Horizon CDT Research Highlights

Research Highlights

The trajectory of online dating: Identity construction & interaction

  David Hand (2011 cohort)   www.nottingham.ac.uk/~psxdh1

Online dating is an increasing well established phenomenon, with an increasing number of couples of any sexual orientation having met through using various online dating services [2]. These services are broadly split over two categories, web-based (typified by match.com, OkCupid, Gaydar) and mobile-based (typified by Grindr, Tinder), each offering different opportunities and challenges to users of dating services.

Despite differences between the two forms of online dating service, and the individual nuances that each specific platform offers, exploring these services through adopting the Trajectories Framework [1] shows that they all share four distinct stages of the ideal route through these services a user will take. The first stage is profile creation, in which a user enters a varying amount of information about themselves, qualitative and quantitative, and what they are looking for. Following this is searching for other users, where other users’ profiles are viewed and appraised to find someone who may be a suitable match. After this stage comes interacting with other users, through whatever in-service communication methods are available. Finally, if this in-service interaction goes well users might progress to the final stage in the trajectory, meeting other users.

In order to explore the ways in which real-world users of online dating services use, navigate and interact through these services an engagement with them was vital. This was accomplished via a series of in-depth interviews with self-identified users of online dating services. To briefly summarise the findings of that fieldwork the trajectory stages identified will be used to provide a frame through which to understand them.

Most obviously, identity has emerged as a central concern, with the profile creation stage entirely being about the construction of a deliberate identity, designed to showcase the user in a positive light and to appeal to the users they seek to attract. Participants seemed to be aware of this construction, both in their own profile and when it comes to the reading of others, and a climate of presumed exaggeration exists as a result. Perhaps because online dating is undertaken with a view to potentially meeting someone, physical representation though profile pictures is seen as particularly important, both in users being highly selective over the images they choose to use on profiles, and a well established cynicism over the profile pictures that others use [2].

Where the stage of interacting with other users is concerned, despite notable differences in the length at which this is conducted between web-based and mobile-based dating services, two different things are seen to happen; firstly, users interrogate the identity that they read in another users profile, and attempt to reinforce their own, through an ongoing conversation, and tension between the constructed identity and ‘real life’ identity may emerge and potentially be resolved. Secondly, users seek to establish if what was most commonly referred to as “chemistry” with the people they talk to is present, which was seen as a determinant of how likely it was that an online interaction might progress to an in-person meeting.


  1. Benford, S., Giannachi, G., Koleva, B. and Rodden, T. 2009. From Interaction to Trajectories: Designing Coherent Journeys through User Experiences, Proc. CHI 2009, ACM Press, pp 709-718
  2. Hancock, J.T., Toma, C. and Ellison, N. 2007. The truth about lying in online dating profiles. CHI '07: Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems
  3. Rosenfeld, M.J. and Thomas, R.J. 2012. Searching for a Mate: The Rise of the Internet as a Social Intermediary, American Sociological Review, Vol. 77, No. 4, pp 523-547

This author is supported by the Horizon Centre for Doctoral Training at the University of Nottingham (RCUK Grant No. EP/G037574/1) and by the RCUK’s Horizon Digital Economy Research Institute (RCUK Grant No. EP/G065802/1)