By Anna Mulrine
For his part, Craig didn't have high hopes for a Web wingman. Truth be told, he was a bit suspicious, particularly since the coworker who had persuaded him to try the service was, he says, precisely one of those unabashed frauds with the outdated photo. What's more, Craig was still stinging from a recent failed relationship.
So they were both pleasantly surprised when their initial phone conversation ranged widely and easily and spun on into the afternoon. Craig finally decided to take a leap and asked her to dinner--that night. Then came the shocker. When he gave Stephenie his address, she recalls, "My mouth just dropped." It turned out they lived in the same apartment complex, just across a courtyard from each other--and had for a year and a half. "I know I probably shouldn't tell you this," she told him. "But if you stick your head out your front door, I bet you can see me." Later, they discovered that they went to the same church, too. "How in the world did we never cross paths?" wonders Stephenie, who married Craig last year.
E-change. Craig and Stephenie are not an aberration. Across the country, a record 40 percent of American adults are single, making them one of the fastest-growing segments of U.S. households today. And in the search for love, or at least a decent date, fully half of them-- 40 million Americans--visited an online site last month. It is, researchers say, nothing short of a social revolution. "We're in a period of dramatic change in our mating practices," says Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, codirector of the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University and author of Why There Are No Good Men Left. "I think this is as important as the automobile was in the 1920s and birth control in the 1960s."
And little wonder. Increasingly, busy singles like Craig and Stephenie are turning to the Web to help them in a way that other social institutions don't anymore. Americans are more mobile than they were a generation ago, and they're also waiting longer than ever to marry. This union of social and economic trends means that young adults are no longer relying on traditional dating venues like college to introduce them to their sweethearts. For her part, Stephenie did all of the things a woman is urged to do when looking for Mr. Right: She found a place in a sociable sort of apartment complex, complete with a swimming pool. She went to the young adult meet-and-greets at her church. She put the word out to her friends. But no luck.
Enter the Internet. Sensing a staggering demand, online matchmaking services more than quadrupled their revenue to $302 million from 2001 to 2002. Indeed, online personals are now the most lucrative segment of paid services on the Web, according to comScore Networks--eclipsing digital music sharing services, online investment advice, research services like LexisNexis, and gossip and entertainment sites--including what the industry calls "mainstream adult" sites like Playboy.
Awed by this sprawling online dating community--and dazzled by the speed with which they can now collect and analyze data from this community--psychologists (often employed by the sites) are delving deeper than ever before into the still-mysterious science of what makes people good companions, good spouses--in short, what makes for the lasting American romance. In the process, these social scientists are challenging some conventional wisdom about love and marriage: Do opposites really attract? What breaks up relationships, and what makes people stick together for better or worse? Which is the stronger force: the traits you find attractive in your partner, or the annoying habits that make you crazy? The truly evangelical go as far as to say that dating Web sites, located at this unique intersection of technology and psychology, could actually offer a fix for a lot of what's wrong with marriages in America.
Glenn Hutchinson and Mark Thompson are among the new Web-dating entrepreneurs, but all they really wanted in the beginning were dates for themselves. "When we started working on this 15 years ago, Glenn and I were in grad school, not having any dates ourselves, and trying to rationalize why this is so hard," says Thompson. Since they were techie grad students (studying clinical psychology) and it was the dot-com boom of the 1990s, they did what everyone else was doing: They hatched the plans for a company. They hoped weAttract.com would make money, but they also weren't opposed to the idea that it might set them up for dinner and a show, too.
When they posted an online test on their site, they really didn't expect much. As researchers, they knew how hard it is to get anyone to volunteer personal information of any kind. So they were stunned by the response. Hutchinson says: "I remember coming in after our test had been up for 18 hours. I was expecting a few dozen responses, and there were 10,000."
Date crunchers. The two instantly realized they had the means to study millions of online subjects--an unprecedented sample in social science research. "We are able to collect data in a week with a speed faster than any academic could have dreamed about in a lifetime," says Thompson. What they stumbled upon was "this amazing natural laboratory--people having good and bad experiences, telling us what happened and why they think it happened."
