In Defense of Online Dating

Enough with the shame and the scare tactics: I'm proud to say that I have used the online personal ads. And I didn't even do it as "research" for this article.

Whenever a new dating trend pops up, articles quickly follow lauding it and condemning it. "Speed dating is wildly efficient!" "Speed dating proves superficial!"

Take online dating. What might seem like a nifty way to meet new people is now reviled in a variety of ways: as a method of leading innocent singles into horrifying situations, as the commodification of the single. Shockingly, people online are accused of presenting idealized images of themselves. Dates met on the anonymous Internet, we are warned, might not be who they say they are. They might turn out to be liars and cheaters, they might be married, or poor, or ugly or shy or zitty. The Seattle Times suggests that daters, particularly women, head to the county recorder's office to perform background checks on all dates met online (is he really a homeowner?). "Lying zitty married man stalks woman he met online!" the headlines seem to trumpet, as if this indicates something about the online personals.

I'm sorry, but while some criminals may find their prey online, the creeps of the world are not a product of Internet dating. Dating is never pretty. It's hard to find the perfect fit without trying a few on, and when it's people and not shoes, there is no way to make the process painless. Sure, we'd all prefer to live inside a romantic comedy, in a world where fate is on our side and we're destined to cross paths with The One just as the violins swell. But reality often proves messy, painful or zitty. As a veteran of online, offline, personals and non-personals dating scenes, I can assure you, messiness is common to all methods.

Full disclosure: I have long been addicted to the Nerve.com personals. When I was in an unhappy relationship, I surfed them to reassure myself that there were other options out there. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn't. I've even gone out on dates from the Nerve personals.

Certain aspects of online dating are indeed new. Some are helpful: As a writer, I get to find out before meeting a date what books he likes and whether or not he punctuates. One of my favorite ads read: "I don't fit many stereotypes. I'm brazen but bashful, and often excited but nervous. I love most things urban but just have to get out of the asphalt jungle sometimes." In other words, nothing earth-shattering, just wry and honest.

Another wrote that he was looking for "fearless Bad-ass Nymphettes who worship at the temple of Betty Page, who regularly converse with the Muses, who think about drinking and drink about thinking." Clever, no? (Although, I'm not sure I fit the Betty Page req.)

The process of finding dates online can, it's true, feel accelerated. Instead of wondering whether he'll call you within the next few days, you're wondering whether he'll write you an email within the next few minutes. And it's easier, when looking for dates online, to line up three dates in a week. And yes, one of those three will probably be what we under-30 types call a player -- a guy whose ad you'll see posted in three or four different incarnations in the few days before you actually meet him. Online, at least you can track his handywork. The second guy will be a nice guy you're just not attracted to. Online, at least you can email him to say you're sorry. One of the guys will be someone eminently crushable. And if he doesn't call, it'll smart pretty much the same as if you had met him offline.

The truth is, online and off, bad dates happen. There's no point in trying to blame the set-up. My very worst date of all time began, right off the bat, with this scintillating bit of dialogue:

Him: So, I hear you're a feminist.
Me: Oh, really?
Him: Yeah. Are you?
Me: Well, I suppose I hold certain beliefs. Equal pay for equal work, that kind of thing.
Him: Oh. Well, that's OK, I guess. But you know, when I get married, my wife's going to stay put and I'm going to bring home the bacon.

Only through the online personals could I have ended up with such a neanderthal, right? Some uncontrolled environment where he looked good in the picture and wrote clever emails without revealing his true, boorish colors?

Wrong. The guy was the roommate of a friend, in that most controlled of environments, my old college campus. A classmate; a friend of a friend; and he was still a creep.

Now, if this were an article about the horrors of blind dating on college campuses, this anecdote would lead directly to a series of quotes like this one, from an article on precisely that subject in a college paper in Texas: "'It totally sucked,' said Dan Olson, advertising junior. 'I went on a blind date a year ago, and even though I was kind of shy about it, the girl turned out to be a total psycho. She ended up stalking me for a couple of months.'" "Scary seems to be a running trend in modern tales of blind dates," the writer concludes. A couple of bad anecdotes and we're back to trusting fate? Has everyone forgotten that most dates are bad?

