Love in the Time of No Time

Wednesday, November 26th, 2003

In The Economics of On-Line Dating, Tyler Cowen cites a New York Times Magazine article, Love in the Time of No Time, that “is not full of economic reasoning though the interesting and salacious content may keep you reading.” It does mention one bit of economic data though:

In the first half of 2003, Americans spent $214.3 million on personals and dating sites — almost triple what they spent in all of 2001. Online dating is the most lucrative form of legal paid online content.

I knew I should’ve started an on-line dating site…

After working through eight or nine pages of salacious details I reached this bit that amused me:

Online dates that lead to love — and they are legion — are a little like Tolstoy’s happy families: for all their quirky particularity, they end up sounding strangely alike. There’s Kellie Smith, 33, from outside Boston, an occupational therapist who whimsically clicked ”Love on AOL” during her lunch break and found herself on, where she dashed off e-mail messages to several men who interested her. Michael DuGally, 35, a partner in a Massachusetts furniture manufacturing company, was her first online date; they met for lunch and never really parted. Last summer, the couple asked for a logo banner so they could be photographed with it on their wedding day.

I enjoyed Cowen’s analysis:

The bottom line, however, is simple. On-line dating seems to serve (at least) two major constituencies. First, many people use it to marry or otherwise find a monogamous relationship. claims to have lost 140,000 members, by enabling those people to find partners. Second, many people use internet dating to find casual sex or serial partners. The article quotes a “Greg,” who enjoys a first date with quickie sex at the end, and then offers the following remark: “I liked her, but not enough to merit fireworks. Given the seemingly endless selectoin, I get to be a little less forgiving.”

Since I suspect that on-line dating is more effective than not, people will increasingly choose one category or the other. Those people who are willing and able to marry, will find their partners and marry. After some period of time, the stock of marriageable people will be smaller. (Note: I believe that some decent chunk of the unmarried are simply emotionally incapable of marrying, for whatever reason.) The remaining unmarried will then find relatively higher returns from the serial dating and casual sex routes. So the distribution of the number of sexual partners will become more bimodal over time.

Furthermore, the last two years have been an especially good time to marry through on-line dating. The new technology is being applied to a large stock of unmarried people who could marry and be happy, but who otherwise could not find the right partner. Yes, an ongoing flow will replenish the stock but arguably the stock has been at a peak in recent times, given that on-line dating has just taken off. So if you want to marry, hurry up and get on-line. If you are just looking for casual sex, well, you have a greater luxury of waiting and in fact your options will likely improve with time.

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