Clicking for love: The perks and perils of online dating

Published: Sunday, May 6 2012 11:00 p.m. MDT

A new sociological study suggests that many dating sites' claims — that their services will improve the likelihood of long-term relationship success — are insupportable.

David Sherjan, Dsp Studios

Erika Anderson sat across from Jeffrey Neu at an Indian restaurant in Manhattan's Flatiron district on a chilly March evening, toying nervously with the scarf around her neck, a sparkly white one on loan from a roommate.

They had exchanged emails for a month. She knew his birthday and where he had gone to law school. They had talked about their careers and their lives in the tri-state area. She, then 25, had even re-read their online exchanges, a miniature study session to brush up on the particulars of Jeff, then 32.

Over dinner, they discussed their food — her first time tasting lamb — and noticed they both had jeans on.

But this night, their first date, was also their first time seeing each others' faces, deciphering their expressions.

"I looked across (at Jeff) and was like, who is he? Who is this person?" she said later of the evening. "I did know a lot of random facts about him, but I didn't really know him." Their fledgling online relationship, though extensive, had not erased her first-date butterflies.

Eight months later, Erika and Jeff were married.

Online dating is a modern paradox. Once widely considered a tactic only for the socially inept or the hopelessly creepy, exploring romantic possibilities online has slowly but surely made its way into mainstream American culture.

But while dating online definitely has its advantages, a new sociological study reveals that many dating sites' claims — that their services will improve the likelihood of long-term relationship success — are insupportable. In fact, entering the world of online dating presents some very specific challenges that make romantic progress in the 21st century as difficult as ever. And some of the best advantages of online dating are exactly what make it perilous.

A history of online dating

In 1995, when the internet was still in its infancy, social dating consultant Trish McDermott joined a team launching a brand new company: match.com, a service to help single people meet and communicate for romance through the internet.

The idea did not take off right away. "There was a sense that anybody who had to use technology to find love was in some way a loser," said McDermott. Who would email a potential love interest instead of simply approaching them at a bar or a social event? The answer could only be the geeky, the unsightly or the awkward.

So the young dating services hit upon a way to tackle consumer embarrassment: anonymity. Limiting information "would be more secure and it would encourage people to try online dating" without fear of stigma or danger, explained McDermott. Most services still operate in this way.

In the nineties, even successful couples were wary to broadcast their history. McDermott said some of the early match.com success stories wanted a hard copy of their online profiles mailed to them to cherish, but only "in a brown paper envelope with no markings."

But as the digital revolution gained steam, pop culture began to catch on to the new dating landscape. "It really wasn't until the movie 'You've Got Mail' (1998) came out that we saw the lightbulbs go off," said McDermott, explaining that the romantic comedy featured two successful, attractive leads who fell in love through instant messaging.

Fourteen years after the movies helped to glamorize internet romance, the phenomenon has yet to entirely escape its humble beginnings.

Anderson (now Neu) admitted that she initially lied about how she met Jeff, telling people brightly but vaguely that their first connection came through a mutual friend. Her own grandmother was scandalized when she discovered the news.

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