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Amour Online: Darwin Wouldn't Have Been Surprised

Is online dating a bleak reflection of an overworked, commodity-oriented society, or a love panacea that will forever change human relationships?
 
 
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Is online dating a bleak reflection of an overworked, increasingly alienated, rootless and commodity-oriented society? Or is it the greatest technological love panacea ever created -- a way to use the greatest invention of the late 20th century to cut through the b.s. of bar talk and find what you are looking for, be it a man who will spank you, a woman who enjoys Derrida drunk or a long-term relationship that will lead to a loving, nuclear family?

The answer seems to be both. The popularity of online romance-seeking -- and the vast numbers who are willing to talk about it -- prove that Americans are comfortable with shopping for partners online and that love can spring eternal from the cyber-realm. Also, after only six years of existence, online dating and the services founded to meet the demand have zoomed into the mainstream. Online dating today is like an adolescent in the grip of a growth spurt, and a febrile one at that.

According to some studies, like the 1999 Yankelovich Partners survey (which, mind you, was commissioned by an online dating service), one in 12 U.S. adult singles has used online matchmaking. By next year Yankelovich predicts that number could rise to one in six adults. The Internet analyst Media Metrix also found that 5 million people visited personal ad Web sites in December 2000, up 57 percent since 1999. Granted, these numbers are probably padded, but that doesn't prove online dating isn't big in America or is about to slow. The real proof is: You all know someone who's done it, and maybe you've done it yourself.

Originally, I must note, this piece was intended to provide an anthropology of online dating sites. It was to be a Darwinian project of classifications, dividing the hundreds of sites that have sprung up into a kind of flora and fauna of online personals. But that was just too boring and laborious. The fact is if you have ethnic, religious, sexual, age, gender, cultural, class, career, dietary, appearance and/or any other specifications for a casual, illicit, romantic, platonic, one-hour or lifelong relationship, the Internet is here to help you.

Individual sites do cater to individual needs. There is Latin.com's Carino Connection, Blacksingles.com, JDate.com (for Jewish singles), CatholicSinglesOnline.com, Oneandonly.com (whose users are mostly middle-aged and seniors) and GoodGenes.com (for the Ivy League set who adhere to the Bell Curve theory), among others. But the big sites -- specifically Match.com and Matchmaker.com, which claim to have attracted 5 million registered users each -- allow you, for a mere $25 a month, to pick and choose what you want from an enormous selection and variety of human product.

And that's what's fascinating about online dating. It reflects the human propensity for choice and classification, and the fact that technology is being molded to meet those propensities. In other words, the success of online dating is being made possible by the search engine. You naturally (or technologically) select your choices, and mate accordingly. By online dating Darwin might have been disturbed, but he would not have been surprised.

"We are focusing on search attributes," says Craig Newmark, founder of the award-winning classified ads site Craigslist.org. "That is the future."

Translated into non-cyber-geek speak, this means that Craigslist, as well as many other personals and other sites, are fine-tuning their search engines, so that users can put in many attributes or key words, hit the search button and come up with a list of people, apartments or jobs that meet their specific criteria.

Timesaving is of the essence here; no longer need you wade through hundreds or thousands of personal ads; no longer need you read endless and not particularly descriptive descriptions of non-smoking SWFs, tight-assed BGMs and JWMs with PhDs. Simply type in your type and presto: Up come possible squeezes for the night or for life, with accompanying essays on their favorite films, fantasy holiday escapes and most embarrassing moments. (Nota bene: Most dating services require members to fill out essayistic questionnaires, which can take more than an hour to complete.)

"Searching for men to date online is almost indulgent," admits Jennifer, a 30-year-old nonprofit worker in San Francisco. "You can ask for anything and chances are you'll get it. If you want a tall, skinny, non-religious, nonsmoking, never-married man with brown eyes and brown hair who cooks, makes over 80 grand and lives within 10 miles, you can find it ... I mean him."

When I asked Jennifer whether that was the main draw -- fulfilling every item on her Mr. Right checklist -- she admitted it was just a perk. "It's true, I'm very picky, very specific," she said. "But the main reason I look online is because my social circles don't put me in touch with many eligible men."

Still, most of the people I interviewed said that the higher promises of online dating -- particularly finding the "perfect match" -- are what are most compelling and disappointing. Melinda, a 45-year-old, recently divorced marketing executive in New York City, said she is willing to compromise on certain traits (she wants a fit, college-educated, non-smoking man under 50 who wants to adopt children) but is amazed by the amount of false advertising by men who post their profiles online. "Sure, they might say they have jobs and enjoy exercising," says Melinda. "But the last job may have been five years ago and the exercising long before."

Drew, a 36-year-old teacher from the Midwest, says he gave up on finding dates through Matchmaker.com after meeting five women, four of whom "posted pictures that were just much more flattering than they were in real life."

