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Hembarsky 1 Morgan Hembarsky March 12, 2014 COM 564

Positive Public Attitudes Towards Online Dating

Introduction: Online dating has transformed from a once obscure and almost taboo dating ritual to somewhat of a normality in today’s society.

Its increasing popularity is due in part to

accessibility, the multitude of platforms available, and affordability as some platforms and apps are free whereas others are one-time or monthly subscription payments. In an age where everyone seeks instant gratification, people no longer have to hope they bump into their “one true love” at the coffee shop; instead, they are given the added ability to find their perfect match at their fingertips. This paper will look at the positive shift of public opinion attitudes towards online dating and how social media and social networks play a prominent role in navigating romantic relationships in the digital era. According to a PEW research study one in every ten American adults has used an online dating site or mobile dating app. In addition, 66% of online daters have said they went out with an individual they met either online or through a mobile phone app, a stark increase from the 43% asked the same question in PEW’s first study conducted on online dating back in 2005. Furthermore, one fourth of online daters have said they met their long-term partner or spouse through these sites (Smith & Duggan, 2013). Even though there is skepticism and dubious beliefs about online dating, public attitudes are shifting and becoming more favorable. PEW found that 59% of Internet users believe online dating is a good way to meet people while 53%


2 believe that online dating allows people to find a better match because they can get to know significantly more people in one space (Smith & Duggan, 2013). We can see the increase in numbers due in part to changing societal norms and influence from social media and close social networks.

Reasons for Interest in Online Dating: Although research geared towards proving that online dating produces more successful romantic relationships versus conventional methods is inconclusive, there are many reasons why an individual would be attracted to online dating sites. For example, online dating provides users a deep pool of potential partners outsides of one’s existing social network. No longer do people have to question if an individual is interested in getting to know more, the guessing game is dissolved because most users have the same intentions. The interaction via the Internet brings more variety of potential suitors from different geographic locations, interests, and backgrounds. According to Psychology Today, the major element that attracts single individuals to online dating is the comforting sense that they are not alone. Online dating also offers the


Hembarsky 3 potential to engage in communication that was once limited to public arenas like bars and parties, something that is difficult for those with busy schedules (Diller, 2013). It can be especially beneficial for those who are more reserved or skeptical. Through the use and maintenance of an online profile, one can provide detailed information that was once difficult in real-time interactions. Essentially, it gives users the ability to see “whether a connection is made or a romantic relationship develops” before investing too much time and energy (Diller, 2013). Simply communicated by a Match.com commercial, online dating allows you to “date how you want, who you want, [and] when you want to” (http://bit.ly/1g2Sdf5).

Public Opinion & Attitudes: In order to look at public attitudes towards online dating, the definition of a public must be defined in terms of the research for this paper. First, the public is nontraditional; online dating is a relatively new concept; those using online dating sites are unfamiliar with the experience but are gradually evolving over time. Second, it is an active public because the users recognize the intersection of their values and those of the online dating sites, which have responded to the wants and needs of their users. Third, it is a primary public because online dating users directly affect the companies (Match.com, E-Harmony.com, etc.) and their ability to reach set goals like number of users and number of matches. This public is also an external public in that the users are located outside the online dating companies and therefore removed from their ideals. Lastly, this public is international because the users are located beyond the boarders of the company’s region and it utilizes the Internet to breach communities, which were once unable to connect. All together the public this paper will focus on is a nontraditional, active, primary, external, international public.


4 There are a variety of variables used to predict an individual’s attitude towards online dating. Education, age, Internet frequency, Internet activity, and general trust towards others are important indicators of an individual’s opinion. Following PEW’s 2005 initial publication of their finding on online dating results, Xue conducted an experiment to determine who these online daters were. Comparing demographics, gender, age, and frequency of people’s attitudes towards online dating behaviors, Xue found that the public with the most positive views of online dating are younger males, people with mid levels of education and higher income, and those with higher levels of online activity (Xue, 2009). She proposes this as the target audience for online daters for a few reasons: 1) women fear the risk of sexual solicitation more than men, 2) higher educated people are relatively open to and use more technology to facilitate their lives, 3) those with higher incomes are likely more busy and therefore don’t have much time to meet potential matches, and 4) those more active online (ex: sending email, searching news online, participating in online chats or blogs) are more open and trusting of online information. With the public pertaining to the online dating community defined, what public opinion is and how it is formed must be outlined as well. Researchers Page, Shapiro, and Dempsey have worked to define what makes up public opinion. Although their research mostly pertains to government policies, it can also be applied to public opinions like online dating.

