Online dating still stigmatized despite popularity, success

Site algorithm can help process for users

April 1, 2014 | 9:42 am

This is my lonely hearts club confession: I’m jumping back into the world of online dating.

I use the word confession because there still is some stigma attached to the practice. When I asked my friends to share their Internet dating stories, many were only willing to talk if they could remain anonymous. One, who is married to the man she met online, told me her husband doesn’t want anyone to know how they met.

According to a 2013 report from the Pew Research Center, 21 percent of polled Internet users agree that “People who use online dating sites are desperate.”

Harsh.

More heartening, though, is the fact that that’s an 8-point decline from the 29 percent of people who thought the same in 2005. Still, online dating isn’t rare.

According to the same Pew report, one in 10 American adults has used an online dating site, and 38 percent of single people actively looking for a partner have used an online dating site.

It isn’t a new concept either.

Before eHarmony and Match.com, there was a computer-based dating program developed in 1965 by a group of students at Harvard, who thought matchmaking was an excellent use of the exciting new computer technology available to them. Thousands of people sent the students $3 and completed questionnaires. Six weeks later, they received lists of matches with phone numbers.

Today it takes significantly less time to find potential matches and there are plenty of sites to chose from. There are sites you pay to join and free sites, sites aimed at fostering long-term relationships and sites with reputations for finding casual hookups. If you’re looking for something specific, the Internet can probably help, with options such as ChristianMingle, which trademarked the phrase, “Find God’s Match for You,” and OurTime, reserved for romantics over age 50. Want to get even more specific? Try a site like FarmersOnly or GlutenfreeSingles. Then there’s HowAboutWe, where users propose a date idea, like, “How about we get sushi and see a metal band?”

If you can think of a way to find a romantic partner, someone has probably already created a dating site based on that concept.

Which did one I choose? Well, I’ll keep that to myself.

What I — and thousands of others like me — want to know, though, is: Does it work? Can you really find a partner based on a series of often seemingly random questions?

I know plenty of couples who have told me that if they saw their significant other’s profile, they probably wouldn’t have chosen them off a dating site. All the characteristics and qualities these sites filter — religious and political beliefs, preferences for cats versus dogs, or whether you’d rather eat tofu or steak — may not actually make a bit of difference when it comes connecting with someone in person.

I’m not the only one skeptical of the process.

University of Iowa assistant professor Kang Zhao and UI doctoral student Xi Wang are part of a team of researchers which recently developed an algorithm aimed at helping online daters overcome their tendency to cling to what they think they want.

The algorithm uses a person’s past contact history on a site to attempt to predict who they’d like to contact in the future. Think of it like Netflix, but with potential dates instead of movies.

Instead of searching for the tall, dark and handsome profiles you tell the site you prefer, for example, the algorithm might notice you actually click on profiles of people who are short and blonde. It would then start recommending more short, blonde people’s profiles. Or the dating site might be recommending people with similar interests who sound perfect, when you really want someone to introduce you to something new. The algorithm would notice those preferences.

The algorithm also takes into account the "attractiveness” level of users, based on how many people have contacted them, and recommends profiles to people more likely to contact them. I’m a little less clear on how that works and suspect it’s not entirely politically correct.

However, Zhao said he believes his team’s algorithm could reduce instances of virtual rejection. The data his team analyzed, provided by an unnamed popular dating site, suggested initial contacts are reciprocated about 25 percent of the time. Zhao said the algorithm could improve such returns by 44 percent.

“The decision process of a human being is so complicated,” Zhao said. “ Our assumption here is your previous activity can actually reflect who you really want.”

So, should I start looking for people who share qualities with my ex-boyfriends? Zhao says yes.

I’m not so sure.

Perhaps part of the problem I have with the idea of connecting via the Internet is how much our online selves are not our real selves. Consider social networking sites like Facebook or Instagram. Studies have shown browsing an endless stream of photos and status updates about your friends’ and random acquaintances’ many gourmet meals, beach vacations and life accomplishments can actually cause depression.

It’s easy to think, “I’m just not as successful as everyone else I know,” when you’re getting ready to shovel your driveway for the 50th time this winter while a woman you went to kindergarten with is posting another photo of herself surfing with sea turtles in Hawaii.

But if you stop and think about it, you may post photos of the perfect meal you cooked once this week, but you’re probably not posting photos of the five other nights you reheated pizza. Our online selves are idealized versions of who we want to be, not portraits of who we actually are.

That being true? How can an online profile possibly lead to love?

Think though, of a first date. The first impressions we try to give in person are idealized as well.

You don’t show up to a first date unshowered in sweats or suggest you spend the evening binging on reruns of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

No. You style your hair to complement a carefully selected outfit. You try to sound interesting over dinner.

So perhaps there’s hope for online dating after all. The numbers seem to think there’s something to it.

According to that same Pew report, 23 percent of online daters said they met a spouse or long term partner through a dating site.

Anecdotally, I got a huge number of responses when I asked my Facebook network for online dating success stories.

For starters, two of my cousins told me they met their spouses online. That was news to me (proving my earlier point about the persevering stigma).

One of them, Kelly Van Oosbree, formerly from Emmetsburg and now of Denver, Colo., met her husband Brian Ross on eHarmony.

“I was pretty cautious about signing up for online dating because I thought online dating was only for people who couldn’t get a date, and I also thought it was kind of skeezy,” she said.

But, like me, she put those reservations aside and the first match the site recommended was Ross.

“We dated casually for several months,” she said. “Fifteen months later we moved in together, and four years after our first date we were married.”

It’s stories like that — love stories, really — that convinced me to give online dating another go.

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