speakers, teenage skateboarders, venture capitalists, a grandfather, advertisers, deli counter clerks, accountants--standing amidst the swirl of the white swirl of the onrushing future look out and say, "This technology is changing everything!"

Flush with this knowledge of the one true cause of good/bad in the _____ Age, the magic technology key seems to unlock every room in the house, and all the doors on every neighbor's house, and the vault at Fort Knox, and the highest office at 30 Rock.

Of course, technology does have impacts. Certain types of technology, say, nuclear reactors, have politics in that they "are man-made systems that appear to require or to be strongly compatible with particular kinds of political relationships," as the political scientist Langdon Winner has shown. Some technological systems, the electric grid or cell phone networks, prove difficult to change, and make some kinds of behavior really easy, and others more difficult. A technology can tilt a set of interactions towards certain outcomes, which is precisely why some people want to ban specific types of guns. 

So, you can say, in some sense, that a technology "wants" certain outcomes. Jacob from the story might say that online dating wants him to keep browsing and not commit. The electrical grid wants you to plug in. Or, the owners of Facebook want you to post more photographs, so they design tools--technical and statistical--to make you more likely to do so. 

And it's not wrong to say that Facebook wants us to do things. But if you stop talking to your cousins because it's easier to update Facebook than give them a call, it's not right to say that Facebook made you do that. If you stop reading novels because you find Twitter more compelling, it's not correct to say that Twitter made you do that. Maybe you like real-time news more than the Bronte sisters, no matter what your better conception of yourself might say. 

Maybe Jacob doesn't want to get married. Maybe he wants to get drunk, have sex, watch basketball, and never deal with the depths of a real relationship. OK, Jacob, good luck! But that doesn't make online dating an ineluctable force crushing the romantic landscape. It's just the means to Jacob's ends and his convenient scapegoat for behavior that might otherwise lead to self-loathing.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer calls Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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