Our Deepest Fears Realized: Most Couples Meet Online Now

Meeting online is trending upward, and fewer and fewer people are meeting at work, school, or through friends or family.
couple on phones

In 2017, 39 percent of opposite-sex couples first saw each other as clusters of pixels on a screen, while nearly every other method for meeting partners — at work, through friends, through school — has dropped off, according to a new dataset analysis released this week. This means that the internet may have largely replaced friends and family as the way that couples meet.

The authors, two researchers from Stanford and the University of New Mexico, collected surveys from 3,510 heterosexual couples, asking broadly “How did you meet?” Two percent of couples who connected in 1995 met via the internet, a slice of the pie that nudged to 5 percent in 2000 and rocketed to about 20 percent for couples who met in 2010. The study, yet to be published but provisionally accepted at the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, draws on a dataset that has been periodically updated since 2009 and has shown internet dating trending upward for some time. This version not include same-sex or nonbinary couples because they have always had more reason to use the internet to meet potential partners, according to the authors.) The Pew Research Center has also affirmed the upward internet dating trendline in past years.


During this same time, the percentage of opposite-sex couples who met via friends fell from 33 percent in 1995 to 20 percent in 2017. (Before it had been steady at about a third since 1980.) Couples who met through family dropped from 15 percent in 1995 and to 7 percent in 2017 and those who started as coworkers slipped from 19 percent to 11 percent. Couples who met through neighbors, college, high school or church were always small data blips but those couplings have decreased, too, as Tinder and Bumble have ascended.

“Internet dating has displaced friends and family from their former roles as key intermediaries in the formation of new unions. Disintermediation, i.e. the removal or subordination of the human intermediary between two parties, is a fundamental social outcome of the Internet,” the study concludes. And the stats don’t even fully capture the scope of the impact: Upon further questioning of participants, the authors found some couples who met up at a tavern or eatery (the only category other than online to also increase since 1995) actually only did so after connecting online.

The researchers guessed at four reasons as to why dating has swung so heavily toward meeting online and away from real-life social situations and dynamics: a broader selection pool; a venue divorced from friends or family where specific dating preferences or activities can be expressed without judgment; up-to-date information on who is available and looking; and the promise of compatibility through survey questions and preferences, like the percentage match markers of OKCupid or the exhaustive personality testing of eHarmony (of course, there are intense skeptics to online dating “science”). It's easier, in many senses.

But the apparent easiness also becomes ironic when considering that, even as people are having more success with internet dating, they are also becoming vastly more frustrated, if the endless stream of memes and criticism are any indication. But we don’t have to guess about this: 2018 study of Britons found that 45 percent of respondents had used them at some point but 37 percent say dating apps are their least preferred method to meet a new partner.

Online dating may also seem compelling even when it isn’t delivering on results: A study last year showed that people tend to chase potential partners online who are more 25 percent more attractive than they are, suggesting the “success” of these apps hinge at least in part on a kind of widened, illusory higher-quality dating pool they might not deliver on.