These

researchers believes there are five conditions that must be met in order to influence and decide what constitutes as the public opinion: 1) the information being displayed and projected must be actually received, 2) the information must be understood correctly and fully, 3) the information must be relevant and up for evaluation, 4) the information must be inconsistent with past beliefs, and 5) the information must be credible (Page, Shapiro, & Dempsey, 1987, pg. 24). Within the realm of online dating, these five conditions are met. The idea of online dating has been pitched and received by the public. This can be seen with the rise in online


Hembarsky 5 dating sites and thousands of worldwide users. Online dating sites also have a very simple mission statement of connecting people with similar values and desires. Users easily understand this with the select few who may use sites for careless purposes other than their original intent. The art of dating will always be relevant; however, online dating puts a modern spin on preexisting, past beliefs. In addition, credibility and trust are byproducts of increasing exposure and awareness to not only dating sites but the Internet as well. When these conditions are met “new information should alter an individual’s preferences and choices…[and] if the conditions are met in the same way for many individuals, there may be a change in collective public opinion” (Page, Shapiro, & Dempsey, 1987, pg. 24). With this said, online dating not only meets this criteria but is being more widely accepted and viewed positively as society continues to progress. Although there is a general acceptance of online dating, not all attitudes towards it are positive. According to Anderson, some people believe that online relationships are unsustainable and a product of “last attempt[s] …by desperate people” (Anderson, 2005). Risk is the fear most associated with negativity towards online dating. Donn and Sherman conducted a study where they examined the attitudes towards online dating websites and found relatively negative responses. Participants found that they worried about their safety when online communication transitioned to offline romantic relationships. There seemed to be an underlying fear that potential suitors were desperate to seek sexual partners. Doubts of an individual’s motivation and social skills added to this fear in which participants were unwilling to risk (Donn & Sherman, 2002). These studies are legitimate and showcase potential for negative reactions; however, it is important to keep in mind the ever changing and fluent ways of the Internet. These reports may be considered somewhat dated as they are from the past decade. In that time, the Internet has


6 more so embedded itself into everyday life as well as the credibility of emerging online dating sites. Therefore, the culmination of new and emerging media and its influence helps form public opinion.

Social Networks, The Internet: Media use significantly correlates between people’s attitudes and exposure. An increased willingness to try online dating stems from an increase in exposure to the Internet, options for dating sites, and a range of available users. As the only means for online dating to survive, access to the Internet is pertinent. Usage can be associated with patterns of exposure and the affinity created for the medium. Anderson describes this Internet affinity as “the degree to which people feel attached to the Internet and the sense of importance [it is] granted” (Anderson, 2005, pg. 523). In its earliest stages the Internet was nothing more than a glorified bulletin board where users could exchange software, data, messages, and news with one another. Today’s society and various publics incorporate the Internet into daily activities through much more extensive ways. The rise of new communication technologies along with growing acceptance offers the public varied and novel opportunities to engage in content. Social media is one of the most rapidly emerging news media outlets and platforms used to connect to others. Weeks and Holbert have researched the dissemination of news and content via social media outlets. They state, “social media…allow[s] consumers to not only receive news from friends, family, and news organizations, but also easily disseminate this media content to their social network” (Weeks & Holbert, 2013, pg. 212). Weeks continues by explaining how social media is growing as a prominent outlet for news engagement. Social media provides an outlet that links all


Hembarsky 7 groupings of people from one’s social network, therefore allowing the fastest and easiest way to disperse information to as many people as possible. Weeks and Holbert believe there are two elements critical to the success of social media, reception and friending. Reception “is the consumption of news content, akin to traditional exposure, while friending is the act of establishing a formal link between oneself and another entity within a social media environment” (Weeks & Holbert, 2013, pg. 213). They argue that these elements serve as positive predictors of news dissemination, enhanced values, and greater understanding of other people. The development of the Internet and its capabilities to connect people reaches new dimensions within the dating realm. Not only can you “meet” and connect with someone you’ve never psychically encountered before, but also there are no geographic boundaries limiting the spread of information. As online dating continues to flourish and more people turn to this newer form of socializing there is undoubtedly going to be a rise in talk about the online communities and their benefits. Social media platforms offer the venue for those opinions to be expressed and therefore influence other individuals on the subject. As we have discussed in class, there are two types of people who regularly volunteer themselves into polls or surveys; those who have had a positive experience and want to share the benefits with others and those who have had a negative experience and want to warn others against particular products or issues. Social media provides the space for these two groups to express themselves with those who matter most to them via their social network. Not only does it play a role in spreading awareness or information about online dating, but social media site like Facebook and Twitter can now be used as a way individuals experience their past and current romantic relationships. According to PEW, one third of all users on social networking sites have “stalked” or checked up on an ex they used to date. In addition, 17% of users have used these avenues to post details or pictures from a date (Smith & Duggan, 2013). When


8 looking at the numbers for younger adults age 18-29 the numbers are significantly higher due to the increase of time spent on social networking sites.

