Online dating site OKCupid has found an inexplicable number of men happen to be exactly six feet tall and there are four times as many people who claim to earn $100,000 per year as there should be. False advertising, or misrepresentation, is standard in any marketplace; the dating market is no different.
While American dating sites have taken a laissez faire approach to lying, Asian dating sites have implemented serious measures to keep users honest.
China’s largest site, Jiayuan.com, ran into a huge PR problem in 2011 when a man swindled a woman he met on the site. This incident intensified Jiayuan’s more general reputational problems due to lying on its site. So Jiayuan developed a means for people to verify the claims they make on their profiles. Users can provide documents to the site, such as government-issued ID cards and paychecks, to back up their claims. Those willing to pay additional fees can have an in-person interview that gives a higher verification rating on the site.
Similarly, a large dating site in South Korea, KoreanCupid.com requires participants to submit a copy of a national registration form, diplomas, and proof of employment, which the site uses to verify age, marital history, parents’ marital status, education, and type of job.
Why have these Asian sites put resources into verification of users’ profiles while American sites continue their caveat emptor approach? While it’s hard to say for sure, some combination of three explanations seems most likely. First, there was a significant amount of stigma and skepticism when online dating was first introduced. Perhaps cultural differences made it harder to break down that mindset in some countries, forcing websites to work harder on verification and building trust with their clients. Second, Jiayuan may have implemented their verification system simply due to the bad luck of a few scandals attached to their site. I’ve seen little evidence of American users demanding verification, on the other hand, though I have heard a few anecdotal accounts of Americans giving up on online dating because of dishonesty.
The third explanation, which I think is probably most important, is driven by the economics of the online dating business. Dating sites (and, for that matter, other online markets) are largely a fixed cost business. A company has to design the site, the user interface, and the matching algorithm. Though a site needs to add more servers as it grows, scaling is a relatively easy and low cost proposition if customers start arriving in large numbers. But verifying individual users’ height, income, education, and the like has to be done customer-by-customer. Verification kills the scalability of a dating site. According to a New Yorker article (registration required) from last year, “Jiayuan hired a team of document experts to hunt for forgeries and ferret out suspicious activity, such as a user who makes frequent adjustments to his name and birth date.” Creating this capability is a much bigger problem for an American site than for a Chinese site (and, to a lesser extent, a Korean site) given differences in labor costs. An American site would have to either pay high American wages to the people who verify users’ information or they would have to expend a great deal of resources setting up an offshore operation which, though cheaper, would create concerns regarding security and identity theft.
Without extensive documentation, it’s still possible to incentivize online daters to be more honest. Economists Soohyung Lee and Muriel Niederle tried to help users be more credible in how much they were interested in a person on a Korean dating site. The site ran a special event over a nine-day period that was sort of a cross between online dating and speed dating. Participants browsed online profiles. Over a five-day proposal period, they could show up to 10 people on the site that they were interested in a date with them. In addition, during that period, some participants could offer a “virtual rose” along with two of their date requests. This, in effect, told the recipient that he or she was among the highest choices of the person offering the rose.
The virtual roses, inspired by Michael Spence’s Nobel-Prize winning idea of “signaling,” allowed people to show they really wanted a date because it was costly to send one. That is, if you sent a rose to one person, you could not send it to someone else. This showed the recipient that the sender’s interest was sincere. The experiment worked, in that invitations sent with virtual roses were more likely to turn into a date.
So why don’t all sites institute such a mechanism?
I’ve heard people in both the online dating industry and the online job board industries give two answers to this. First, many online daters have unrealistic expectations. They won’t pay for the right to send a virtual rose to a “good” potential date—they want to shoot for a date with a supermodel. But sending a signal to those people is a waste because they already know everybody wants them. Second, it’s easy to game the virtual rose system through multiple accounts and signing up for many sites.
If you want to show serious interest, invest in a very personalized introduction (the first message in the case of online dating), which shows you spent time and resources considering why you would be a good match and sets you apart from standard “Hey, let’s get together” messages.
And if that doesn’t work, I have two other suggestions: First, remember the advice of a former Jiayuan.com executive who now advises single Chinese women on how to find a husband. Be realistic or, as she puts it, “If you’re holding out for a millionaire, stop daydreaming.” Second, at least if you are a woman, look for references and reviews of available men on Lulu, a site that is doing for single women what the eBay “feedback” system is doing for online shoppers.