For some reason, the inevitable pitfalls of dating are magnified into revolting new developments as soon as they are associated with anything intentional, like the personals. When the new-fangled online personals first arrived, the favored bogeyman was that one might find a geeky computer programmer on the other end of all those snappy emails. Then geeks got chic (and rich), and that didn't seem so bad anymore. The scare tactics became more nuanced. Now, they play on fear of the medium, or fear of our fallen consumerist times. The New York Times sniffs, "With few of the scruples older Americans have about putting their photographs and personal description of the Web, this younger wave has found itself free to take advantage of what the Internet does best: matching supply and demand at lightning speed."

The Times cites a certain Mr. Tjong who went on over 70 dates with women from the Nerve.com personals and slept with a bunch of them. It cites a sociologist who intones gravely about the "renegotiation of intimacy." According to the Times, "Where traditionally personals in newspapers and magazines were seen as last-ditch attempts by the desperate, Americans younger than 30 are using the online services more casually -- simply to make friends or to date outside their established circles. Some ambitious -- or just manic -- men and women play the services as if they were video games or eBays-for-daters, where the goal is not so much acquiring the goods as simply playing to win."

Heavens, manic daters!

To Salon.com, online personals are evidence of the shameless commodificiation of dating, in which people are turning themselves into their own personal brands. Heather Havrilesky writes on Salon, "In keeping with recent advertising trends, today's online singles market themselves not by highlighting their best traits, but by creating an imaginary self that's impressively snarky and carefree."

OK, but when we meet people at parties or through friends, what does Havrilesky think we do, exactly? Project an earnest, authentic self, completely snark-free and honest?

Some of the attention to the online personals comes simply because just as everyone else goes broke online, online personals sites are doing fairly well. Turns out that a dating service with instant messaging and photos is something that millions of people are actually willing to pay for. And understandably, it draws suspicion when businesses profit off of our need for love. But the fact is that this supposedly dangerous dating method is also proving relatively successful in the realm of emotion. The articles about happy couples who met online have been published in just-under-equal numbers as the scare pieces. I have no less than three friends who are either married or engaged as a result of their online searches.

Truly, the only way that navigating the madness online is different from other means is that you can get that punctuation question out of the way first. Online personals may seem to distill dating down to some kind of streamlined, hyper-processed transaction. But it only becomes manic or commodified if you approach it that way. Nerve.com and its ilk did not create manic daters. Manic daters have been around since the first alcoholic drink was served.

For my part, I can't imagine summoning the energy to post more than one ad. I salute the players who do. And where Havrilesky seems to see a bunch of aspiring copywriters and "merchants at a street market," I see nothing new under the sun.

Has it ever been easy to meet people in a new city? Is there anything new about people trying to puff their feathers and "sell themselves" when it comes to dating? We've been calling it the "meatmarket" for a long time, now.

Personally, I find that the grass is always greener. When I'm not single, I long for the buzz of dates, new crushes; the excitement; and I imagine myself posting numerous ads with ever-more-alluring photos. When I'm single, dating of any kind strikes me as exhausting and either guilt-inducing or damaging to the amour-propre.

In the end, most of us are not stalkers, and most of us are not players. Most of us are just bumbling through, trying to figure out what the hell we said wrong, or how the hell our date got that impression, and why, whenever we are heartsick or lonely, we feel the masochistic need to re-watch movies like "When Harry Met Sally" and "Shakespeare in Love."

As anyone who's gone through the process knows, there are no formulas. Married people often like to recommend the particular way they themselves got together. I like hearing my married friends' stories.

But recent married-person recomendations include: "You see, we were both living with other people, and we had an affair!" "We started smooching in the hallway at work!" and "We broke up twice before it stuck!" One of the most successful relationships I have had was with a man I met in a bar in a foreign country. I heard him speaking English and asked him where he was from.

These are hardly "good" ways to meet people. Most people who have had affairs, smooched co-workers or taken home strange men from foreign bars will have horror stories to tell. But in all of these cases, it just happened to work out. Romance, almost by definition, is the one time when the highly unadvisable move actually pans out.

My married and engaged friends who met on Jdate or Match.com should, therefore, stop blushing or laughing nervously when they tell people that they met online. As with all other dating stories, they should simply start theirs with, "We got crazy lucky."

Michelle Chihara is a senior writer at AlterNet.org.

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