Depending on where you hear it, online dating is fundamentally changing the way humans hook up, or it’s only a slight variation on the church social. Either way, you or someone you know has a profile somewhere soliciting love, and we wanted to know why, how, and what’s the most embarrassing possible outcome. Meet the esteemed panel of experts we gathered to help us get down to the nitty-gritty:
Mona Boackle lives outside Seattle with her fiancé (whom she met online) and two rain-hating cats. Her job is so-so, but her weekends often involve hiking through moss-covered woods. Sometimes yurts are involved.
Erin Bradley is the author of Miss Information, a weekly sex and dating advice column appearing on Nerve.com. When she’s not writing for various websites and publications, Erin can be found working on her screenplay and watching television documentaries with Creature, her morbidly obese cat.
Elaine Hatfield is a professor of psychology at the University of Hawaii. In recent years she has received Distinguished Scientist awards (for a lifetime of scientific achievement) from the Society of Experimental Social Psychology, the Society for the Scientific Study of Sex (SSSS) and the University of Hawaii, and has won the Alfred Kinsey Award from the Mid-Western Region of SSSS.
Sarah Hepola is a contributing writer at The Morning News and the Life editor for Salon.com. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Guardian, on NPR and in Nerve.com, where she ran the Scanner blog about sex and culture.
Daniel Jones edits the “Modern Love” column in the Sunday Styles section of the New York Times. His most recent books, both essay anthologies about relationships, are Modern Love and The Bastard on the Couch.
So why are dating sites so popular? What enables people who would never put an ad in a newspaper to solicit romance on the web?
Mona Boackle: Simply put, online dating is better. People can—if they take the opportunity—write enough words to actually stretch out and sound like themselves, as opposed to a newspaper ad that gets across only the most basic characteristics. A profile on a dating site feels more like an introduction than an advertisement.
I like a book with a nice, firm cover. Not too firm. No weightlifters or marathon runners. I’m just saying if the book looks like it plays soccer on the weekends, it’s probably the kind of book I’m looking for.
Also, making online profiles is mainstream now in a way that I believe personal ads have never been. With sites like MySpace and Facebook, the line between networking and online dating is negligible. Joining Match.com doesn’t feel much different than setting up a Facebook profile.
The reason I reached out beyond my circle of friends and colleagues is because I work in entertainment, and while I hate to stereotype, I did not want a relationship with someone in that field. Offline, most of the people I met worked in the industry in one way or another. Granted, this may not separate online dating from newspaper personals, but joining Match helped me meet someone who was outside my immediate sphere, and accordingly, more compatible with me.
Elaine Hatfield: Any time a new form of communication is invented—the penny newspaper, Morse code, the telegraph, Ham radio, TV, computers—men and women find ways to use that technology to find love. Commercial matchmaking services are not a new phenomenon. Before online matching services existed there were matchmakers, personal advertisements, video dating services, singles clubs, Lonely Hearts clubs, and mail-order brides.
Several factors motivate people to solicit romance on the web. They have a chance of meeting partners whom they could never meet at church, in bars, or as “friends of a friend.” The more dismal the singles scene in their community, the more motivated people will be to try computer matching. People who live in suburban or rural areas, those who are over 30, those who are very religious and in a religious minority, those who are part of a racial or ethnic minority in their community, and those with special needs or disabilities are likely to turn to the web to find suitable mates because of the difficulty of finding a partner in the more traditional ways.
Daniel Jones: Laziness? Ease of use? On sites like Craigslist, people drift from looking for an apartment to looking for a sex partner for the night with a few clicks of the mouse. It’s one-stop shopping, and what’s the harm in looking? But then it’s a slippery slope, and I can’t tell you how many stories I’ve read about someone who waded into all those profiles thinking they’d just browse, and then find themselves contacting people. Same with posting profiles; people might do it as some sort of abstract ego boost and then get intrigued when there are actual responses. The old personal ad in the newspaper actually required some effort, either to place it or respond.
