Online Dating Study: User Experiences of an Online Dating Community

By Andrea Quesnel
2010, Vol. 2 No. 11 | pg. 1/3 |

Increasingly, human interactions are being communicated by means of electronic, Internet-based medias. Readily available programs and websites facilitate easy transference of messages, thus rendering space and time irrelevant. The quick, efficient manner of Internet-based medias allow for easy access to users who want to examine a lot of content in an organized format within a short amount of time.

This concept is ideal for facilitating online dating networks where users seek to explore many users with the same intimate-based goals for using the community. Online dating communities are a growing industry, like social networking sites, and are similar in that they both provide interpersonal communication with others over the Internet.

In contrast to social networking sites, online dating communities are tailored specifically to users who are looking for a romantic partner, connection, or encounter. In the following research study, I aim to examine user’s experience of the online dating community, Plenty of Fish (POF). The experience a user has is based upon their reasons for participating, the level of their involvement in the community, and the qualities the community offers to its users.

Online dating meme

Image: Flickr/Cali4beach CC-2

The central questions this research study intends to answer are: what is the user’s experience of the online dating community, POF? How does the community itself influence the user’s experience of online dating? Why do users join and participate in online dating communities? And, what are positive/successful aspects of the community? What are the negative/unsuccessful aspects of the community?

As for delimitations, I will focus specifically on the free online dating community, Plenty of Fish, and users who are aged 23-30 living in Ottawa, Ontario. This age group was selected with the anticipation that participants would be out of school and beginning careers. At this stage in life, individuals tend to lack the social outlets generally used to meet potential partners. That is to say, they are freshly out of school, new to their careers and are frequenting bars and other social functions less than they once were.

Concerning limitations, this pilot study provides only a micro example of the experience of an online dating community. It will only take into consideration the experiences of 4 users from the Ottawa, Ontario Plenty of Fish community. Included in this sample size are 4 men between the ages of 23 and 30.

Although this sample will provide only a snapshot of a very particular area (city of Ottawa and the Plenty of Fish community) from the male point of view, it demonstrates the overall phenomenon of online dating communities and will display concepts common to the general experience of online daters involved in Internet dating communities.

This is a hermeneutical phenomenological study wherein the central purpose is to interpret and describe the user’s experience of the Plenty of Fish online dating community. This deals with the user’s reasons for joining, their activities and usage of the community, their perception of the community, and their opinions of positive and negative aspects of the community.

Within this perspective, my position as a researcher constantly be taken into account because my view of the topics and content found will naturally impact the interpretations I make. I will be making interpretations based on the lived experiences communicated to me in a textual form via MSN Messenger by users of Plenty of Fish. Based on these interpretations, I aim to describe the essence of the online dating phenomenon within the context of the Plenty of Fish community.

This topic was arrived at because of my interest in exploring Internet-based interpersonal communication. Aiming to arrive at a more concise topic, I selected online dating because of my interest and curiosity about this phenomenon. Not having any personal experience of utilizing online dating communities, my interest is founded in the concept that such an inherently human and private matter of finding a romantic partner is being administered in a public, online domain.

Having heard about this particular site, POF, from various friends and coworkers, I considered it to be a good community to select as a context for user’s experiences. Although it is an international website, users are grouped according to their local area, unless they wish to search users in a different, specific area. Membership in this community is free, which differentiates it form other major dating communities like eHarmony, LavaLife or Match.com. The users of a free community may be less serious, or less involved with utilizing the service compared to users who pay to be members of an inclusive community. The free quality of Plenty of Fish could also mean that it has a more diverse body of users due to its inclusivity.

Societal changes have caused the most private of matters to be taken online. Online communities of users seeking romantic connections by displaying themselves not only as users, but as a potential partners, is a signifier of the liberal, technologically-dependant era we are currently in. The prevalence of online dating is also a signifier of the over-stimulated and excessive nature of current society.

Generally, society is accustom to having wide varieties of everything from cereal to cars to choose from, and online dating contributes to this notion because it provides a large body of potential lovers to choose from. Choosing an online love interest allows users to be very picky in terms of the qualities they are looking for in a partner. Online dating is also a signifier of the time-poor society we live in because it allows users to “shop” for a lover at any time that is convenient for them. Further, the nature of online dating communities allows users to examine a huge variety of people within a short period of time, especially compared to the time it would take to sift through the same amount of people in “real” life.

