The earliest online dating platforms launched in 1995. Now, barely 20 years later, one third of all marriages begin online.
Despite the bad rep online dating once had, society has embraced this path to love, with 15 percent of U.S. adults reporting they've used dating apps or websites as of 2016. And we've all heard the success stories—even famous people have found love online. Now, researchers Josué Ortega and Philipp Hergovich have used this spike in activity to chart the present and future impacts of online dating.
Data collected over the past 50 years shows shifts in the networks that connect partners. Among heterosexual couples, online dating skyrocketed starting in the mid-90s before plateauing in the early 2000s, as mutual friend connections have dipped. The only other meeting opportunity that increased during the same time was meeting at bars or restaurants, which is how 22 percent of millennials surveyed in 2015 met their significant others.
The data for same-sex couples shows a much more drastic and persistent spike in successful use of online dating: up to 70 percent of these relationships start online, a number that has climbed steadily since the inception of Match.com, a pioneer in 1995. Online dating is by far the most popular way for couples in this demographic to meet.
Another major societal change over the past 50 years has been an increase in interracial relationships—it was only that long ago that interracial marriage was made legal in the U.S. In 2015, 10 percent of all married people were intermarried—a fivefold increase since 1967—despite enduring and, in some areas, increasing racial segregation in the U.S. Ortega and Hergovich say online dating has disrupted the normal networks that may have prevented more interracial relationships in the past. In fact, this was one of the trends they set out to test, and their findings were consistent with that view.
"Meeting people outside our social network online can intuitively increase the number of interracial marriages in our societies, which is remarkably low," they wrote in their introduction. They used models that simulated the randomized network connections created by online dating. These were contrasted with linear connections made in traditional networks, which are driven by friends, family, and acquaintances. When compared with U.S. data on relationships and marriage, they found "the number of interracial marriages substantially increases after the popularization of online dating."
Perhaps the most surprising finding, though, was that marriages started online have a lower divorce rate. While this was based on previous research by another group, Ortega and Hergovich sought to prove it with their models—and were successful in that. "Our model predicts that, on average, marriages created when online dating becomes available last longer than those created in societies without this technology," they wrote.
Overall, Ortega and Hergovich's models demonstrated that online dating isn't an innocuous fad: while it doesn't seem to have the negative effects some may have expected from talking to strangers online, there are major benefits available with the rise of virtual dating. Lower divorce rates, increased instances of interracial dating, and a wildly popular means of starting same-sex relationships are just what's been found using data from the past 50 years. It will be interesting to see what other effects online dating will have going forward.