The search for love in the digital age tends to stir up a lot of anxiety. As evidenced by the countless dystopian portrayals of technologically mediated love that come across our screens as well as real-world conversations with friends and colleagues, we're collectively wary of online dating and its implications for the future of romance and human connection. Meanwhile, IRL origin stories are seen as sacred.
Why are we so hesitant to believe that online dating can work? Maybe it's the stigma. According to the Pew Research Center, about a quarter of Americans agree with the statement that "people who use online dating sites are desperate." Considering that one of the most cliché pieces of advice we hear is "love will find you when you least expect it," that shouldn't come as a surprise. But the truth of the matter is that more and more people have been using the internet and/or dating apps to find romantic partners, whether they're looking for something casual or long-term.
In fact, a 2015 Pew poll demonstrated that 5% of couples met online. By 2017, about 39% of heterosexual couples that got together in the U.S. in met online, according to a study by sociologists Michael Rosenfeld and Sonia Hausen of Stanford University and Reuben Thomas of the University of New Mexico. For same-sex couples that year, the figure was 60%. But does online dating actually work? Perhaps to get to the crux of the matter, you have to think about what your goal is and carefully consider your personality and lifestyle. And while it's always best to experience things for yourself, it's helpful to hear from others who have tried it with some firsthand accounts below.
Different Strokes for Different Folks
Before we ask whether online dating works, we need to figure out what constitutes a successful experience. And part of that is finding out what people set out looking for and whether those objectives are met.
When we asked NYC resident Teddy why he uses dating apps, he said: "I use them to meet people outside of my social circles. I love going on first dates with strangers; I find it to be either mysterious and romantic, or hilariously awkward and uncomfortable." Though he's able to roll with the punches if there's not a connection, he does clarify that his intentions are never platonic. "I've never intended to find friends on apps. I meet with the intention of finding some sort of romantic chemistry."
Conversely, another woman we spoke to mentioned that she knew within five minutes of meeting one date IRL that there was no attraction, but because they had mutual friends and interests, she hung out with him for about two hours. Since she's dating to find new friends or a romantic spark, she says the experience can be confusing or disappointing on both ends, as there's often this assumption built into online dating that you're not looking for friendship.
Some of the other people we spoke to ended up in committed relationships, though that wasn't necessarily what they were looking for when they starting swiping. One L.A.–based woman we spoke to, Eleanor, used dating apps for about a year until she met her boyfriend. "I would use apps every time I was home alone, bored, and curious to see what was out there or just to pass time. It was fun talking to people whether it led to a date or not, and it was fun to meet people," she says.
Abby, a San Francisco native, wasn't sure what to expect when she initially signed up. "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 and looking for more experience." However, she ultimately ended up in a long-term relationship with a person she met on an app.
And while many have clear expectations from the outset, there are plenty of people who change their minds. This is true for Jasmine, who shares that while her goal changed frequently, her underlying hope was to find something meaningful. Dan says he joined after a breakup and sometimes felt like he was looking for a rewarding relationship, while other times the meetup was motivated by a desire for sex without commitment. As for Sharon, she was "looking for a serious relationship" from the start, though she "also liked the prospect of meeting new people and exploring a new city together. It was right when I moved to NY and was getting out of a fling, so I wanted to try something new."
IRL Versus Online Introductions
Curious to find out whether there was a difference between meeting a date through an app or IRL, we asked the participants to share their experiences. "Personally, when I meet someone through an app, I feel like I have more freedom to act differently," Teddy shares. "Usually we have no common connections, so we're starting from a clean slate with no real preconceived notions about the other person."
"On the upside," he continues, "there's a thrill in exploring parts of my identity and meeting people from different walks of life. On the downside, I sometimes find myself (and others) acting inconsiderately because of the anonymity factor; you won't be held accountable for your actions because you'll probably never see that person again."
Says Violet, another young woman living in L.A.: "I really like when I have mutual friends with a guy—I feel more comfortable. I also think there's more accountability to be polite when you meet through mutual friends. If I don't know you and don't know your friends, etc., there's less incentive for me to actually meet up with you, and ghosting seems a lot easier on dating apps."
But Jasmine disagrees. "I found that there's no real difference between apps and meeting someone randomly. I will say, though, that for control freaks like me, it's nice to be able to almost hold the keys to my dating destiny. I never understood the people who waited around for their Prince Charming—if you want the fairy tale, sometimes you have to go out of the castle or out of your comfort zone to find what you're looking for," she explains.
On the flip side, another woman says meeting someone in person can eliminate the gamble of whether or not you'll have physical chemistry. Eleanor brings up the point of mutual friends, too, but a has a different take than Violet. "Dating someone I've met randomly is pretty similar to dating someone on an app. Both are random people who could be complete strangers with no ties to your life," she says.
"If you're linked up through friends, which you can see on dating apps and social media, it can be easier and harder," she continues. "You're learning about a person's life and their baggage from scratch versus learning about them through a mutual friend. And if you end up in a strong relationship with a person you met randomly or through an app, it's quite amazing when you blend your lives together."
