About one in 10 American adults have dated online, and 5% of those in a relationship say they met their partner online. What does it take to turn a million options on the internet into a real date – and maybe even a happy relationship?
There is actually a decent body of evidence on what works in online dating, both from independent academic researchers and from internet dating companies themselves.
Here are their tips:
1) Choose your words carefully
Researchers studied word choice both in people’s profiles and in their posts – and found tantalizing results.
A University of California, Berkeley study found that reading someone’s profile can help you gauge their personality (and conversely, the words in your profile say a lot about who you are).
The researchers looked at the profiles of over 1,000 users and also asked users to complete a questionnaire about themselves. They found that women who used negative words like “hate” in their self-descriptions were less confident and had higher levels of general caution and attachment anxiety.
Being positive in your profile means other people might read you as more optimistic. Similarly, you can also look for positivity in the profiles of others.
There is also research on the choice of words in messages, which might say more about the tone and content of messages than what magic words will knock everyone at your feet. A 2011 german study analyzed over 150,000 first messages and found that online daters who used words that focused more on the other person (as simple as “you” over “I”) were more likely to receive a response than those who didn’t.
And when researchers at OkCupid looked at 500,000 first messages, they found that occasional spellings like “ur” and “wat” in the first few messages pushed the response rate well below average:
Occasional language and spelling errors cause your response rate on OkCupid to drop well below the 32% average. (Okay Cupid)
Casual word choice doesn’t have to work against you, though. The OkCupid study also found that first messages with “haha” and “lol” had above-average response rates, 45% and 41%, respectively. (Weirdly, “hehe” only results in a 33% response rate, and there’s no science to gauge why.)
2) Be brief
The first message is essential. Keep your messages short and also make sure that the time you spend talking online before meeting in person is fairly brief. A 2014 study Posted in The Journal of Computer-Assisted Communication found that the longer online daters talk online before meeting in person, the more negative or ambivalent feelings they will have about continuing the relationship after their first date.
The 500 online daters in the study reported more positive outlooks on relationship potential when they spoke 17 to 23 days before they met. That time frame is “the sweet spot,” says study co-author Art Ramirez, who studies online communication at the University of South Florida.
“The longer you wait to meet someone, the more likely you are to have an idealized perception of them,” says Erin Sumner, co-author of the paper and a student of online communication at Trinity University.
As you move past that sweet spot of 17 to 23 days and continue to talk online only, she says, you might start to imagine someone as friendlier, say, or as having a deeper voice. Filling these gaps with your imagination can later lead to disappointment, said Sumner.
Anything less than 17 days and a sense of uncertainty can do damage too.
Admittedly, the study did not take into account other reasons why these relationships could have ended badly. Although the results point to a larger trend, the length of your online conversation isn’t the only predictor of relationship success.
3) Be honest (rather), but know that others lie a little
There is a calculated risk in lying online. You can change your weight a little or add an inch to your height, and chances are, when you meet someone in person, they can’t tell the difference. It’s pretty common to lie when dating online, actually – a 2011 study in the Communication Review found that 81% of online dating users surveyed lied about themselves. That being said, the lies were usually small and related to height, weight, or age.
A little white lie might help. For example, you can tweak your size a bit to get into the ideal range. A study from the University of Chicago and MIT researchers found that men between 6’3″ and 6’4″ and women between 5’3″ and 5’8″ receive the most first-contact emails .
And chances are a lot of them are lying. In his book Dataclysm, OkCupid Founder Christian Rudder Says OkCupid Male Claimed Height and US Census Claimed Heights Data are markedly different. “The difference was two to three inches higher on OkCupid,” says OkCupid CTO Mike Maxim. This suggests that men could add a few inches to their profile.
If you’re tempted to lie, ask yourself how obvious your lie would be if you met someone in person. Someone might notice that you lied, but it might also get you more first dates to begin with.
4) Take the first step
“Sometimes it works best if you bring the action to yourself,” says OkCupid’s Maxim. The other person is guaranteed to know that you are interested in them. (And, as a bonus, on OkCupid, being active and reaching out to people means you’ll be shown more to other users.)
Research seems to support this strategy. A great 2006 study researchers from MIT and the University of Chicago of 6,500 online daters found that women who first contact men online make a response much more likely. Men sent on average more than three times as many first messages as women. But about 60% of women could expect to receive a response after contacting men first, while only 35% of men could expect the same after contacting a woman. (Much of the research on initial contact has focused on heterosexual interactions.)
Taking the first step can also have an impact on the well documented racial boundaries in online dating. To research from the University of California, San Diego in 2013 found that users of all racial backgrounds are equally or more likely to date their race when someone first contacts them. Users who receive interracial messages in turn end up initiating more interracial exchanges in the future.
5) Have a good photo
There are many psychological problems proof that people make instant judgments based on appearance. In online dating, your photo is how you get your foot in the door. “The photo is the thing you should put the most energy into to make sure it’s good,” says Maxim.
Joel Simkhai, CEO of dating app Grindr, agrees: “We really believe in your photo and your looks,” he says. This system is more “cut and dry,” he says, because it boils down to how you would react if you approached someone for the first time in person: Do I find you attractive?
In 2010, OkCupid performed a number of analyzes on over half a million user photos, looking at what makes the best photo, including technical details like the f-stop used and the blurring of the back- plan. One takeaway: they found a jump in perceived age when flash was used. For example, a photo of a 28-year-old woman with flash was on average classified as the same age like a 35 year old woman with no flash. Other tips from this study: get in focus with the background blurred and use soft lighting.