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May 27, 2004

Instant Gratification

I mentioned in a previous post that in the four years I've been single again, I've done a bit of dating. As in, I've had at least one date with 77 different women. I've met 'em all different kinds of ways; at work, at political events, here there and everywhere.

But my schedule is not terribly friendly to all the traditional ways; my kids have spent about 85% of the last four years with me, which I'd never dream of changing - but I also have an iron clad rule about never mixing my kids and my dating life (when I have one). I have to be pretty efficient in my use of time.

So I've tried a few of the online personals sites. Once, maybe twice a year, I'll feel adventurous and/or lonely, and give one or another of the options a shot.

Now, life in general is a jungle - and no part of life is more a jungle than online personals. I'm going to help you find your way through the jungle. You're welcome.

Now, as I've said in the past, I have one big benefit when it comes to online dating. It also happens to be a big handicap. I love blind dates. The feeling I get on my way to a blind date isn't much different than the one I got Christmas morning when I was a kid - walking down the strairs, thinking "one of those packages could be the train!!! And of course, by the end of Christmas morning, any given package was more likely to be underwear, or mittens from great-aunt Alice, than that train - but that didn't make the anticipation any less.

And as a practical matter, the average date is more likely to end up like this, or this, or one of these than anything fantastic, or even memorable - hell, even non-self-abnegating. But that doesn't change the feeling the next time I go to meet someone, any more than unwrappnig a pack of underwear on Christmas morning made me any less eager to open the next package.

There are quite a few options in the world of online personals. I'll explain them, and rate them on a scale of...well, what would make a meaningful scale? "Dates from Hell?" "Lonely, Disgusted Hangovers?" I'll stick with a scale of 1 to 5 "Ripped-Out Hearts":

Match.com - It's the second-biggest site around. Everyone - and I mean everyone - tries Match at least once. Saying "I was on Match.com" is the info-age way of saying "I did some dumb things right after my divorce". It's an online meat-market bar, with all the cons and cons that entails.

  • Pros - It's huuuuge.
  • Cons - Everyone - everyone - is obsessed with looks, status and "chemistry"; the standard response to all enquiries is "where's your picture?". Instant gratification is the order of the day.

Overall Rating - roh.GIFroh.GIF

Yahoo Personals - The biggest online personals site around. Very similar to Match.com, but oddly seems to have less of a stigma, even though the site seems to be an even-more-baldfaced hookup site.

  • Pros - It has that big "Yahoo" logo at the top, so it doesn't look like you're surfing personals, unlike most of the other options.
  • Cons - Instant gratification is the order of the day.

Overall Rating - roh.GIFroh.GIFroh.GIF

Matchmaker.com - #3, I think. The "profile" - think "personal ad" - that you fill out is a Dostoevski-length form asking for an endless parade of paragraphs about your likes, dislikes, beliefs. It's good for weeding out people with repetitive stress injuries, if that's a big romantic no-no for you.

  • Pros -
    • Customers seem to be mostly people who've gotten sick of Match or Yahoo.
    • As a software designer, I have to give them points for their user interface; through it, you can basically follow the progress of the messages you send: "Did she read it yet? She read it! DAMN, she trashed it without responding!" Devilishly addictive, provided you have no other life (which, a couple of times in the last four years, I have not, at least not after 10PM).
    • There used to be a way to slip past their registration engine to get nearly-unlimited free trials.
  • Cons -
    • That "devilishly addictive user interface brings out the obsessive-compulsive even in me.
    • They fixed the bug.
    • Also, instant gratification is the order of the day.
Overall Rating - roh.GIFroh.GIFroh.GIF

Springstreet - Most other sites, beneath all the "relationship" mickeymouse, are basically hookup sites. This site (which is syndicated through national websites (the Online, F****d Company, Village Voice) and local publications (City Pages, here in the Cities), started as the personals offshoot of a softcore Pr0n site, and makes no bones about it. Springstreet is to Match what a mid-scale strip joint is to Hooters.

