Sexual Wellness Resource Center
For Adults over 50.

How can I improve my online dating experience?

Dating Online
By Michael Bates, M.D.

Online dating has exploded in recent years, to the point that it is the third most common way people can find a spouse. With the growth of the Internet, online dating has surpassed the more traditional way of meeting potential partners through friends. With this spectacular development of online romantic relationships, a multi-billion-dollar business dedicated to matchmaking and dating has flourished. Nowadays, there is a wide range of dating sites, every time more specialized and sophisticated, targeting specific groups and specific needs.

Our age group, people fifty and older, is the biggest growth demographic in online dating (according to USA Today, 2011). Big online companies, such as match.com, harmony.com, and the more specialized for people over fifty –our time.com– claim high success rates for marriages. They argue that their software is so powerful and perfected, and the pool of possible matches so great that they can almost guarantee everyone will eventually meet a partner on the site. The results, however, have been definitely mixed. For many people, the online dating experience is simply disappointing. According JupiterResearch, in February 2005, 33% fewer users of online dating sites were browsing profiles than a year before. As a result, the industry of online matchmaking is slowing down in recent years.

What is really surprising, according to researchers, is that the Internet has become the perfect setting to form and to develop platonic relationships. If that is true, why is it that online dating sites are not bringing their users a better romantic life? Why do we feel so dissatisfied with online dating? Is there a way to improve the dating experience?

The study conducted by Frost, Chance, Norton and Ariely in 2008 provides some reasonable answers to these questions. The problem, these scholars argue, is that there is a big gap between the kinds of information that we want and that we need to decide whether someone is a good match for us or not, and the kind of information found in an online dating site. This mismatch is even more dramatic when we take into account how we conceive marriage these days. Marriage is today a transcendental experience of deep feelings that bond us to another human being, our spiritual soul mate. Marriage is not an arrangement between families, the result of evaluating objective measurable properties and qualities, but a self-transforming union based on intangible emotions.

What do we find in an online dating site? In many cases, we face a “shopping” interface, similar to other commercial sites where we can shop for clothes, shoes or books. Like a commodity, people in dating sites are classified according to several searchable attributes (e.g., height, weight, income). When looking for potential partners on a dating site, the user filters those attributes. The first limitation we are confronted with in this scenario is that we do not evaluate people on what they do or how they perform (like we do when we shop for a vacuum cleaner), but on the basis of the feelings that they evoke in us. Even more important, to be able to really get a reliable impression of someone, we need to meet the person face to face. We cannot rely solely on secondhand information; indirect experience can be deadly misleading. What research on dating sites shows is that people are likely to be dissappointed when they encounter the person whose profile they have read. This is the frustrating experience that many online daters have when meeting the other person offline. Income and religion alone are not good predictors to meet the love of your life. 

What qualities are we really looking for in a partner for a long-term relationship? Frost, Norton and Ariely asked this question to the participants in their first experiment. Not surprisingly, the list of qualities included objective searchable traits (such as “religious,” “athletic,” and “physically attractive”). However, the majority of qualities listed were experiential and required interaction between the two people: “makes me laugh,” “understands me,” “will get along with my other friends,” “affectionate,” “loyal,” and “fun.” 

Besides the gap between what we want in a partner and what we get in an online dating site, people feel that they need to spend endless hours and effort for, maybe, getting a date to have a drink or a cup of coffee. No wonder many of us end up dissatisfied with online dating. It is not just it seems almost impossible to meet “the love of my life”, particularly for we over fifty (we will talk about this issue in another post). It is that we feel like we have wasted our time.

The solution that Frost, Chance, Norton and Ariely offer to improve the online dating experience is to incorporate online virtual dates, as part of the ways people can communicate and interact in the site. These virtual dates should be designed to provide users with a glimpse of the kind of experiential information needed to evaluate a potential partner. Somehow, virtual dates are a way of recreating the offline conditions for experiencing a romantic encounter with someone in the online world.

Indeed, virtual reality affords the means to recreate an environment in which daters can interact with each other in similar ways as they would in a real first date: meeting, for instance, to visit a museum or going to a restaurant for dinner. The interesting aspect of this virtual experience is that users can experiment with the preview of a real interaction in the physical world.

Frost, Chance, Norton and Ariely tested an interface that allowed their participants to do just that: to meet one-on-one with another dater to exchange real time messages and images in a virtual setting reproducing real-world situations. The result was a very positive experience for the participants in the experiment: people enjoyed the connections they made with their partners and they liked their virtual dates significantly more than the person whose profile they had read. More importantly, these more positive impressions carried forward through the first face-to-face meeting in a speed date.

It might sound artificial to resort to virtual reality to get to know someone and to fall in love with that person. Some people can even argue that online life only brings superficial acquaintanceships. However, online life, as many researchers are finding, helps to foster social connections, promoting the development of active and vibrant online communities of shared interests and projects. Online connections, therefore, are not intrinsically positive or negative. It always depends on the goals of the people who use the domain.

In romantic relationships, only direct experience will allow us to make the special connection with another human being. The more we can facilitate real interaction in real time with our potential date before meeting her o him in person, the better chances of liking her o him and not feeling disappointed. Virtual dates help to reduce the gap between the online expectations and the offline reality. 

The downside of virtual dates has been the difficulties we, as users, can face to implement the software. Sites like Second Life, OmniDate, AvMatch, and RED Virtual Date allow us to live virtual romantic encounters, but they have not been as successful as other more conventional sites, since they require fast processor and Internet connection speeds, and they are not easy to navigate by the inexperienced user.

Whether resorting to virtual dates or through more common online means to interact with a potential romantic partner, the sooner we can get a direct experience with the other person the better. In the meantime, if the virtual environment is not where you feel more comfortable interacting with a potential date, you can always enhance your online love experience with chats, email or even video, as you feel more confident with the other person.

Sources: Frost, J.H., Chance, Z., Norton, M.I., & Ariely, D. (2008). People are experienced goods: improving online dating with virtual dates. Journal of interactive marketing, 22, 51-61.

About the Author

Michael Bates, M.D.

Dr Bates practiced obstetrics and gynecology for 34 years in Wichita, Kansas, until his retirement in 2011.

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