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illustration by Tina Wallace

The ins and outs of online dating

ACCORDING TO THE standards set by romantic comedies, we’re all supposed to experience love at first sight standing in the produce aisle of the grocery store or checking out a book in the library. But let’s face it: We’re not going to meet anyone with headphones in our ears at the supermarket and most of us compromise our usual personal hygiene regime when studying at the library. So what’s a person to do when their Hollywood romance has yet to arrive? Is it time to abandon ship and get on board with Internet dating? The Fulcrum asks students and professors to weigh in on the popular but stigmatized trend.

Giving it a try

Where would we be without the almighty Internet? If we need directions, we use Google. If we’re hungry, we order pizza online. If we’re shopping for the friend who has everything, we try eBay. Perhaps turning to the Internet to find a significant other is the natural progression for such a technology-dependent generation.

Diane Pacom, University of Ottawa sociology professor, agrees.

“We live in a transitional moment in history—we are transitioning between traditional dating and Internet dating,” she said. “For some people online dating is natural. It’s part and parcel of relating to technology and it’s a part of their reality.”

Stephanie Langis, recent Lambton College graduate, is one such person.

“I’ve always been very hands-on with the Internet, so [online dating] wasn’t something that was totally out of my comfort zone,” she said.

For some people, online dating is attractive because it soothes the pain of rejection. It’s much easier to walk away unscathed from a cyber romance than it is to be shot down in person.

“Computers give us the illusion that we’re in control,” said Susan Johnson, U of O psychology professor and author of Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love. “We can turn computers off and we can turn them on. It makes us feel like we’re in charge of the universe. The fact that you’re not in the room with [the person you’re talking to] gives you a sense of safety, but the tricky part is there’s a lot of fantasy and illusion that goes on.”

According to Johnson, the lure of online dating may be particularly strong for students living away from home for the first time.

“They lose their sense of comfort and community,” she said. “The danger is that they go on the Internet and all of their longings to be liked and reassured and feel safe—that all gets channeled into this one-dimensional space.”

A 2008 study by researchers at the University of Melbourne found most people who try online dating do so because they’ve moved to a new city, work long hours, or have recently experienced something traumatic or upsetting in their romantic lives.

Laura Fleming, a fourth-year U of O student studying English and biology, was looking for a change after a series of breakups and decided to turn to online dating.

“I’d just gone through a lot of emotionally intense relationships, so I thought, ‘Why not try it?’,” she said.

Fleming, who juggles a full course load and a part-time job, was also attracted to the speed and convenience of online dating.

“Everyone is there for more or less the same reasons, so it gives you the opportunity to quickly scroll through people,” she said. “The only problem is it takes away some of the humanity of meeting someone in the traditional way.”

Meaningful connections?  

According to Pacom, it is possible to make a meaningful connection with someone else over the Internet.

“Some people are already very comfortable with this type of technology and they are capable of somehow seeing the divide between what’s genuine conversation and what’s not,” she said.

Johnson disagrees, stating the Internet is a tool to help “broaden your horizons,” not form deep bonds.

“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with Internet dating as long as you don’t expect too much of it and as long as you accept that it is simply a way of superficially connecting with somebody,” she said.

Fleming compares dating online to meeting someone in a bar.

“The first thing they’re going to say to you is, ‘I like how you look.’ Well, OK, that’s fine, but I’m looking for someone who also likes what I wrote about in my profile or what I’m doing with my life,” she said.

Rose Ekins, a U of O student currently working toward her second degree, tried online dating and found it to be “mediocre” and superficial.

“The responses I received had absolutely nothing to do with any of the ‘About Me’ sections I had carefully written, but were all about my photos,” she said.

Johnson noted that people conversing online cannot connect in a very important way: Physically.

“When you meet somebody, there’s an enormous amount of information you pick up that’s nonverbal,” she said. “You listen to someone’s tone of voice, you look at the way they look at you, and you watch their body.”

Johnson thinks people should regard anyone they meet online as a “fantasy person” because “all of these cues we pick up to decide if we can trust someone can’t be picked up through a line of text.”

Honesty is the best policy

Perhaps the only way to make any connection at all over the Internet is to create an honest personal profile. Almost all online dating websites request their users include pictures and statistics about their appearance, such as height, weight, body type, and hair colour. A 2008 study conducted by researchers at Cornell University and Michigan State University found that nine out of 10 online daters lied about at least one of these attributes, although most of the fabricated numbers and descriptions were fairly close to the truth.

Langis reported she told the truth in her profile but was wary others would not do the same.

“I was fairly honest as I wanted the people reading my profile to message me because they liked me and what I was truly interested in,” she said. “But I am very skeptical of other profiles. If I’m skeptical but still interested, I try to catch them in a lie before going too far.”

