The search for love in the digital age tends to stir up a lot of anxiety. If you've ever heard stories from your friends' bad dates, you might reasonably approach dating apps with caution. But just as online dating can foster some comically-bad experiences, there are plenty of benefits as well. Many of us know couples who seem so perfectly matched that it's almost impossible to believe they met on opposite sides of a screen.
When it comes down to it, does online dating actually work? While you might be worried it's not a good idea (or even a waste of time), like all matters in love, it has its pros and cons. We decided to bring the question to real people who have navigated dating apps to find out what it's really like. So let's put the fears to rest—and put the internet to the test.
Read on to learn their thoughts on how well online dating really works.
According to a study published by the Pew Research Center, roughly 60 percent of participants have had positive experiences with dating platforms. Many people have success finding romantic partners online, whether they're looking for something casual or long-term. Overall, the majority of participants found it relatively easy to meet potentially-compatible partners.
While it's always best to experience it yourself, it's helpful to know how others felt when meeting partners online.
When meeting people online, try to learn about common interests and develop good conversation together to avoid feeling awkward when you meet in person.
Different Strokes for Different Folks
Whether online dating works might depend on what constitutes a successful experience. Expert Gwendolyn Seidman, Ph.D. notes that it might hinder us from developing emotional attractions to people we meet organically: "Making a quick decision based on an online photo doesn’t allow for this slower development of physical attraction, and may cause us to dismiss potential mates." We set out to learn what people were looking for online, and whether their objectives were met.
"I use [dating apps] to meet people outside of my social circles. I love going on first dates with strangers; I find it either mysterious and romantic, or hilariously awkward and uncomfortable," says NYC resident Teddy. While he rolls with the punches, he does clarify that his intentions aren't platonic. "I've never intended to find friends on apps. I meet with the intention of finding some sort of romantic chemistry."
Some aren't looking for committed relationships at first. Eleanor from L.A. casually dated online for about a year before meeting her boyfriend. "I used apps [when] bored…It was fun talking to people whether it led to a date or not," she says.
Abby, a San Francisco native, wasn't sure what to expect. "When I started using dating apps, I was looking to just date," she tells us. "I wanted to meet a lot of people and practice dating since I was newly out of college." She ultimately ended up in a long-term relationship with someone she met online.
While many have clear expectations, plenty of people change their minds. It's true for Jasmine, who says that while her goals changed, her hope was to find something meaningful. Dan joined after a breakup; he wanted a relationship, but sometimes the meetup was for casual sex.
Sharon was looking for a serious relationship from the start, but says she "also liked meeting people and exploring a new city together."
IRL Versus Online Introductions
What's it like to meet an online date in real life? We asked participants to share their experiences. "When I meet someone through an app, I have more freedom to act differently," Teddy shares. "[With] no common connections, we're starting from a clean slate with no preconceived notions about each other."
Violet from L.A. says, "I like when I have mutual friends with a guy. I think there's more accountability to be polite when you meet through friends. If I don't know you, there's less incentive to actually meet, and ghosting seems a lot easier."
But Jasmine disagrees. "I found no real difference between apps and meeting someone randomly…I never understood people who wait for their Prince Charming. If you want the fairy tale, you have to leave the castle (or your comfort zone)," she explains.
Seidman notes that a benefit of online dating is knowing where people stand. "On an online dating site, you can be fairly certain that everyone you meet is single and looking. This removes a lot of the ambiguity that you face when you meet an interesting person at a work event or a party."
Sharon enjoys learning common interests ahead of time when she meets people online. "When you meet someone randomly, your [backgrounds], how you grew up, and religious or political affiliations could be very different." She's found that some people she meets in organic settings lack common visions.
Dating Is a Learning Curve
Regardless of how things pan out, most people agreed that dating helps to discover new things about yourself. "Going on dates has helped me realize where I'm at emotionally," Violet says. "If I'm instantly not giving them a chance, I'm not in a place to open myself up. I also learn what I like and don't like."
"I've learned so much," Jasmine says. "You'll find the type of relationship you believe you can have, [and] the kind of person you are. If you want a better relationship, you have to work on the one you have with yourself."
Dating App Mishaps
If you have reservations, bad online dates can at least lead to funny stories. Violet remembers one particularly-strange meeting: "My date arrived at the bar a few minutes before me. When we left, he told me he deliberately didn't pay for his beer. Even worse, he kept dropping it to the floor and saying, 'Internet boy!' while pointing to himself."
Teddy has a different approach to bad meetups, laughing about a time when the guy he was on a date with "was being so obnoxious [I] started pawning him off to other people at the bar."
Shane says his most memorable dates seem pretty awkward and funny in retrospect. For example, an older date who picked him up arrived in a sedan with a brand-new Jamba Juice paint job, and spent the majority of the evening talking about her love for Jamba Juice.
So Does Online Dating Work?
While it's clear that online dating doesn't have a perfect success rate, most people we asked thought it was a worthwhile experience. "I'm getting married to an amazing person I met on [an app]," Sharon says. "Daniel was my third match. We dated for four years after that, and are now engaged."
The same is true for Eleanor. "I ended up meeting someone awesome, and we've been dating for nearly a year…But before I did, I was often frustrated (though that might be the case with dating in general)."
Jasmine echoes this idea. "If you're clear with your intentions and you communicate what you want, you can find someone who is right for you. Once I decided what I really wanted, I found someone who wanted the exact same thing."
No matter your intentions, there seems to be something for everyone when dating online—just be clear about your expectations. Embrace new experiences, learn a little about yourself, and don't forget to have fun. You may even meet your dream partner.
Vogels EA. 10 Facts About Americans and Online Dating. Pew Research Center. February 6, 2020.