"Honestly, I think that the main difference between meeting someone on a dating app and meeting someone in a more organic way is that through a dating app, you know right off the bat that the person is interested in you. They're using the dating app to meet people so there's no question about whether or not they're interested—if you go out, you know they either want to hook up or want a connection. I think it eliminates some of the uncertainty that accompanies meeting people through friends or randomly," Abby says.
In a similar line of thinking, Sharon explains that "when you meet someone randomly, like at a bar, it's unlikely to end up sharing a ton of interests with the other person. Backgrounds of where you grew up and how you grew up, religious or political affiliations could be very different, which I found was ultimately the reason why I didn't see a future with certain people I met in organic settings that were fun to hang out with but lacked common visions." She also says that setups can be awkward, too, since you or your mutual friend could end up upset if it doesn't work out.
Dating Is a Learning Curve
Regardless of how things pan out, most of the people we talked to agree that dating is a great way to discover new things about yourself. "Going on dates has actually helped me realize where I'm at emotionally. If I go on dates and I'm just instantly not feeling them or not giving them a chance at all, I realize I'm clearly not in a place to actually open myself up," Violet says. "I also learn what I like and what I don't like through dating, which is really important."
"I've learned so much," Jasmine says. "You'll find the type of relationship you believe you can have, the kind of relationship you have with yourself, and the kind of person you are in a relationship. If you want a better relationship, you have to work on the one you have with yourself, no matter how cliché that sounds. Because if you find The One but haven't worked on yourself (or you don't think you deserve that love), you will for sure lose it."
Abby's take on this topic is a bit different. "My biggest lesson I've learned through dating—two serious relationships (one that originated on a dating app and the other in person) as well as more casual dates—is that I tend to blend my life really quickly with people I'm interested in and struggle to set clear boundaries from the outset," she explains. "When I like someone, I often try to get to know them better by checking out restaurants or TV shows they like, hanging out with their friends, and spending as much time with them as possible. While this makes sense, I think one thing I have been working on more recently is keeping a better sense of myself in a relationship and setting clear boundaries that ensure the person I am with respects my needs, desires, and interests as much as I respect theirs."
Dating App Mishaps
For anyone with reservations, the good news is that the dates that don't work out as planned usually turn into funny stories. Violet remembers one particularly strange date: "My date arrived at the bar a few minutes before me. He had ordered a beer. When we left, he told me he deliberately didn't pay for the beer he had. Even worse, he kept dropping it to the floor and saying 'internet boy!' while pointing to himself." Teddy took a different approach to a bad meetup, laughing about a time when the boy 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 offered to pick him up rolled up 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. Another one of his rendezvous resulted in a one-night stand. The next day he found what turned out to be her Nuva Ring and had to return it to her, despite the fact that they had mutually decided not to see each other again.
So Does Online Dating Work?
While it's clear that online dating doesn't have a 100% success rate, most of the people we asked thought it was a worthwhile experience when they were able to identify their goals or develop meaningful connections. For example, Sharon's story: "I'm getting married to an amazing person I met on the app Coffee Meets Bagel. Daniel was my third match. When he canceled his account, the app asked him why he was leaving. He said that he met someone. We dated for four years after that and are now engaged," she tells us.
Abby says, "The second dating app date I ever went on led to a serious relationship, so I kind of ended up finding a real connection a lot quicker than I imagined. While that relationship did not work out in the end, having met a serious boyfriend on a dating app, I now totally believe that they can lead to real connections and long-term relationships."
The same is true for Eleanor. "It did give me what I was looking for," she tells us. "I ended up meeting someone awesome, and we've been dating for nearly a year, so in one way or another, it gave me more than what I was looking for. But before it did, I was often frustrated (though that might also be the case with dating in general)." Jamesine echoes this idea: "I think, in general, whether you're using an app or meeting someone at the bar, if you're clear with your intentions and you communicate what you want, you can find someone who is right for you. And in my case, once I decided what I really wanted, I found someone who wanted the exact same thing."
Still, there are plenty of people who have decided that dating apps aren't for them. "I've met a few nice guys and saw one of them for a few months, but by and large, the spark just wasn't there when I met them face to face," Violet says. Teddy has mixed feelings, telling us he only occasionally finds what he's looking for. "I've learned to not have any expectations, so I've rarely been disappointed. I've networked on them, I've had one-night flings, and I've dated people for months afterward. On the opposite spectrum, I've had dates last no more than 30 minutes because there wasn't a vibe."
Abby puts it best: "While there are plenty of people out there who still find fun flings or real connections in real life, and while some would still rather do it that way, it's safe to say that online dating does work in some shape or form," she tells us. "Whether you end up only learning about yourself and what you're looking for, or you establish a long-term commitment—or even if you form a real connection with someone who ultimately doesn't work out—online dating can help you grow."
Vogels EA. 10 Facts About Americans and Online Dating. Pew Research Center. February 6, 2020.
Rosenfeld MJ, Thomas RJ, Hausen S. Disintermediating Your Friends: How Online Dating in the United States Displaces Other Ways of Meeting. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Sep 2019;116(36):17753-17758. doi:10.1073/pnas.1908630116