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Surfing for Love

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Study looks at the new wave of online dating

Joe Fox: What happened with that guy at the cafe?
Kathleen Kelly: Nothing.
Joe Fox: Really?
Kathleen Kelly: I only know him through the, uh . . . you’re not going to believe this . . .
Joe Fox: Oh, let me guess. Through the Internet?
Kathleen Kelly: Yes.
Joe Fox: Hmm. You’ve . . .  got mail.

That’s an exchange from “You’ve Got Mail,” a classic chick flick that glamorized online dating and made Internet romance mainstream. If Meg Ryan could find love online, then people would flock to dating sites, right? Not exactly, found Michael Rosenfeld, assistant professor of sociology. Rosenfield seemed rather surprised to discover that the Internet was not, in fact, a hotbed of college 20-somethings searching for Mr. or Mrs. Right. Certain demographics looked for relationships online more than others.

“People are totally hooked into their technologies, but if you’re a college student, you’re surrounded by other college students,” Rosenfield said. “And whatever you do after college, there’s probably going to be a lot of young unattached people there also.”

Rosenfeld launched the How Couples Meet and Stay Together (HCMST) project at the end of last year in an effort to track the romantic practices of contemporary Americans. He found that the computer was the matchmaker of choice for gay, lesbian and middle-aged heterosexual singles. According to his results, 61 percent of gay participants met their current partners through the Internet compared to only 23 percent of their heterosexual counterparts. Of the Web 2.0 couples, gay or straight, only 12.6 percent were 18 to 24-year-olds.

Instead, what makes gay singles and over-30-year-olds give Cupid the rain check, the study found, is that they are more likely to meet prospective partners online than through the traditional means — family, friends and work.

The first wave of the study featured an online survey of 3,000 romantically involved individuals across the country that covered dating history between 2007 and 2009, and included 25 in-depth interviews about complete romantic histories — first crush and on.

“You might suppose that the increased prevalence of women in the workforce would make the workplace more of a dating environment,” Rosenfeld said. “[But] unlike 20 years ago, now there are strict regulations about appropriate behavior at work. I think that makes people a little more skittish about seeing the workplace as a love connection.”

The taboo of dating a coworker — a common turn-on in primetime drama and pay-per-view — in combination with the increased time Rosenfeld says Americans spend working away from the office snuffs out many chances for anything more than a fling.

For members of the LGBT community, however, the appeal of online dating is not so much about convenience as it is a matter of actually having options. As Americans have only just begun to accept the LGBT lifestyle, conventional social networks may not be sufficient venues for prospective dates.

“You can’t rely on your parents to know the other gay people and set you up, and you may not be out to your colleagues at work,” Rosenfeld said. “So where are you going to find somebody? The gay and lesbian population is a pretty small fraction of the whole population. It’s not that easy to find partners.”

A quick glance at the personals section of SUpost or Craigslist will tell you the same thing. Grad and undergrad Stanford students alike create profiles and post personal ads online daily, in the hopes of finding some romantic success — or even just a quick half-hour hookup in the stacks of Green Library.

True to HCMST data, most of these participants belong to the LGBT community.
Matt Bush ‘10, the kitchen manager for Terra, claims that the limited number of prospects that older gays and lesbians face still applies to the campus LGBT community, where the student population is already small to begin with, compared to other universities.

“I’ve never actually dated anyone that I’ve met on the sites,” Bush admitted. “[But] part of the reason I joined a dating site is because I just wanted to see what it was all about  — to compare the dating pool outside of Stanford to the dating pool at Stanford, to see what my options are.”

For fellow Terra resident Erik Donhowe ‘10, on the other hand, who had never been on a first date, creating a profile on OKCupid.org his junior year was a practical choice.

“That was just to get experience going on first dates because I wasn’t out in high school,” he said. “[And] it’s really awkward asking people in person.”

Almost a year after joining the site, in the fall of his senior year, Donhowe went on his first official date was with a Stanford grad student at Fraiche.

“The one thing that surprised me was how easy it was conversing during the date because I normally have difficulty making small talk and mingling,” he said, having chosen the location just in case the date did not go as well as planned. “The time passed quickly, and before parting ways we agreed to have lunch sometime.”

But, the follow-up noontime rendezvous never happened.

Even Donhowe’s second attempt at building a relationship online — this time, with a non-Stanford guy from San Jose — fell through.

“It’s just hard to keep in touch,” Donhowe said. “I mean I’m a chemical engineer and I have a pretty demanding workload. So it’s hard to keep up with texting someone and staying in contact for a second date to evolve.”

Unfortunately, the virtual dating scene seems much bleaker for the graduate community — at least, based on the account of a male student who prefers to remain anonymous.

“My SUpost ad was a bad experience, eliciting mainly mocking responses,” he wrote in an e-mail to The Daily. “I was trying to make light of the skewed gender ratio at Stanford in the hopes that some potential dates might appreciate the partially self-deprecating humor, but it seems that the people who visit the site prefer to be cruel.”

He refused to comment any further and declined our offer for an interview.

Perhaps it’s the distance or inherently busy schedules of Stanford students, but there seems to be a general preference for — and consequently, more success in — meeting people IRL.

“Most people have probably tried it at some point,” Bush said of the LGBT online dating scene. “But very few people use it as a primary way of meeting people.”

Still, Rosenfeld’s research, the second leg of which will examine how long these relationships last, shows that on the whole, the recent trends for online dating are all looking up. Many Americans enjoy the ease with which they can filter through (or for) the other Casanovas and Fabios using search functions, and reconnect with old flames that recently became available. And after all, it worked for Meg Ryan, right?

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