One of the most popular theories to explain rela­tionship development is socialpenetration theory (Altman & Taylor, 1973). Social penetration theory is an incremental theory which argues that relationships move to greater levels of intimacy over time. According to this theory, how greater intimacy is achieved is typically through depth and breadth of self-disclosure. Breadth of self­disclosure refers to discussing a range of topics, such as information about one’s family, career, and so forth. Depth refers to the more central core of one’s personality; that is, the more unique aspects of one’s self. The timing of how much one self-discloses is crucial to determining whether a relationship will continue to proceed. Rushing self-disclosure in the early stages of a relationship can seem unnatural and desperate and can lead to an abrupt end. According to social penetration theory, in the early phases of relationship devel­opment, one moves with caution, discussing less intimate topics and checking in the conversations for signs of reciprocity. Gradually, one feels safer to reveal aspects of themselves.

As can be seen in the five stages of online dating, there is far less opportunity for relation­ships to develop in the way proposed by the so­cial penetration theory. On an online dating site the profiles are set up in such as way to reveal both depth and breadth. For instance, within the profiles, individuals typically have to provide information about surface levels aspects ofthem – selves, such as eye color, drinking and smoking habits, relationship status, number and types of pets and occupation. In addition, they are given space to write more in depth about themselves, where they are asked to describe their personal­ity, interests (what they read, music they listen to and so forth), their ideal date, and their political persuasion. They are encouraged on these sites to open up about all aspects of themselves. The sites argue that by doing so that they will attract the most appropriate person. Given the amount of information individuals are presented with it is no surprise the conversations that take place via e-mail, telephone and so forth prior to the first meeting are more to clarify information about the person as well as to arrange the meeting. There­fore, as Whitty (in press) suggests, online dating is arguably even more removed from what people are accustomed to when it comes to developing a relationship. There is less opportunity to test the waters gradually and check for reciprocity, instead, reciprocity is determined prior to communication with the individual. The advantage this gives online daters is that they are granted more control over their self-presentations. However, in turn, because the profile compiles all the information about the person in one chunk, it is easier to check. Hence, others are less forgiving when there is a mismatch between the person they meet face-to-face and the person they were presented with in the profile.