Stages of Online Dating

We can divide the steps that users take as they use online dating systems into three major tasks: describing themselves, discovering other people, and communicating with selected others. Because dating systems differ within these tasks, but almost universally have the three tasks in common, I will describe approaches to the tasks separately rather than trying to categorize sites holistically. I will also give examples of sites that employ each approach; some sites offer more than one approach for the same task. These lists are meant to be representative, using well-known sites, not exhaustive. As with the Web in general, there are too many online dating sites opening and closing every day to craft a comprehensive list.

Self-description

Most online dating systems construct personal profiles by asking users to describe themselves directly. They request demographic and personal information, including age, sex, sexual orientation, location, marital status, children at present, child-bearing aspirations, race, religion, height, weight, body type, attractiveness, smoking habits, drinking habits, drug habits, and (on at least one system) self-deprecation habits. Even sites like eHarmony that focus on indirect self-description include at least basic demographic and personal questions.

It is in the multiple-choice or short-answer personal and demographic questions that sites for various subpopulations tend to display their specialization. For example, Manhunt.net, a site aimed at gay men, allows users to specify their body type with terms like "bear," which is unique to gay male culture. JDate, a site for Jewish singles, allows them to specify their particular sect of Judaism. Kissykat.com, for pet lovers, gives users the ability to list their pets (and search for others based on the pets they own).

Sites that employ primarily direct description also prompt users in direct language to describe themselves and what kind of person they want to meet (e.g., "The most important thing in my life is...").

Examples: Match.com, Yahoo! Personals, Spring Street Networks (provider for Nerve.com, Salon.com, etc.), many others

Social psychologists routinely find that people are unable to describe themselves accurately on a variety of dimensions, even when they believe they can. Perhaps because of this, some sites have begun to provide indirect ways to prompt users to describe themselves. Nerve.com includes profile questions that allow users to self-disclose

Match Com Physical Attraction Test
Figure 1.2. Physical attractiveness test from Match.com. The screen on the left asks the user, "Pick your favorite or the one you could tolerate best." At right, the screen instructs, "Click on photos you find personally attractive, cute, or sexy." (Highlights theirs.)

without having to make explicit statements about themselves. Questions like this on Nerve include "Song or album that gets you in the mood," which brings out musical preferences as well as providing an opportunity for innuendo; "Five things you'll find in your bedroom," which gives users a chance to mention personal details and, again, allude to sex; and "Celebrity you resemble most," which allows users to provide a reference point for appearance, sometimes ironic, and to demonstrate affinity (if any) for pop culture.

More recently, sites like eHarmony.com and Tickle.com administer personality tests as a major part of the self-description process. These tests purport to gauge how users behave in social situations, how they handle conflict, and what is important to them in romance — but the sites provide no particular evidence of what their tests measure, so it is unclear how well they correspond with the personality psychology literature. However, research has shown that personality factors like communicative style and conflict management as well as emotional disposition are important to successful relationships (Brehm et al. 2002).

Match.com developed a physical attraction test (Figure 1.2) in conjunction with weAttract.com. As the eHarmony and Tickle tests assess personality without asking the user to report it explicitly, so the Match.com test allows users to express their preferences in physical characteristics by demonstrating them in a series of simple choices. The test presents a series of rating and comparison tasks. In the rating tasks, users indicates on a Likert-type scale how much he or she likes an image of a person's face or body. (The images show models, but they are not all model-beautiful.) In the comparison tasks, users are presented with two or more images of faces or bodies and must choose the one they like best (or dislike least). Using these responses, the system constructs a model of the user's preferences for various physical attributes.

Examples: eHarmony.com, Tickle.com, Match.com, Spring Street Networks

A few online dating systems, rather than creating elaborate profile systems, simply extend the concept behind newspaper personal ads, which are usually a few short lines of text printed as classified ads. These systems give users a name or headline and a space for whatever text the user wishes to include. Of course, these ads can be much longer than newspaper personals, for which people typically pay by the word or line, but in the same spirit, they permit unstructured text.

Examples: MakeOutClub.com, CraigsList.org

Discovery of Others

The most basic way to discover other people in an online dating system is searching. At the basic level, this allows users to specify the sex, age, and location they seek; most sites provide more powerful capabilities as well, so users can search for, e.g., all the brown-haired, blue-eyed men between 5'11"and 6'3"who don't drink within a five-mile radius of zip code 90210.

Searching gives users a great deal of control, but sifting through so many options can be overwhelming. Advanced searches also give users the ability to overspecify, so that searches return only a few people who meet very specific criteria. This is problematic if people poorly understand who might be compatible with them; in offline interactions, one is not able to filter the people one encounters so precisely.

Notably, eHarmony.com, which relies heavily on personality-based matching, described below, does not include search functionality. That is, users cannot conduct searches for people who match arbitrary sets of characteristics; they can see only the users with whom the system deems them compatible.

Examples: Match.com, Yahoo! Personals, Spring Street Networks, many others

Many online dating systems will automatically match users with others whom the system deems compatible by comparing their profiles. Companies keep their matching algorithms private, but some provide limited information about them to users.

Some matching algorithms simply look for similarity. One common method for computing a similarity score involves representing a profile with n features as a vector in n-space whose similarity to another profile can be conceptualized as the degree to which the vectors point in the same direction. Others also check for mutual satisfaction of requirements — is person A's age in the range person B seeks, and vice versa?

Sites that employ personality tests, like eHarmony and Tickle, focus on complementarity more than similarity. Although their algorithms are carefully kept secret, they claim to pair people with personality traits known to complement each other in successful relationships. Without knowing the details of their matching processes, it is difficult to assess how accurately they do this.

Typically, sites present users with a list of their matches along with, in some cases, a "compatibility score" that indicates the relative strength of each match. As mentioned above, eHarmony.com is apparently unique in revealing to users only those people with whom the system considers them compatible — users cannot view any other profiles.

■ SERENDIPITY

Finally, some systems include mechanisms for exposing users to randomly selected others, or allowing them to stumble across profiles without having to search for them or be matched with them. Usually, this takes the form of a "user of the day" profile, featured on the home page, or a different randomly selected profile every time the home page is loaded.

Examples: Spring Street Networks, MakeOutClub.com

Communication

■ PRIVATE MESSAGING

Most online dating systems provide private messaging systems, essentially Web-based email that uses pseudonymous handles instead of real names and email addresses in order to protect the privacy of users until they choose to reveal it to their correspondents on the site. Commercial systems often focus their business models around the private messaging system, charging either a monthly fee or a per-message fee to send mail. Many allow users to receive messages for free.

Match.com also lets users send private voice messages.

Examples: Match.com, Yahoo! Personals, Spring Street Networks, many others

■ ATTENTIONAL TOKENS

Some sites offer a way to express interest in someone without sending a full message. The names of these tools sometimes evoke physical metaphors — "eye contact" or "wink." One site refers to them as "collect calls." They have in common that the action is free and notifies the recipient that the sender has expressed interest in him or her, but they typically include either no textual content or one of a few prewritten statements from which the user can choose.

Examples: Spring Street Networks, Match.com

How To Date Any Girl

How To Date Any Girl

What do women want? This is a question that has baffled men since the beginning of time and we men are no closer to understanding women than we were when we huddled around an open fire every night and lived in caves.

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