Erin Bradley: Slippery slope, indeed. If people on Craigslist go so far as contacting people, they might actually go on dates. If they go on dates, they might actually find someone whose company they enjoy. Even worse, it might be convenient, discreet, and non-traumatizing for them. Best to stick to the old ways. Who wants to post a cheap, feature-rich ad you can edit at any time, all by yourself, when you can dictate a terse black-and-white missive to a harried ad clerk twice your age and wait two weeks for responses to come in the mail?
But no matter what, in the end we’re only as appealing as our profile. What happened to not judging a book by its cover?
MB: Theoretically, an interesting person writes an interesting profile. For example, [before meeting my fiancé] I did not respond to men who said they had a good sense of humor. Someone with a good sense of humor would just put down something funny.
If a profile were only photographs, I’d agree that it was an entirely shallow endeavor, but since people have the chance to put thought and effort into creating a profile, you can go a bit farther than the cover. Granted, there’s still the possibility that someone is creating a convincing and appealing, but untrue picture of himself—but as we all know, that can happen in person too.
EH: The prejudice in favor of the handsome and beautiful is nothing new. Scientists have documented that since time immemorial, most people, most of the time, are outrageously biased in favor of the good-looking. There seem to be four steps in the stereotyping process:
- Most people know that it is not fair to discriminate against the unattractive (they would be incensed if others discriminated against them).
- Privately, most people take it for granted that attractive and unattractive people are different. Generally, they assume that what is beautiful is good and what is unattractive is bad.
- Most people treat good-looking and average people better than they treat the unattractive.
- As a consequence, a self-fulfilling prophecy occurs. The way people are treated shapes the kinds of people they become.
So, no surprise, it makes us furious when potential dates and mates judge us by our looks. But alas we are generally perfectly content judging others on the basis of their superficial appearance.
DJ: But this has always been true, hasn’t it? In a bar, at a party—at first glance, we’re only as appealing as our cover. At least on dating sites you get to know a little about people before dismissing them. In person, a glance can be all it takes to make a judgment. The downside, I think, of the online profile is that people’s imaginations can get the better of them. Without the real person there to either excite (or bore) you with charm (or dim-wittedness), you tend to fill in the blanks, usually in the direction of imagining how perfect this person is for you. The reality is usually something different.
Compared to larger mainstream sites, niche sites have a much smaller pool of people. It’s the real-life equivalent of forgoing the bar to troll for dates at a Renaissance faire.
EB: I’ve had friends argue that people are never who they say they are, and they’ve been burned by Photoshop tricks so many times that their retinas are charred beyond all recognition. They’ve turned in their keyboards. Hung up their mouse. Sworn off online dating.
Fine, but as far as judgments go, I think the online handicap and the real-life handicap are about the same. Online you have picture manipulation and the opportunity to be calculated with your words and wittier than perhaps you really should claim. In real-life you are probably in a dark bar with lighting that makes everyone look like a movie star, shouting to be heard over the loud music, and under the influence of several cocktails. Who wouldn’t come off like a charmer in that kind of scenario? There’s definitely a positive halo.
MB: Agreed. You don’t know about someone till you know about him—and even then there’s still more to know. And there’s no hope of knowing if you’re getting to know one another in an environment involving the possibility of laboring for an hour over a paragraph. No? My point: engaging emails can be as much a part of a book’s cover as the profile photographs. A few notes back and forth should be enough to decide whether you want to meet in person and take a look at the whole…manuscript.
SH: I think it’s perfectly acceptable to select a book for its cover. I mean, there are a lot of books out there. However, it probably shouldn’t be the only criterion, or I would just end up with a bunch of crappy glitter-pink chick lit books. (Shit, I’m confused. I’ve now become lost in this metaphor. Was this about books?)
EB: I like a book with a nice, firm back cover. Not too firm. No weightlifters or marathon runners. I’m just saying if the book looks like it plays soccer on the weekends and can fill out a pair of vintage Levi’s with a slight 1970s cut, it’s probably the kind of book I’m looking for. Wait. Now I’m lost as well.
