Nikhil is investigating flirting and communication on online dating sites as part of Stanford’s Winter 2011 Networked Rhetoric class. See a more detailed overview of this assignment.
For my research project, I am investigating flirting between users of online dating sites. Specifically, I have decided to focus on gender differences in the initiation of contact. Several studies have found that men are significantly more likely than women to initiate contact on dating sites. And there are indications that this gender difference is more pronounced in online relationships than in offline dating. For instance, a 2004 study by Monica Whitty confirmed that while men made first contact more often than women online, both genders were equally likely to initiate flirting offline. Therefore, the goal of my research project is to determine what qualities of dating sites create this gender imbalance. In other words, how do dating sites encourage male initiation and/or discourage female initiation?
The article “Matching and Sorting in Online Dating” by Gunter Hitsch, Ali Hortascu, and Dan Ariely provides an interesting perspective on this question. In the study, the authors developed two models to describe how users determine whether to contact another person on a dating site. One model takes into account only the attraction between two users. The other builds on this first model by including the “costs” of initiating contact, such as the effort put into writing a message or the pain of receiving a rejection. To illustrate these two different models, the authors use the example of an unattractive man deciding whether to contact an attractive woman. In the first model, the man would contact the woman because of the attraction; but in the second model, the man may not initiate contact out of fear of being rejected. The authors then applied these models to a data set of information from over 5,000 dating site users. After statistical analysis, they found that the two models closely match each other given the user data. Put another way, the “costs” of initiating had little impact on individuals’ decisions to contact another user. This observation points to the idea that dating sites provide a less risky environment for flirting and romantic conversations. If there are fewer “costs” when initiating aconversation online rather than offline, then men might be more willing to start conversations online.
Of course, I need to supplement this idea with more research. I would have to describe how this effect encourages only males and not females to make contact, for example. But this article suggests that the gender differences in initiation may be due to the perceived “safety” of online dating.
-Nikhil Raghuram, Stanford University