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Why Online Dating Gets Such a Bad Rap and Shouldn’t

Despite its popularity, people are still shy to admit they met on the Internet


By almost any measure, Internet dating is ubiquitous. Pew Research says that 40 million of us use it. Per an op-ed piece in The New York Times, over one-third of couples who married in the last few years met online. And then there’s the anecdotal evidence: just about everyone knows a couple who met on Match.com or its equivalent.

So why are people still embarrassed to say they met on the Internet? And why is Internet dating more likely to be the brunt of a comic one-liner (“It’s like the high school cafeteria; nothing looks good, but you have to pick something”), then praised for its demonstrably life-improving effects? Facebook, Twitter and email — apps arguably responsible for the decline of written communication and normal conversation — get about the same proportion of accolades as online dating gets abuse.

Commoditizing Attraction

First and foremost, online dating is chastised as being a “meat market.” As New York Times columnist David Brooks recently lamented, online daters are “shopping for human beings, commodifying people.” This criticism ignores the huge benefit of “commodified” dating: expanding the world of dating experience, and, hopefully, the knowledge about oneself and others that can flow from it.

For example, having come of age around the same time as Brooks, he and I presumably had access to the same panoply of 1970s and 1980s mate-finding tools: bars, beaches, work, school and introductions through family and friends. On that statistically “slim pickings” number of opportunities — akin to what the surviving members of an endangered species have — we based our most important decision: selecting a mate. Put in perspective, we each probably spent more time apartment hunting than having experiences that helped select our now-divorced spouses.

Brooks fleshes out his critique by claiming that commoditizing is “the opposite . . .of love.” By this, he must mean that online daters are selecting people from little photos that march down screens like aliens in the Space Invader game, viz., by objective characteristics, versus the unquantifiable aspects thought to catalyze true love.

Without online dating, I’d probably still be the lonely, fearful, guy that I was before creating my Match.com profile.

But “rating,” in the form of reacting hormonally to something very tangible — hair color, facial expression, height, physique, race — is what takes us all through the first “cut,” and always has (unless, of course, we’re among those who’d let Rev. Sun Myung Moon — who once married disciples by the thousands — pick our spouses).

The fact is that, after this first stage, whether you met on the Internet or at TGI Fridays, deciding to continue seeing a person inevitably becomes about a great deal more. Their voice. How they phrase things. Their politics. Aesthetics. Whether they like Sichuan food. Dogs. Do they fit your notion of sophistication? Are they elitist (and, if so, are you into it)? Can they endure quiet? How do you feel around them?

And then you enter into a relationship and begin to unearth the really interesting stuff. Who they really are day-to-day. Whether the things that lured you in are what you really want…

More Choices

Despite the critics, online daters are analyzing people across the same spectrum as anyone ever did, just with more choices. The proof of this is the tremendous number of marriages originating online. In 20 years or so, when we can study the durability of these relationships, maybe we’ll find out that these marriages, compared with those of the less recent past, happen to be more enduring. If so, the pundits probably will cite “commoditizing,” and all the good flowing from the concomitant expansion of experience, learning and choice, as why.

Online dating also is heavily lambasted for its mishaps. People misrepresenting their ages, not looking like their photos, being the opposite of how they describe themselves, not being honest about their backgrounds, passionately emailing but never going further.

But misrepresentation and misdirection is par for the course whether you’re picking likely suspects off screens or barstools. Online dating may generate more of these unfortunate encounters, but that’s probably because it produces more dating experiences. As with a bad restaurant experience — which should make us smarter about where we dine (rather than give up on eating out) — these experiences can make us better at assessing people, more knowledgeable about our own blind spots and more intelligent about our choices.

Discovery of Self

As for me, without online dating, I would still be stuck in serious relationship quandaries. The wide dating experience it enabled made it obvious to me that I was attracted to the same personality traits that had drawn me into an unhappy, now-terminated, 20-plus year marriage. To address that, I purposely saw women radically different from what ordinarily drew me, something I wouldn’t have been able to do to any great extent using traditional dating venues.

Fearing repeating the big mistake that was my long marriage, I also found myself projecting my ex’s less-desirable traits on women whether or not they had them.

With online dating, I could purposely see women so starkly different from my ex — in race, ethnicity, education, culture, profession, etc. — that I was more likely to focus on them, and less likely to project. Without online dating, I’d probably still be the lonely, fearful, guy — condemned to repeat the mistakes of the past — that I was before creating my Match.com profile (plus broke from all the “talk therapy” that online dating made unnecessary).

Turning chance dating encounters into a wide choice of dating experiences is the big change wrought by Internet dating, allowing vast experimentation and enabling all the learning that comes with it. That should be its “rap.” Actually, I’m shocked that it’s taken so long to commoditize this aspect of human relationships.

Since at least the Industrial Revolution, humans have been commoditizing everything in sight. With what Gutenberg invented, you’d think they’d at least have been producing books in which needy singles could circulate their profiles (and then, with the advent of photography, faces). But beyond the isolated personal ad, that doesn’t seem to have happened. Until now.

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