An eye-opening introduction to online dating
A skeptical young journalist wonders what draws people to the world of digital romance
By Wendy Rose
It's in your hand. In your pocket. In your purse. On your desk. It's never too far away.
In a world growing increasingly dependent on technology, it may not seem surprising that quick and efficient text messaging is replacing the primordial phone call.
With the constant advancements in the field of social media, we no longer need to call someone to see how they're doing, as we can read statuses and tweets about their lives from a device that fits nicely into the palm of our hands.
Even though I grew up in a technological age, I fear we have become too plugged in. Call me old-fashioned, but a phone call will always win my heart over a text message.
But is it just the rarity of a phone call that makes it so special to me now? I don’t think so. I have a hard time fitting tone of voice, facial expressions and body language into 140 characters. What's on my mind won't fit into a Facebook status. Still, I participate in it.
Through the power of the written word, a guy can be whoever he wants to be. The suave macho man with the cheesy hilarious pick up lines, a sweet Prince Charming who is sadly misunderstood by the world or a mysterious, shy guy whom society has cast out.
No fear in a dating persona
This is why I understand the popularity of online dating. There is no fear. You don't have to look at anyone face to face. You have lots of time to articulate your sentences, choosing words carefully for maximum impact. Your dating persona is whatever you want it to be, bold, daring, confident, charming ... even from the confines of your mother's basement.
However, the reality may be quite different. After hearing far too many online dating horror stories, this single woman will continue to try her luck in bars and music venues, where I can meet disappointment face to face.
I can't imagine finding Mr. Right on Plenty of Fish, a popular dating site, only to discover in that in reality he was Mr. Completely Wrong.
Like any true pessimistic single woman, I would rather have my hopes immediately dashed, rather than built up over time only to be destroyed later.
I understand how convenient the world of online dating is. You no longer need to spend long lonely nights on George Street trying to figure out who is single and who is taken. You no longer need to leave your house. Instead, they're listed for you: age, location, interests and of course, intent, starting with your best match.
I'm a 21-year-old woman. I still go out to parties and bars, concerts and fundraisers. Why would I need a website to help me meet new people when I'm constantly seeing new faces every day?
I thought online dating was still mostly reserved for divorcees, widows and lonely, socially inept leftovers from Generation X. You can only imagine my surprise to find out two of my 21-year-old girlfriends were both dating men they had met online through Plenty of Fish.
I was absolutely incredulous ... which they thought was incredible.
Through someone else's eyes
To understand where they were coming from, I had to see it through their eyes. The only way to formulate a well-rounded opinion on online dating was to sign myself up and see what happens.
Using a fake name and a fake birthday, I uploaded a picture of myself wearing one of my numerous brightly coloured wigs.
Less than two minutes after I had completed the sign-up process, I got my first bite.
That process is quite lengthy. A small biography with a minimum of 100 characters is required, while interests and your ideal first date are optional. POF needs to know if you smoke, drink or do drugs, if you have kids, pets or a car, as well as your height, weight, eye colour, hair colour, religion, level of education and for some reason, your personal income.
Once you have registered, you can take numerous questionnaires, such as the POF Relationship Chemistry Predictor, the Relationship Needs Assessment (which, judging by the questions, may as well be called "How crazy and clingy are you?") and the Seduction Style Assessment.
These quizzes are meant to help refine your matches, increasing the probability of finding your soulmate, using computer-generated probabilities.
To access your matches, you must first review 50 profiles with the Meet Me feature. This feature shows a photo of the user, their age, location and what they are looking for (casual dating/no commitment, date but nothing serious, relationship, serious effort to find somebody, someone to marry).
The looks of love
I was absolutely shocked. No matter what medium you're using, it seems that looks still prevail over everything else. No one is going to win with a shining personality when they are being judged solely on the main image they uploaded to their profile. I had presumed online dating was a little less superficial, hence its popularity. In the one case where I thought brain would win over brawn, I have been sorely disappointed.
Since creating my account, I have received over 300 messages from all kinds of men; young, old ... old enough to be my grandfather.
They vary from Goodlife jocks, mohawked metalheads, dreadlocked hippies or tattooed hipsters to studs in hard hats and construction vests, b'ys on Ski-Doos, hunters proudly holding up a moose head, covered in blood. The amount of mirror pictures is almost surreal and everyone has at least one shirtless shot. Many post pictures of their cars, trucks, dogs and children.
The messages, through which men are supposed to captivate us with their charm and wit, are used primarily for "Hey what's up" and lewd comments.
