Ah, the wacky world of online love. The pitter-patter of hearts, the clitter-clatter of the keyboard. Where else — save Hollywood or, say, professional sports — can you find such a rich mix of deception, disappointment and sheer unadulterated fun?
If it weren't for all those real-time romances floating around out there (who hasn't heard about some co-worker finding his or her fiancée on "eBoy"?), Internet dating might have become just another bad fad, the wired equivalent of black light posters, waterbeds or Sea Monkeys.
But online dating is big business and it's getting bigger by the minute. According to a May 2004 report released by the Online Publishers Association, U.S. consumers spent $449.5 million on personals/dating content in 2003, up nearly 50 percent from the year before. Apparently, love sells every bit as well as sex.
SWF seeks infamy
Not that advertising for love is anything new. According to "Meeting, Mating and Cheating: Sex, Love, and the New World of Online Dating" (Reuters, 2004), the first official personal ad was published in England in 1727, in which the never-married Helen Morrison advertised her desire for companionship in the local weekly. At the time, her actions were considered so outrageous she was committed to a lunatic asylum for a month. These days the stigma is all but gone.
"Quite frankly, I don't know anyone who hasn't tried Internet dating," said Ken, a 38-year-old gay Seattleite who asked that his last name not be used. "It's so prevalent and so easy."
That prevalence can create a problem in and of itself. With so many online services to choose from, where do you start?
"I think there's always an 'it' site of the moment," said M. Susan Wilson, a 35-year-old single who's tried various services over the years.
Finding the site that's "it" for you is where it gets tricky. Aside from the generic dating sites — www.match.com, www.lavalife.com, www.udate.com — there's a host of niche sites, each offering its own specialty. It's up to you to figure out what's important. Trying to meet African Americans? Then you might try www.blacksinglesconnection.com. Looking for someone over 6 foot tall? Take a gander at www.tallfriends.com. Concerned about connecting with creeps (married or otherwise)? Then, www.true.com, which screens for felons and reports married poseurs to the police, may be your perfect site. Tired of all the hype? Then, you'll probably love the brutally honest personals at www.esquire.com/brutal/.
For Wilson, an edgy sense of humor was the winning ticket, but neither Match.com nor Eharmony .com (www.eharmony.com) could deliver. A tip from a friend led her to what she now terms "the ultimate" online dating site for her: www.nerve.com.
"The Onion personals feed into it, so there are a ton of people with that irreverent sense of humor that I love and find sexy," she said.
Stranger in a strange land
Once you find an online dating site that speaks to you, you still have to make sure you're talking the right language.
Michele, who also asked that her last name not be used, learned the hard way. She is a 38-year-old Seattle single who recently began using the personals offered by The Stranger (www.thestranger.com).
"When they asked, 'What are you looking for: friendship, dating, serious relationship, or play?' I didn't realize that play meant an 'open relationship'," she said. "I'd always thought of myself as a big kid, so I checked play."
Shortly thereafter, Michele received an invitation from a man asking if she'd like to join him and his girlfriend in a threesome.
"You have to learn the terminology," she warned.
Not to mention the rules of engagement. Most people agree on the basic dos and don'ts of Internet etiquette. Never meet a first date for anything more than a quick drink or cup of coffee. Always have an escape plan — some place you have to be in an hour. And most important of all, never get sucked into a lengthy e-mail correspondence with anyone without first meeting them.
Beth Sandel, 47, a divorced mother of two, recently found herself involved in just such a virtual relationship with a man she "met" on Craig's List (www.craigslist.com).
"He and I e-mailed every day for three weeks," she said. "We had in-depth, funny, touching, long, involved conversations."
Over time, Sandel became more and more invested. Then one day she received a terse note.
"The guy said, 'I've decided we're not a good match,' " she said. "I'd never even met him — and I'd been dumped."
Getting e-dumped by someone who never emerges from behind the computer screen — whether due to agoraphobia or algebra homework — is just one of the hazards of online love. Deception is another biggie.
"One guy I met was a good 20 years older than me," said Ken, who most commonly uses www.gay.com and www.planetout.com, both geared for gays looking for relationships. "He looked nothing like his picture. I sat through an entire Thai meal thinking, 'I've been bamboozled!' "
Ken's story is hardly unique. Everyone has heard tales about the "muscular mountain man" with the enormous Budweiser belly or "the ultra-fit female" with a queen-size caboose. Lying online is so prevalent, in fact, that a new Seattle start-up, www.lemondate.com, posts date reviews to "squeeze the truth out of pumped-up profiles."
