It's that time of year again. Time for flowers, candy, and, more importantly, romance. But, if you don’t actually have someone to spend the day with, it can definitely put a damper on whatever flames of passion you might have hoped to fan.
So, what’s a lonely Chattanoogan to do? Well, this is the “Gig City”. Why not skip all that church-mingling, bar-hopping, supply-closet-fumbling and supermarket-grocery-cart-crashing and try to meet someone online?
Even though it’s been around for almost 50 years (the original computer dating service, “Operation Match,” was cranked up in 19651), computer dating has only become mainstream in the last decade or so. In fact, with the rise of the Internet and the availability of inexpensive computers, online dating has flourished since the turn of [the most recent] century. There are literally dozens (if not hundreds) of sites for online dating, many of which cater to one or more very specific niches of the human experience. For example, if you are Jewish, you can try jdate.com. Christian seeking same? Try christianmingle.com. There’s even a dating service for clowns and circus performers. (Oh, it’s real…and it’s called clowndating.com. If clowns frighten you, don’t go there.)
Of course, many folks are still a little skittish about online dating because, well, c’mon, you’re dating people from The Internet, and “The Internet” is a scary place, right? In an effort to dispel some of that fear and open up new avenues to romance for our readers, I interviewed 12 different folks, all of whom have had various levels of success with online dating.
If demographics are your thing, here’s some quick data: Our 12 interviewees consisted of five men and seven women. One of the women, Mary, is recently transgendered and is married to June. Three of the other women, and one of the men, self-identify as bisexual. The rest identify themselves as heterosexual. Ages of the interviewees ranged from 24 to 50 and all had been living here in Chattanooga for at least two years. Most were lifelong residents, but there were a few transplants from New York, Alabama and Georgia. Finally, while a wide variety of services were cited during these interviews, almost everyone primarily uses okcupid.com or match.com for their online dating. (Note that, while this info is interesting and provides some context, this wasn’t a scientific survey in any sense. I just sat down with each person for conversations about their online dating experiences.)
If you are of a certain age, you probably remember the days when “computer dating” was something that only the hopeless loser/nerd would attempt. And, if anyone found out, well, that was it for your reputation. But these days, online dating is simply a fact of life. Pretty much everyone does it. Only two of the younger people I interviewed were worried about teasing from their friends. But even then, Rachel and Leah both described it as “good natured” teasing.
In many cases, online dating is now actually the preferred means for setting up dates. For example, if you meet someone through an online service and things don’t work out, you probably won’t ever have to see that person again. Contrast that with someone you date from work, school or church. You have to see that person on a regular basis and you just know the details of the whole thing are going to spread like wildfire.
Does it really work?
It certainly seems to. More than half of the folks I interviewed had actually had one or more long-term (six months or longer) relationship as the result of online dating. Also, three of the people I interviewed, Lee, June and Mary, had actually gotten married as a result of online dates. (As mentioned earlier, June and Mary were recently married to each other. Lee has been married to Christine [who wasn’t interviewed for this article] for almost 10 years now.)
Another measure of how successful online dating is might be measured in the number of non-romantic relationships that form as the result of online dates. Over and over during these interviews people would tell me about the friendships that had started, even though the romantic spark wasn’t there. According to Bob, for example, “Two of the women I met, there was no romantic interest there, but I’m still friends with them both years later. I consider them both sisters at this point.”
Conceptually, online dating is simple. You sign up and fill out a questionnaire. You set up a profile with photos and information about yourself. Then you wait for other people to peruse your profile and send you emails, while you do the same.
The key here is the information that everyone supplies. Time and again, people told me that the key to success with online dating is to “Be honest!” As Tina put it, “Don’t lie, unless you want to live with that lie.” Thomas put it another way, “If you lie about your looks, age or weight, you get found out pretty quickly when you show up for that first date. And then, why should I trust anything else you say?”
So assuming everyone is honest with their profile and photos, that gives you a very powerful tool to weed out people that you simply have no chance of forming a relationship with. Don’t want to date a smoker? Filter them out. Only interested in people between 30 and 35 years old that don’t have kids? You can drill down to see just those folks.
Movies and TV have painted a picture of the online dater as someone that goes on hundreds of dates and is constantly experiencing disasters when the other person shows up and isn’t what they advertised. But conducting these interviews, I found the exact opposite to be the case. The folks I spoke with seemed to go on just two or three online-originated dates per year, and for the most part, none of those was a “bad” date.
In general, the ability to sift out people that don’t match your desires, combined with the ability to get to know them remotely (via email and online chat) before you meet them in person, seems to actually reduce the number of dates that online daters go on, and it almost eliminates bad dates entirely.
However, the above result does seem to be gender-specific. The women I talked to all want to spend a lot of time in the email/online chat phase before moving things to the real world. This helps them cut down on bad dates, though it doesn’t prevent emails like the, “I want to strip you naked, cover you in honey and attack you like a hungry bear!” email that Tina once received.
Men, on the other hand, are more likely to want to cut the email phase short and skip right to dinner and a movie. This seems to lead to a lot more of the “She was nothing like her pictures!” results that form the general opinion of online dating that the public has. The person with the most online dates of anyone I interviewed (40-plus over 10 years), has had this happen to him. But, as he admitted, he was usually anxious to move things to the real world and got burned a few times because of it.
Advice for the online dater
Is online dating for you? Well, only you know for sure. But it certainly seems to be better than the bar scene that I grew up with.
If you think that you might like to try online dating, here’s some advice from the folks in the trenches:
Mary: Guys, remember, girls get tons of messages. You have to stand out. But don’t be creepy.
June: When you first contact someone, don’t be homophobic or include anything insulting to their identity.
Tim: Be relaxed, don't have super high expectations, make it fun, see where it goes.
Anna: Trust your instincts. If something seems off, don’t go further. Spelling counts!
Bob: Approach people like you would in real life. Be respectful. Be positive. Grammar counts.
Meghan: Don’t mention sex before the third date (at least!). Be honest! Flaws are interesting.
Riley: Meeting someone who isn't Mister or Miss Right on paper isn't a waste of your time—you might have fun or learn something.
Rachel: Trust your instincts. Be as honest as possible. Nothing sexual in the first message!
Leah: You don’t have to talk to anyone you don’t want to. Spelling and grammar are important!
Tina: Be careful! Don’t give out work or home information.
Thomas: Remember, there’s another human being on the other end. Be kind.