This study will contribute to the existing knowledge of online dating communities because it is a micro example. This study focuses exclusively on one community, Plenty of Fish, and only examines users from Ottawa, Ontario, .

Although existing studies have looked into online dating as a phenomenon and examined user’s experiences of the communities and reasons for joining, they have been more broad-based and quantitative in nature.

There are terms that hold specific meaning within the context of this study. I will outline them here:

  • Online dating community: Within this study, this term means an interactive body of members who are active participants. A community differs from a website because of the multifaceted nature of the site itself and because members interact with one another through the site, as opposed to just accessing the content of the website.
  • User: Within this study, a user is an individual who holds membership in the POF community. They have signed up for membership by providing their personal information, creating a username and making a profile. By doing this, they grant other users access to their information, and likewise, are able to access the information of other users.
  • Plenty of Fish (POF): The online dating community examined in this study. It is free and allows for the grouping of users based on geographical area of residence, age, gender, sexual preference, and interests. This community contains a database of users, a search engine of users, an internal messaging system wherein each member has an inbox, a service to match users based on predetermined information, and a tool to see which members have viewed your profile.
  • Profile: A page used on Plenty of Fish as a representation of each user. It contains their personal information and pictures.

Review of Literature

In looking for background and supporting information for my study, I searched The International Journal of Qualitative Methods, and the Journal of Phenomenological for relevant content through the University of Ottawa library e-journal database. A hermeneutic study called, “Flirting on the Internet and the Hickey: A Hermeneutic” was available in the International Journal of Qualitative Methods.

The International Journal of Qualitative Methods contained, “Internet dating: a British survey”. The Journal of Phenomenological Psychology contained, “Dating & Intimacy in the 21 Century: The Use of Online Dating Sites in Australia”. The three studies differ in their approaches of examining online dating, but each contributes a valuable perspective to take into consideration when forming my study.

Using the University of Ottawa e-Journal database, the selected journals, The International Journal of Qualitative Methods and The Journal of Phenomenological Psychology, were accessed through host websites. Within those journals, key words “online”, “internet”, “dating”, “community”, and “communities” were used to search for relevant literature on this topic.

First, I will review the study, “Flirting on the Internet and the Hickey: A Hermeneutic” done by Richard Alapack, Flydal Blichfeldt, and Aake Elden. This study is a double hermeneutic and contains two narratives: interpretations of flirting over the Internet, and descriptive findings about the hickey. The study looks at the discrepancy between live flirting done in the flesh and “wired” flirting done over the Internet. The researchers interpret two preexisting studies on both Internet flirting and hickeys.

For the purposes of my present research study, I will be focusing solely on the interpretations of Internet flirting. The researchers define various concepts within their study of Internet flirting: virtual space, invisible contact, “netspeak”, arousal-by-text, imagination and fantasy, not truly knowing your Internet love interest, the discrepancy between the online and offline identity, simulation, and the ambiguity of cyberspace.

In the study, the researchers focus mostly on flirting in the sense of cybersex and chat rooms, whereas my study focuses on instances where users seek a romantic partner for a relationship that spans beyond the cyber realm. However, this study provides important information pertaining to my study regarding the cyber world within an erotic context.

On the subject of fantasy within online flirting, the researchers found that participants often fantasized about the people they chatted with online, whether sexual fantasies or simply fantasizing about what an online friend is like in “real” life. Because online chatting and dating renders many “real-life” personal qualities unknown or ambiguous, fantasy and imagination are natural occurrences to be expected.

This concept is relevant to my study because it pertains to the constructs participants may form in their experiences of POF. The researchers also touch on the discrepancy between one’s online identity and offline identity. Participants of the study explained their experiences of being pleasantly and unpleasantly surprised by the real identities of online love interests. This seemed to be an obvious aspect to be weary of when participating in online dating.