How about specialized romance sites—JDate.com, WidowsMatch.com, LoveMeLoveMyPets.com—helpful or hurtful?
EB: I’m going to go ahead and say they’re neither. A lot of online dating is a numbers game. Compared to larger mainstream sites, niche sites like this have a much smaller pool of people. It’s the real-life equivalent of forgoing the bar or the coffee shop to troll for dates at a Welsh Corgi lovers convention or a Renaissance faire.
On the flip side, if you have a particular interest or aspect of your identity—one that’s so important that you can’t imagine any potential partner not sharing it—then by all means. Go for it. I can’t guarantee that you’re not missing out on the love of your life because he or she is on a more mainstream site, but I can’t guarantee a mainstream site user that the love of their life isn’t on ManicDepressiveAndIntheMood.com, either.
EH: Like any new invention, specialized romance sites can be a boon or a bane to people who participate in them. We all need love, and to the extent that such sites help the lonely find suitable mates, bravo! Like anything, however, people who possess strange or socially unacceptable ideas can find a soul mate on TheBusinessofLove.com, too. It is only a matter of time until there are sites for NazisInLove.com, TerroristsUnite.com. The availability of such matching sites will tend to legitimate these socially disastrous approaches to life.
SH: Wow. Buzzkill.
So when does online dating become harmful, for individuals and for society?
DJ: At its worst, it becomes compulsive, a kind of mania, and feeds our appetite for endless choice, and the idea that there’s always a better choice. Maybe there’s something to be said for less choice, or at least a sense of geographical limits. That said, I’ve heard from a lot of people, more all the time, who have found the “perfect” person this way. And the stigma of it is rapidly fading.
EB: When does online shopping become harmful? What about online dentist appointment scheduling? Online baby shower invitations?
It makes a great story to say, “Hold on to your Cup o’ Noodle, lonely singles! There are predators! On the internet!” but it’s really a non-issue. Like anything else people do, there’s the potential for miscreants and fuck-ups.
He removes a prescription pill bottle from his backpack. “What’s that?” I ask. “It’s antibiotics for my stab wound,” he says after a long pause.
EH: With all the potential advantages to commercial services for matching, why wouldn’t all singles looking for a partner choose to use the internet to find love? Some practical barriers to finding partners in this way are the costs involved: belonging to an online dating service can be as high as $80 per month, plus the costs of owning a computer and subscribing to an internet service. These costs may not be overwhelming compared to the costs of going to nightclubs and bars to meet others, or cruises and trips with singles groups, and other elaborate ways of meeting people in-person.
Traditionally people fell in love with the person next door. They didn’t have to travel very far to see the other, and neither had to be uprooted in order to move in together. Now, people may be connected with people from other cities, states, or even countries, which creates all kinds of logistic and financial challenges. People with such long-distance matchings don’t get much support from family and friends. Often, in fact, family and friends do not know about the developing online relationship and may not always be supportive when they first learn about it.
SH: So here’s the deal: I spend an inordinate, obscene amount of money at bars, and yet I have only once plunked down $50 for a Match.com subscription and did so reluctantly. Elaine’s earlier comment makes me wonder: is there an inherent contradiction in this? Maybe. But I will suggest that I have howling fun at a bar, laughing with my friends and meeting new people with whom I may or may not roll around in a bed. I find clicking through online profiles boring and nothing short of soul-deadening. It’s like visiting a fucking orphanage.
What’s your best or worst online dating story?
EB: I don’t know about best, but I know about worst: I’m meeting my date for drinks at a bar on the Lower East Side. Throughout the evening I keep noticing this medicinal smell. Mostly rubbing alcohol but with a hint of that rancid vegetable soup odor you usually find in nursing homes.
Finally, I break down: “Are you sucking on a cough drop?”
“Oh, OK. It’s no big deal, I just keeping smelling the strangest smell.”
He doesn’t respond.
“In a dive bar, of all places!” I continue, hoping to cover any perceived rudeness with a joke.
More drinks. More talking. At some point he reaches across the booth and removes a prescription pill bottle from his backpack.
