Liesel Sharabi, assistant professor of communication studies at West Virginia University, knows what people write in dating apps because in one of her latest studies she read participants’ messages from the beginning of dating conversations until the end.
Before Tinder and Match.com and OKCupid, there were only people on sidewalks and in break rooms and college hallways. Sharabi laughs at how impossible and creepy it would be for a researcher to be in those places from the inception of a relationship until it fizzles out.
“Now, their relationship is laid out for you right there, and it’s just waiting for somebody to analyze it,” she says.
As a graduate student at the University of New Mexico, she wrote the conference paper “Because You’re Too Fabulous to Be Single: A Pentadic Analysis of Match.com.” Since then, Sharabi has been one of a handful of researchers consistently studying this new-ish window into relationship formation and how relationships incorporate technology along a similar time-worn path.
“At the time it was really stigmatized,” Sharabi said of online dating a decade ago. “So when I first started studying this as a graduate student, the big questions that people were asking were about the stigma. Like ‘Who dates online? And why would you date online? And, you know, do you tell people that you’re doing this?’
“And it’s been funny to study it consistently over time because now everybody does it. Ten years ago, if I’d asked my students if they use online dating, they would have been mortified when they admitted or said that they’d done it if they had at all, and now like all of our undergrads are on Tinder.”
THE WAY WE DATE NOW
Online dating has been a core part of society for years.
Now, Sharabi says, research shows that online dating is the No. 1 place where people go to meet a romantic partner. In data from 2013, researchers found that 30 percent of heterosexual married couples met online. She thinks that percentage is probably higher now.
One of the most marked changes Sharabi has seen through the research is that the fastest growing demographic for online dating and the top group on mobile dating apps is 18-24-year-olds, the group that lives near the largest number of people of a similar age in the real world.
“So that’s been a big shift,” she said. “It’s gotten younger. Not to say the older people aren’t still using it, too, but to me that’s always very telling because it’s also like if you’re using at 18, you’re probably still going to be using it at 28.”
Against that backdrop, Sharabi has her own questions.
“My studies looked at what predicts the success of first dates,” Sharabi said. “I’ve also done a lot looking at what happens when people meet for the first time and how they incorporate the technology into their real-world relationships.
“Because I think that’s one of the interesting questions: What effect is all this technology having on our real-life relationships and how we connect to each other in person?”
TIPS FOR A SUCCESSFUL ONLINE DATE
(according to research)
1. Don’t wait too long between first connection online and first date to meet. Expectations can be built too high to be met.
2. The more a couple feels they are similar, the better a first date goes.
3. The less uncertain a couple is about the date, the more questions they ask and the better a first date goes.
4. When you talk about another date you’ve gone on or another person you’re talking to on an app, that date does not tend to go well.
5. When people believe in a site’s matching formula, they have better first dates (even though they don’t know what the site is actually doing to match them).
In her study, Sharabi found that participants had varying reasons for connecting online.
“Some people were looking to date,” she said. “And some people weren’t looking to even meet anybody at all. Like one person said that they thought it was like Facebook where they just browse and waste time. With Tinder, they’ve kind of gamified the dating experience so some people treat Tinder like a game, and someone said that they just looked at how many matches they could get.
“Some people use it as an ego boost, and they’re not even necessarily planning to meet anybody, which would be really frustrating for a lot of people. Some people are using it for casual sex, which is where Tinder gets that reputation. And then some people are looking for marriage.”
Then there is the frame of the dating apps themselves putting new parameters on the interactions online.
“How you judge similarity, for instance, is different online than it is offline, and the sites can have a really important role in that,” she said. “Like, they tell you what to fill out in a profile. They create the template, and they essentially tell you with that and with the search parameters: ‘These are the things that should be important to you when you’re searching for a partner. Their height should be important. Their race should be important.’
“In that sense it’s changing the process, but a lot of it — I agree it is similar in a lot of ways to how we’ve always done these things. … And people tend to really not like that answer because they want to know how it’s like killing dating and changing everything,” she said.
Daters both online and offline are looking for physical attraction and someone who shares similarities. And it always takes effort.
“We know that relationships take work,” she said, “and this idea that a site’s just going to deliver you the perfect relationship is entirely unrealistic.”
With such deep interest in the subject, you may think that Sharabi has some personal experience with dating apps. That’s not the case.
“Ironically, I’ve never used online dating because I met my partner when I was an undergrad, so I met him before — the traditional way. Which is kind of funny.”