Both men and women who pay a little extra to browse online dating sites anonymously get fewer matches, a new study shows. But that’s especially true for women who are often reluctant to make the first move.
Out of 100,000 randomly selected new users, researchers gave 50,000 free access to the anonymous browsing feature for a month, which allowed them to view profiles of other users without leaving telltale digital traces.
The researchers expected the anonymity feature to lower social inhibitions—and it did. Compared to the control group, users with anonymous browsing viewed more profiles. They were also more likely to check out potential same-sex and interracial matches.
Surprisingly, however, users who browsed anonymously also wound up with fewer matches (defined as a sequence of at least three messages exchanged between users) than their non-anonymous counterparts. This was especially true for female users: Those with anonymous browsing wound up with an average of 14% fewer matches.
WOMEN SEND WEAK SIGNALS
Jui Ramaprasad, an assistant professor of information systems at McGill University’s Desautels Faculty of Management, explains the reason why: Women don’t like to send personal messages to initiate contact.
In other words, she says, “We still see that women don’t make the first move.” Instead, they tend to send what the researchers call a “weak signal.”
“Weak signaling is the ability to visit, or ‘check out,’ a potential mate’s profile so the potential mate knows the focal user visited,” according to the study. “The offline ‘flirting’ equivalents, at best, would be a suggestive look or a preening bodily gesture such as a hair toss to one side or an over-the-shoulder glance, each subject to myriad interpretations and possible misinterpretations contingent on the perceptiveness of the players involved. Much less ambiguity exists in the online environment if the focal user views another user’s profile and leaves a visible train in his ‘Recent Visitors’ list.”
MEN OFTEN TAKE THE CUE
“Men send four times the number of messages that women do,” says co-author Akhmed Umyarov, an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management. “So the anonymity feature doesn’t change things so much for men.”
Experiments of this sort could be used in a range of online-matching platforms to help understand how to improve the consumer experience – though it’s important that the experiments be done ethically, the researchers say.
“Even though people are willing to pay to become anonymous in online dating sites, we find that the feature is detrimental to the average users,” says Ravi Bapna, study coauthor and a professor at the University of Minnesota. “Professional social networks, such as LinkedIn, also offer different levels of anonymity, but user behavior and the underlying psychology in these settings is very different from that of romantic social networks.”
As with many academic research projects, the idea for this experiment stemmed partly from serendipity.
“I happened to know a senior guy at an online dating site,” Ramaprasad explains. “Since he knew that I studied online behavior, he suggested, ‘Why don’t you study this?’” The site, referred to in the study by the fictitious name of monCherie.com, is one of the largest online dating websites in North America.
The study could lay the groundwork for further academic analysis of online dating sites. “We expect future research to examine in more depth the issue of match quality and longterm outcomes as they relate to marriage, happiness, longterm relationships, and divorce,” the researchers conclude.
The results of the study were published in Management Science.