The Future

Who goes first?

Messaging first in online dating...
...might mean you're messaging someone more desirable than you.
Oh well.
The Future

If you message first in online dating, you might be punching above your weight

People tend to message people who are more desirable than them, so you better hope they don’t know it.

Kicking out the first message on a dating app is always an intimidating prospect, and you might feel especially dumb if the person never writes back. But according to new research, your inclination to message first may mean you are trying to hook someone out of your league.

According to research published Wednesday in Science Advances, people tend to initiate online conversation with people who are at least 25 percent more desirable than they are, based on how many initial messages they they received from other users and how “desirable” those users were themselves. Men tend to be even more aspirational than women when sending a first message. But there is only up to a 21 percent chance that the woman a man messages will write back, and that number drops as the desirability gap widens.

The paper analyzed data from heterosexual users of an unspecified “popular, free online dating service” in New York, Boston, Chicago, and Seattle from January of 2014. The highest ranked person in all four cities was a 30-year-old woman in New York City, who received 1504 messages during the period of observation, the equivalent of one message every 30 minutes for the entire month.

“It’s very hard to observe failed overtures offline,” Elizabeth Bruch, an associate professor in sociology at the University of Michigan and the paper’s lead author, told The Outline. But online dating, she and her colleagues write in the paper, provides “an unprecedented opportunity” to see how people approach those who reject them.

“Rather than relying on guesses about what people find attractive,” she said, the approach also allowed the researchers to define desirability in terms of who is receiving the most attention and from whom, said Mark Newman, a professor of physics and complex systems, and the paper’s co-author, in a statement.

To understand how people approach online dating (as well as who they approach) the researchers also analyzed message length and word use. They found that people, and especially women, tend to write longer messages to more desirable partners — though this is not necessarily an effective method of securing a date. The exception to this rule was in Seattle, where in some areas, there are two men to each woman. In that case, it was men who wrote longer messages, but unlike women, they tended to be rewarded for them.

Bruch and her colleagues also found that as the “desirability” gap widens, women increase their use of positive language. But depressingly, said Bruch, the opposite is true for men: as they communicate up the desirability ladder, men’s frequency of positive word use decreases. “It’s exactly like Negging,” she said, referring to the act of emotional manipulation where a man tries to win a woman over by insulting her. “I didn’t want it to be a good strategy,” she said. Unfortunately, her results disagreed.

In other depressing news for women, the study also showed that women’s desirability ranking drops from the age of 18 onwards, whereas for men, it peaks at 50.  Previous research from the dating website OkCupid has also shown a similar trend, with men’s attraction to women hovering around the age of 20, while women’s increases with their own age.

The study also found that the more educated a man was, the better. For women, however, no more than an undergraduate degree was “desirable.” (The researchers controlled here for age, given that women are usually older once they undertake additional study.)

“Sure, this is confirming some of our worst cliches,” said Bruch, adding that she herself “struggled” with the results of the study. But she said it was important to remember that the research simply captured overall patterns, and did not include “submarkets” of desirability, in which people can still have highly successful dating lives. It may also indicate a possibly hopeful movement in the social dynamics of dating: women are getting comfortable messaging first, and the system isn’t punishing them for it. At least, not always.

Moreover, she said, “we only observe what people do, we don't know why they are doing it. Also, we only observe the earliest stage of dating among people who meet online. We don't know whether desirability gaps continue to matter once people are connected.”

Hey you! We want to know what you think about The Outline (and you can win some cool swag too). We know you love to answer questions, so take our 5 minute survey.