Looking for love in electronic places
by Phaedra Friend
“You wouldn’t believe how many people are dating through the Internet,” said Inside Houston editor-in-chief, Laurette Veres, and before I knew it, I had accepted an assignment to research Internet dating. I was curious to see what the online dating fad is all about. If the workplace, bars and mutual friends helped to get our parents dating, married with children, divorced, displaced and devoted to self-help books, maybe Internet dating is the answer.
Internet dating has become a craze “somewhat shady, yet more enticing than Melrose Place, the Gen-Xers” topic of conversation at the water cooler. We’ve all heard of soul mates meeting across oceans through the Net. While Internet dating is the new age version of our parents’ ads in the personals, it seems to be as contagious as the computer virus you caught last week.
With a little nudge, I caught the bug. I know what you are thinking because I was thinking it, too: Some psycho-stalker might hunt me down and sever my fingers one by one because I didn’t return his letter of fetish-laden love. Despite this and because I am an aspiring writer and recent graduate, I embraced the proposal of this story with all appendages – and some devoted roommates who swore they would discreetly accompany me to any rendezvous.
I was off to “pimp myself out for print,” as my brother so poignantly put it, yet starting was the most difficult step to take. Whispers of information came to me through conversations with people who had friends and cousins who had dipped their toes into the Net dating pool. Like the “six degrees of Kevin Bacon,” everyone is connected to an Internet relationship in some way. One Internet dating service boasts more than 4,000 members in the Houston area alone.
What I learned in the mysterious world of Internet dating negates many common misconceptions and hopefully will guide any novice through the experience.
So many choices
Because there are so many services out there, it can be somewhat overwhelming. The first obstacle you should tackle is figuring out what kind of service you want to use: paid or free. What I found is that paid services are more user-friendly, specific and controlled, while free services are more decadent, vast and unregulated.
You get what you pay for. Depending on how long you want to be a member, the bill for online dating services varies. I chose to pay every month, which also gave me the option to quit or renew every month ? and that cost about $30. If I had chosen to sign on for a year membership, my bill would have been considerably lower.
Although that may sound expensive, the paid services offer such things as personal diaries to keep up with your travels, icon markers to automatically spark your memory of suitors, information pages to answer frequently asked questions, blocking options and a Web master that you can write to directly with questions and problems. Members of the paid services are more serious about getting connected with others since they actually spend money to use the service. A key aspect of the paid services is that members can sort prospects by anything from age and location to interests and sexual preference.
The free services that I dabbled in were definitely more titillating. They are more like the steamy personals you find in the back of some weekly newspapers. Without a sorting option, profiles can range from a 35-year-old carpenter from Montreal to a 68-year-old sadist who likes guitars. There are no rules because there is no one to enforce them.
The choice is yours, depending on what you want out of your online dating experience. Due to my preferences and personality, I chose to go down the avenue with all the traffic signs posted and police to enforce them: I paid.
To write or not to write
Each profile has a set of multiple-choice questions that you are required to answer, but in addition to that, there are a handful of essay questions that each member can answer if they so choose. The essay questions in your profile are somewhat probing and reasonably silly. They allow for originality and humor, which impart prospects with a little fuller personality than just their age, favorite food and area of town.
While the Internet allows us to become whatever and whoever we want to be, if you are serious about meeting that special someone online, you need to be as honest and frank as you can. I stumbled into an immense gray zone when trying to describe myself truthfully yet positively and unpretentiously. I definitely appreciated others who conquered that gauntlet.
In addition to providing a little sliver of information about the member, the essay questions also portray the member’s sincerity in the process. If he didn’t take the time to fill out his questionnaire, I didn’t take the time to write him back.
Posting a picture
Putting your picture on the Web is a little daunting, I agree. People might recognize you, but realize that the ones looking are doing exactly the same thing. I was reluctant to post my picture at first but finally decided to do it. Oh, what a difference a picture makes! The number of letters I got after I included my picture in my profile multiplied drastically.
Don?t get me wrong, I am not trying to imply that my looks won admirers. I am far from being a supermodel and can pretty much be summed up as the girl-next-door type, but just like in normal dating, humans are sparked visually. Pictures simply make the experience more “real.”
The time factor
Let?s face it, we are all busy people, but finding someone to spend some of that time with also is important. The amount of time you spend online shopping for that perfect someone and writing and replying to letters is completely up to you. The more you are logged on, the more you will get out of it. Because other members know if you are online or not, the amount of letters you receive reflects how often you are online. The immediate satisfaction of writing back and forth between two members who are both logged on spurs this phenomenon.
Through the course of two months, I visited the Web site 51 times and received 692 letters, which sounds impressive until you understand that I was browsed 5,301 times. That means that I sparked enough interest for members to check out my profile, but not many of those wrote me. Nonetheless, 692 letters were plenty for me to try to keep up with, which leads me to my next point.
Beware the addiction
Attention from the opposite sex is intoxicating (or the same sex depending on your preference). Flirting and writing letters online is harmless enough, until you find yourself perpetually on the computer. This experience took more than a large bite out of my time, and I had to stop myself from logging on because I knew how much time I would spend on the computer if I did.
How to sift through the rocks to get to the gold
Just like in everyday dating, you are going to meet some weirdoes online. Surprisingly, I really did not have to deal with that many deviant people. I did receive a couple of letters from people with different sexual preferences than I, which I politely declined, and never received another letter from them.
The one problem I did have with a member was solved with astounding ease. I simply blocked him from contacting me again and notified the service of his behavior. That was that.
Etiquette: What are the rules?
Should I give out my personal e-mail and phone number? This is up to you. Many people will give you theirs or ask for yours. I rarely gave out my personal information and found that if people were really interested, they would continue to write me through the service if I simply ignored their request. Another option is to open an additional, vague e-mail account specifically for your new Internet friends. Many of the people with whom I made friends never knew anything but my ambiguous username. It is not like the bar is closing and you are parting ways forever. In deciding to share your personal information, you can take as much time as you want.
I am strongly against ever giving out your address or letting one of your dates pick you up at your house. Wait and be safe. Meet the person a couple of times out in public before you decide to divulge that type of information.
Just how many dates are you going to get out of this? Don’t plan to eat for free for the rest of your life using this service. Although I definitely got asked out on more dates than I expected or accepted, the number that I went on was not that many.
But keep your hopes up. Each person is different, each relationship is different, and how you feel about handling your dates is your call. Whether you are meeting for coffee or a concert, make sure you are safe, confident and having a good time.
All in all, I enjoyed my experiences with online dating. I made some new friends and encountered some new endeavors. I give my Internet dating adventures two completely connected “thumbs up” and would recommend it to just about anyone, at least to try. Now, did I find the love of my life on the Internet? Nope, but that doesn’t mean you won’t.