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Love on the Internet
Surprising stats about online dating, from Tinder to Match
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7 min read
My husband and I met sometime between 2007 and 2009.
How, exactly, this occurred is a source of confusion between us. Or, more specifically, my husband seems to remember every detail, and I…do not.
According to my husband, when I was a first-year college student and he was a senior in high school, he came to visit Harvard’s campus. He stayed with a boy who lived a floor below me in my freshman dorm.1 One afternoon, the boy brought him upstairs to my dorm room to visit—or, as I later learned it was framed to him, to “meet the hot girls upstairs.” We chatted amidst the backdrop of unframed “Life, Laugh, Love” posters and piles of Psychology textbooks, discovering that we grew up in neighboring towns and both played lacrosse. I have no memory of this.
Fast forward two years to my junior fall. I took that semester off from school to travel, which included backpacking around Europe and volunteering in Peru. I came back to the U.S. for a week between the Europe and Peru legs of the trip. This week happened to coincide with the annual Harvard-Yale football game (and, more importantly, tailgate). The night before “The Game,”2 my future husband and I reconnected on a dark, sweaty dance floor at a New Haven bar,3 over watered-down vodka sodas and Four Lokos.4 And the rest is history!
Just kidding. I don’t remember that either.
What I do, finally, remember is the following day, after The Game, when we both found ourselves waiting at the New Haven train station. We started chatting, and I recall thinking something along the lines of: Wow! Who is this amazing guy I’ve never met before?
I explained that I was heading home to see my family for a takeout sushi dinner, and then heading south to work at an orphanage in a tiny surf town in Peru for a few months before coming back for the spring semester. He took this information in stride. He and I exchanged numbers on our Blackberries, and later that night, he texted to ask how the rainbow roll turned out.
This might be the moment I knew.
14 years, a marriage, and 1.75 babies later, I’m lucky to have found the person that makes me happiest in the world. Sometimes, it seems, the stars just align in a dorm room. And again at a bar. And a train station.
I’ve often wondered: could that same story happen today?
Wait, did you say Blackberries?
Dating has changed in the years since my husband and I were exchanging numbers on our Blackberries.
For decades, meeting through friends was the most common way to meet one’s partner for opposite-sex couples. Since 2009, there’s been a clear shift.
Online dating, once a stigmatized path reserved for early Internet adopters and older singles, is now the most common way to meet your match.
So, how did we get here? And is the shift to online dating a good thing?
Let’s dig into the research.
How many people are online dating?
According to a 2022 Pew Research Center survey of over 6,000 U.S. adults, 30% of people report using any type of dating site or app. This varies a lot across specific groups, though.
For example, the majority (53%) of 18- to 29-year-olds have used dating sites/apps, compared to 37% of 30- to 49-year-olds. And 28% of straight adults have done so, compared to nearly twice as many (51%) adults identifying as lesbian, gay, or bisexual.
What do you mean by “online dating”?
Online dating has been around since the mid-90s—Match.com launched in 1995 and eHarmony in 2000—but dating apps have taken the concept mainstream. Tinder came out in 2012, followed soon after by Hinge, and Grindr, which is targeted to the LGBTQ+ community, was a bit earlier in 2009.
Here are the most popular dating sites/apps, along with a few key facts about each for those of us who may have missed the online dating boat:
Tinder. Most popular app on the market. Invented the “swipe” feature (i.e., see a person’s profile, and swipe left for “no” and right for “yes”). Results in: 1.5 million dates per week, 4.2 million GIFs exchanged per week, and 75+ billion total matches since launch.
Bumble. Claims to be more “female-friendly” because, for opposite-sex pairs, only women can send the first message (for same-sex pairs, either person can). Has the highest share of paying users of any U.S. dating app.
Hinge. Marketed as more “relationship” (versus casual hook-up) oriented. For many years, it did this by limiting potential “matches” to friends (or friend of friends) of your Facebook friends, though they’ve recently removed this feature.
Grindr. Targeted to the LGBTQ+ community, and used by 34% of LGB online daters. Notably, Tinder is still used by a greater share of LGB online daters (51%) than Grindr.
Are people meeting their matches?
A lot of them are!
One-in-ten U.S. adults who have partners (i.e., married or committed relationship) say they met their partner online. This number is higher in certain subgroups, including one-in-five adults under 30, and nearly one-in-four LGB adults.
