Perception of Others

With such care devoted to production of profiles, their consumption requires interpretation beyond literal comprehension. Users of online dating systems must learn through experience — or perhaps from the advice of those more experienced — how to read between the lines in the local culture, which varies from site to site.

The Culture of a Personals Site

On Nerve.com, which shares content with other affiliates of Spring Street Networks'personals system, users selfconsciously style hip identities. Certain bands, artists, and writers become points of reference, examples of various identities. Nerve's free-text profile questions seem designed to provoke this kind of expression: "Best (or worst) lie I've ever told," "Song or album that puts me in the mood."The prompt, "Most humbling moment," provokes a common response, "Posting this ad," but also commentary on it. (A paraphrased example: If posting this ad is your most humbling moment, you need to get out more.) This kind of explicit meta-commentary is rare, but users commonly demonstrate familiarity with the norms, if only through their invocation of the familiar examples.

Vaisman (2001) offers a send-up of the stereotypical Nerve user:

"You have a dog-eared copy of Stendhal, in French, next to the iMac and the Dutch lube you picked up in Amsterdam. You dream of your next trip to Iceland. You try your hand at pathetic fallacies: your fingers itch, the trees shudder. Belle & Sebastian are pretty awesome. You work for a website, but you know what's up.

(Vaisman 2001)

The identities of the various online dating sites arise from a combination of their marketing with the real attributes of their populations. eHarmony.com, which claims to match users based on personality compatibility, focuses more on marriage than most sites; it sometimes bills itself as a Christian match-making service. Nerve Personals (and Spring Street Networks) arose from an eponymous online magazine about sex. As such, its marketing evokes dating and sex more than marriage. Some sites, like Match.com and Yahoo! Personals, seem less targeted, with marketing that presents nonspecific images of romance.

Social Affinity, Real and Imagined

Walther et al. postulate that the tendency in computer-mediated communication to fill in the blanks about a conversational partner more optimistically than one would in face-to-face interaction give the media a "hyperpersonal" effect, in which participants project desirable qualities onto their conversational partners in lieu of complete information about them (Walther 1996; Walther et al. 2001). The feeling of social affinity is quickened, but this sense comes more from wishful thinking than from accurate perception of the other, so it can lead to disappointment later, when a fuller picture of the other has emerged.

Walther's early development of hyperpersonal theory (1996) found that text-based media can facilitate social affinity, but the affinity takes longer to bloom than it would via face-to-face interaction, because conversation is less rapid and extraverbal cues are largely absent. Thus, computer-mediated interaction allows the formation of intimacy but slows the process as compared to face-to-face communication because the conveyance of salient information is slower.

His later work with collaborators (Walther et al. 2001) delineated a more nuanced model, with some empirical validation, to explain the perception of others in a variety of online scenarios, including short-term and long-term interaction with and without photographs of the participants.

The Role of Photographs

The conventional wisdom in online dating holds that you must attach a photograph of yourself if you want to succeed in meeting someone. In the analysis in Chapter 3, I will explore the effects of photographs on one online dating system. Here, I review prior research on their impact.

Walther et al. (2001) studied online workgroups in a 2x2 design, varying short- or long-term interaction and the presence of photographs. They found that users experienced affection and social attraction:

1. Most of all in long-term online groups without photographs.

2. Less so in long-term online groups with photographs and short-term online groups with photographs.

3. Least of all in short-term online groups without photographs.

Photographs had opposite effects in short-term and long-term groups. In short-term groups, the presence of photos yielded greater affinity. Walther et al. suggest that photos in this context provide a feeling of social presence that mitigates the asocial tendencies that arise in pseudonymous groups without an expectation of future interaction. The photo's "dose of reality" makes users behave more like they would in a short-term face-to-face interaction (Walther et al. 2001).

In long-term groups, however, the presence of photos reduced affinity. Walther et al. (2001) explain this finding as a result of the hyperpersonal effect — in long-term interaction, users have the opportunity to construct idealized perceptions of others, but photographs thwart the process by injecting a reality opposed to the ideal image.

Similarly, Farnham and Riegelsberger (2004) found that online gaming profiles with photos were preferred less than those without photos; they also found, however, that users formed "more complete impressions" of others when photos were included. Farnham and Riegelsberger (2004) note that we must consider as social engineers whether we want to facilitate idealized perception without photos or promote accurate perception, and perhaps ultimately more successful matching, with photos. Although users might say they are more satisfied with the former, they might be better served by the latter.

Social Dating

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