About one in 10 American adults has dated online, and 5 percent of people in a committed relationship say they met their partner online. What does it take to turn a zillion options on the internet into an actual date — and maybe even a happy relationship?
There's actually a decent body of evidence out there about what works in online dating, coming from both independent academic researchers and internet dating companies themselves.
This is their advice:
1) Choose your words carefully
Researchers have studied word choice both in people's profiles and in their messages — and found some tantalizing results.
A University of California, Berkeley study found that reading someone's profile can help you evaluate their personality (and conversely, the words in your profile speak greatly about who you are).
The researchers examined profiles of more than 1,000 users and also had users fill out a questionnaire about themselves. They found that women who used negative words like "hate" in their self descriptions were less trusting and had higher levels of general caution and attachment anxiety.
Being positive in your profile means other people could read you as more upbeat. Similarly, you can look for positivity in others' profiles, too.
There's also some research about word choice in messages, which might actually say more about the tone and content of the messages than about magic words that will make everyone fall at your feet. A 2011 German study analyzed more than 150,000 first messages and found that online daters who used words focusing 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 casual spellings like like "ur" and "wat" in first messages pushed the reply rate well below average:
Casual language and spelling errors shoot your reply rate on OkCupid to well below the 32 percent average. (OkCupid)
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 reply rates, 45 percent and 41 percent, respectively. (Weirdly, "hehe" results in only a 33 percent reply rate, and there isn't any science out there evaluating why that is.)
2) Keep it short
The first message is key. Keep your messages short, and also make sure that the amount of time you talk online before meeting in person is somewhat brief. A 2014 study published in The Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication found that the longer online daters talk online before meeting face to face, the more likely they will have negative or ambivalent feelings about continuing the relationship after their first date.
The 500 online daters in the study reported more positive outlooks on the relationship's potential when they had talked between 17 and 23 days before meeting up. That time frame is "the sweet spot," says the study's co-author Art Ramirez, who researches online communication at University of South Florida.
"The longer you wait to meet someone, the more chance you have to form an idealized perceptions of them," says Erin Sumner, who co-authored the paper and studies online communication at Trinity University.
As you move past that 17 to 23 day sweet spot and continue talking just online, she says, you might begin to envision someone as friendlier, say, or as having a deeper voice. Filling in those gaps with your imagination can later lead to disappointment, Sumner says.
Anything shorter than 17 days, and feelings of uncertainty might do damage, as well.
Granted, the study didn't take into account other reasons those relationships might have ended poorly. While the results are indicative of a larger trend, how long you talk online isn't the only predictor of how successful your relationship might be.
3) Be honest (ish), but know other people are lying a little
There's a calculated risk in lying online. You can fudge a bit on your weight, or add an inch to your height, and chances are, when you meet someone in person, they won't be able to tell the difference. It's fairly common to lie while online dating, in fact — a 2011 study in the Journal of Communication found that 81 percent of online dating users studied lied about themselves. That being said, the lies were generally small, and were about height, weight, or age.
A little white lie might help you. For example, you could fudge your height a little to get into the ideal range. One study from University of Chicago and MIT researchers found that men between 6'3" and 6'4" and women between 5'3" and 5'8" get the most first-contact emails.
And there's a good chance that many of them are fibbing. In his book Dataclysm, OkCupid founder Christian Rudder says that men's claimed height OkCupid and claimed heights from US Census data are markedly different. "The difference was two to three inches higher on OkCupid," says Mike Maxim, chief technical officer at OkCupid. This suggests that men might be adding a few inches onto their profile.
If you're tempted to lie, ask yourself how obvious you think your lie would be if you met someone in person. Someone might notice you lied, but it also might get you more first dates to begin with.
4) Make the first move
"Sometimes it works out better if you bring the action to yourself," says Maxim, from OkCupid. The other person is guaranteed to know you're interested in them. (And, as an added 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 large 2006 study of 6,500 online daters by MIT and University of Chicago researchers found that women reaching out to men online first makes a response much more likely. Men on average sent more than three times as many first messages than women did. But about 60 percent of women could expect to receive a response after reaching out to men first whereas only 35 percent of men could expect the same after reaching out to a woman. (Much of the research on initial contact has focused on heterosexual interactions.)
Making the first move can also have an impact on the well-documented racial boundaries in online dating. Research from University of California-San Diego in 2013 found that users from all racial backgrounds are equally or more likely to date outside their race when someone reaches out to them first. Users who receive cross-race messages then, in turn, end up initiating more interracial exchanges in the future.
5) Have a good photo
There's lots of psychological evidence that people make snap judgments based on appearance. In online dating, your picture is how you get your foot in the door. "The photo is the thing you should be putting most of your energy into making sure its good," Maxim says.
Joel Simkhai, the CEO of the dating app Grindr, agrees: "We’re big believers in your photo and what you look like," he says. That system is more "cut and dry," he says, because it gets down to how you'd respond if you were approaching someone for the first time in person: do I find you attractive?
In 2010, OkCupid ran a number of analyses on over half a million user photos, looking at what makes the best photo, including technical details like the f-stop used and blurring of the background. 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 rated the same age as a 35-year-old woman without flash. Other tips from that study: have yourself in focus with the background blurred, and use soft lighting.