“What’s that?” I ask. I’m three drinks in and manners are no longer an issue.
“It’s antibiotics for my stab wound,” he says after a long pause.
I can tell he’s not joking.
“I’m so sorry,” I say, though Weirded-Out is wiping Empathy’s ass all over the floor. “What happened? Did you get mugged?”
“No, my ex-girlfriend did it.”
“Why?” I ask. In hindsight, not the most sensitive question. I’ve Taken Back the Night. I took Women’s Studies in college. It’s never, ever the victim’s fault. Then again, if the victim is willing to overshare to such a catastrophic extent on the first date, surely they don’t mind a little questioning. After all, it was Maya Angelou, or perhaps Linda Tripp who said that telling one’s story is empowering.
“I don’t know,” he responds.
The evening ended pretty shortly after that, with an awkward goodbye and a gentle hug. I didn’t want to rupture any stitches, nor did I want to engage in any public displays of affection, just in case his former ladyfriend was actively stalking. He asked me out again over email a few days later. Shocker—I said no.
SH: In a particularly fierce bout of post-breakup melancholy, I posted a profile on Match.com for the first and so far final time. (Nerve was my employer back then, and joining their dating community felt odd, like I was cheating on an exam.) I remember spending a looooong time on my profile. Like, I cashed a whole bottle of white wine writing it. I thought it was pretty funny and charming and specific. I was happy with how it turned out. I posted it, and the next day I had about half a dozen emails from these dudes like, “We were meant to be together, we’re obviously the same, let’s get out of here just you and me, etc.” I took my profile down and never went back.
Most of us can be uncomfortable in our own bodies, clumsy, insecure, uncertain, especially when meeting people with whom we might like to rub body parts. I still think there is some truth in the original promise of the internet—that it allows us to be our best selves.
The worst online dating story I ever HEARD involved a female friend—a pixie-ish cutie-pie of a woman, who was also an assistant professor at a prestigious university. I’m going to botch the specific details of the story but here is the gist: This really good-looking guy contacts her about her profile and says something to the extent of: “You look beautiful, but are you 100 pounds? I only date women who are 100 pounds or less. If I think you are lying, I will bring a scale.” What the fuck, dude? He wasn’t joking, either; he was psycho and possibly speaking a non-native language. Anyway, just to fuck with him, she wrote back and was like, “Well, I’m 105, but I’m really hoping to shed these last few pounds!!” He didn’t get it at all. He wrote, “So good to hear it! You can DO IT!”
Staggering, right? The arrogance.
MB: That’s the guy I’m marrying! Kidding. How heinous.
EB: Arrogance? Uh, more like control issues. I’m fine with someone having a preference for thin chicks. You like what you like. But to put a precise number on it? She should have brought along a ruler to the date and asked him to drop trou.
MB: Best: I am happily engaged to a man I met online. A little over a year-and-a-half ago, when we were both on Match, he sent me one of those silly “winks” the site offers when you want to express interest without writing a tome. After one “wink” back, he wrote me a detailed and thoughtful message. I responded, I like to think equally thoughtfully. We met two weeks later, became “exclusive” right away (none of it felt rushed though; we just didn’t want to see other people), and now it’s all moving in and champagne glasses. Even looking back, his profile and the content of those first couple emails on the site perfectly encapsulate the man I know him to be today. I love him without reservation, and am all but sure that without a site like Match we would never have crossed paths.
DJ: Best and worst, all in one: A woman discovers her husband is cheating on her by reading his emails: he’s been having a fling with some woman he met on a dating site. They get divorced—a horrible process for her—and he marries the other woman, who he claims to love. A year or so later, the ex-wife decides she’s ready to date again and finds herself tries online dating, where she stumbles upon a recent profile of her ex-husband. He’s still married but looking for a little fun on the side. At first she’s aghast, but also feels vindicated about her divorce—he’s a serial cheater. Then she decides to try to seduce him, pseudonymously, online. She does. They go back and forth. They set up a date. Which she then blows off. She wants to feel like she’s achieved a kind of karmic justice, but mostly, thinking about his new wife, she just feels sad over the whole thing.
