Modern Romance

Wayne State University professor is studying online dating and how we click with our matches — or not


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Here’s a modern-day love story. 

Kimberley Glover-Vaughn of Clinton Township was balancing a busy life with a hectic work schedule while recovering from a recent foot surgery. She’d already made one pass at online dating, but the experience had left something to be desired.

“I had done eHarmony, but didn’t find too much success with that,” Glover-Vaughn, 50, says. “But I didn’t try it, either.”

At the urging of her two adult daughters, Glover-Vaughn signed up on ChristianMingle.com in 2011, only this time, she went in with some research and an approach that went beyond “just a basic bio.”

She began receiving messages from Jeff Vaughn, who wasn’t one of her “matches,” but she was one of his. After messaging on the site for a few months, the couple met at Starbucks for a first date that wound up lasting almost three hours. Fast forward to September 2015; the couple was celebrating their first anniversary.

Stories like Kimberley’s and Jeff’s are becoming increasingly common as dating websites and apps like ChristianMingle, eHarmony, OkCupid, Tinder, Grindr, and obscure selections like SeaCaptainDate (it’s a real thing) continue to play matchmaker — even when users don’t connect as planned.  

How exactly these sites connect us with our potential matches varies widely, and according to Dr. Stephanie Tong, assistant professor of communication studies at Wayne State University, this has an effect on the ways we communicate in the 21st century.

“I think when (dating websites) first came out and people started using them they had a lot of stigma associated with them,” Tong says. But now, “30 million people use these applications and websites. It’s the second most common way for romantic singles to meet each other. It’s very mainstream.”  

In September 2015, Tong and her team of researchers were awarded a three-year, $850,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to fund research on how relationships are being affected by online dating. 

As part of their research, Tong and her team are taking a close look at how the different systems used by online dating sites affect our interactions. Some sites like Match.com give users complete control over the selection process. Others like eHarmony use an algorithm to generate selections for users, and some, like OkCupid, use a combination of both.

“One of the things we’re looking (at) in this first study is how these differences in the system affect the types of decisions we make,” Tong says. 

“If the computer makes a recommendation ... are you more or less likely to respond? Are you more or less likely to actually initiate conversation with that person, based on the system’s recommendation rather than your own intuition or your own selection?”

As part of her research, Tong has studied user satisfaction with match suggestions. And what she found was surprising.

“We had assumed people wanted to be in control of the situation ... to make their own choices, particularly when it comes to something like matters of the heart,” says Tong. But their findings showed users were equally satisfied with computer-generated recommendations as they were with their own selections. 

As more daily decisions are made online, the processes by which we make those decisions are starting to carry more weight. Whether we’re watching a movie, shopping online, or trying to find someone special, the suggestions presented to us by a website can make all the difference.  

“There’s been a lot of research done on how, say, Amazon.com makes product recommendations or Netflix makes movie recommendations,” Tong says. “We pay attention to that feedback, and we make decisions based on that feedback. The system really does affect the way people are making decisions.”             

Tong’s research also examines the choices people aren’t making. As her team examines the ways in which people use technology to initiate relationships, they’re also examining “how they use technology to distance themselves from people, to end relationships, or dissolve relationships they no longer want.” 

Over the next three years, Tong and her team will continue studying the online dating market as the industry continues to evolve. 

“What’s exciting is that we’re the first team that’s looking at how these systems affect the way we make decisions about people, instead of products,” says Tong. 

In a dating culture where love is a click away, it can be easy to forget that there’s a difference.

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