Academic journal article Journal of Social Structure

The Invisible Contours of Online Dating Communities: A Social Network Perspective

Academic journal article Journal of Social Structure

The Invisible Contours of Online Dating Communities: A Social Network Perspective

Article excerpt

(ProQuest: ... denotes formulae omitted.)

Online dating is an increasingly popular context for meeting romantic partners. In a recent survey, Rosenfeld and Thomas (2012) found that the internet is quickly displacing traditional relationship venues, including family, school, neighborhood, workplace, and friends. According to a national study (Cacioppo et al. 2013), approximately one-third of respondents married between 2005 and 2012 met on-line, and perhaps surprisingly, these marriages tended to be at least as satisfying and stable as those formed offline. Online dating's rapid climb and apparent success is even more remarkable given the generally negative label it held less than two decades ago (Anderson 2005; Wildermuth and Vogl-Bauer 2007). Today, online dating is a multi-billion dollar industry with a myriad of increasingly sophisticated technological tools, ranging from online sites with complex matching algorithms to geographically synced mobile device applications that search and filter potential matches in real time.

With the floodgates open, social scientists are scrambling to understand online dating's peculiarities and to use dating site data to investigate individual partner preferences. Studies of the latter investigate traces of online daters' actual choices (e.g., examine which dater profiles are viewed and contacted) to provide concrete evidence of partner preferences. Research in this vein documents strong homophilous preferences, whereby daters seek out partners similar to themselves on many important socio-demographic characteristics, including shared race, educational status, physical attractiveness, perceived popularity, and age (Anderson et al. 2014; Hitsch, Hortacsu, and Ariely 2010a; 2010b; Lewis 2013; Lin and Lundquist 2013; Skopek et al. 2010; Taylor, Fiore, Mendelsohn, and Cheshire 2011). These studies are noteworthy because they provide a basis for observed broader patterns of homogamy and rising rates of between-couple socioeconomic inequality (McLanahan 2004).

Nevertheless, internet dating research tends to focus on micro-level interactions, often between pairs, with little attention paid to "meso-level" patterns that emerge among participants. The interdependence of online daters' actions may create systemic outcomes that are inconsistent with observed micro-level patterns (Coleman 1990). Here, we argue that the aggregation of daters' online activities creates a network unobservable to the daters themselves, which shapes dating opportunities and helps to explain observed macro-level patterns.

Note, too, that scholars repeatedly call for greater attention to the broader social environment of dating and mating (e.g., Berscheid 1999; Felmlee and Sprecher 2000) to offset the traditional concentration of existing research on individual and demographic characteristics. To the extent that the social context of romantic and marital relationships receives attention, the focus tends to be largely on the influence of networks of friends and family members (e.g., Agnew, Loving and Drigotas 2001; Felmlee 2001; Sinclair, Felmlee, Sprecher, and Wright 2015). Here, in one of the first studies of its kind, we extend the investigation of romantic context to explore the network of interactions connecting potential dating partners themselves.

In this research, we use network theory and methods to illuminate the invisible network of online daters within a single city and the network's component clusters, where clusters consist of sets of individuals who tend to interact with similar potential partners. We then use multivariate analyses to examine which sociodemographic attributes most account for inclusion in particular network communities. Based on prior microlevel studies of partner preferences, we expect that characteristics, such as race, education, attractiveness, and age will differentiate membership in the various network clusters. However, an alternative hypothesis is that the aggregation of individual choices will result in clusters dominated by one or two dater qualities. …

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