Other social scientists were having the same epiphany: Not only did they have a huge study sample at their disposal, but it was a more representative sample of the population--not the usual studies of college freshmen and sophomores. Once one goes beyond that limited group of 18-to-22-year-olds, there are some psychological surprises. For example, Duke University-trained psychologist Courtney Johnson, who works for the online site Emode, has been analyzing how people communicate, how they argue, what makes them commit. In the process of doing her studies, Johnson discovered some unexpected expectations among daters. For example, she found that men want women who are quite confident--far more confident, in fact, than women actually are on average. This counterintuitive finding would probably not have shown up in a campus questionnaire, but according to Johnson has profound implications for people trying to match their personalities
Hutchinson and Thompson were, meanwhile, drawing on their own experiences to fine-tune their dating software. They realized, for example, that the women they ended up dating often had annoying traits, which Thompson describes as "individual quirks." "And so did we," Thompson admits. "We decided to challenge the assumption that it's our best qualities that bring us together. What really shapes relationships, we think, is what you can tolerate."
They promptly built these beliefs into their matchmaking software. "A lot of people have trouble dating due to some fundamental characteristic. But there are a lot of people who don't mind that characteristic, and others who may even find it endearing." In short, says Hutchinson: "Everyone is high maintenance. The trick is finding the precise sort of maintenance you need."
They decided to employ computer technology to find a few "simple, logical rules" that make up, well, the recipe for love. For help on the technical side, they turned to Michael Georgeff, director of the Australian Artificial Intelligence Institute. During his work on a NASA project at Stanford Research Institute, Georgeff had developed a methodology to teach Space Shuttle Discovery computers how to anticipate unexpected problems. Working with Thompson and Hutchinson, he applied the same principles to the design of dating software, employing many of the statistical methods common to social science research. "Say you score a 3 on the introvert scale, and a 6 on touchy-feely. Will you tend to like somebody who's practical?" Using Georgeff's software, Thompson and Hutchinson then developed an online quiz. Match.com, the highly popular online dating site, began using weAttract.com's software this year to give users a rough sense of what proportion of the dating population might be attracted to their particular array of personality traits.
Making it last. Other kinds of dating software are in the works as well. Clinical psychologist Neil Clark Warren was interested in the countless relationships he had seen fall apart. "There's the mystery, the complexity--and the fact that most people get it wrong," he says. Indeed, 43 percent of married couples are not together within 15 years, and of those who do stay together, 4 in 10 say they're not happy. Warren estimates that three-quarters of marriages are in trouble the day they get started.
The reason for that dismal track record, Warren believes, is that Americans are just too easy, relying on the intangibles of "chemistry" to carry their relationships. "In this culture, if we like the person's looks, if they have an ability to chatter at a cocktail party, and a little bit of status, we're halfway to marriage," he says. "We're such suckers."
To help these suckers, Warren founded eHarmony.com, a Web site built around a 480-item questionnaire covering all sorts of personality traits and "basic subconscious wants." Singles also complete a checklist of their biggest "can't-stands": Liars and people who can't control their anger tend to top the list. Once they're matched, couples spend about eight hours online, during six to 10 dates. It's part of a structured process designed to ease things "during the awkward getting-to-know-you phase," says Warren.
The feedback from people on his site has convinced Warren of some fundamentals. People need a partner about as smart as they are. They also need someone about as curious--not necessarily someone highly curious, just well matched. Ditto with energy level: Energy or lack of it is not as important as matching up well. The matching process is rigorous enough that 14,000 benighted souls who have used his site have never scored a single match.
Warren launched eHarmony in 2000 and now gets some 10,000 new registrants a day. Alison Morrow signed up for eHarmony one year ago, and though she'd never tried an online dating site, she had met men over the Internet. Those meetings, she says, were "always big disasters." She liked the idea of eHarmony but, based on past disappointments, was skeptical. Still, she found she enjoyed reading the answers that her matches provided. "These little tidbits from all different areas of their lives. You can tell a lot even just in their grammar, their vocabulary--if they were trying to be funny, or more serious."
What's more, Morrow adds, in the past she might have been tempted to shrug off some things that "normally would be a big deal, but because you've had a few dates and feel attached, you think, `I'm not going to let that be a big deal.' " That, she says, was a mistake. She was much more discerning with Daniel, her 100th match. By the time they had wended their way through the matching process on the site, she says: "It was like we'd been dating for three months." They were married in August.
