Age and Gender in Online Dating Websites: An Analysis of User Profiles on Mingles.com
Cyberspace has a great effect on how we communicate, interact, and form relationships online/offline, and affects how we see ourselves both in the realm of virtual space and real/actual space. Online dating sites are spaces where the actual and virtual self are intended to be as identical as possible. Within the domain of online dating, the self is presented through constructs of gender, age, and social interaction. Online dating arenas represent an opportunity to record changing cultural norms regarding technology-mediated relationship development and gain insights into important aspects of online behavior, such as gender identity construction and self-presentation strategies. Understanding the ways people create online identities based on their “offline” selves gives insight into the interplay between virtual and actual worlds, i.e. how our real world culture affects the culture we create online and vice versa. Relationships wherein people first meet online and then move offline, known as mixed mode, challenge established theories focusing exclusively on online relationships and provide opportunities for new theory development (Ellison, Heino and Gibbs 2006).
The study of online dating profiles provides interesting dimensions to research of identity, gender, and relationships in cyberspace. This research project was developed to analyze the gender identities of users, e.g. how they present themselves in their profiles and the kind of relationships they are looking for or expect to find using online dating sites. In addition, we examined the differences and similarities between men and women, using age as a variable. Using data gathered from personal profiles on Mingles.com we were able to compare the ways these sites mediated users’ identities through online interactions with the prospect of developing an offline relationship.
Mediated matchmaking is not a new phenomenon: Newspaper personal advertisements have existed since the mid-19th century and video dating was popular in the 1980s. Tom Standage (1998) gives a fascinating account of online dating in his book The Victorian Internet, which documents the history of the telegraph, the first invention that truly had the potential to facilitate romance through virtual space. Standage gives reports of telegraph operators who fell in love while chatting online during slow work hours. Like the modern computer monitor, the tickers functioned as the interface where information was sent and received by telegraph operators. Although different than modern computer-mediated communication, the telegraph and the relationships it facilitated are similar in kind, and this research, along with other research conducted on virtual spaces, aims to shed light on the dynamics of online dating.
A large body of research exists on virtual spaces, the ways in which individuals interact within them, as well as the myriad of ways in which people construct their own identities and perceive those of others. Research on online dating sites in particular have focused on how the online dating platform inhibits and permits impression management and the ways in which romantic relationships develop.
As mentioned above, “love over the wires” is not a new phenomenon. Not only was the telegraph utilized as a way to transmit love messages from one person to another, but telegraph operators actually utilized the device for their own ends, forging romantic relationships between one another through the wires, having never actually seen each other and no visual cues to base impressions: “Despite the apparently impersonal nature of communicating by wire, it was in fact an extremely subtle and intimate means of communication” (Standage 1998:130). Even through female telegraph operators were physically separated from their male counterparts, and often overseen by a matron, men and women were enabled to make romantic connections across the wires (Standage 1998:134). Anecdotes of online love affairs illustrate the inevitability of romance through any communicative form. Also, both the Internet and telegraph have the ability to “help couples transcend real-world barriers” (Standage 1998:137), particularly physical distance, but also shyness and social anxiety.
Visual stimulation is an essential element of the internet, and social networking and on-line dating websites “support members pursuing their own objectives of socializing and sharing of textual and pictorial content” (Messinger 2008:5). Yet, despite the increased means through which users are able to express and represent themselves, notions of authenticity are further complicated, rather than simplified. Online impression formation and management is uniquely complicated because interaction is substantially reduced online from what it would be in the actual world, rendering online impressions suspect because they are so controllable (Walther 2008:32). “People make active decisions about when and how they will self-disclose. These decisions involve a complex process in which people set rules about how and when they will divulge private information, negotiate those rules with other people, and make decisions to disclose based on violations of those rules” (Walther 2008:32).
