Imagine this scenario: A young man walks into a popular singles bar. He places himself strategically in the center of the room so that he is in a sociable distance to the greatest number of women. He speaks to the woman closest to him saying, “My favorite drink is a Bloody Mary, what’s yours?” While she is formulating her answer he turns to another woman and asks her the same question. Ignoring their irritated glances, he turns to the first woman, takes out his cell phone and asks, “Can you guys download this app and take the test to see how compatible we are?” The young man, undaunted, approaches a third woman in the bar and says, “I have a job and I make over 50K a year. I’m here because I’m serious.” He looks over at yet another woman who is walking past and says, “I go to the gym three times a week.” After she hurries out the door in disgust, another woman comes in and to her he shouts, “I’m looking for someone who will have all of the same interests and make me laugh!”
His behavior eventually gets the young man forcibly thrown out of the bar. As he is being thrown out he shouts, “I’m just trying to find my soul mate!” In a real singles bar someone displaying this kind of behavior would be dismissed immediately as disingenuous, because he expects to find a connection with one woman by trying to appeal to all available women in the bar. However, this is exactly the approach that is expected to work for online dating.
If online dating strategies were employed in an offline context, they would be highly unsuccessful. Only online is it socially acceptable to show interest in multiple potential partners at the same time. Only online can people talk almost entirely about themselves without being labeled a narcissist. Only on the Internet do first impressions rely completely on what people selectively choose to reveal about themselves, to an exacting standard of honesty, rather than by observation and social cues. Due to these rhetorical strategies, the mechanics of online dating and the popular definition of what constitutes a successful profile, dating websites can influence users to embrace deceptive broad appeals in their profiles, rather than specific and authentic ones.
The rhetoric employed by individual users in online dating walks a tight rope between growing its audience to maximize a potential for connection, and limiting its audience to eventually achieve the shared goal of finding a single lifelong partner. The methods employed for generating increased communication on the dating website often work against the underlying goal of finding a single, perfect match for a life-long partner, creating a conflicting tension between what is considered effective rhetorical strategy for online dating, and what is healthy for authentic offline relationships. While it is generally accepted that the best relationships begin with honesty, one of the main strategies online websites encourage their users to employ is to appeal to as many potential matches as possible. By encouraging users to broaden their profiles’ appeal, online dating websites inadvertently influence their users to use inauthentic strategies to create broad appeal. Often what is framed as successful online profiles encourages practices of deceit.
To back up a bit, the study of rhetoric is the study of communication in action. From a classical standpoint, rhetoric is the use of the various appeals a communicator makes to the audience’s values (pathos), logic (logos), and trust (ethos). Current rhetoric scholars take this definition further and say that rhetoric is not only the act of appealing to an audience, but of shaping an audience. Through the use of Aristotle’s appeals, an online profile’s rhetoric will either identify the user with potential matches or not identify the user with potential matches. Both the inclusion of the intended audience and the exclusion of the unintended audience are important pieces to identification.
A presidential candidate, for example, will want to identify with her political party in the primary, and she will not want to identify with the opposing party as much as possible. By establishing who she does and does not want to identify with, a presidential candidate can establish an effective rhetorical strategy to get the nomination. The primary rhetorical problem with online dating is that online websites employ many strategies that focus on creating mass appeal which creates a virtual environment where deception becomes a preferred rhetorical strategy. These rhetorical strategies, often suggested by online dating sites, define success in terms of quantity; more attention from multiple users equals a more successful profile. The more online traffic a profile gathers, the more effective its argument. The main strategy of online dating is disproportionally geared toward creating greater responses to profiles, rather than helping users narrow their search to eventually find a single relationship.
eHarmony tells its users the purpose of their profile is to find the one perfect, monogamous match out of millions of potentials. Websites overtly appeal to this desire in their advertising. The idea of soul mates dominates the advertising of many dating websites. In a tenth anniversary press release in 2010, eHarmony announced their new advertising campaign to “encourage singles who want to find their own true love.” They said they want to be the side that, “inspires singles to believe that their other half…is out there” (eHarmony, “10th Anniversary”). eHarmony tells its users the purpose of their profile is to find the one perfect, monogamous match out of millions of potentials. Even though an effective user profile is defined as a profile that generates more communication, online daters are encouraged to believe their ultimate goal is to reach an audience of one.
