There are two conflicting theories about how the Internet might be transforming romance today. On one hand, the Internet could make it easier for people to seek out a partner that’s exactly like them. With a much bigger pool of people to choose from online, you have a greater chance of finding that perfect match who has a PhD, loves cats and musical soundtracks, and shares both your religion and love of nachos.
On the other hand, the Internet also expands people’s networks and exposes them to others that they would not necessarily meet in their daily life. Online, people are exposed to those of different races, religions and educational backgrounds they might not normally encounter at work, school, church or through friends. And that could be leading people to find more diverse partners.
More people are meeting their partners online than ever before. So it’s worth asking whether the Internet is transforming romance today.
In a recently published study, Gina Potarca of the University of Lausanne, in Switzerland, finds that the Internet appears to be a force for breaking down some of the social barriers that prevent people from marrying those who are different from them. To some extent, the Internet is leading to more mixing between people of different races, religions and educational backgrounds, the study shows.
Research over the decades has consistently shown that people are more likely to couple up with others who are similar to them in terms of race, education, religion and other factors. Social scientists call the tendency “endogamy.” These choices can lead to bigger divisions between social groups, such as the growing economic inequality we’ve seen in the United States from the rich marrying the rich and the poor marrying the poor.
There are many possible reasons why people tend to marry those similar to them: It could be an effort to preserve their values and traditions, or it could be that there’s comfort in familiarity. It also could be that people are just more exposed to similar partners, because most couples meet through networks of people that are like them — school, church, family or friends. Even workplaces — though typically more mixed in terms of race, ethnicity and religion — are more homogenous in terms of education.
Potarca’s research compares how similar couples who meet in these different contexts are, compared with couples who meet online. In the United States, she looked at a nationally representative survey of 2,970 people in 2009. In Germany, she looked at two surveys that gathered data annually on 7,771 partnered individuals between 2008 and 2014.
The study notes that racial and religious intermarriages are on the rise in Germany and the United States, but most people still marry within their own group. Meanwhile, most studies have found that educational endogamy in Germany has been increasing over time, while research has given conflicting answers about that trend in the United States, Potarca says.
In the surveys that Potarca examines, most American couples report meeting through friends or leisure settings, such as bars or clubs. In Germany, the greatest number met their match through friends, followed by their workplace or school. A smaller number of couples met their partner online (nearly 10 percent in the United States and 6.1 percent in Germany). The people who met their partners online were more likely to be younger, to be same-sex couples or to have been previously married.
After analyzing the data, Potarca found that Americans who met through friends or school settings were the most likely to find someone who is similar to themselves in race and ethnicity, education and religion. Americans who meet through neighbors, religious venues, family or leisure activities are also more likely to find a similar partner than those who meet online.
Meeting through work or volunteering leads to more mixing of people — about the same degree as couples that find each other online, Potarca says. In Germany and the United States, meeting online is associated with more racial and ethnic mixing than any other meeting venue.
The study suggests that the Internet may be leading to greater mixing and interaction between social groups, not less. This was one of the early Utopian theories about the Internet, that it would connect people across different boundaries. Although we’re still very far from the Internet erasing boundaries of status and race, the study suggests that it is helping to lessen some of the social divides that people have lived with as long as anyone can remember.
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