Deception on the internet, especially within the realm of online dating, has been extensively documented in online research studies. Although the anonymous aspect of the internet may suggest widespread lack of authentic self-representation, the majority of online dating members state they are honest, and research suggests online dating may discourage deception as a result of the technical and social aspects of the environment (Ellison, Heino and Gibbs 2006:419). For example, the expectation of face-to-face contact affects self-representation decisions where individuals engage in more intentional and deliberate self disclosure as the likelihood of face to face interaction increases (Ellison, Heino and Gibbs 2006:419). Design features such as profiles where information is recorded and archived may also deter individuals from lying online (Ellison, Heino and Gibbs 2006:419). Furthermore the essence of online dating websites is to find a romantic partner in real life which may decrease misrepresentation compared to other online relationships (Ellison, Heino and Gibbs 2006:420).
Online dating participants operate in an environment in which assessing the identity of others is a complex and evolving process of reading signals and deconstructing cues, using both active and passive strategies. A study conducted by Ellison, Heino, and Gibbs found that online daters consistently engaged in “creative circumvention strategies as they went through the process of posting a profile, selecting individuals to contact, communicating with potential romantic partners and developing rules for assessing other profiles as well as their own” (2006:431). Online daters use information in profiles to form impressions of others using limited cues available online such as screen names, activeness, and friends (Ellison, Heino and Gibbs 2006:420).
Research conducted by Whitty discovered that online daters were attracted to genuine and honest people and they hoped an individual’s profile presented something about who the individual “really” is (2007:1718). In fact, over half of the participants said an attractive person was one who was truthful and honest. It appears these individuals were more attracted to individuals who expressed their “actual” self, that is, “online daters perceived honest and genuine people to be those who included in their profiles the traits or characteristics that they typically express in everyday offline social setting” (Whitty 2007:1719). Whitty’s research also highlighted the idea that the value placed on physical attributes may be greater for online daters than for individuals establishing relationships is other places on the Internet (2007:1716). However, online daters still engage in impression management, negotiating a delicate balance between revealing their true selves in their profiles and trying to “sell” themselves to prospective partners by describing how they would like to be. The motivation for this was based on not wanting to disappoint the date once they met face-to-face, but at the same time trying to attract a decent number of individuals (Whitty 2007:1716).
The pervasiveness and influence of gender stereotypes and ideologies in everyday life has prompted significant research on the effects of gender in online spaces. Del-Teso-Craviotto’s study on the language differences among men and women in online dating chat rooms found linguistic strategies such as self descriptions and screen names (2008:264). The resulting gender and sexual identities are sketches of stereotypes whose value derives from the acceptance of social and cultural discourses on gender and sexuality negotiated through interactions. Authentication is not an external process imposed upon people but the result of specific social practices (Del-Teso-Craviotto 2008:264).
Initially, our research was to be conducted using NoLongerLonely.com, an online dating website for people with mental illnesses; a marginalized group not only within society but also within the realm of research conducted in cyberspace. However, we were unable to obtain permission from the administrator of the site to conduct research. Limited access to the site and the ethics involved in working with the mentally ill as research subjects forced us to find a new direction while staying within the arena of online dating. Nonetheless, we came across Mingles.com, an open website for people looking for relationships online. Mingles.com is substantially smaller in membership than eHarmony and Match.com, but it offers a glimpse into the culture of online dating.
Online dating sites are set-up very differently from other virtual spaces, such as newsgroups, virtual worlds, chat rooms, and MMOGs. Individuals are required to construct a profile, where they may upload photographs and videos and write a description of who they are. On Mingles.com, individuals contact each other through “winks,” email, and chat features. The site also provides forums and blogs where members can interact.
Exploratory research was conducted in open forums and blogs dedicated to online dating. Through data collection, we narrowed down our research and focused on the dynamics between gender and age and impression management on online dating sites. A sample of 100 profiles was taken from Mingles.com, 50 men and 50 women. Five age cohorts were established between the ages 18-30, 31-40, 41-50, 51-60, and 61-99. Twenty profiles from each cohort were sampled, each containing 10 men and 10 women. The profiles were analyzed based on content; self preferences, preferences in a mate, profile pictures, friends, groups, tags, blogs, and forum posts. A textual analysis was performed on the personal essays in the profiles, as well as members’ screen names.
A short survey was constructed and posted on the Culture and Cyberspace class blog. The survey consisted of questions about the subjects’ age, sex, and experiences with online dating. The survey was mostly used to compliment the data procured from the Mingles.com profiles. Although it would have been ideal to conduct interviews with online daters, we were unable to find informants willing to participate in the study.