In the study, “Dating & Intimacy in the 21 Century: The Use of OnlineDating Sites in Australia” conducted by Millsom Henry-Waring and Jo Barraket of the University of Melbourne examined the influence of information and communication technologies (ICTs) on intimacy within the context of daily life. They take a sociological approach in order to attempt to understand how the growing trends in online dating are affecting the actual essence of dating in the 21st century. The researchers also point out that they consider online dating to be an integrated aspect of real life, and not an outside facet of it.

The study aimed to, “map the nature and scope of online dating trends in Australia; explore the effects of online ICTs on intimate connections, both off and online; and develop a robust theoretical framework and refined methodology for further research…” (Henry-Waning & Barraket, 2008, p. 16).

They performed a “web audit” of over 60 online dating websites in which they appraised features of the site within a predetermined time frame. The study also conducted in-depth interviews with 23 Australian online daters, 5 of them being men and 18 of them women, between the ages of 25 and 62. These interviews were conduced via Instant Messenger, email, telephone, and face-to-face.

Throughout the analysis and transcribing process, the researchers maintained a rhetorical framework that allows for the “ongoing construction and negotiation of social experience by seeking to reveal and understand the viewpoint of the actors involved” (Henry-Waning & Barraket, 2008, p. 16). This conceptual framework is similar the one adopted in my present research study in that I assume reality is negotiated and perceived only within the experiences of the individuals, or in this case, the participants.

Henry-Waning and Barraket used the following research questions to fuel the study: “Why are people using online dating services? How are people communicating online? In what ways do people connect emotionally and intimately on and off-line? Does online dating alter the very nature of intimacy, emotion and dating?” (p. 16 & 27) The questions regarding user’s reasons for joining and their online communication activities are similar to questions and themes raised in my present study.

By and large, they found that participants utilized dating sites because they had less time for formal dating but yet had more time for ICTs. As for communicating over online dating sites, the participants felt that the online user profile was the central communication medium. In terms of the discrepancy between meeting offline and online, participants felt that it was important to meet the people they had an online connection with face-to-face as soon as possible to determine whether or not the connection could translate into a live connection.

The researchers found that online dating changes the medium of the dating process. However, rather than changing the inherent goals of dating, it merely reinforces them. Although this paper examined Australian participants only, it provides a broad base for exploring the notion of online dating as a societal trend.

The third and final existing study to be outlined is the 2007 study, “Internet dating: a British survey” conducted by Barrie Gunter of University of Leicester. This study aims to examine the growing phenomenon of online dating and was widespread in nature, surveying over 3,800 participants residing in the UK. Of this, 29 per cent had reported using an online dating website. The responses were gained through a self-completion questionnaire posted online with access to approximately 30,000 potential respondents. Of the 3,844 responses they received, 67 per cent were female and 33 per cent were male, representing the ages of 16 to 55 plus.

In the survey, participants were asked whether or not they had used an online dating website, had ever considered using one, had heard about them, and how they heard about them. Of the participants who had utilized the sites, they were asked a numerical amount of how many times they had tried dating sites, and how much money they had spent on them in the past two years.

The survey contained a matrix scale measuring the importance of several factors in choosing a dating community including the scope of users, anonymity, and the community’s reputation. Participants were asked about their satisfaction with previous online dating experiences, the maximum amount of money they would spend monthly on an online dating membership and the outcomes they had experienced from dating through an online community.

Of this study, I will review only the results that are relevant to my present study. Twenty-nine percent said they had utilized dating communities, and of the ones who had not used them, 1 in 4 had considered it, and 94 per cent of the non-users had heard of it, displaying that even if not adopted, online dating communities are a well known phenomenon. As for reasons for joining online dating communities, 40 per cent sought dates, 38 per cent sought new friends, and 22 per cent sought a long-term/marriage partner.

The financial cost of membership to an online dating community was seen as the second most important factor in choosing a site, which pertains to my study in that the majority of my participants chose POF because it was free. Seventy per cent had met face-to-face with people they had met through the dating site, similar to the majority of participants in my present study who also had.

Although this study is based in the UK with British participants, it emphasizes that online dating is a prevalent and growing phenomenon. This study provides a wide-scale and statistical foundation for the study of online dating as a phenomenon.

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