Love in the time of the internet: A personal memoir
The tongue-in-cheek (or elsewhere) guide to internet dating
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.
The book of love
But it was still very hit or miss. My first attempts, while somewhat successful, revealed one of the key rules of internet dating: no picture, no date. As a novice internet dater you learn very quickly that if someone doesn't have a picture on their profile, there's a good reason why. You can also tell a lot about a person by the type of photo they do put online.
From a male perspective, if the photo itself looked quite old (this was in an age before digital photography broke out and so people scanned shots), you were probably going to be disappointed. Similarly, anyone with more than one cat picture on their page was to be avoided like the plague unless you were also a felinophile.
Female friends concur, and point out that if a man posts a picture of him and his car, you're probably always going to be second in his affections to a hunk of metal and rubber. A man pictured topless comes across as a bit of a slag, while if he has a drink in his hands you're looking at a hardcore boozer.
Similarly, the words used tell an awful lot about the person you are investigating. "Sensitive", "caring", or "loyal," usually means you'll be meeting the recently dumped or emotionally needy; and if you see the phrase "free-spirit", experience suggests they are as stable as a balloon in a tornado.
Among male profiles the words "ambitious", "driven" or "career-minded" means you're going to be bored to tears listening about his job; "bloke", "player", or "jack-the-lad", is most-likely an emotionally stunted manchild, and the phrase "looking for a good time" might as well read "just in it for the sex". Also "athletic", when the profile mentions no other sports, often means a couch potato who watches "Match of the Day".
Finally there's the age question. For reasons that are beyond me, a lot of people still lie about this one. Doing so makes no sense – the truth will out in the end. Men are the worst for this, usually with middle-aged Lotharios trying to scoop younger women. I've lost count of the number of female friends who have been disappointed in this way.
She blinded me with science
By the late 1990s it seemed that internet dating sites were springing up everywhere. It was one of the first areas of the internet to get a grip with the whole e-commerce model (after pornography), and websites began to try to bring a measure of science to the practice of matchmaking in order to differentiate themselves.
This began as very basic stuff, and there were a lot of hits and misses along the way. Initially sites took the Big Data approach, asking for details on everything under the sun seeking to find exact matches. But these quickly ran into problems when it because clear that people didn’t want to meet a doppelganger, but rather someone who had enough differences to be interesting.
This approach also turned off many potential customers. For example, it's rare now to find an internet dating site that asks for your exact weight. This is because the type of customers that personals sites really want are women – internet dating profiles back then were 80-90 per cent male and there's still a gender imbalance on most sites. Since women have been shown to not like inputting exact weight details, "body type" has become the norm.
Most sites still include a lengthy questionnaire, although some take it to ridiculous extremes. Users of OKCupid, for example, can spend days answering endless questions trying to delve deeper into the personalities of their users, with very limited success. Others have tried this approach, but it seldom works particularly well and tends to put off users.
Also popular is the extended essay that sites like Swoon and Nerve used to use, where you write a screed designed to show what kind of a person you really are. Treat these with extreme caution. It's not too hard to craft a good bit of writing, but they often bear little or no resemblance to the author.
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. ®