On average women posted more pictures of themselves than men. Women’s pictures were also more posed and they seemed to pay more attention to their physical appearance than men; they wore dressier clothing and makeup. Men appeared more casual in their pose and dress. Women tended to smile in their pictures more than men. Male pictures were more inactive (had less comments from other members) than the female pictures.
The younger online daters had more active pictures and they also tended to pay more attention to their appearance and pose in their pictures, especially compared to the oldest cohort (61+ years old). The younger cohorts on average posted more pictures of themselves.
Women on average wrote more in their personal essays than men and tended to be more descriptive when describing themselves and the type of men and relationships they were looking for. Most of the women described themselves as loving, caring, romantic, sexy, and honest, while men used words such as funny, easy going, open minded, and honest to describe themselves. Gender-specific language was used by both men and women in their essays and screen names. Men chose masculine terms such as stone, crane, and bear for their screen names, and women used words like sassy, flower, sweet, and spunky in theirs. Women used expressive text more often in their personal essays, including emoticons, e.g. smiley faces, exclamations marks, tildes, ellipses, and quotation marks. The use of this kind of language made the tone of the essay more informal then the men’s essays. Women were more inclined to mention friends and family as their priorities in life, whereas men often stated their interest in sports and travel.
Women were more descriptive than men regarding the partner and relationship they were seeking. The older cohorts were more specific regarding the kind of relationship they wanted and the kind of partner they were seeking, while the younger cohorts, especially 18-30, were more open to different kinds of people and interactions.
Women from the older cohorts varied in types of relationships they were looking for, although most of them stated a preference for more casual relationships such as email/chat and friendships. Older men and women stated they were interested in casual dating or serious relationships. However, women reported a desire for friendship and email/chat relationships as well. Women in general stated a preference for friendships and email/chat relationship compared to men who were looking for serious relationships. This was also supported in the survey results.
Most of the people in the sample were single or divorced, of course this varied across age cohorts with the older members more likely to be divorced. The majority of the men and women in the sample were Caucasian. Both men and women were most specific in their preference of the marital status and ethnicity of prospective partners, most favoring a person who is single, divorced, or widowed and Caucasian or Hispanic/Latin.
Women were more limiting regarding the age of prospective partners, usually preferring an older man, although this varied across age cohorts. Men within the oldest cohort preferred younger women (25.7 years younger) while younger men preferred women who were closer to them in age.
The majority of women stated a preference for a taller man; however, the majority of men did not state a precise height preference.
In terms of their body types, the majority of women preferred a body type bigger than their own, and the majority of men preferred a body type smaller than their own. Men reported looking for a woman with a body type of either “thin, average or athletic.” Women were more inclusive than men regarding body type often listing the body types “a few extra pounds” and “larger” in their preferences. This was true across all age cohorts.
The majority of men and women sampled did not have friends listed in their profile; however, among those who did, women were more likely to have same sex friends as compared to the men. Among men who had friends in their profile, all of them were female and they were typically significantly younger (20- 25 years). Men in the two oldest cohorts had a higher average of friends compared to women in those cohorts.
Pictures are one of the most salient aspects of a profile. The placement and size of the picture in relation to other elements of a profile make it the focus of the profile page. This makes the presentation of a profile picture extremely important. Almost every profile in the sample had a personal picture with most of them averaging two pictures each. The women in our study were especially conscious of their physical appearance in profile pictures. We can infer that women share a perception that there exist certain gender norms they are expected to adhere to in order to attract a romantic partner. Men seemed to share a desire for aesthetics in their pictures although not in the same way as women. Men appeared more laid back in their profile pictures, often in casual, sporty attire with less expressive and friendly facial expressions (e.g. smiling, laughing) which exemplifies gender stereotypes prevalent in American culture.