Dinner? Not everyone visiting a dating site is looking for a life partner, of course. In fact, fully half of Match.com's members are under 30, and they are often seeking a fun date or simple companionship. Michael Mundy fits that category. He enjoys dating, and he isn't opposed to some bar hopping, either. He goes out regularly in downtown Chicago where he lives, but even at 25 he often finds the scene exhausting: "You're there to have a good time, so you don't really want to focus on, `OK, am I going to meet someone? Are they with someone?' "
Raised on the Net and instant messaging, Mundy says he can't imagine not signing up with an online dating site, as he did with Match.com. "We live in an age where it's possible to meet people this way," he says. "Why not?"
It's an increasingly common question. Initially, Mundy did get his share of suspicious questions. "People would ask me, `Why is a good-looking guy like you on this site?' " he says. But Mundy, who works in advertising, is busy, without much time to date, let alone go out. "I'm also really picky." So accustomed is Mundy to E-dating that he wishes all of his potential dates had some sort of profile he could peruse first. "It's, `OK, here's where I'm from, here's what I do, here's what I'm looking for. How about you?' "
That's what the dating services want to hear. Meredith Hanrahan, vice president of online dating at Matchmaker.com, sees these sites as Consumer Reports of sorts, melded with a bit of online body language. "If you want to buy a car, you get a lot of information before you even test-drive," she says. "There hasn't been a way to do that with relationships."
This presumes, of course, that people are telling the truth--a big presumption. Chris Castner of Hoboken, N.J., recalls a date he had set up through E-mail a couple of years back: "She had said she was 5-7. She was 5 feet tall. She said she was a blonde, but she was a brunet. You get the idea." And the lies can be far more egregious than hair color. One recent study found that as many as 30 percent of people using online sites may be married. And, of course, there are no profile questions that will reveal criminal behavior, including spouse abuse.
As a result, safety is a constant concern for online daters. Jill from Long Island never chatted by phone without E-mailing through an anonymous account several times first. Even then, she would make the call but block it first to be sure it didn't show up on her potential date's caller ID. She also used to tell her landlord, a cop, when she left on dates, where she was going, and the cellphone number of her new online pal. Nevertheless, she had her share of dicey experiences, like the time a guy abandoned her in a parking lot at the end of their date.
Because of these real concerns, more and more match sites are using technology and psychology tests to do some lie-detecting as well. For example, at eHarmony.com, would-be suitors answer true-or-false questions like these: "I never tell white lies." "I read all of the information that comes with any prescription I get." "I read all of the editorials in the newspaper every day." People who say yes to all such queries are immediately suspect and are asked to leave the site. So far, eHarmony has asked 16 percent of its clientele to leave based on the results of its questionnaires. Other popular sites, like Friendster.com (sidebar), use circles of buddies to recommend dates of good character.
Perhaps the most interesting recent development in online dating is that it's more and more resembling old-fashioned dating. For example, there are now Match.com live events in cities throughout the country, where singles can meet up for hikes, wine tastings, and kayaking events, as well as multiday singles vacations. Ironically, these events often attract singles who just aren't comfortable with online dating.
The score. So how well does it all work? One indicator is that eHarmony has 1,500 marriages to its credit since 2000. According to Warren, the company now hears from roughly 10 couples a day who met online and are now planning a wedding. Despite plenty of mismatches--it's still real life after all--it's clear that the stigma once attached to dating services is largely gone. For his part, James Currier, CEO of Emode, envisions a time when people will be more mystified by the notion of meeting in a bar than meeting online.
But what about the romance of it all? And the serendipity? Are we losing the stories of the chance meetings, locked eyes, loss of breath? Stephenie Murphy shrugs. "We live around the corner from a video store and a little grocery shop--that would have been a cute story, reaching for the same movie or something," she says. "But this is how you meet today."
And sometimes old-fashioned good luck plays the crucial role, even on the Web. Chris Castner did eventually meet the love of his life online, even though, he emphasizes, he "never had any trouble with the ladies" in the good old bar scene either. He saw Jill from Long Island's profile and asked her out. After a hectic day at work, Jill nearly canceled her date with Chris for the evening. But she rallied, pulled a favorite blouse out of the hamper, and "sprayed Fabreeze on it." She got stuck in traffic, got lost, and to top it all off was nearly hit head-on by a Mack truck. Yet they met, despite all that, and a few months later they were engaged. Today, they are married.
For her part, Stephenie Murphy feels that she got the best deal around. "I paid $100 and got a husband," she says. "Can't beat that." Especially not when that bargain comes with a bonus: a baby on the way, due in December.
This page was created by Professor Maureen Greenbaum and was last updated on 12/21/05 .
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