A photo of couples dancing in a park.
Couples dance during a "Tango by Moonlight" evening in Boston. Brian Snyder/Reuters

When looking for love, most people don’t look far from home. That's what a big-data analysis of interactions on a dating site revealed.

Do we search far and wide for love? Not so much, it turns out.

Most heterosexual singles search for a match close to where they live, according to a new paper in Sociological Science by Elizabeth Bruch and Mark Newman, both of the University of Michigan and Santa Fe Institute. Their study is based on a big-data analysis of interactions on a major online dating platform. (The researchers were required not to identify the site as a condition of conducting the research.) Specifically, the study analyzes some 15 million two-way exchanges between heterosexual users on the site. Bruch and Newman use these data points to assess the roles of age, gender, race, and proximity in heterosexual dating markets.

I have long argued that “mating markets” are a key factor alongside amenities and job markets in attracting young singles to cities. These authors write, “The experience of mate selection is frequently described, both in popular discourse and the scientific literature, in the language of markets. However, we know little about the structure of these romantic markets in part for lack of appropriately detailed data. The advent and vigorous growth of the online dating industry in the last two decades provides a new source of data about courtship interactions on an unprecedented scale.”

Unsurprisingly, men are more likely to initiate online contact, sending more than 80 percent of initial messages to potential partners. Women receive four times as many first messages as men do. And women reply to men’s messages at a “substantially lower rate” than men replying to women, the researchers find.

Dating sites make it possible to increase the size and scale of one’s search for mates. But the study finds little evidence that people are connecting with partners who live far away. In fact, geographic proximity matters a great deal. Proximity is the single strongest driver of connections, or “reciprocal interactions,” which occur when two people uninitiate an online conversation. The study identified 19 distinct dating communities which closely map onto geographic regions, such as New England, the South, Texas, and so on.

But online dating isn’t necessary making proximity more important. “Whether or not the influence of geography is exacerbated by the setup of online dating sites, however, depends on how local dating is to begin with,” Bruch told CityLab via email. “My sense from cell-phone studies of routine activity is that people typically stay within a given urban area, which suggests that offline dating is also fairly local.”

The study considers factors such as the age structure of dating markets, age gaps between men and women, and the role of race, zooming in on four cities: New York, Boston, Chicago, and Seattle.

Bruch and Newman divided online dating into four distinct age cohorts (or what it calls “submarkets”): people in their early 20s, in their late 20s, in their late 30s, and 40 and older. Three-quarters of all online conversations or reciprocal messaging occurred between men and women in the same age group. In fact, the median age difference between men and women who started up online conversations was one year and seven months. Across the four cities and all submarkets, more than 40 percent of online daters did try to connect with others outside their age group, though with far less likelihood of having their messages returned.

Interestingly, the younger age cohorts had higher ratios of men to women, but those ratios tilted the other way as age increased (something I found in my own analysis of the demography of singles). This is likely because women marry or find partners younger. “Women’s first marriages are at a younger age on average than men’s, which takes more women than men out of younger dating markets,” the authors write. For instance, there were two men for every woman in the youngest cohorts in Chicago and Seattle.

In Chicago and New York, the age differences between men and the women they messaged were two to three times larger within the oldest submarket than within the youngest. The authors say this is consistent with previous findings that men’s preferences for their partners become more solidified over time, so as they get older, they may choose a larger age gap than before.

Race shapes dating and interaction patterns as well. White men tended to message younger black women compared to the white women they interacted with. In Chicago’s oldest age cohort, white men corresponded with black women who were eight years younger than the white women they messaged.

Online dating may have opened up a world of choices, but the lion’s share of interactions remain local. Although the internet was supposed to conquer the constraints of geography, proximity still matters in dating, as it does in clusters of talent and industry. It shapes the landscape of our potential romantic relationships. At a time when people can literally search the globe for love, more often than not they end up connecting to a boy or girl who is almost “next door.”

CityLab editorial fellow Nicole Javorsky contributed research and editorial assistance to this article.

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