Virtual environments are not devoid of the cultural norms and historical events from which they emerged, but instead, are embedded with the ideologies of the dominant society. In their ethnographic study of cyber marriage on the Chinese Internet, Wu et al. discuss “how in-game marriage, with its game codes and marriage regulations, turns out to be the most visualized, institutionalized, and heteronormative form of cyber marriage” ( 2007:59). Similar to online dating sites such as Mingles.com, online games in China are dominated by real world practices, ideas, and norms. Gender is as much an aspect of virtual environments as it is of actual environments. The rules and regulations of marriage in China is mirrored in those of cyber marriage in online games, thus, cyber marriage is an example of the hegemonic powers in China that control the gender norms and expectations of Chinese society (Wu et al. 2009:85). While power may not be perceived to be centralized in America such as it is in China, there are nonetheless, dominant ideologies which direct our day to day interactions, thoughts, and behaviors (see Bourdieu’s concept of “habitus”) which are visualized on the Internet. The gendered behavior displayed in the online dating profiles sampled reflects the prevailing gender ideologies in the real world.
This is not to imply cyberspace is not inhabited by dissidents of the status quo, for the internet is rife with individuals and communities who deviate from the norm. For example, Chinese male gamers often play with their gender identities through gender swapping in online games. Through a practice referred to as renyao, they subvert the binary gender roles implanted within the design of Chinese online games and explore new concepts of gender and sexuality. In addition, not every female in the online dating sample fits the stereotypical image of a feminine and demure lady. In fact there were gender outliers who preferred more masculine dress and behavior, although this was less the case with men. Gendered behavior and language is prevalent in online dating sites and signifies the culture of both cyberspace and the corporeal world.
The attractiveness and impression of personal pictures is clearly an important aspect of individuals’ online profiles. This suggests profile pictures correlate with avatars commonly used in online games and virtual worlds. Avatars allow internet users to easily play around with their identity by manipulating and changing the appearance of their avatars. Online daters may not be able to change their profile pictures to the degree they could avatars, however, they deliberately select pictures that best represent who they are and how they see themselves. This act by itself is a form of identity transformation. Since the point of online dating is to attract other online daters, it is common for them to choose an attractive profile picture. If individuals believe their profile picture is attractive they may be more inclined to contact others they view as attractive. Therefore, the perceived attractiveness of profile pictures, “avatars,” can cause them to behave differently.
Although our research does not measure changes in behavior before and after selection and placement of pictures on dating profiles, we can infer that individuals with attractive profile pictures exhibit more confidence and increase self-disclosure in their profiles and interactions with other online daters. Nick Yee and Jeremy Bailenson discuss the Proteus effect of transformed self-representation on behavior in their experiments with altered avatars. Yee and Bailenson’s experiments compared participants with attractive avatars to participants with unattractive avatars and revealed that participants with the attractive form were more inclined to lessen their interpersonal distance with others and disclosed more personal information (Yee and Bailenson 2007:281). They also found participants with taller avatars behave in a more confident manner and “negotiate more aggressively than participants in shorter avatars” (Yee and Bailenson 2007:285). These statements correlate with research conducted on height and attractiveness in the actual world. The interesting thing about online dating sites is virtual technology is used to facilitate actual world interactions. Like the participants in Yee and Bailenson’s study, online daters are constantly negotiating interactions with others using their profile pictures to influence prospective romantic partners’ perceptions of them.
In our study age differences and similarities among online dating participants, we found that younger people posted more pictures in their profiles and sought more casual relationships such as dating, friendships, and email/chat friendships. Online daters between the ages of 18-30 have grown up within the digital culture age, which affects how they view and use digital technology, specifically the internet. A seminal study on youth and digital media funded by the MacArthur Foundation, researchers found young people mostly used communication devices such as private messages, IM and mobile phones to interact with close friends and romantic partners (Ito et al. 2008:16). For youth in America today, “new media provide a new venue for their intimacy practices, a venue that renders intimacy simultaneously more public and more private. Young people can now meet people, flirt, date” within an online setting (Ito et al. 2008:17).
The Internet offers a space for youth to experiment with identity, communication patterns, and new relationships in relatively safe environment. For young people, joining an online dating site may be a form of “hanging out” online. Ito et al. describe hanging out as a way for young people to develop peer relationships within a supportive learning environment and the quick accessibility of “multiple forms of media, in diverse contexts of everyday life, means media content is increasingly central to everyday communication and identity construction” (Ito et al. 2007:14). In addition, they use the term “hypersocial” to define the process through which young people use specific media as tokens of identity, taste, and style to negotiate their sense of self in relation to their peers” (Ito et al. 2007:14). In the case of online daters, young people use online dating sites and media such as profile pictures to navigate emerging concepts of identity and social relationships. As observed in various online dating forums, many youth use these sites as practice for real world interactions, a way of gaining real world social skills and experience through virtual spaces, which may explain their lack of desire for serious relationships.
