Meeting People Online: How We Navigate Internet Friendships and Connections
Meeting others online has been stigmatized by many. In some people’s experience, virtual connections signal interpersonal incompetence: having failed at making friends, we turn to digital tools.
Yet, in light of popular technology, this traditionalist view seems increasingly antiquated. According to recent research, online dating is no longer widely viewed as a last resort for the lonely.
Dozen of apps now aim to foster new friendships. Among professionals, digital platforms are an essential means to network with potential clients and colleagues. In so many domains, online introductions now precede or replace in-person interactions.
We set out to study how individuals meet others online, initiating friendly, romantic, or professional relationships. To do so, we surveyed approximately 1,000 internet users about their experiences with forming digital connections.
How do people approach making online acquaintances, and do these bonds eventually translate to in-person encounters? To learn how relationships begin and thrive online, keep reading.
Budding Online Friendships
In 2004, the creator of the world’s most popular social network, Facebook, set out with a simple goal: to connect people. Mark Zuckerberg was specifically trying to connect college students, but now, Facebook has 2 billion monthly active users. Considering the number of users, it makes sense that the majority of baby boomers, Gen Xers, and millennials make friends on Facebook.
While the three oldest generations were more likely to make friends on Facebook, Gen Zers were the most likely to make friends through Instagram (61.3%) compared to 51.3% on Facebook. Gen Zers was also more likely than other generations to make friends on Twitter at 41.2%.
Millennials were the most likely to take an online connection to the real world, with 60.5% meeting an online friend in person. Before meeting up in real life, it’s important to make sure your online friend is really who they say they are, even if the relationship is platonic. Most people take precautions to assure their safety.
Of those making the connection in person, 57.2% told someone about their plans to meet up, while 32.0% took someone with them. Even with the known dangers, however, 20.3% of respondents didn’t take any safety precautions.
Romantic Online Relationships
While over half of American couples still meet through mutual acquaintances or in person, approximately 40% (PDF) now find each other online. And while some online dating platforms utilize detailed user profiles, the most popular dating apps don’t demand much information at all. In fact, Tinder, Hinge, and Bumble profiles often entail just a few pictures and small snippets of text — often used humorously in an attempt to interest other users.
Accordingly, many respondents sought additional information about potential romantic interests they met online. Nearly 4 in 5 respondents admitted to looking up a match on social media before meeting in person. Furthermore, 56.9% had even added them as a friend or followed them before a first date took place.
Even when dates passed this social media scrutiny, respondents often took precautions before meeting in person. Nearly 80% of women told someone about their plans before meeting in person. Surprisingly, only 53.5% of men said the same. Women were also significantly more likely to turn on location sharing and have someone call them during the date. On the flip side, 34.4% of men took no safety precautions — nearly three times more likely than women.
Lasting Online Love
In recent decades, the percentage of couples meeting online has surged significantly (PDF). Simultaneously, fewer partners are finding each other through family and mutual friends, indicating a major shift in dating culture. Moreover, our findings suggest that relationships sparked online are frequently quite serious: More than 1 in 5 respondents who met their significant other online later married them.
Have these developments reversed the long-standing stigma against online dating, or are people still reluctant to admit to meeting in this manner? Interestingly, members of Generation Z and millennials were most likely to feel embarrassed about meeting their partners online — and even to lie about doing so.
Older Americans are being more open to finding love online — utilizing platforms designed for their own demographic. But younger respondents are more skeptical about whether relationships started online can endure. For example, relative to baby boomers and Gen Xers, Gen Zers were almost twice as likely to believe that couples who meet online won’t last as long as couples who met in person.
Let’s Make a Deal
The digital world has opened doors for every type of relationship – platonic, romantic, and even business. Buying items from sellers has never been easier, thanks to platforms like Facebook Marketplace, Letgo, and OfferUp. But just like meeting up with online friends or matching with a stranger, meeting an online seller in person can be dangerous. Police have warned users of the risks and offered plenty of tips to stay safe, so what advice are people heeding?
Around 73% of respondents said they meet people in a public place to buy or sell items, while roughly 40% meet at the stranger’s house or their own. Similar to safety precautions taken with online dates, women were more likely than men to implement some form of precaution. Compared to just 46.9% of men, 70.8% of women took someone with them to make the exchange. Seventy percent of women also told someone about their plans, while 53.4% of men did the same.
Despite the precautions people may need to take to avoid being in a dangerous situation, the majority of people thought getting a good deal was worth the risk of meeting someone from an online marketplace. And even with 1 in 4 people being misled about the quality of an item, a staggering 92.3% of people said they would use an online marketplace again.
As our results clearly indicate, successful relationships of many kinds begin online. And while some respondents still voiced misgivings about connections forged on the internet, many others regarded them quite positively.
Perhaps the appropriate perspective is a balanced view, accounting for both the risks and benefits of meeting others online. Surely, we must prioritize safety when meeting online acquaintances in person, utilizing many of the precautions described in this project. By the same token, we need not entirely avoid meeting others online. If we are willing to make online introductions, our findings suggest that we may reap great benefits — personally, romantically, and financially.
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Methodology and Limitations
To collect the data shown above, we surveyed 992 internet users to learn more about their perceptions of meeting people online. Of the respondents, 251 were baby boomers, born between 1946 and 1964; 250 were Gen Xers, born between 1965 and 1980; 253 were millennials, born between 1981 and 1997; and 238 were Gen Zers, born after 1997. 53.8% were female, 45.9% were male, and less than 1% identified as nonbinary.
Since data were collected through a survey and rely on self-reporting, issues such as telescoping and exaggeration may have influenced responses. An attention-check question was included in the survey to make sure respondents were not answering randomly.
Fair Use Statement
At this point, most of us have met at least one person online. If you’d like to share our findings with your friend or partner — online or off — feel free to do so. The graphics and content found here are available for reuse. Just don’t forget to link back to this page to give the authors proper credit.