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Love in the time of the internet: A personal memoir

The tongue-in-cheek (or elsewhere) guide to internet dating

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Feature Another year, another Valentine's Day – that annual event when restaurant, retail, and romance businesses try to make every uncoupled person feel wretched about themselves, and put otherwise successful relationships under enormous pressure to make February 14 a "special" day.

As such, a lot of people will be looking for new partners this Thursday – one way or the other – thanks to this cultural event. Bars and restaurants will get a lot of trade, friends will be hit up for suitable prospects, and internet dating sites will see extra traffic – albeit some of it furtive.

And so as Cupid fills his quiver for another year, this now–happily married Reg hack thought it a good idea to take a look at the current state of play for internet daters, and provide some tips on how to get the best match possible while avoiding the oddballs.

I've spent the last 20 years using the internet for dating – long before it was a fashionable snare – and have seen pretty much everything that's out there: the good, the bad and the downright scary.

Only the lonely

Many couples still lie about how they met rather than admit that a website was involved. To some, it's seen as the purview of the lonely, the geeky, and the socially maladjusted, but these prejudices bear no relation to reality, and are in fact counterintuitive.

There are plenty of people out there who find hitting on your friend's friends to be rather creepy, never indulge in inter-office relationships (particularly in the US where such behavior can get you fired), or just want to meet someone outside of their routine. The internet amplifies and vastly extends one's dating range.

I'd argue that personals are in fact more logical, honest, and efficient than the traditional methods of meeting a partner, and allow for a much greater broadening of horizons. Just dating in your social circle or locale shows a distinct lack of initiative – why on earth would you limit yourself so?

But the snotty view of such endeavors has been endemic ever since the first personals adverts appeared in the 1700s. Back then, the increasing literacy of the population and the birth of newspapers brought about the introduction of marriage agencies, where those unable to find spouses would write to a matchmaker and hopefully find a partner.

In those times choices were severely limited. Most people married someone in their locale (if they were poor and/or couldn't travel) or had a suitable marriage arranged for them as part of an asset transaction if they were better off. Being unmarried carried serious social stigma – particularly for women – and the "personals" provided a means to broaden one's options.

Newspapers also liked the trend, since it was a guaranteed money-spinner, and this evolved into the phenomenon of magazines devoted exclusively to such pursuits. These gained a seedy reputation as forums for the kinky, the then-illegal homosexual community, and professionals of negotiable affection, but they still filled a basic need and proved very successful.

Fast-forward to the 1980s, when the rise of premium-rate phone lines offered another profit center, and also allowed people to contact each other directly and have a chat before meeting up. Publications like Time Out in London and New York became renowned as the go-to places for personals, and the practice began to lose its somewhat shabby image.

But it was the introduction of computers that really changed the way people viewed personal ads.

Old dogs, new tricks

Online historians are divided on who was the first to take the practice online. In 1986, Matchmaker.com was set up in the US – it claims to be the first, but there were plenty of Usenet groups devoted to dating before it appeared, and it's a fine line between the two. But back then, society still viewed online dating as something that was weird, geeky, and a little dangerous.

When I first used Usenet and CIX – the Compulink Information eXchange – for dates, it really was a geek-only zone, which is why I did it; geeky girls were hard to find back then. But the early services were crude, and it was a hit-or-miss affair.

What such forums did demonstrate, however, was that electronic communications provided an excellent way of finding new people and building relationships. While it's easy to create a persona online, it's very difficult to do so convincingly over an extended period. Many people who conversed in forums and chatrooms formed emotional bonds that became physical when they actually met in real life.

Online communities such as The Well, Salon magazine's now-defunct Table Talk, B3ta.com, and The Guardian's forums spawned multiple marriages that I know of, almost all of which are still going strong. Here in San Francisco, the forum sections of Yelp are a notorious pick-up spot, and investing a few months chatting to people throughout the day should bring a good selection of invitations, if you're a decent type.

By the mid-1990s, internet dating began to move off message boards and onto dedicated websites that would not only include a standard questionnaire, but also pictures, sound, and even video in some cases. Searching by category was also added to eliminate the hassle of trawling through endless ads to find a prospect.

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Next page: The book of love

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