Online Dating: The New Sockhop
Though I promised myself I would never start a hub with the sentence, "Back in my day...", I'm going to have to break that rule today (unless this opening counts, in which case I'm still good).
But back in my day, online dating was considered a last resort, something tailored toward social rejects and people over the age of 30. It was never spoken out loud, of course, but there was still that general awkwardness about the Internet, like it was a new kid at school and we weren't sure whether they were going to be cool or start talking about how the stars really spoke to her when she meditated, y'know?
Even though online dating is actually one of the more popular ways to find a date, and one of my friends even found his fiancee through a popular dating site, I still feel awkward about it. Maybe it's the stigma I remember growing up with. Maybe it's the fact that everything about it feels new. Maybe it's the fact that dating sites are actually a minefield of new rules and boundaries that I'm unfamiliar with.
Yeah, that last one sounds good. We'll go with that.
Getting Over Your Own Worries
Yes, I know that more people are doing online dating. I've known some great people who were attractive, friendly, funny, who haven't had any luck dating in real life but who somehow connected when given a computer and access to "Smileys" and "Flirt" buttons. Go figure.
But there's still something inside you that says, "But shouldn't I be able to find someone the old-fashioned way?"
Well, unless you're planning on going down to the malt shop later and the soda jerk tells you that your dress is just swell and asks you to go steady, then no.
While I did meet people at parties and in my college classes, they were usually looking for one-night stands, which wasn't what I was interested in. College, the place where you have the greatest chance of meeting new people and potentially dating them, also breeds a culture of hook-ups and desperate, ill-advised relationships. As the end of those four years grows closer, you start panicking, realizing that you haven't been dating and doing fun things all this time because you were too busy with school. Suddenly that guy who talks to himself about the aliens eating his chihuahua and replacing it with a tin-foil replica starts to look good.
That's not a good sign.
It's a new age, baby, and that voice inside your head telling you that you must be a failure for having to use the internet to get a date? It's not you, it's those romantic comedies we've all seen.
Choosing a Dating Site Can Be Hard
It seems like dating sites are multiplying faster than those two rabbits that the farmer assured you were both female, all of them bouncing up and down shouting, "Me! Me! Pick me!"
Where do you even start when so many choices are staring at you in the face? There are advertisements on the television, on the internet, recommendations from friends; there are one specialized from "looking for a life partner" to "looking for a hook-up"; there are even some that are tailored to a particular kind of person, such as "geeks" or "incredibly attractive".
So say you decide to go with that one you heard on the commercial, with the catchy song in the background. That man looked nice as he told you about the science of dating and compatibility, you're sure you can trust him!
You nervously type in the words eharmony.com into the address bar, glancing over your shoulder lest your high school tormenter suddenly appear to mock you for not being able to get a date "normally".
The site looks inviting enough. There are people smiling happily, arms wrapped around each other like particularly loving octopuses, beaming as they talk about how they're expecting a baby and owe it all to eHarmony. Aww.
Of course, something nags at the back of your mind. There's something strange about all these... it's--ah. There it is. Yup, you find that eHarmony only allows you to choose someone of the opposite gender.*
Sorry, gay guys and ladies! No love for you, I'm afraid.
This is especially annoying, as a heteronormative society pretty much guarantees that it's much, much harder to find dates as a gay person than for someone who is straight. For one thing, depending on where you live, you may not feel comfortable (or safe) being openly out and other queer people in the area may feel the same. It's like trying to hunt except both the hunter and the prey are hiding from each other. Online dating is one of the best and easiest ways to avoid that uncomfortable moment when the woman you just asked to dance looks at you with a mixture of sympathy and dismay and says, "I'm straight!".
But several of the dating sites I looked at are, if not explicitly against gay people finding dates, at least actively discourage them or are, for whatever reason, just not as popular with the gay crowd.
To save you the trouble, OKCupid seems to be remarkably gay friendly and also has several handy tools, such as filtering out the guys who think "lesbian" means "hasn't met me yet", as well as privacy options that will hide you if you're still in the closet.