What’s all this doing to our dating lives?
A recent academic review article states: “Dating apps have become one of the most prominent and contentious [!] topics in the realm of intimacy among the wider public and academia.” Some argue that dating apps are eroding our capacity for committed, intimate relationships—creating a “choice overload” of possible (though superficial) romantic partners. Others argue that, for many people, this wider pool gives them a sense of agency in finding the right match.
A 2020 systematic review of 70 studies finds that there are many reasons people use dating apps. Despite an assumption that apps are mainly used for “hook-ups,” studies suggest that casual sex is only one (and not the primary) reason people use them. Other motivations include: relationship-seeking, entertainment (i.e., to relieve boredom), and boosting self-esteem.
According to this review, benefits include:
More options for dating partners, which may be especially beneficial for groups that have been marginalized “offline” (note: LGB adults are more than 2.5x as likely to have met their partner online compared to straight adults.)
Require less time and effort than traditional dating communication
Location sharing allows for matching with those who are geographically close
And then, of course, we have the risks:
Security and privacy, especially for women
Prevalence of discrimination and aggression, including abusive or discriminatory interactions based on race/ethnicity, body type, age, etc.
Excessive focus on appearance and physical attractiveness, given primacy of photos and options for “filtering” matches by preference
Speaking of filters…
There’s been a lot of discussion around filtering potential matches by “age” and “height” in opposite-sex couples. According to an Economist analysis, on average, women automatically filter out 70% of their potential male matches, mostly because of height and age. Men automatically filter out 55% of potential female matches.
The “height” filter appears to be so problematic that Bumble has now made it an “Advanced Filter,” available only to paying subscribers.
For those curious, other Advanced Filters on Bumble include:
The more things change
Have dating apps turned us into superficial, appearance-obsessed serial daters who will only consider 6-foot Virgos or blonde Peloton enthusiasts? Or are they simply the new bar—or dorm room, or train station—where a mix of preference, similarity, and coincidence can lead us to our perfect match?
I suspect it’s a little bit of both.
Like other tech advancements, from social media to generative AI, online dating has changed our lives in ways that are hard to define. It has, in some cases, amplified our worst tendencies. It has also helped millions of people find the person they love.
Certainly, there are aspects of my husband’s and my story that would never happen today. In our hyperconnected world, the possibility of simply losing track of someone for so many years—no “people you may know” on Instagram, no quick exchanging of Snapchat handles—seems impossible. Not to mention, no amount of money could now convince me to stay at a bar until 2am drinking Four Lokos.
But I like to think that, whether online or off, the important parts—finding a person, realizing it’s your person, and feeling like the luckiest person in the world that you get to build a life together—will always be the same. No matter how much things have changed.
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In case you missed it
My husband and I both played lacrosse in college, and this visit to the school was actually his “official visit.” Official visits are a strange tradition in college sports, where a college who is recruiting a high school athlete organizes (and typically pays for) the athlete to visit campus for a weekend. On paper, official visits involve a lot of very serious rules. In practice, they often involve the members of a college team trying to convince a high school student that their college is more fun than other colleges.
I know this is shocking, but Harvard is not usually what comes to mind when people think “football school.” Hence, the annual Harvard-Yale football game is the one game per year that is widely attended by students from both schools, and that involves traditional college football-adjacent activities (tailgating, school spirit, etc.). It is (unironically, if you can believe it) known as “The Game” in Ivy League circles.
If you were not in college between the years of 2008-2010, you are perhaps not aware of Four Loko’s meteoric rise and fall. In short: Four Loko was an alcoholic energy drink. It came in a variety of flavors that all tasted like melted Skittles. It was banned in multiple states in late 2010, when regulators became aware of the absolute insanity of mixing large doses of caffeine with high alcohol by volume levels. A reformulated version is (unfortunately) still on the market, with the “energy drink” components (caffeine, taurine, guarana) removed.
The data on how couples meet over time was collected by Stanford University researchers, and is published here. According to their materials, the specific item was: “Please write the story of how you and [your partner] first met and got to know one another, and be sure to describe ‘how’ and ‘where’ you first met.” Responses were later coded into the categories seen on the chart above. The open-source dataset is here, but (sadly) the original responses are not available. I am dying to meet the people who read and coded 6,000 of these!