Little research has been conducted on older generations and their participation in cyberspace. A common perception of older people, generally speaking, is they are computer illiterate, possess no computer, or they have little or no interest in the services provided by the internet. However, after conducting our research we have concluded the internet is a viable and useful resource for older people. Although the lack of profile pictures among the oldest cohorts infers they are not as tech-savvy as youth today, they are engaging in the same virtual spaces as young people. Pearce’s work on the baby boomer generation and online gaming noted the significant percentage of baby boomers participating in online gaming, particularly a high rate of women. She also discovered through interviews with informants that “adult gamers tend to socialize and game with peers instead of younger people,” who are viewed as immature (Pearce 2007:148). In addition, baby boomers expressed a desire for more mature companionship in their gaming communities, as well as courteous and pleasant social interaction (Pearce 2007:150,157). In our research only women tended to prefer to develop a relationship with peers whereas men preferred younger women. Men’s and women’s desire for a more committed relationship, such casual dating and serious relationships, in the three oldest cohorts (41-50, 51-60 and 60+) could be indicative of Pearce’s conclusions that they seek mature companionship online, where desire or a long term relationship connotes maturity in an online dater.
The friends list section on the Mingles.com profiles seems to operate in many of the same ways they do on social networking sites like Facebook and Myspace. In their study on the affects of friends’ appearance and behavior on assessment of Facebook profiles, Walther et al. state, “the physical attractiveness of one’s friends’ photos, as seen in the Facebook wall postings presented on another individual’s profile, had a significant effect on the physical attractiveness of the profile’s owner” (2008:44). We can tie this back the initial argument made above that the pictures in a dating profile, whether they belong to the profile’s owner or their friends, influence how a person perceives a profile. In our research, men had more friends than women, all of them women who tended to be younger than their male friends. This could have a positive affect on how a man is perceived, since men are generally allowed by society to cavort with younger females. However, this type of behavior is not expected or appropriate for females although there seems to a slight shift regarding this construct. Walther et al also discusses this sexual double standard in his findings, stating misbehavior displayed on Facebook profiles makes men more attractive, but has the opposite effect on women (Walther et al, 2008:45).
Ranging from profile pictures to essays, age and gender identity constructs are apparent throughout daters’ profiles. We found similarities between online dating sites and other virtual spaces, e.g. online games, and virtual worlds. Profile pictures act as a mechanism through which daters not only express their identity but experiment with different identities as well, and this can have implications on the behaviors and interactions of online daters. Similar to avatars, people can change their appearance in the pictures they post, changing perceptions of themselves to better negotiate relationships online. Age affects the technology employed on online dating sites and as a result impacts interactions online. In our research we discovered that the younger generation tends to use the more technological features of online spaces to socialize and reach more people; older generations used these features less frequently. In addition, we found that young people preferred more casual relationships while the older population desired stable, serious relationships. Lastly, we observed how the friends listed on a dater’s profile forms an impression on those viewing it, and depending on the gender of the owner of the profile, may create a negative image of the owner. Males tend to have greater freedom than women in regards to the content they post and the friends they list on their profiles, owing to the sexual double standard.
As we have conducted research pertaining to age and gender identities on online dating sites, there exist completely different realms of online dating we have not discussed. We only researched the heterosexual population, leaving out homosexuals, bisexuals, and transsexuals from our study. Through studying different types of sexuality, we might have drawn conclusions relating to the heterosexual population. In addition, we did not discuss the affects of race and ethnicity on identity construction within online dating sites. Our sample was predominantly white, leaving out significant parts of the population. Our restricted access to closed websites such as Match.com also created limitations to our research as well as our inability to conduct interviews with online dating informants. These limitations should be addressed in future research on identity construction and impression management on dating websites.
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