"And then there were was one who said she was big into the outdoors," an important specification for Drew, who has hiked through Nepal and led weeklong backpacking trips in the Pacific Northwest. "But that meant she liked to walk on trails on the weekends."

So it seems the greatest flaw of online dating is that you can list your criteria, but there is no full-way to determine, in the privacy of your home or office, if a response is bona fide. Morever, the truly innocent are often truly hoodwinked, according to the anonymous author of Saferdating.com, a site with extremely detailed advice and gruesome online dating stories, started by a woman who met her husband through the Internet, but "went through hellish experiences" beforehand. Online dating anecdotes posted on Saferdating.com have titles like "Determining Honesty Is Like Military Intelligence" and "A Horror Story of Cons and Scams." There is even a special page on cybersex, which warns online daters that photos places on personals sites "could end up anywhere" and never to download programs such as Black Orafice and Hijack, which allow would-be stalkers to trace your computer's unique identification number and determine your exact location.

Saferdating.com is at the extreme end of online dating do's and don'ts. Most moderators -- or "romance specialists" -- of Internet dating sites simple warn their clients to keep expectations low and not hand out their phone numbers. Tsilli Pines, who worked for a year and a half on the Jewish community personals section of AOL, also advises people that the fewer their specifications and the quicker they take up dating versus emailing, the greater their chance for a lasting relationship. "I think if you dwell too long in a virtual space with someone, you get a false sense of intimacy," says Pines.

But Pines added that there are advantages to meeting potential dates first online. "Email allows you to ask more abstract questions that you might face-to-face," says Pines. "You get to represent yourself in a way that is more true to your personality than your appearance." Still, Pines notes that most online matchmaker users want to see a photograph of the person they're emailing, which, she argues, "can make the whole process image-based" -- unless it is more important, for example, that the person be Orthodox Jewish and live in Los Angeles. In fact, faith-based dating sites report the most success for the simple reason that the technology -- a database of Jewish or Catholic singles organized largely by location and age -- meets the demands of its users.

I mention this to Belinda, a 38-year-old Miami journalist who has been using online personals for two years. She says she isn't sure if online dating techology is creating a more accessible pool of partners for singles, but she does think it's historically relevant. "I think we're experiencing a time in history where relationships between men and women are breaking down," she says. "We don't know what our roles are and the Internet makes this clear. But you can say online, 'I want a serious relationship, I want children,' when sometimes it takes months to get to that point in conversation."

Among those who follow the proliferation of online dating closely, there is no final word or definitive study on the phenomenon. What there is for the moment is fierce debate about whether specifying the traits of a potential beloved – and advertising your own -- is a bad thing.

Joseph Walther, an associate professor of communication, social psychology and information technology at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., has argued that text-based relationships are very deceptive. "You don't get the waistline, hairline, fidgets, twitches and interruptions," Walther told the AP last January. "Our study showed if people are communicating with someone they believe to be attractive, they edit and rewrite more than if they don't care whether they are impressing them." Walther's chief concern is that email correspondence can lead to a dangerous wish fulfillment for the perfect love. "It is nearly impossible for people to live up to such an artificially high, idealized range of expectations," he noted.

Trish McDermott, Match.com vice president of romance, has argued just the opposite. McDermott says that members have told her "they feel a friendship or kinship" with people they meet on the site. "They are less likely or willing to reject someone based on a minor physical imperfection."

Of course, there is no way to prove the degree to which people pick and choose partners based on appearance or income or anything else these days. "Sure there is a certain shopping or meat market aspect," says Andrea Baker, an associate professor of sociology at Ohio University, Lancaster, who is conducting a study of 76 couples who met online. "But online dating is also good for writing and self-expression."

Baker has found that couples who learn to communicate well in writing and early have a much better chance of staying together. She has also found that the speed of technology is correlating with the speed with which people who meet online tend to move into serious relationships. "The average commitment time for couples is incredibly quick," says Baker. "In my study I’ve found people who meet online and fall in love tend to marry within a year to a year and a half."

Of course, there are as many people logging onto online dating sites for a quick tryst as for a wedding band -- and that is where fulfilling criteria tends to work best. Pithy self-advertisements like "Looking for Glory Hole or cocksucker to service me Tues & Thurs" or "Hard Dic, No Pic" probably don't lead to too much dissapointment, considering the clarity of the transaction. Even one like "Cute Girl with Amoebae Seeks Nice Man to Feed Us" could be a boon for the giving type.

Commerce. Shopping. Marriage. Sex. Love. Has anything changed because of online dating? Or have the romantic search options just widened a bit, thanks to computer technology? The verdict is out. But what is clear is that if you log on, you can find your specifications for a potential partner pronto and even, according to Jennifer, "meet that person in less than an hour." What you can't be certain of is whether your specifications -- and the stream of words coming over the Net -- will be at all truthful or accurate.

Tamara Straus is senior editor of AlterNet.org.