If the goal of online dating is to eventually appeal to an audience of one “soul mate,” then it is logical to assume that the most valuable profiles would effectively limit the potential matches, rather than increase the number. The problem is that with potentially millions of available singles at a user’s fingertips, how can the average user sift through the multitude to find a single soul mate? Dating sites attempt to remedy this problem by offering “scientifically tested compatibility testing” which tests “29 dimensions of compatibility” to provide “matches” based on the results of the test (eHarmony, “More Than Traditional Dating Sites”). Yet according to an article in the Scientific American Mind, dating sites “have, so far, failed to offer convincing evidence to support this claim,” since they have neither published their own peer review studies with algorithms, or “allowed independent studies to be performed” (Finkel et al.). Thus, users looking for an effective match must assume that their definition of “compatibility” is in sync with the site’s algorithmic limiters.
Another potential audience limiter is found in the search tools where users can enter their preferences and limit the types of profiles they evaluate. However a study done on these search options found that, rather than diminishing the pool of options, they “triggered more searching and decreased choice quality,” because of the “cognitive load” of too many search options (Wu & Wen-bin 318). The extra search options make looking for a compatible match too complicated because every user designs her profile with vague information, meant to appeal to the widest audience to be successful according to the standards set by dating websites. Moreover, the researchers found that many search options online make online daters “less likely to ignore irrelevant information…and to be distracted by attributes that were not pertinent to their original preferences” (Wu & Wen-bin 318). Like the friend who discourages someone from a relationship by bringing up irrelevant objections, search options create artificial barriers for Internet daters by creating irrelevant standards to evaluating another’s profile, which may prevent some user’s profile’s from getting noticed at all if they dared to be completely honest.
Discriminating search preferences contribute to lying and deception as rhetorical strategy in online dating. According to an article in the Scientific American Mind, a study showed that, “Men claiming incomes exceeding $250,000 or more got 151 percent more replies than men claiming incomes of less than $50,000.” The article also stated that women “are quite open about listing much younger ages…to make sure they turn up in searches” (Epstein). With the precision of online dating search parameters, details that might have been dismissed or gone unnoticed in person, become ironclad standards, causing users to lie or not receive as many views.
Algorithms for dating websites, however, are getting more sophisticated than just a self-reporting compatibility test or personal preference search options. One of the most famous, emerging algorithms in the online dating industry is Match.com’s “synapse” which takes into account the behavior of users on its site, as well as their stated preferences when suggesting potential matches (Gelles). The assumption is that Match.com can predict preferences by interpreting their users’ online behavior. According David Gelles’ article on Slate.com, “If a woman says she doesn’t want to date anyone older than 26, but often looks at profiles of thirty-something’s, Match will know she is in fact open to meeting older men” (Gelles). By collecting data on the behavior of their users, rather than just their stated preferences, Match.com hopes to create more personalized suggestions for users. While it is plausible to conclude that algorithmic matching might reduce false self-advertising, algorithms can be problematic in that they are subject to the unintentional and intentional biases of the creator company.
Profile photos are the closest rhetorical device to a first impression in online dating. An advice article on eHarmony states, “ Photos can drastically increase your chances of getting more communication and dates.” (eHarmony, “The Most Successful”). According to their 2013 company data, eHarmony users “who posted up to four or more photos received the most inquiries (communication) from their matches.” Moreover, these fundamental lynchpins are the sources of potential deception.
With so much of a focus on the photos of online profiles, the pressure to generate appealing photos that will garner a lot of responses from romantic potentials can inspire people to post photos that are “doctored” or are no longer accurate. According to one study, online profiles, “were frequently judged inaccurate as participants balanced the tensions of self-enhancement and authenticity” (Hancock & Toma 384). It is notable that the motivation for the selective inaccuracies was self-enhancement, because the more generally attractive a photograph (i.e. the more it conforms to popular notions of beauty), the broader the appeal of the profile. Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder according to popular logic, but in online dating, the purpose of beauty is to attract as many beholders as possible, which creates a need for deception to broaden the appeal. Another, more recent, study which delved into the complexity of online dating deception through photos found that people tended to believe that more attractive photos were more dishonest than unattractive photos (Lo, Hsieh, & Chiu 1760). This might indicate that having an honest photo is actually a better strategy than a slightly less honest, highly attractive photo. However, users still rewarded the more attractive photos with more attention. The research found that the increased possibility of deception does not deter attention away from attractive photos (Lo, Hsieh, & Chiu 1761). If the goal of an online dating profile is attention, deceptive self-altering to look more attractive does work. Ironically though, the researchers found that photos that were rated high for attractiveness, but low for honesty inspired more deception from other users in order to impress “attractive daters” (Lo, Hsieh, & Chiu 1761). Disingenuousness, therefore, is not only rewarded by the mechanics of online dating systems, but also by the actions of other online users. From a pragmatic standpoint, deception can be seen as a positive rhetorical strategy because it does generate more potential for attention in an online setting.