  • Pros - Hilarious
  • Cons - Customers seem to be universally politically to the left. Instant gratification is all that matters.
Overall Rating - roh.GIFroh.GIF

Lavalife - Peekaboo! Naughty naughty! Woo Hoo! Obviously, the whole online personals market is a product of creative marketing. Lavalife, however, beats you over the head with it. If Springstreet is a strip joint and Match is Hooters, then Lavalife is one of those MTV Spring Break tours.

  • Pros - There are none.
  • Cons - Instant gratification is the order of the day. And this site is the reason terrorists hate us.
Overall Rating - roh.GIF

Dr. Departure - A tiny little local site run out of St. Cloud, MN. One guy and a copy of Cold Fusion.

  • Pros - No bells, no whistles - just two essay questions. Either you like what you read, or you don't.
  • Cons - Instant gratification was the order of the day. But the site's been down for over a year.
Overall Rating - roh.GIFroh.GIFroh.GIFroh.GIF, RIP.

Eharmony - You can't escape it. I swear, half of the current economic recovery is being driven by EHarmony's ad budget. They are everywhere. The theory is, they guide you through "29 dimensions of compatibility" to find you your "perfect match"; these people seem awfully serious about the whole "soulmate" thing.

  • Pros - Unlike the hookup sites, the peek-a-boo and sly hinting is absent. And their system seems pretty stalker-proof, which is a good thing.
  • Cons -
    • That "$40 personality profile" they talk about is about the same as the one you can get for free at about 56,834 different Myers-Briggs websites
    • They use the term "Soulmate" in their advertising.
    • Gratification is far from instant.
    • They analyze "29 dimensions of compatibility". They should have gone for 30; they left out "HAS KIDS". I have two kids; by the time women get into their mid-late 30s, if they haven't had kids, it's extremely hard for someone like me - a single parent - to relate to them. The lifestyles, schedules and expectations are completely different. Why did they skip that? If there's a more important measure of what's important to a person, I can't think of it.

Overall Rating - roh.GIFroh.GIFroh.GIF

What did they have in common? Instant gratification. The web has brought shopping, banking, looking for cars, buying airline tickets and renting hotel rooms to your desktop, 24/7; click on a button, and bing, you're done.

It seems like a natural, doing the same for dating. People've tried it for years in other media - print personal ads, phone chat lines, meat-market bars, dating services, the whole gamut. Maybe it works - for some, no doubt, it does.

Problem is, relating to another person isn't like buying a couch from Ikea.com - yet the process is almost exactly the same. Both involve entering product specifications into a catalog (whether the product is a cordless drill or, well, you), and hoping that someone, based on an instant first impression, will be interested in closing the deal.

The worst part - the part with the wider implications - is that online dating takes the entire meeting and getting to know process and compresses it into its shallowest, most superficial level possible. The most common word on online personals is "Chemistry"; people obsess over it, whatever it is. Everything is about the initial reaction to...what? A picture first, an email, a stilted phone conversation, a first meeting; it's said that a job interview is decided in the first thirty seconds, and dates via online personals usually work the same way. Problem is, "chemistry" is probably the worst possible indicator of a worthwhile relationship; one woman that I went out with (once) called it

that feeling you get that says "I don't know you nearly well enough, but I want to sleep with you way before I know I should".
(We had no chemistry, by the way).

There was a time when relationships happened one of three ways:

  1. You met someone in the neighborhood, at church, at school, wherever. You got to know them. You found yourself spending more time around each other. You started marinading yourself in the other person's personality, until you realized you liked something there.
  2. You met them at a bar, a grocery store, a concert - and let "chemistry" drag you into a disastrous, wrenching, doomed short-term fling.
  3. You got a mail-order bride catalog and ponied up.
Online dating mixes the depth and expense of 2, the convenience of 3, and...speed.

Here's where I'd normally put the melodramatic ending; but there is none. Just a chunk of my life, like it's a chunk of lots of peoples' lives. A road I took a few times that, looking back, led to more dead ends than scenic overviews.

Like walking down the stairs on Christmas morning and opening up the package and finding Pez. Every package. Every year.

Posted by Mitch at May 27, 2004 05:00 AM
Comments

Don't knock candy.
Would have possibly meant more to me if you had said 'empty pez dispensers' instead.

