What’s more, users often found that the person they were meeting for
the first time was not what they had expected. “By starting online,
some people had experiences they wouldn’t have had if they had been
able to see up front what someone was like,” Norton says. “So we wanted
to explore ways to improve the experience and help people filter more
And there is no check box for the attributes we really want to know
most about, he says, such as, is this a kind person? “So people search
based on income, ethnicity, religion—these things are important and
they are all decent predictors of whether you’ll get along with
someone—but there’s just something missing.”
What’s missing is that subtle, essential information that emerges
when you actually meet someone. Enter Virtual Dates, the solution they
propose to improve online dating services.
Making the connection
Here’s how it works: After two dating-service customers find what
looks like a good match, the couple meets over their computers for a
five-minute Virtual Date, a kind of online ice-breaker that allows two
people to communicate in real time using colors, words, and images.
In the process of using Virtual Dates, couples may pick up more cues
about each other than they would through a standard, one-dimensional
chat client. Is my date responsive or funny? Are they on time? How do
they relate in real time? How does it feel to sit (virtually) across
If we give people different kinds of content, are they going to navigate toward common interests?
Although a number of dating sites come with chat clients, the
interfaces are often quite impersonal and lead to vague conversations,
according to the researchers. Virtual Dates goes beyond those by
providing pictures around which people can socially interact, as if the
couple is going to a museum together and chatting about the art work.
“We wanted to give people something more specific to talk about,
help them find common interests and points of divergence, and give them
some content for discussion. Ideally we wanted to simulate a standard
first date,” Norton says.
To test the product, Frost and Norton conducted speed-dating events
to introduce couples who had already met through the interface. Their
goal was to see if Virtual Dates made any difference in stoking a
romance. Preliminary data indicates that it may.
“In our experiment, two people would arrange a Virtual Date and then
we would use a speed-dating event to bring them together so we could
compare the online impression to the offline impression,” says Frost.
Advice for the lovelorn
With their extensive research on the subject, Frost and Norton have advice for online daters.
“Remove yourself as much as possible and don’t invest your ego in
one particular date,” Frost offers. “Remember that it’s very easy to
get carried away and imbue a profile with overly favorable qualities.
My advice is to try to stay calm and resist being invested in one
person until you’ve actually gotten to know them. Avoid long e-mail
correspondences because they tend to heighten expectations.”
“It also takes resilience to go on a lot of dates and spend time
actually arranging to meet rather than spending hours a week just
searching. The people who go on a lot of dates are the people who find
someone. In some sense it’s a numbers game.”
New users especially should keep in mind that online dating is not
in the end so fundamentally different from regular dating, adds Norton.
You try to find people, you try to meet them. “It’s the people who
think it will be quite different from their regular experiences who end
up being the most disappointed …. In online dating, the same sorts of
people who are online are also out there offline. It can help you sort,
but ultimately it takes work, effort, and a little luck.”