Research reminds us of the potential for unintended consequences online

online-datingIt’s common on websites such as LinkedIn for users to activate the anonymous feature that lets them browse the site hidden from those they have checked out.

Interestingly, it seems that a similar tactic can be used on online dating sites, but a recent study reveals that it has a significant impact on the popularity of female daters.

The study tracked around 100,000 randomly selected users of an online dating website, and gave 50,000 free passes for anonymous browsing functionality.

Uneven anonymity

The authors fully expected the new found status to lower the inhibitions of the users and therefore browse many more profiles than when their actions were transparent.  As expected, this indeed occur, and it also transpired that users felt emboldened to explore things such as interracial or same-sex matches.

The liberating effect of anonymity had some surprising repercussions however, especially for the female daters.  It transpired that all anonymous users received fewer matches on the site than their non-anonymous peers, but this was particularly so for female users, who ended up with approximately 14% fewer matches.

So why was this?  The authors suggest it’s down to the different ways that men and women approach online dating.  They believe that women are less likely to initiate contact with a personal message, with the alert that they’ve browsed your profile a weak signal for you to make the first move.

“Weak signaling is the ability to visit, or ‘check out,’ a potential mate’s profile so the potential mate knows the focal user visited,” the authors say. “The offline ‘flirting’ equivalents, at best, would be a suggestive look or a preening bodily gesture such as a hair toss to one side or an over-the-shoulder glance, each subject to myriad interpretations and possible misinterpretations contingent on the perceptiveness of the players involved. Much less ambiguity exists in the online environment if the focal user views another user’s profile and leaves a visible train in his ‘Recent Visitors’ list.”

So, in other words, when men date online, they tend to be much more direct, and usually send four times as many messages as female users.  If given anonymity therefore, it doesn’t tend to change how they go about things, but it has a big impact on the women.

Be careful what you wish for

Becoming anonymous is usually a feature that websites charge for, but this example highlights how it might backfire and diminish the experience of users.

Suffice to say, anonymity works in different ways in different contexts, so there’s nothing to suggest that women suffer from browsing anonymously on professional websites such as LinkedIn.

The take home message is, however, that sites would do well to consider the context of user behavior before implementing features so as to try and avoid any unintended consequences.

The team plan to continue their analysis of online dating, and in particular the issue of match quality and the long-term outcomes of those connections.

Check out the video below for more information on the research.


One thought on “Research reminds us of the potential for unintended consequences online

  1. Interesting example. I've always thought the more certain someone is of something, the more likely it is that they've missed some major issue and there will be unintended consequences. Sadly, hubris dictates that this happens way too often.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *