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Online Dating Magazine > Columns > Editorials > Online Dating Economics

The Economics of Online Dating

by James Houran, Ph.D.

(March 2009) The past few months can be described as a whirlwind of online dating stories in the media. Part of the strong interest in online dating naturally had to do with Valentine’s Day, but a good portion of the recent stories also took notice of an apparent trend -- namely, the economic recession has seemingly helped online dating businesses.

Yes, it’s true…at a time when consumers are cutting back substantially on expenses online daters have maintained their subscriptions. The memberships of some dating sites have even grown. The media explored reasons for these trends with industry insiders, relationship experts and economists and each perspective is a fun read. Now I want to give you my take. In my view the unique circumstances of the past few months have worked together to produce a “perfect storm” for online dating:


  • The holiday season is historically a good time for the industry.

  • The economic recession has arguably motivated people to take stock of their lives and rethink their priorities.

  • People want a partner to help them cope with and endure hardship and crisis, such as is caused by the economic downturn.

  • Individuals very likely use online dating as a coping mechanism; it’s a hybrid of entertainment and an outlet to promote happiness and mental wellness (much like fitness centers, which are also doing well during the economic downturn).

  • Online dating is a relatively cheap form of entertainment, and one that works with anyone’s schedule.

I’m sure many more variables could be named, but the above list is a good start. All of this growth in online dating must be good news, right?  Well, yes and no. For the press, it gives a fresh angle on online dating stories. For online dating services, it gives confidence and a reason to issue new press releases. But for the consumer, it should give some serious pause. Take a close look at those five broad issues listed above. Those reasons or “motivations” to use online dating represent different needs. Sometimes those agendas are markedly different across people. It’s tempting to focus on the “warm and fuzzy” motivations -- the need to reassess one’s life and start the search for stability and comfort in a partner as times get tough. That’s the storyline of many of the media pieces I’ve seen lately. But what about the other reasons -- you know, the ones that have to with using online dating as a coping mechanism or form of entertainment. These motivations aren’t as “warm and fuzzy,” but they’re just as real and often equally as powerful.

Economic crisis or not, many people use online dating for the pure fantasy it can provide. Not everyone is looking for love, a long-term partner or a soul mate. Some -- if not a good percentage of people -- are merely looking for a great escape. Some of these individuals have no intention of ever meeting someone offline; they’re content with flirting and exchanging tall tales and fantasy scenarios over the internet. Others are looking only to hook up, with no expectations for anything more. These scenarios stand in stark contrast to the opinions of many industry insiders who claim that dating sites should strive to a better job of matching people for lasting relationships. The reality check is that it’s no coincidence that “adult” oriented dating sites are doing very well right now. And don’t assume for a second that everyone on those lovey-dovey compatibility sites all want a compatible, long-term partner. Lurkers abound everywhere.

Short-term encounters and especially fantasy interactions represent a side of online dating that’s not been discussed as much as it should. In fact, I have to wonder how often online daters attempt to decipher the hidden agendas people might have that email or wink at them online. My aim is not to judge those who want a fantasy escape or a “no-strings attached” weekend, as long as they are upfront with others about their motives or agendas. Expectations that aren’t managed well are certain to produce headaches and heartaches. So, enjoy the apparent influx of online daters, but be extremely cognizant of your needs as well as those of others you meet. Flirting and getting to know people is definitely fun, but not if it’s leading somewhere that the other person isn’t willing to go.


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