Lovin’ Online: Professor Dawn Shepard studies how online dating works

Lovin’ Online: Professor Dawn Shepard studies how online dating works

Photo Courtesy Dawn Shepard

Boise State professor Dawn Shepherd is interested in the disconnect between how people think about what they do online compared to how actions online are actually
completed.

For example, when we use a search engine such as Google, it’s more of a matching activity than a searching activity—matching the user to the material they are most likely to find relevant.

Shepherd’s focus, while pertaining to matching, doesn’t involve Google searches; instead Shepard’s research looks at people-matching, or in more common terms,
online dating.

The bulk of Shepherd’s research focuses on the algorithms online dating sites use to match people with one another.

Interestingly, online dating giants eHarmony and Match.com use completely different bases for creating potential relationships.

eHarmony was founded by psychiatrists and a marriage counselor. They conducted interviews and surveys of couples with long lasting, happy marriages and created a formula based on the “29 dimensions of compatibility.” These include everything from family goals to sense of humor to intellect to level of spirituality.Based on individual answers, eHarmony measures the user’s character and recommends people with whom he or she is likely to develop a relationship with a high level of relationship satisfaction.

eHarmony acts as a gatekeeper for its members.

“In some ways (eHarmony’s) relationship with its users is very paternalistic,” Shepherd said. “eHarmony doesn’t allow you (to) search the site. It says, ‘These are the 10 people we found for you.’”

Under eHarmony’s model, there isn’t always a relationship for everyone. If eHarmony determines a user does not have a likelihood of finding a successful relationship it won’t match him or her.

So what might exclude an eHarmony user from finding any matches?

“They’re things like character, anger management—so if you seem to exhibit the likelihood to not be able to control your anger, you quality of self-perception,” Shepherd said. “One of the things it includes is family background. If you’ve seen a lot of arguing and violence and those sorts of things it might make you less likely to have a happy, productive relationship.”

On the other hand, Match.com uses a system akin to Netflix. You rate certain activities or characteristics, such as traveling, working out or pets, on a basis of how important they are or how much you enjoy them.

“Match.com gathers thousands of bits of information not related to what makes you happy in a relationship or your personality, per se, but things like your hobbies and interests—things that are based around consumption,” Shepherd said.

Match.com then matches the user based on similarities. The more specific the ratings, the more specific the matches will be. Match.com also tracks users by habits and activity on the site and makes recommendations based on those.

“You might say, ‘I am interested in football and going to dinner and long walks on the beach,’ but when you’re on the site you’re actually looking at people with blond hair and blue eyes. You’re not even paying attention to those other things. It will actually use that information,” Shepherd said. “It doesn’t tell you that though. When it comes to which site works better, it just depends what a person is looking for. Match.com has a higher frequency of people going on dates but eHarmony has had more couples commit to marriage.

eHarmony is for people who are interested in a traditional path to marriage and a stricter filter, Shepherd stated. Match.com is less formal.While traditional college-age students are becoming a bigger presence on online dating sites, most young people whose relationships began online have met in less formal settings.

With the explosion of Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games (MMORPGs), such as Halo and World of Warcraft, people are spending more time online playing with strangers.

“There are lots of couples that meet through MMORPGs,” Shepherd said. “It’s not surprising. They spend hours and hours and hours playing together. They accomplish things together, so it’s not that different from meeting people at work.”As our society relies more and more on technology, online dating is likely to keep getting more prevalent.

“It might have occurred to you already that even in your lifetime dating has changed,” Shepherd said. “People are becoming more and more open about dating online. It’s just something that’s becoming part of the larger pulse of society.”