Fleming’s profile includes several current pictures of herself and a brief but accurate description of her interests and daily life. She expects anyone she corresponds with to be honest as well.

“If someone lies in their profile, you’ll never be able to trust them,” she said. “Clearly, they’re a liar and they’re not comfortable with themselves.”

Fleming cautions online daters to be wary of profiles that are “too good to be true.”

“Sometimes it [is] obvious that a person has read up on the stereotypical female or male likes and dislikes and is trying to embody those things,” Fleming said.

“The trouble is, we forget that with the Internet you have a slice of somebody,” said Johnson. “People will present themselves as somebody absolutely delicious, and in fact they’re just a regular person. People find ways of presenting themselves attractively. A lot of it is marketing.”

My place, my time, my choice

If you happen to hit it off with someone online, you’ll naturally be interested in taking your relationship to the next step: Meeting in person. Johnson reminds daters new to the online world that the decision to move a relationship from the realms of cyberspace to the real world should not be taken lightly.

“If you connect with somebody [on] the Internet, you are meeting a stranger and you have to remember that,” she said. “You don’t meet strangers in their apartments. You meet strangers in a coffee shop downtown and you meet them that way quite a few times until they’re not strangers anymore.”

“If I’ve only ever spoken to a person online, we’re going to meet in a public place of my choice, at my time,” said Fleming.

Some online daters mistakenly believe all other users on the site are harmless people looking for love, but that’s not always the case. Safety often becomes a priority after two people have decided to meet in person, but including revealing personal information in your profile can be dangerous, too.

“I didn’t give away too much personal information about myself on my profile,” said Langis. “Once I got talking to a person and got a feel for what kind of guy he was, then I’d start releasing more personal information. It was very rare that I’d give out my cellphone number. I wouldn’t even let someone know where I worked.”

Keeping personal information out of online profiles and meeting in public places are not the only ways to stay safe. Before a date, tell a friend where you’re going and when you intend on returning home. Don’t accept a ride with the person you’re seeing; instead, get yourself there and make sure to carry cab fare or a bus pass in case you decide to duck out early.

It also never hurts to do a little investigative work prior to meeting someone in person. Googling a prospective significant other may be considered a dating faux pas, but why not make use of your resources?

“I definitely check out their background before meeting anyone,” said Langis. “I creep their Facebook to see if we have mutual friends, and if we do, I ask them questions.”

Keeping it on the down-low 

Even though Pacom calls online dating a part of our generation’s “reality,” many young people are not willing to admit they first met their significant other through the Internet.

Langis, who met her current boyfriend online, said her parents and many of her friends do not know the truth about the origin of her relationship.

“I don’t normally tell people I’m not close with because it’s not really socially accepted just yet and people are judgmental of those who use [online dating sites],” she said.

Fleming believes the stigma exists because of our elders’ attitudes toward the Internet.

“Our parents’ generation, the people who saw the Internet emerge, definitely have the idea that dating online is wrong,” she said.

Pacom explains we are currently stuck between two dating paradigms and are simply carrying a former society’s values into our beliefs today.

“We associate people who date on the Internet as being people who have no social life,” she said. “This is a huge mistake because it is a misunderstanding between the generations. There is a technophobia, but—given the speed of events today—I don’t think the stereotypes are going to last. The more we integrate this technology into our world, the less it’s going to be problematic.”

Outside influences

U of O student Padma Kapoor’s* experience with online dating differs from that of most university students. After she had little success finding a man with the same Indian background as herself the traditional way, her parents decided to take matters into their own hands.

“My parents want me to marry from within my cultural community, which is Indian,” she said. “In India, arranged marriage is the way to find a spouse. It is a very formal process where the parents hunt for a spouse by ‘advertising’ their son or daughter either on online matrimonial sites or in the Indian newspapers.”

Kapoor’s parents made her profile without her consent and controlled the content of her page as well.

Eventually, her parents found a young man they thought might be suitable for their daughter, so they encouraged her to exchange emails with him.

“My parents felt that he might be compatible for me because we were from the
same ethnic, socio-economic, and religious background,” she said. “We had enjoyable conversations before I agreed to meet him. He lived in the United States with his family and they drove up to Canada to see me.”

The meeting left much to be desired and Kapoor rejected the potential marriage proposal.

“It was awkward, to say the least,” she said. “After seeing and talking to him in person, I realized our personalities were not compatible and I said no.”

Logging off 

Johnson encourages students interested in online dating to forge onward, but hopes they will bear in mind the realities of the cyber love.

“It’s not a real relationship—it’s almost like an audition for a relationship,” she said. “But if you do it under the right circumstances and you’re careful, why not?”

*Name has been changed 

—Kristyn Filip