Social Networks, Direct Influence: Social media is a platform that provides a singular space for one’s social networks to gather and disseminate news and content at once. Sites like Facebook and Twitter allow us to view individual’s opinions on such matters like online dating and help one formulate his/her own opinion. The weight and credibility we give to our social networks and their direct influence over us is measurable. PEW’s research has shown that 29% of all Americans know someone who has used online dating services to find a spouse or long-term relationship while 42% of all Americans know an online dater, an increase from 31% in 2005 (Smith & Duggan, 2013). These numbers prove the increased familiarity with online dating via usage through friends or family members. John Axsen, a post-doctoral researcher from the University of California at Davis, evaluates social influence and how individuals give significant weight and credibility to friends and family’s thoughts and opinions. Although he focuses primarily on consumer decisions, his theology can be easily translated into being influenced to try online dating. Axen states, “our interactions with friends, families and coworkers affect the way we make decisions, how we value the environment, and how our lifestyle relates to our…decisions.” He breaks up the thinking process and rational an individual experiences when receiving and digesting information from friends and family. This first stage is diffusion, or how people learn from one another. Axen relates one’s social influences via social networks to the “early adopters” or experts who help transmit information and build general awareness about particular products or practices. In this case


Hembarsky 9 individuals who are easily susceptible to positive (or negative) opinions/reviews of online dating sites and those comfortable asking questions and seeking education of the topic are seen as the “early majority.” The second stage is translation or how an individual accesses their personal cost and benefits to the product or in this case online dating.

This process involves

communication between the early adopter and the early majority to discuss the pros and cons of the situation to determine if it should be consumed.

This is where those with positive

experiences express why an individual should try online dating like the various reasons stated previously in this paper. The last stage is reflexivity or how an individual measures up their values to a product (Axsen, 2011). In terms of online dating, once an individual is intrigued enough by persuasion or influence from outside sources, they must decide if it is the right choice for them personally. If one believes potential suitors on a site have similar interests, motivations, or desires that align with theirs than they see the value in their participation increase. Essentially, family and friends are efficient and effective sources for information that divulge it with the intent to incite a thought or action that will possibly benefit the targeted individual’s life. In this particular case, friends and family who have heard affirmative things or had positive experiences within online dating are more willing to share that information and influence someone who has similar values to try it for themselves. Watts and Dodd’s argument parallels that of Axsen. According to their research, “a minority of individuals who influence an exceptional number of their peers—are important to the formation of public opinion.”

They use Katz’s Hypodermic Needle theory to explain the

progression of information from an influential individual to the critical mass. They note that opinion leaders are not “leaders” in the traditional sense of those who are public figures or head formal organizations. The leaders Watts and Dodd refer to are those who have direct influence and are “highly informed, respected, or simply ‘connected’” (Watts & Dodds, 2007). Essentially,


10 the people with immediate influence like friends, family, and immediate social networks affect the rate of adoption.

Think back to the last Match.com commercial you have seen

(http://bit.ly/1it9ywY is a great one to watch)...not only are people talking about how they want to be in charge of their dating life, but also multiple “real life” users give credit to a friend or family member who suggested they try the site.

Relevant Communication Theories: There are various communication theories that can explain the public’s growing positive outlook on online dating. Lucas Braun researched this topic in depth, so much so that he published his thesis paper on the communication theories related to social media and public opinion. Braun makes the first connection to social media using Katz and Rubin’s 1970s Uses and Gratifications Theory suggesting that the users play an active role in choosing and using the respected media to satisfy their needs (Braun, 2012, pg. 27). Online daters are consciously choosing to participate, deciding what site they wish to use and the level of commitment and


Hembarsky 11 interest they give to the site and potential suitors. In turn, by the population choosing and accepting online dating sites it influences the media agenda and places online dating in the forefront of people’s minds as a useful and acceptable source for finding one’s match. As stated before, Axsen’s third stage of the thinking process behind an individual receiving information or suggestions from friends and family is how an individual measures up their values to a product. This can be directly related to Subjective Media Acceptance Theory whereupon the use and adoption of specific media is dependent on an individual’s affections. Instead of fulfilling criteria like efficiency, this theory relies on personal subjective preferences (Braun, 2012, pg. 9). For example, a user may pick a particular dating website because its ease of use, breath and scope of potential suitors, or lower costs. These preferences can be influenced from the outside like a positive review for the site a user finds on rating boards or online forums. This may also be the case for various niche dating sites like: Farmers Only, Veggie Date (for vegetarians), Beautiful People, Geek2Geek, Christian Mingle, etc. Online dating site are now catering to the exact wants and needs of individuals, in turn creating the most optimal pool of potential suitors and encouraging users to search. Basing needs off of an individual’s preference comes into consideration when looking at Social Learning Theory.

