But soon Neu began owning up to the eHarmony version of the story. Once she started talking about it, "I couldn't believe how many people had dated someone online," she said. "I think it's becoming more and more common."
Singles try out online romance for all kinds of reasons. Neu signed up online after a spectacularly depressing speed dating session. Maurine Cobabe, 27, a medical student at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, tried it when she felt she'd "dated everyone that was dateable" within the Mormon community in her town.
The power of access
Neu's and Cobabe's motivation speaks to a uniquely powerful aspect of online dating: no matter where you live or who you socialize with, you suddenly have access to a pool of single people who, just like you, are actively looking for someone. And because of the explosion of internet activity among a variety of people, that pool is only growing and becoming more mainstream.
According the industry trade report Subscription Site Insider, almost 25 million unique visitors used an online dating site in April 2011 alone. The internet was the third most common way for couples to meet online in 2009, behind meeting through friends and roughly tied with meeting in public places, according to a study coming out this year from Dr. Michael Rosenfeld of Stanford University and Dr. Reuben Thomas of the The City College of New York. The authors also found that since 2005, more than one in five couples have met online. "It is possible that the Internet could eventually eclipse friends as the most influential way Americans meet their romantic partners," the researchers concluded.
"Everyone's online," said McDermott. "Everyone's using the internet in all aspects of your lives." Bill paying, chatting with mothers and brothers and friends, shopping, listening to music — it's all online. Why not dating?
"Once online dating became exactly as simple as shopping for books on Amazon — which it totally is — then everybody could do it," said Benjamin Karney, a professor of social psychology at the University of California Los Angeles. "And it can be completely anonymous. Once anybody can do it, it loses its stigma."
But while research shows that online dating has distinct advantages, experts caution against assuming that the instant accessibility of hundreds of profiles will translate into the deposit of a living, breathing soulmate.
According to Karney's research, the very strengths of online dating in the twenty-first century — ease, access, instant communication — can also inhibit long-term relationship success.
Weaknesses in the model
Karney and four other experts on intimate relationships released a study in February, right around Valentine's Day, on the pros and cons of online dating. They set out to determine whether the claims of online dating sites could be backed up with science: whether sites were truly providing something completely different from the non-virtual dating world and "whether online dating promotes better romantic outcomes than conventional offline dating," as many sites promised could be done thanks to a particular algorithm.
Results were mixed. Karney and his colleagues found that online dating does indeed provide what Neu and Cobabe found: access to a wider pool and a convenient method of communication to that pool.
"For the people who have trouble meeting singles, internet dating is a real boon," confirmed Karney. "For some people, access makes all the difference. If you don't meet anyone, you have no chance of success."
But that chance, the study found, is not necessarily expanded by dating sites' claims of matching singles with soulmates. "There is no evidence — none at all — that a website has a unique ability" to pair people who will be compatible in the long run, said Karney.
None of the websites' algorithms, the researchers found, were backed up by scientific literature. The weakness of the websites' claims lies in their reliance on the information that's provided online. The "matching," Karney explained, is based on online profiles: politics, religion, likes and dislikes.
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