Presumably people have always had fetishes, but it’s never been as easy to find other people who do, too. Have fetishes been normalized by the internet?
SH: No, I don’t think they’ve been normalized, exactly. But they’ve become incredibly specific. For instance, there are “looners,” people who like to blow up balloons to near-bursting and then pop them between their thighs. There is a group for people who get off wearing soggy adult diapers. It used to be that if you were into something very specific and kinky, you just felt scared and strange and alone. But the internet allows you to type a few key words into Google—giant + Asian + women, for instance—and be connected to a [community] of like-minded people. It might even suggest fetishes to people who wouldn’t have thought of it before. Like, did it ever occur to you that popping near-bursting balloons between your things could be exciting?
I don’t think that people who enjoy, say, writing fan fiction about the experience of sniffing very smelly high heels will ever feel “normal.” (That’s another real online community, by the way. I received emails from several foot fetishists back when my TMN profile said that I liked to drive barefoot. I changed that eventually.) But the internet has certainly de-stigmatized fetishes to a remarkable extent.
I had one guy who emailed me every Wednesday a message that read only “Happy Hump Day.” I never wrote back or met him. The mutual celebration of Hump Day did not appeal.
EB: I think more people are aware of them. Things we used to regard as taboo are now major plot points in Will Ferrell movies. They’ve been labeled and commodified. We now know that an older woman who goes after younger men is called a cougar, whereas before we didn’t have a name for it. Yet, I feel like there’s still a lot of fear behind it. A sort of, “Ha ha ha! No one’s actually doing this thing. No one’s taking it seriously.” But people are doing it. They’re just afraid other people are going to think they’re creepy and judge them. Thanks to the internet, we have seen it all—whether we wanted to or not. We’re highly sophisticated. However, we’re still dorky, repressed adolescents when it comes to sexual expression and communication.
Last thought: Body chemistry plays a big part in meeting someone. What happens when that crucial first stage in a relationship occurs through a computer screen?
DJ: Well, you still have the meeting. The body chemistry still does its thing, or doesn’t. What’s different, maybe, is you now have a whole lot of people who are trying to get the body chemistry to catch up to the intellectual or emotional connection they’ve made online, actually trying to rationalize why they should be physically attracted to someone they’re not because what they fell in love with was an internet persona. And that internet persona isn’t fake, it’s just incomplete.
EB: I agree, Daniel. I think a lot of people get attached to someone they only know electronically and then try to back the sexual attraction into the equation. It doesn’t work like that; you’re either attracted or you’re not. You shouldn’t be trying to convince yourself. If people would stop being so shy and avoidant, get to the initial meeting sooner, and spend less time emailing back and forth, they wouldn’t have this problem. It’s common for newbies though. I remember emailing for a month with a guy I thought was going to be It, The One. Then I met him and realized I couldn’t ever imagine schtupping him. Disappointment, and then some.
MB: The profile-reading and anonymous-emailing first stages of an online courtship just add a new first step to the dating process. Chemistry is still as important as ever, but you find out if you’re physically attracted to someone after you find out whether he’s at least interesting enough to meet in person.
I had one guy who emailed me every Wednesday a message that read only “Happy Hump Day.” Even though he was good-looking (if the picture was representative), I never wrote back or met him. The mutual celebration of Hump Day did not appeal.
SH: I guess the boilerplate answer is that if your expectations get too high, unrealistic, you develop an intellectual and emotional connection with someone with whom you may not have a physical connection. And all of this can be true, and dangerous. But let’s face it: Most of us can be uncomfortable in our own bodies, clumsy, insecure, uncertain, shy and/or twitchy, especially when meeting people with whom we might like to rub body parts. I still think there is some truth in the original promise of the internet—that it allows us to be our best selves. When you’re trying to find someone to love, someone who might love you—is it really so wrong to put your best foot forward, even if your best foot is a clever turn of phrase and proper use of the semicolon?