Developed by Albert Bandura in 1977, this theory suggests that

learning is a cognitive process that takes place in a social context and can occur through direct instruction or reinforcement. Bandura believes that humans are information processors and think about the relationship between their behavior and the consequences. In relation to online dating, individuals consume responses to online dating and the shift of its once taboo reputation to a more traditional behavior. In a “monkey see, monkey do” attitude, those who see online dating rewarding individuals with positive relationships instinctively are interested in what these sites can do for them. Bandura states, “people come to expect that certain actions will gain them


12 outcomes they value” (Bandura, 1977, pg. 3). This way of thinking is true for online dating users – if they hear positive reinforcement and expect positive results than they are more apt to trying the sites to see how it can value them. In addition, influences from one’s social environment might be cause for an individual to select a particular online dating site. The theory behind this thinking is related to the Social Influence Approach. The general opinion of friends, family, neighbors, coworkers, etc. has great influence on one’s opinion and competes with individual preference. This theory links the desirability of a medium with the “critical mass” or quantity of its users (Braun, 2012, pg. 10). With an increase in social networks comes the increase in communication. Platforms like Facebook and Twitter provide a space for comments or critiques about various types of media, like online dating sites, that gives weight to the public opinion. The influence from the critical mass and those of most influence may be the reason select online dating sites are more prominently featured and referred to like Match.com or eHarmony.com.

Conclusion: There is an increase in online dating behaviors due to increase in Internet accessibility, availability, and willingness.

With more access to information through various forms of

communication comes exposure and awareness to online dating, in turn influencing potential online dating users. There are a variety of reasons one would be willing to try online dating such as hectic schedules, the ability to reach outside one’s social network, and to get to know someone a little better before a first date. Although commercial entertainment plays a role in guidance, some of the most measurable influences are those from social media and immediate, direct with social networks. Individuals are more incline to not only listen to opinions from those they know personally, but they are most persuaded and coaxed into trying something suggested by them as


Hembarsky 13 well.

Early adopters, especially those active in social networks, are a main source for

disseminating information through to the early majority and enforcing the growing public opinion. Social media and online networking platforms provide an outlet for these opinions and fostering discussions while influencing potential users.

There are various communication

theories to explain these behaviors related to the positive shifts in public attitudes towards online dating like Uses and Gratifications, Subjective Media Acceptance, Social Learning Theory, and Social Influence Approach. Each of these theories utilize the idea that individuals are easily influenced by those closest to them and improvements like online dating that are thought to enhance and add value to one’s life.

Resources

Anderson, TL. (2005). Relationships among Internet attitudes, Internet use, romantic beliefs, and perceptions of online romantic relationships. CyberPsychology & Behavior, 8(6): 521-531. doi: 10.1089/cpb.2005.8.521 Axen, J., (2011, May). Social Influence and Sustainable Transport: What Your Friends and Family Think Does Matter. UC Davis. Retrieved March 2014, from http://www.its.ucdavis.edu/research/research-findings/social-influence-and-sustainabletransport-what-your-friends-and-family-think-does-matter/ Bandura, A. (1977). Social Learning Theory. Stanford University, pgs. 305-316. Retrieved April 2014, from http://www.asecib.ase.ro/mps/Bandura_SocialLearningTheory.pdf


14 Braun, L. (2012). Social Media and Public Opinion. Published Master’s Thesis, University of Valencia, Spain. Retrieved April 2014, from http://mural.uv.es/lubraun/Social-Media-andPublic-Opinion_LucasBraun_2012.pdf Diller, V. (2013). Connecting Through Online Dating. Psychology Today. Retrieved April 2014, from http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/face-it/201302/connecting-through-onlinedating Donn, J.E., & Sherman, R.C. (2002). Attitudes and practices regarding the formation of romantic relationships on the Internet. CyberPsychology & Behavior, 5 (2):107–123. doi: 10.1089/109493102753770499 Page, B., Shapiro, R., Dempsey, G. (1987) What Moves Public Opinion. The American Political Science Review, 81(1): 23-44. Smith, A. & Duggan, M. (2013). Online Dating & Relationships. In Pew Research Center. Retrieved from http://www.pewinternet.org/2013/10/21/online-dating-relationships/ Watts, D., & Sheridan Dodds, P. (2007). Influentials, Networks, and Public Opinion Formation. Journal of Consumer Research, 34(4): 441-458. doi: 10.1086/518527 Weeks, B., & Holbert, R. (2013). Predicting Dissemination of News Content in Social Media: A Focus on Reception, Friending, and Partisanship. Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, 90(2): 212-220. doi: 10.1177/1077699013482906 Xue, L., (2009). Sociological Examination of People’s Attitude Towards Online Dating. American Sociological Association Online <PDF> from http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p309875_index.html


Positive Public Attitudes Towards Online Dating