Out of the numerous messages I have received, very few actually included an introduction to the user's interests, hobbies or background. Many expressed an interest to get to know me better, but not in a sit-down-and-talk-about-common-life-goals kind of way.
You would think someone trying so hard to find his perfect mate could come up with a better line than "Hi hun ur cute wanna chat." Seriously? You can't put in the effort to spell out "you're" and you want me to think you are willing to put in the effort to do what it takes to make me happy and keep me happy? I expected a higher level of effort.
Our socially anxious world
In a world where social anxieties are so prevalent, it's understandable that online dating is so popular. Messaging someone through an online medium is nowhere near as daunting as having to walk up to a person and lay down your game, not knowing how they are going to respond. Plenty of Fish is a quick and easy way to find singles, without ever having to leave the house.
After clearly explaining that I was a journalist trying to immerse myself in a foreign world to develop a clearer understanding of the world of online dating, I asked many users why they were on Plenty Of Fish. Many said they weren't originally from St. John's and didn't know locals or where to meet them. Some worked offshore or on the mainland. Many were no longer interested in the downtown scene.
Lots of men were pursuing their education and simply didn't have time to date. A common issue for numerous men was simply not knowing where to look to find eligible bachelorettes.
"Between work and school I don't really have much time to get out and socialize with new people," one user said. "In class, I purposely isolate myself from anyone I know or could know for the benefit of my grades." He created a POF account after a female friend urged him to give it a try. "It's a last resort for me," he added.
Another user says his POF account is not something he takes very seriously. "If I meet a few new friends that's great. If I meet someone I end up spending my life with, even better. I am after meeting a few great people here and [I'm] really glad I've met them."
"But like everything, along with the "pros" you also get the "cons"", he continues. "Random crazy messages from people with ridiculous pictures sent with the message. And people sending constant messages over and over if you don't reply right away."
When talking to one user about why he uses the website, I asked if he would have been using POF in his early 20s, like many of my friends are now.
"I would not have thought about it in my early 20s, as I was living new young people experiences," he replied. "Also I used to think it was absolutely pathetic, and I still do."
He recalled a tale about one incident where he had been messaging a particular woman through POF for a couple of weeks. Things were going great and they had talked about hanging out. When he suggested making concrete plans, she stopped talking to him. "That actually happened twice. I mean, why are they on here if they don't wanna meet people?"
He wondered about their motives, especially they "could probably get any guy they wanted" in the real world. "It doesn't make sense. So I feel as though they just want the attention," he adds.
One more user claims he uses the site because after being in his previous relationship for so long, he forgot how to meet people. At the same time, he thinks the simplicity of online dating is sometimes abused.
"I think people need not to rely on the internet but just use it as a pastime," he said. "People should still go out and do things but they choose not to because they can."
I keep thinking back to an analogy I heard in a group interview about selling security systems door-to-door. The speaker was trying to explain that many doors will be slammed in your face, but if you knock on enough doors, you are bound to find a buyer.
He likened the experience to standing on George Street at 2 a.m. "You ask 100 women to go home with you and you get 99 slaps in the face, but eventually one will say yes. It's just a numbers game," he yelled.
If you put out enough bait ...
This idea came back to me when I registered for my fake POF account. The mentality is the same: if you sit on your computer and message 100 women every day, at least one of those women is going to respond. It's simply a matter of sitting there, with your hook baited, waiting for a fish to bite.
Is my fear of being "too plugged in" completely irrational? Do I just have a terrible outlook on life, love and romance? Am I just too impatient to sit down and try to use POF to find someone amazing? Am I simply behind the times?
My friends have told me to get off my high horse and give it a go. I can't even fathom the thought. I think my heart and soul is just stuck somewhere in the middle of the century and I'm just waiting for flowers, chocolate, poodle skirts, convertibles and 'Makeout Point'.
I'm not here to dispute that there truly are some wonderful men on online dating sites and I know for a fact that some beautiful relationships have derived from Plenty Of Fish, Match.com and eHarmony, etc. If one in five relationships start through online dating, like the advertisements claim, I guess I may eventually need to start keeping up with the times.
With all the technological advancements I have seen so far at the age of 21, I should probably start mentally preparing myself for what's to come in the rest of my lifetime.
Maybe I'll look into the 354 users who want to "meet me." Not. I think I'll just take my chances in the real world, where what you see is - most times, anyway - what you get.
Wendy Rose lives in Conception Bay South.