We suggest that online dating frequently fails to meet user expecta-tions because people,unlike many commodities available for purchase online,are experience goods: Daters wish to screen potential romantic partners by experiential attributes (such as sense of humor or rapport),but online dating Web sites force them to screen by search able attributes (such as income or reli-gion). We demonstrate that people spend too much time searching for options online for too little payoff in offline dates (Study 1),in part because users desire information about experiential attributes,but online dating Websites contain primarily searchable attributes (Study 2). Finally, we introduceand beta test the Virtual Date,offering potential dating partners the opportu-nity to acquire experiential information by exploring a virtual environment in interactions analogous to real first dates (such as going to a museum), an online intervention that led to greater liking after offline meetings.
Online dating has emerged as an undoubtedly popu-lar way to meet potential partners: Some 11% of Internet users—16 million Americans—have used anonline dating Web site (Madden & Lenhart, 2006). The advent of online dating has both lowered the bar-rier to initiating contact (from a painful phone call toa click of a mouse) and simultaneously increased the number of available options. Despite this see mingpromise, however, results have been decidedly mixed.
Anecdotal evidence and market data suggest wide-spread user disappointment (Egan, 2003), and gro-with of the major online dating sites has slowed(JupiterResearch, 2005). These trends are particularlypuzzling in light of recent research demonstrating agenerally positive role for the Internet in forming and developing platonic relationships (e.g., Amichai-Hamburger & Furnham, 2007; Kraut et al., 2002;McKenna,Green,& Gleason,2002;Nie,2001;Sproull,Conley, & Moon, 2005). Given the positive effects ofthe Internet on platonic social life,there appears to begreat potential for the Internet to improve romanticlife as well.
We propose that understanding how romantic real-tionships are formed online can be informed by situ-ating online dating on the search versus experience continuum—or, more specifically, by realizing that people are the ultimate experience good. Wheth ersomeone joins a dating Web site to find her soul mate or a one-night stand, success is not determined solelyby her partner’s objective qualities (e.g., income andheight) but also by subjective qualities, based onmoment-to-moment rapport between herself and her potential partner. She cannot know, for instance,whether she will find a self-declared comedian funny in person, short of direct experience. Even viewing other’s impressions—via his friends’ comments on hissocial networking pages—is not a sure signal that his sense of humor will appeal to her;although know-ing others’ opinions may be helpful when pursuing