Jenny Partica had to cross a river to meet her husband, someone who was constantly traveling for work during the week. But she also had the help of an online algorithm to match her to a perfect stranger.
At the time, Ms. Partica, 36, of Coraopolis, was living in Selinsgrove, a town in rural Snyder County north of Harrisburg with a population under 6,000 people, when she joined OkCupid. She had just moved there for an administrative job at Susquehanna University and was having a hard time meeting someone amid the small dating pool.
Most of the clubs she joined were full of retired citizens. The only people she knew were her coworkers and within the small community, everyone already knew each other. “The social circles are pretty set and it can be hard to mix,” she said.
So she signed up for OkCupid among other services, and input some specifications such as education level and drinking and smoking habits. “By that time I was 30. I knew what I what was looking for and wouldn’t put up with,” she said.
She started to meet people in neighboring towns that she would have never visited otherwise. While some dates were awkward, she eventually met her husband-to-be.
How does online dating — which connects people to others with whom they share no mutual friends — affect the racial integration of a society? That’s the focus of research of an economist who said online dating has the potential to reshape our social networks.
For many, dating sites such as Tinder help people find anything from a casual hookup to a future husband or wife. But for Josue Ortega, he found inspiration for this research in these dates with strangers.
Mr. Ortega, 29, a lecturer in economics at the University of Essex in England, first heard about the popular dating app Tinder when he was teaching undergraduates. Mr. Ortega was working on his economics doctorate and going over the stable marriage problem, when the students likened the matching algorithm to Tinder. When he said he had never heard of it, the students called their graduate student teacher a “grandpa.”
While a visiting scholar at Columbia University in New York City, Mr. Ortega started using Tinder and soon realized he was meeting people with whom he had nothing in common. He had thought about social network modeling before but started to wonder about whether the rate of interracial marriages could be related to online dating, especially in a place like Columbia, which is only a few blocks from Harlem.
To economists, the most important people in your social network are not your best friends but your acquaintances and friends of friends. Traditionally, these “weak ties” are people you are most likely to get married to — people in your neighborhood who are similar to your socioeconomic class and race.
So how does online dating affect these traditional connections?
Using a supercomputer at the University of Glasgow, Mr. Ortega and his colleague, Philipp Hergovich ran 10,000 simulations of mini societies, or points on a graph. Each point or person had the same likelihood of entering an interracial marriage. They found that even with a small likelihood of an interracial marriage, the simulation would quickly progress to a state where the chance of marrying outside of one’s race was the same as marrying someone of their own race. One interracial connection in your social network can lead to even more.
Of course, simulations are not real life and Mr. Ortega warned against making “one-to-one” comparisons or conflating online dating as the cause of racial integration. Interracial marriages became legal 50 years ago and some people still harbor strong biases against dating people outside of their race.
Still, since online dating sites emerged in the mid-1990s, their popularity have steadily grown. A 2016 Pew Center of Research reported said that 5 percent of Americans who were married or in a committed relationship said they met their partner online. Though a separate report from the same year, said 30 percent of people who had never been married had used an online or mobile dating app.
The menagerie of dating services includes paid services such as eHarmony and Match.com to apps that have been released in the last five years such as Tinder or Bumble.
“It’s shocking in a city like Pittsburgh that there are so many people you don’t know,” said Laura McDermit, 34, of Lawrenceville.
For Ms. McDermit first starting using Tinder, it was just for fun with her colleagues. She liked how easy the platform was and at the office the four of them would take “tinder breaks.” She refrained from messaging her matches extensively so that “the nervousness wasn’t as high than when you build something up in your mind.” Ms. McDermit said she never expected to meet her husband through the app, but she did.
Before meeting her fiance, Becka Burnight, 26, of Ohio Township, said she would have thought online dating was a last resort. “I would have probably not met him if I hadn’t met him online,” she said, acknowledging that online dating may not be for everyone.
Ms. Burnight said she was drawn to online dating because she did not feel comfortable approaching people in public and did not want to date a coworker since she had a managerial position. The person she met, who would become her fiance, was in graduate school and just as busy as she was.
For others, dating online is a numbers game. “I’m an HR manager,” said April Sheatz, 33, of Mount Washington. “It’s kind of the same process as finding the right person for a job.” She met her fiance online, who had no other social media presence besides his dating profiles.
Presenting his paper at conferences, Mr. Ortega was worried some of his older peers would be confused by the concept of dating apps. To his surprise, a 70-year-old man said he had met his second wife online.
“Online dating gives you a second chance,” Mr. Ortega conceded.