Isn't a 'friend of a friend' the best way to go anyway?

I found mine at work. in the fitness center. Thaaaaat's right.

Posted by: LT at May 27, 2004 07:44 AM

So Mitch, I have this friend...

Posted by: King at May 27, 2004 07:32 PM

I did the trial for eHarmony a while ago... it asked a ton of questions about my political beliefs (conservative) and my love for physical activities (none). My first two matches were a woman who said her favorite book ever was HIllary Clinton's autobiography and one whose favorite activity was rock climbing. If those are the best matches their vaunted system could come up with, I would hate to see what the worst were.

Posted by: Mad Anthony at May 27, 2004 09:41 PM

I'd say you hit the nail on the head in describing the various sites, Mitch.

A year ago today, to the day, I joined my first dating site, match.com. How funny and wonderful that I was optimistic enough to believe I'd find true love within a few months of signing up. Actually, I did fall head over heels in love last fall ... but the object of my affection eventually decided that he didn't feel the same way and unceremoniously dumped me. In all, I went out at least once with 14 different men, a personal record I hope never to break or repeat. I met most guys through Match and Yahoo and others through Spring Street, which seems to have a quirkier mix (and as Mitch said, more liberals, probably because actforlove.org feeds into Spring Street, which is a happy thing for a lefty like me). (Or in theory it's a happy thing. To be honest, looking back, I see I had the least amount of that famed 'chemistry' with other liberals. Why is that?) eHarmony yielded exactly zero dates for me (although it did have many supposed 'matches'), which I think is due at least in part to the fact that its membership isn't nearly as extensive as the other sites.

Meeting people through the Internet has been interesting, amusing, exhausting, irritating, enlightening, wonderful and not-so-wonderful. From a woman's perspective, I'll say there seem to be a LOT of guys online who think that talking about body parts and/or sex right away is a winning strategy. (Maybe it works on that naughty lavalife, I dunno.) One guy sent me a poem about his penis, which my sisters and I found funny, although not enough so that I actually wanted to respond. One told me over the phone that when it comes to women, "a little top heavy is a plus, but not absolutely required." Another, an executive, turned out to be an obscene phone caller. Just last week, a guy e-mailed me to say what he likes to do with his Magic Fingers (his capitalization, not mine), and his profile contained an abundance of emoticons and the word scrotum, which, in my opinion, is an odd word to use in a description of oneself to a bunch of strangers.

Although I've decided to pull the plug on Internet dating, at least for the summer and quite possibly forever, I wouldn't say it's been a complete bust. It's been fun meeting all kinds of different men -- a sweet federal bank examiner/hockey dad with four boys, a Harley-riding airline mechanic, a brainy computer programmer, a nipple-ring-wearing artist, a therapist, a forester, a policeman, a sitar player, a writer and more. And, as Mitch experienced, there's nothing like the adrenalin shot you get on the way over to meet someone for the first time. (Although more than once on a drive to a blind date, I found myself laughing and shouting, "Why the hell do I DO this to myself?!" The answer, of course, is simple: I just want to find love. But I think that looking for love offline, in real life -- although less convenient and speedy -- is a better way to go.)

Posted by: Lisa at May 28, 2004 03:10 PM

Lisa,

Well put.

Although...(holds hands to forehead, concentrates)...I sense that, at least in some cases, you may have perhaps applied some rather suspect criteria to guys who wrote you...

...but then, that's just a hunch. :-)

Posted by: mitch at May 28, 2004 04:09 PM

I have a slightly different perspective. Last time I was single, I did ad's in a local paper. The deal is, no matter how long you talk, or what you both share, in the end, you meet, and yes, it does come down to chemistry. That is why it is stressed so much, 'cause without it, ya'll aint got a shot! When I think back to any longlasting relationships(including my present 10 yr marriage)
there always was that initial spark, in fact, you get along or not.If it takes work, it aint gonna.

Posted by: PainterDave at May 30, 2004 12:59 AM

Yes, it's true -- I may have erred. But doesn't every singleton have at least a little* suspect criteria, Mitch?

Posted by: Lisa at May 31, 2004 10:38 AM
hi