* eHarmony was recently involved in a discrimination suit and has since opened CompatibilityPartners (that's not at all a sterile and unwelcoming name; thanks, guys!), which uses the same system but is tailored toward homosexual couples. It's a start, at least.
Show Me the Money
I can say with almost 99% certainty that you are broke, or close to broke, or at least putting "food" ahead of "love life" in your priorities. Unless one of your priorities is nabbing a sugar daddy/momma, in which case, more power to you. But you'll find that the sites you visit seem to all want a membership fee, the very words of which fill your soul with dread and confusion. This is because you're essentially paying for a "maybe".
Imagine this in other circumstances. You go the mechanic and he tells you that your power steering line has a leak and it will damage the pump if you don't fix it soon.
"Will replacing it work?"
"Eh, maybe. That'll be $80 upfront, by the way."
Or you could pay for a "maybe" cupcake, if the baker feels like giving you one.
There's no guarantee that you're going to find a compatible person on any of the sites you try, and if they do make one, start looking for "mail order" or "escort" in the descriptions, because I think you just wandered onto a completely different site than the ones we're talking about.
Even ones that don't mention a fee upfront will sometimes get you to sign up, complete with annoying emails, then casually mention that you could meet much more compatible people if you only paid a measly $20 a month to upgrade to their "premium" membership.
Don't do it.
You wouldn't pay for a "maybe cupcake", so don't pay for a maybe date. There are plenty of great, free sites out there who won't hide people from you or vice versa unless you pay them money--shop around until you find one that you like and save that money so that you can really impress him or her when you do go on that first date.
Them's the Rules
Even though I'm pretty Internet-savvy, I still felt like I just walked in late to a class and was trying to catch up to learn all the etiquette and protocol of navigating a dating site. There are entirely different ways of speaking. While you are perfectly capable of forwarding that funny email to your friend or chatting to that nice Nigerian prince fellow, there is nothing more terrifying than sending your very first message to someone on a dating site.
You will write and rewrite the word, "Hi" so many times, you'd think that you were learning some exotic language that only uses the letters h and i. You will agonize over whether this sounded stupid, or that sounded creepy.
This is completely normal and you should learn to let it go.
Short, sweet messages are the best. You can send a quick, "Hi, I liked your profile!". Maybe even ask a question so that the other person has something to say if they reply. "I saw that you like Fitz and the Tantrums--what's your favorite song?"
And if they send back a message, awesome. If they don't, shrug and move on.
The other thing is that people seem to join dating sites while unclear on the concept. OKCupid, which I mentioned before, asks questions and allows you to compare potential matches to your own. One of the questions is, "Would you ever consider meeting someone you met on OKCupid?"
Not only have I seen people who answered "no" to this question, I've also seen people who are in a relationship, or who are looking for "just friends".
To me, this is annoying. I have no problem making friends, thank you very much, and while I appreciate that some people may, Cupid isn't the Roman god of friendship.
Though you can avoid someone contacting you if you put in your profile that you're looking for someone you can actually go out on dates with, it's not going to help when you contact someone who neglected to mention it in theirs.
Which leads us to the next part...
Hang in There, Baby
The good news is that you may make some new friends, maybe even some who aren't interested but totally know someone who is, or you may get a few dates out of it.
But you're going to get a lot of rejections, too.
The online dating rejection is both better and worse than the agonizing third date where your companion stumbles politely over the "Let's be friends" speech. On the one hand, you don't have to make eye contact or share an awkward ride back to drop her off at her place, but on the other, you don't get any explanation, even a weak one.
Sometimes you'll send out emails and not get any responses. Other times you'll get an email and you'll reply, only to have the person disappear into the mist like a lovelorn Loch Nessie. Still other times, you'll have long meaningful email threads where you feel like everything is going swimmingly when they suddenly stop replying and you're left wondering if the color red was violently offensive to them and they were so stunned by your tactlessness at mentioning the new sweater you bought that they deleted all your messages.
The truth is, you'll never know. If you can't get used to that, then I recommend waiting at coffee shops and hoping that Hugh Grant calls.
If you can, then dive in.
Who knows? It might just work.