Moreover, the exacting nature of the information demanded from an online profile can inadvertently make it advantageous for users to use deception as a rhetorical strategy. A study that compared the heights and weights that users posted online, and then measured the actual heights and weights of the participants, found that “Deception was indeed frequently observed…” with “weight being the most frequently lied about attribute, followed by height, then age.” However, most of deceptions were so slight that they “would be difficult to detect face to face” (Toma, Hancock, & Ellison 1032). It is difficult to imagine an offline dating context where singles would reveal their exact height and weight to masses of other singles.
A deceptive emphasis on a user’s most positive traits, however, might not be as effective as these studies suggest. A recent study conducted by the Department of Communication at the University of Iowa tested the validity of the claim that a broad-appeal profile is the most effective by creating eight different profiles on OkCupid’s website and asking participants which profile they would be more likely to contact. Most participants chose to contact the profiles with more specific information over the more attractive broad-appeal profiles (Agnew). According to this research, perceived authenticity through narrow appeals is more likely to win suitors than popular appeals.
If generating more traffic on a user’s profile through the use of disingenuous or inaccurate information is an ineffective way to begin a relationship, then what do online websites’ emphases of quantity over quality truly accomplish? As with any social media, online dating websites depend on heavy traffic flow to their websites to make a profit. The relationship of the online dater to website is symbiotic. The users depend on the dating website to generate social introductions between them and others, and the dating websites depend on the current user profiles attracting and retaining more potential customers for monthly subscriptions. By encouraging users to create broad appeals to a larger audience, online dating websites effectively incorporate their users’ profiles into their internal marketing strategy. Users with more appeal generate more traffic, and create more business for the online dating service. Not to say that online websites are intentionally using their customers for marketing, but the potential results for using the broad appeal technique for online dating are more in favor of a company’s goal of profit, than the individual user’s goal of relationships.
Not all inaccuracies on an online profile inspired by the mechanics and rhetoric of online dating have negative aspects. Nor do all technical inaccuracies have negative effects on online daters. In a psychological case study, researchers found that many people post characteristics that were inaccurate about themselves currently, “to explore aspects of their personalities that they may or may not have wanted to explore through overt behavior in the offline world” (Yurchisin, Watchravesringkan, & McCabe 746). The study also found that when individuals received positive feedback on the traits that they listed online, “it seemed to provide them with proof that they needed to believe that they…possessed these characteristic presented in the profiles” and “in turn motivated the informants to alter their behavior…by engaging in different activities in order to maintain these beliefs about themselves” (Yurchisin, Watchravesringkan, & McCabe 744) In this way, Internet dating can be a place where users can use dating websites as a laboratory to test aspects of their social selves, much like meeting various people in an offline setting, only with less perceived risk of social rejection.
Different social contexts call for different rhetorical strategies. Different places, times, and events will influence the actions that are deemed acceptable or unacceptable rhetoric to a potential audience. The Internet is no exception to the rule of social context; however, because there is a greater amount of control by third parties over the social environment of the Internet, social media websites have the power to inadvertently or directly influence the ways people use to interact with each other. It is important for online daters, researchers, and online dating providers to explore the unconscious influences and assumptions that guide the developing social context. The Internet is a mediator of human relationships, and has potential to create great good, or cause great harm. Perhaps in the future, online dating sites may develop mechanics that encourage people to be themselves; to create an online space of authentic connection, rather than inauthentic popularity contests.
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Jennifer Thimell is a senior at Washington State University in Vancouver, WA. She enjoys writing in many genres, and analyzing life, people, and spirituality in her work. Jennifer hopes to one day teach at-risk students how to write college-level papers. Thus, ever the eternal student, she plans to attend graduate school for a Master’s degree in rhetoric and composition. Lastly, she would like to thank her unofficial editors for their suggestions and encouragement: Rebecca Wise for her thoughtful and thorough response to this paper, and Jennifer Lundell for her personal support to the writing enterprise as a whole.