For all the talk about how African Americans use the Internet and social media these days, there's an even larger conversation taking place about why more black couples aren't married. Some commentators now say that the hysteria is unfounded, but who's looking at how African Americans are using the Internet to address the great marriage debate?
A recent article in the Chicago Tribune claims that African-American singles are abandoning traditional approaches to dating and orchestrating matches on Twitter and Facebook instead.
With the odds of being married as unfavorable as they are -- the U.S. Census says African Americans are the ethnic group least likely to marry; an Essence magazine feature contended that "if every black man in America married a black woman today, one in 12 black women still wouldn't make it down the aisle" -- perhaps online dating is the place to turn the tables around.
Ron Worthy says it is. The site he helped relaunch, BlackPeopleMeet.com, is the number one personals site among African Americans, according to Nielsen. The site had 410,000 African-American visitors during June 2011, they say. African Americans also made up 12 percent of the Match.com audience, BlackPeopleMeet's parent site.
"African-American penetration in the online personals category has more than doubled in the last four to five years," Worthy says. "It's more acceptable than it was 10 to 15 years ago, when people looked at online dating as kind of sleazy." Worthy also credits the profusion (and popularity) of media that targets single people for the shift, particularly reality TV shows and series like "Single Ladies."
In addition to public acceptance, the odds of success online are just better, he argues. "You go into a spot that has 150 people and hope that five of those guys talk to you. The reality is, only one of them will, and the other four that you thought were cool are not going to approach, because that dude already did. (Whereas online) you get the other four, but you also get the other 150 to take a look at," he says. "At the end of the month, you've been exposed to thousands of people."
The jury's still out on the validity of Worthy's theory, since, as he says, "success is in the eye of the beholder." He does, however, put the industry's average success rate somewhere around 20 to 30 percent. Sites like eHarmony, on the other hand, determine their success by whether or not a couple ties the knot, noting that some 542 people married every day last year in the U.S. as a result of their service.
While those figures, compiled by Harris Interactive, were not broken down into specific demographics, eHarmony does seem to have a decent representation of black couples among their success stories, including Topeka and Keithroy, a pair whose courtship, when they describe it, conjures images of dancing and Natalie Cole's "This Will Be."
"On the very last day, when I'd just about had it and was about to end my subscription, I found the woman of my dreams," Keithroy says. For Topeka, the goal was clear. "I went into this basically saying 'I'm going to find my husband,'" she says. Both had poked around on dating sites for a year or two before their whirlwind romance took off.
Vanessa and Ray Thomas, from BlackPeopleMeet's roster, say that they never would have met if it weren't for the web, as they live on opposite sides of Houston, Texas. Ray had been on the site for a year before Vanessa reached out to him.
So maybe persistence is the key to the kind of dating success that these couples found (along with the the inherent proactivity involved in creating an account and checking it regularly), but they agree that transparency is critical, too.
"Ultimately, it's about how each person pushes their own success, by being super honest up-front with everything they put on the site: filling their profile out completely, answering people, engaging in the community, searching for people, initiating contact and responding to people," Worthy says.
Keithroy and Topeka concur. "Honesty is the biggest key as far as online dating is concerned," Topeka says.