Can’t Meet Anyone Online? It's not all your Fault.

Seeking a match online? Whether its a new job or a date, fewer choices may lead to better matches.

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Based on research by Yash Kanoria and Daniela Saban

Nearly 40 percent of all single-and-looking adults are now dating online according to the Pew Research Center. But only 23% of online daters have found a spouse or long-term partner. The problem, according to Yash Kanoria, might be that online daters are simply drowning in options.

From an economic perspective, daters can be seen as participants in what’s known as a dynamic matching market — an arrangement in which buyers and sellers each enter and leave the market at different times looking for a potential match. Online, matching markets are facilitated by a variety of platforms, including not only dating sites but also accommodation and transit services, like Air B&B and Uber, and job boards, the focus of Kanoria’s study. The low application cost that these platforms facilitate—that is, the ease with which a user on OkCupid or Match.com can fire off messages to a few dozen prospects—makes them particularly prone to congestion.

In particularly crowded markets, suitors have an incentive to send out as many messages as possible, with negative repercussions for every other potential match. Every time a dater sends a message to another user they increase their odds of eventually winning a date with someone—after all, you can’t strike out all the time. At the same time, however, they reduce the likelihood that anyone else will match with the recipient of their message.

For recipients, this barrage of messages comes with costs. “Many won’t have the time or energy to look at some of the applications” Kanoria notes, “or they may not respond because there are just so many.” The time it takes to review potential matches — whether as simple as swiping through a few photos or as time consuming as going out on a few dates — also means that by the time an online dater finds a serious prospect, that prospect may have already found someone else. With no way to know if these individuals are still interested and available, users can spend days or weeks waiting for a reply that will never come. These prospects—the ones that got away—are one of the largest sources of inefficiency in dynamic matching markets, and the one that Kanoria and his colleagues’ model best addresses.

For some, the benefit gained from finding a match may be outweighed by the costs of searching through the applications in the first place. After all, what’s the point of looking online for someone to go out with on a Saturday night if the only way to find them is to spend all of Friday night wading through a sea of less-than-inspiring prospects?

One potential solution is to limit the number of messages daters can send. Using a mathematical model, Kanoria and his collaborators, Nick Arnosti and Ramesh Johari of Stanford University, were able to demonstrate that by limiting the number of applications – whether a swipe right, or a simple “hello” – a user can make in a given time, platforms could cut through the congestion, improving the likelihood that successful pairings would be made even in markets where there is a shortage of suitable matches.

Some dating sites have already adopted this design. eHarmony, now the second most popular dating site behind Match.com, shows users only five potential matches per day. Newer entrants to the online dating market are following suit, including Coffee Meets Bagel and Hinge, which show users, respectively, one and ten potential dates per day.

Limiting the number of applications isn’t just good for the Ryan Goslings and Lupita Nyong’os among us either. “It’s surprising,” Kanoria says, but “the model shows that the benefits of limiting applications is greatest in markets in which there are too few applicants.” Even average Joes and plain Janes then stand to gain from a more limited slate of potential partners.

About the researcher

Yash Kanoria

Yash Kanoria is the Sidney Taurel Associate Professor of Business in the Decision, Risk and Operations division at Columbia Business School, working primarily on...

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