Love in the time of the internet: A personal memoir

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

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Messaging, mobile and beyond

At around the same time as websites started getting organized, people began using new forms of communication to get in touch with each other, notably instant messenger systems and the nascent social-networking scene.

Instant-messaging dating rather passed me by – the concept of pinging someone completely at random strikes me as either a sign of desperation or a worrying lack of discernment. There were the occasional message windows popping up with someone wanting to chat, but they always got ignored. I do know of people who've arranged liaisons in this manner, but never one that led to anything more than a quick shag.

In the UK, the website Friends Reunited launched in 2000, aimed to connect old school friends with each other. It proved a big hit initially, and was seen as an excellent way to get back in touch with old classmates. It also led to a rash of divorces, as people decided that maybe they really did love their school boy/girlfriends after all.

But it was sites like MySpace that really kicked off the social-network dating scene. Just having a page often led to inquiries from people who liked what they saw, and the same held true for Friendster, Bebo, and Facebook. It's still a popular route, although mainly with younger users.

Smartphones, and in particular those with GPS, have added another key element to online dating, albeit one that can be fraught with problems. Grindr is the poster-boy for this kind of dating site, a service for gay and bi men that alerts users to those in their area who are receptive to meeting up, usually just for a quickie as opposed to looking for a life partner.

Several commentators have claimed that Grindr is proof of the view that homosexuals are horribly promiscuous, but this misses the point. Gay men may be generally more promiscuous – although that's by no means universal – but that's because they are men, not because they are gay. Similarly, services for straight men are nowhere near as popular, not because heterosexual men don't want to shag around on short notice, but because straight women generally won't.

Mix and match

There really is an internet dating site for everyone these days. Match.com, which claims direct lineage to the first dating site, is the largest network and its profile database is used by a variety of third-party providers. In my experience, however, it's not a great site, being full of people spamming out huge numbers of messages on the "hit and hope" methodology.

For those with an interest in religion, eHarmony is probably the biggest Christian-orientated site, but there are similarly sites for almost all of the world's religious philosophies, be they Hindu, Muslim, Jewish, Wiccan, or atheist.

The world-wide reach and relative anonymity of the internet have also allowed people to start dating around specific sexual profiles. The swinging community has expanded hugely thanks to the internet, eliminating a lot of embarrassing conversations, as a couple I know in "the lifestyle" put it. Whatever your kink there's probably a dating site out there that caters to it.

But it's not just all about the more-sexual types. You can find personals sites devoted to sailors, soldiers, bibliophiles, food lovers (not in that sense), farmers, car enthusiasts, convicts, and coders. Since the barriers of entry to setting up a basic internet dating service are so low, there are more and more of these every day.

As a general rule of thumb, free sites are less effective than pay sites, since having to put money down weeds out the chancers. That said, I met my wife via the free site OKCupid, although this was largely down to poor interface design.

I clicked on the wrong button and sent her a message by accident while checking out her profile. Conversely she didn't notice I was only interested in short-term relationships (being on a one-year overseas contract) until at least a month in. It has been a very happy accident, but not one that the site would want to use as a success story.

One final point. Studies – and my personal experience – have shown that people who spend too long emailing someone before meeting up are making the chances of failure higher. Taking some time to get to know each other before meeting is essential, but if you leave it too long your opposite number can build up an image in their mind that isn't matched in reality. As a rule of thumb, exchange no more than 10 emails apiece before meeting – if you honestly can't decide in that time it's unlikely to be a comfortable date.

Rules of engagement

Any form of dating is fraught with some risk, but personals have got a very bad rap on this. It's understandable to an extent, since if you're dating a friend of a friend there's much less risk. Just obey a few sensible guidelines.

Always, always, always meet for the first date in a public place – and it's highly advisable to bring a friend along with you as backup, who can leave to avoid being a third wheel if things look good. Always tell a friend where you are going, preferably giving the contact details of the person you are meeting, and be aware of your surroundings.

There are just as many sexual predators online as there are offline, and you're as likely to get into trouble meeting someone in a bar, but don’t take chances. Also don't be afraid to stop a date if you're getting an unpleasant vibe or it's just not working for you. It happens, and the polite dater recognizes this and gets out before feelings get hurt.

In the last 20 years I've dated on and offline, and both have their advantages and disadvantages. But if I had to choose between one or the other then I'd take online every time. It not only exposes you to people who you would never have met before, but it also allows the recipient to concentrate not just on the physical but also intellectual attraction.

Online meet-ups may not be perfect, but if you've had a rotten Valentine's Day, they're worth checking out. ®

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