We begin to address the uniqueness question by examining whether online dating is a pervasive versus a fringe means for singles to meet potential romantic partners. Rather than simply presenting a brief snapshot of present usage rates, we situate these rates in a broader context by providing an historical overview of online dating and discussing how societal attitudes toward online dating have evolved in recent years. This analysis will suggest that although online dating functions as the most recent outgrowth of an endeavor with a long history, the rapid increases in its prevalence and mainstream accept-ability over the past 15 years have resulted in a unsentimental shift in how large swaths of single people seek to meet romantic partners.
The history and prehistory of online dating
Social and commercial institutions that facilitate courtship and marriage are diverse and long-standing (e.g., Ahuvia & Adelman, 1992). Matchmaking and introductory intermediaries, particularly for the purpose of facilitating marriage, have been a component of the marriage-courtship market long before the emergence of online dating. In addition, computers have been used for romantic matching, both commercially and in university settings, for over 60 years.
Matching, pre-Internet. Human matchmakers, working for pay or barter, have recommended matches for centuries and are even described in the Bible. Traditional matchmaking was often a side role for rabbis, priests, clergy, and sometimes elderly women in the community, and these matchmakers were sought out by parents who were searching for spouses for their children.
Today, human matchmakers continue to offer matching assistance, although in the United States and in most other Western societies, the service typically is initiated not by parents but by the single adults themselves who may be dis-satisfied with their other options (including online dating) for seeking a partner. Today’s commercial matchmakers often work with a small base of clientele, whom they get to know personally. Their matching decisions are typically based on intuition and experience, not mathematical algorithms (Adel-man & Ahuvia, 1991; Gottlieb, 2006; Woll & Cozby, 1987).
Attitudes toward online dating.
Just as the technologies to facilitate romantic relationship initiation have changed, attitudes toward online dating have changed as well. Personal ads in magazines and newspapers never became a widely socially acceptable way to search for a partner. Indeed, people who used personal advertisements to find partners frequently did so furtively to minimize their embarrassment (Darden & Koski, 1988). The stigma associated with personal advertisements extended initially to online dating.
Although no academic research was published on attitudes toward online dating at its inception, online dating historians have referred to the stigma that existed in the 1990s about seeking partners online, as well as the perceived risks associated with doing so, including the possibility of encountering a sexual predator or “psycho” (Anderson, 2005; Gwinnell, 1998). In addition, online dating was assumed to be for “nerds,” “the desperate,” and the “socially inept” (Goodwin, 1990; Orr, 2004; Smaill, 2004; Whitty & Carr, 2006; Wildermuth & Vogl-Bauer, 2007). One commentator has suggested that there might have been a kernel of truth in these stereotypes, observing that that the early adopters of the technology were “a little on the shy side or a little on the sleazy side” (Orr, 2004, p. 29).