Online dating from a scientist's perspective

Josue Ortega holds a PhD from the University of Glasgow and got into Tinder while teaching mathematical problems. He now studies how online dating and other technologies facilitate social integration.

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and what brought you into your field of research?

– When I was doing my PhD, I was teaching subjects like mathematics. I was explaining a mathematical problem when one of my students said: “Oh, that sounds like Tinder!”. I had no idea what Tinder was at the time. 

As Ortega started using the app, his interest in the platform’s hidden possibilities grew. 

– I was a bit familiar with how sociologists study how you find your place of work – for example, you are very likely to find a place of work, not through your best friends but from someone you don’t really know. These connections are very important because they connect you to information that you otherwise wouldn’t be exposed to. I tried Tinder while living in the UK, and realized that I met people I wouldn’t normally meet through the app. I went to do part of my PhD in New York at Columbia University, which is just outside Harlem. You see that there are lines there, a complete division: only african-americans here, only white people there and only latinos over there. I was very surprised by this division and thought: ’’Hey, let's look at this!’’ When I published my first paper on online dating people were really interested in the way the app can expose you to other people.

Online dating makes us more “strategic” in our love search. Do you think it is positive to be aware of how you present yourself? Do you think it is similar to a normal offline situation, or is it a new step in the evolution of dating?

– (Laughing) It definitely is a new step! I think that one big difference is that learning is so much easier online. If I ask someone out offline, and I don't really know how to do it, the whole rejection process is going to be painful. if someone doesn’t reply to you online, you can learn from it. There is so much feedback available. It doesn’t matter if you talk about zombies or other things.

Almost like digital dating literacy?

– Yes, there is a lot of possibilities for strategic interaction online. There are so many things that can affect your attractiveness: your picture, your profile description etc. One thing we know is that if you managed to pass the first stage of attention, you are in the game. I think that strategic interaction is making the whole relationship better, because people are looking for things that matter more for long-term stability. If I would reply to someone just because I am latino and she is latino and we go to the same church – it would not work the same way. Many people complain about the fact that there are so many choices. I think that choice is great! 

Ortega expands on his reasoning with an example: 

– When divorce became legal in the US, there was a massive reduction of female suicide and domestic abuse. Why? Because these women got the choice of leaving. With the online dating opportunities – if you are in a bad relationship – you know that you might have a possibility to meet someone else after you leave.

What do you think will happen to online dating in the future?

– 40 % of all US couples first meet online. I definitely think it is gonna go to 70 %. But also, as a scientist, my answer would be that I don't know. There is no shame in saying that. For example, what if we change the algorithms so they do the matches?

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