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8 Important Things to Know Before You Start Dating Online

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Conversation hearts and chocolate samplers fill the grocery aisles, your inbox is filled with coupon deals for roses and romantic dates, and your grandmother has yet again asked if you have a "special friend." Dan Slater, author of Love in the Time of Algorithms visited KQED's Forum to discuss the world of online dating and how it is changing our relationships. Here are some highlights from that show that we hope will help you make sense of the online dating scene.

1. Online Dating is Still Dating (Read: Awkward)

Online dating gets so much buzz, you might get the impression that once you post a profile you will be flooded with hundreds of potential partners and that meeting them will be void of stress and awkward moments. You are wrong.

"Technology can be a very useful tool, but it's not a cure-all, it's not a panacea for everyone's relationship ills, and I think that often times people approach it with very high expectations; they expect to be able to hit a button and their soul mate pops up, but, you know, it takes a little more work than that."

2. Don't Invest Too Much Time Before Meeting in Person


A listener named Anna, who met her husband online, called into the show and offered this advice: "Read a little bit, send [potential dates] a message, and meet for coffee for a half an hour." Anna said that setting limits takes a lot of the fear away because "you're not investing as much" in any one profile.

Limiting interaction before you meet someone in person also ensures that you won't steal all of the magic away from that first meeting—something that Slater said a lot of the people he interviewed for his book felt was lacking.

"There's a sense of discovery that is lost in the online process," said a caller named Jennifer. "You read [someone's] entire life story on their summaries about who they are, what they're looking for. The authenticity of that first meeting—the mystery is kind of lost for me."

3. Decide if the Story of How You Met is Important to You

"People put a lot of stock in the meeting story," said Slater. "If you go to a cocktail party and talk to couples, often times the conversation will go to how they met, and if you don't have that fun story to tell, maybe, for some people, it feels like they've been deprived of something."

Before venturing online, figure out if the idea of a serendipitous meeting, however mundane is "preferable to what [can feel like] an overly structured way of meeting online." Because if you can't imagine telling your grandmother that you met your "special friend" on Match.com, and the thought of lying makes you cringe, you might want to stick to the old-fashioned way of meeting someone.

4. The Claims on Long Term Compatibility Aren't Proven

"There's a fair amount of debate, both within the industry itself and outside of the industry, as to what these algorithms [used by online dating sites] actually do," said Slater "and can they actually predict anything, or is it all just a bunch of smoke?"

Slater specifically questioned eHarmony's claim that it can "predict whether or not a couple of strangers—a man and woman who have never met—can be happy together."

"The evidence may be a bit weak," said Slater. He cited a study that found social scientists can predict the long term compatibility of a couple that's already together with a fair amount of accuracy, but that predicting how two complete strangers will stand the test of time is something entirely different.

"No one has shown an ability to do that with strangers because before two people have come together, there are so many things you don't know about them," said Slater. "You don't know how they're going to handle stress together. So right now, what seems to be the case is that dating sites are getting better and better at predicting whether two people will hit it off on a first date. And that, in my mind, is a pretty amazing innovation."

5. Expect Some Untruths

"There's a little bit of lying everywhere," said Slater. "If you meet someone offline, there's going to be a little bit of lying that takes place. I think the online world obviously makes it a bit easier to kind of fudge your stats: men will tend to add a couple inches to their height, women will tend to shave a few pounds off their weight."

6. Casual Sex is Not Just for Men

A listener named Joseph shared this perspective:

"I joined [an online dating site] in 2003 and I was looking for love, and what I discovered is that an amazing number of women would come straight over to my house for the first date; I mean, it became like ordering take-out. And of course I was absolutely delighted with the experience, and also really shocked about it… If I told you the number of women who would just come straight over to my house for sex—no date, no coffee, thirty minutes, it's happening—you would find it hard to believe."

Slater says that online dating might expose the theory that only men want casual sex as just that—a theory.

"We don't know at this point whether men do, in fact, pursue more short-term sex than women. Certainly the stereotype and belief all along has been that men are sort of biologically wired to pursue more short-term sex—I don't believe that's the case and I believe that online dating is starting to expose a little bit of that lie."

7. Don't Pay Too Much Attention to Photos… at First

Andy shared this experience on the Forum Facebook page:

"I found my girlfriend of nearly 14 months on OkCupid. The key is to go beyond the 10-20 percent of users who get the vast majority of the messages. [Try to] ignore the pictures at first and just focus on the profile, then take a look at the picture once you have a better sense of who the person is. The problem most online daters face is that they judge based on looks (as determined by a couple of thumbnail pictures) and don't make an attempt to contact people who could be great matches if they met in person. If you go beyond that your chances of success dramatically increase."

When you post your photo—choose one that's in-focus and sans sunglasses. The purpose of the profile picture is to let people know what you look like, so you may as well pick a photo that does the job.

8. There's a Dating Service for Every Type

Chances are, if you've got a type, there's a site for it. Are you a Mac of PC person? A Democrat or a Republican? Jewish or Catholic? Before investing in a paid subscription, be sure to look beyond the big name sites like Match.com and eHarmony, especially if you there's a characteristic that's a must-have for you.


Listen to the complete interview with Mr. Slater!

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