My friend and former colleague Mikolaj Jan Piskorski has conducted a tremendous amount of research on social networking platforms over the past decade. In one particular piece of research, he examined online dating sites. Among other things, he wanted to see whether the online dating platforms helped individuals who might otherwise encounter challenges finding good matches in the "real world" i.e. not online? Here's an excerpt from HBS Working Knowledge that summarizes his findings:
Piskorski studied a random sample of 500,000 OKCupid members,
focusing on two important stages of forming a relationship: spotting a
potential mate, and initiating contact. The initial results showed that older, shorter, and relatively
overweight men tended to view more profiles than their younger, taller,
slimmer counterparts. With the female sample, tall women were the ones
who tended to view the most profiles. (In the seminar, he reported only
the results related to heterosexual matching.) "I was very encouraged by these results," Piskorski said. "It is
presumably harder for older and overweight people to identify potential
partners in the offline world, and the online worlds are helping them do
that, thereby potentially equalizing access to romantic relationships." However, the increased viewing behavior did not lead to increased messaging behavior. Piskorski found that the older, shorter, overweight crowd sent out
relatively few messages after viewing hundreds of profiles, as compared
to the taller, sportier men. "Basically, the big finding is that men who
view most profiles are least likely to message." Piskorski said.
"These results show that people who expect rejection may simply refrain
from writing, unless the site gives them an encouragement to do so." The results were similarly discouraging for female users. "Even
though women look at as many profiles as men do, they message men much
less," Piskorksi said. "It seems that these sites have done little to
overcome a very restrictive social norm that makes it inappropriate for
women to make the first move."
Interestingly, Piskorski then examined the specific functionality of the OKCupid site. He found that some aspects of the site actually help encourage visitors who view many profiles, but are reluctant to send messages. For instance, he found that OKCupid's "Quiver" function on the site helped women to overcome the reluctance to "make the first move." He concludes that we have to really examine the functionality of specific online dating platforms to understand whether they provide a distinct advantage for certain groups over the "real world" dating scene.
More generally, Piskorski has conducted some terrific research on other social networking platforms. His work focuses on how certain platforms help overcome "social failures" of the real world. For instance, he argues that LinkedIn has been very successful matching job seekers and employers because it has made it more socially and culturally acceptable to engage in job seeking behaviors while still at your current employer. For more of his work, check out his website here.