Fudging the facts is obviously counterproductive, since the whole idea is eventually to meet face-to-face at which point your date will notice that instead of a winning smile, you have no teeth.
So why do people do it?
"Mostly people lie to make a good impression," said Dr. Bella DePaulo, a professor at the University of California-Santa Barbara, whose field of study includes both singles and deception. "Lies are like wishes. They're what you wish you were like. A person who says he has a full head of hair wishes he did."
Go, go Godzilla
But despite the liars, the libidinous and the leery, the Internet is hardly teeming with monsters.
Or is it?
"I believe that the sheer volume of potential dates creates 'Date-
zillas' out of some women," said Kent Wright, 40, who's used Udate, www.kiss.com, and www.matchmaker.com in the past. "These are the women who are always looking to 'trade up' to someone more perfect. This is not to say that guys don't do it, too."
The temptation to keep shopping is one of the more insidious aspects of Internet dating. With hundreds of singles available at the touch of a button, even diehard romantics can lose sight of the end goal. After all, a much better widget — or Gidget — could be just around the corner.
The problem for most Seattle men, though, is actually getting a chance to meet Gidget.
According to Match.com, the online ratio in Seattle is 61 percent male to 39 percent female, which means that women, particularly if they're considered pretty, are bombarded by e-mails from all sides.
"There are some guys who send spam to every new woman who comes online," said Wright, who actually posed as a woman (sans picture) in order to suss out the competition. "It's like 'A Night at the Roxbury.' 'Hey baby, what's up? New in town? Hey baby, what's up? New in town?' "
According to Trish McDermott, vice president of romance (yes, that's her real title) at Match.com, hitting on anything that moves is a losing strategy.
"A lot of men approach it as a numbers game," she said. "They think, 'If I send out X number of e-mails, I'll likely get one response.' But women do not want to be sent marketing-type spam. They want to be approached as individuals."
Her advice for Seattle men?
"Think quality instead of quantity," she said. "Only e-mail women with whom you really feel some sort of connection. Be genuine, be forthcoming — and run spell check."
And for Seattle singles in general?
"Be a person a woman or a man would want to date," she said. "It's not all about the hunt."
Got an opinion on Seattle's dating scene? Join the club. We want to hear from you at www.seattletimes.com/dating
Diane Mapes: firstname.lastname@example.org
|A quick scan through the photo personals...|
|The following data were compiled following a cursory examination of 50 men and women currently listed on Nerve.com, Match.com and Matchmaker.com. We searched for a 30- to 45-year-old single heterosexual man or woman, living within 50 miles of ZIP code 98109 (i.e., the heart o' Seattle). Some individuals provided multiple photos which (in total) met various criteria. Other photos individually managed to span several categories, i.e., guy with a shaved head and goatee with his shirt off, sitting on a motorcycle and playing a guitar.|
|Guys posing with vehicles (cars, trucks, motorcycles, boats, etc.)||6||8||5|
|Guys with long hair||3||3||1|
|Guys with little black glasses||2||0||0|
|Guys in Docker pants||2||0||1|
|Guys with guitars, drums, other instruments||3||1||1|
|Guys with mullets||0||1||0|
|Guys with loved one obviously cut out of photo (i.e., phantom fingers)||4||7||2|
|Guys with shaved heads and goatees||8||4||3|
|Guys with shirt open or completely off||4||5||5|
|Guys of color||1||6||5|
|Girls posing with technology (cameras, phones, computers, etc.)||4||1||0|
|Girls with long hair||23||30||28|
|Girls with little black glasses||3||0||1|
|Girls with nose rings||2||0||0|
|Girls with cuddly things (cats, puppies, stuffed animals, kids)||2||10||14|
|Girls with big scary hair||0||4||0|
|Girls with loved ones obviously cut out of photo||3||5||8|
|Girls looking outdoorsy (hiking, climbing, exercising, etc.)||4||10||4|
|Girls with cleavage||7||4||12|
|Girls of color||0||4||6|
|*Nerve.com personals are part of the Spring Street Network, which powers a personal ad database for various media partners including The Onion, Salon.com, Village Voice Media, Mediabistro.com, etc.|