This article was first published in November 2008

You’re a single professional, with your college years behind you. You work full-time, often overtime; you enjoy the thrill of making (and spending) your own money. With the stress of academic work behind you, and the benefit of a steady paycheck, you’re all set to dive into the dating scene. But how do you meet potential dates?47

The people you interact with most are your coworkers, but office dating is far from ideal. A bad date will lead to workplace awkwardness, at the very least.

The club scene seems abysmal. More often than not, obnoxiously loud music drones out attempted conversations, and social drinking lends itself to casual hook-ups, rather than substantial first dates.

It would be convenient to date friends of friends, but it’s not always that easy to be introduced to them. You go out with a group of couples and end up stuck on your own as they engage in domestic spats. You rarely get a chance to meet their extended network of single friends.

You’re smart, attractive, interested, and proactive. But it’s just not that easy to land a date.

Who and Where is Your Ideal Date?

Most young adults’ conceptions of an ideal date, or a long-term mate, evolve throughout college, graduate or professional school, and experiences in the workplace. It is difficult to generalize about those evolving conceptions, but I can speak to my own college experience.

For my friends and me, college was a time of new-found freedom: an open playing field for mixing and matching and plentiful dating possibilities. We wanted to date all types of guys—even those who defied the qualities that Indian culture had taught us to value in a potential mate (hard-working, stable, goal-oriented, pragmatic, moralistic). Many of us were charmed by young men who seemed to come from radically differently backgrounds than our own.

Yet we quickly realized that many of these young men were far more comfortable living unstructured, “radical” lifestyles than we could ever be. With each successive year, we had to sheepishly admit that, like our parents, we had come to value traits like stability and ambition in even prospective dates. We conceived a new romantic ideal:

WANTED: Unique partner, but not so out there that parents and friends wouldn’t approve. Idealistic, but not so much of a dreamer that employment isn’t a priority. Liberal, but not so liberal as to suggest something like a polyamorous relationship.

We wanted dates who could balance their passions with practicality. Those of us who didn’t find someone who fit this mold during college were faced with the daunting challenge of finding someone in the “real world.” The workplace, bars, clubs, friend’s living rooms … and, of course, the world wide web.

There Are Other Fish … Online

Web communication technologies were first introduced to the public in the early 1990s. Dialogue-based cyberspaces such as message boards, online forums, and email flourished; AOL chat rooms and instant messaging revolutionized real time online correspondence. Dating websites gained popularity in the late 1990s, and they assumed the role of virtual matching agents, as opposed to outlets like chat rooms through which courtship might take place. Today, dating websites comprise a sizeable industry. U.S. residents reportedly spent $469.5 million on online dating and personals in 2004 and over $500 million in 2005.

Dating websites are far safer and better managed than ’90s-era chat rooms. After all, users instill tremendous trust in the sites, assuming that a potential date, a complete stranger, won’t threaten their safely upon meeting for a first date. While chat rooms once capitalized on the desire for anonymity, dating websites do just the opposite by putting the emphasis on authenticity. Dating websites choose whether to accept or reject potential users based on the preliminary information provided. In doing so, a safer online community is supposedly created.

But where do these sites draw the line? How do they control the bounds of their virtual communities? Online dating forums suggest that Match.com rejects applicants who write about any history of depression or admit to taking antidepressants. eHarmony.com, which was founded on a Christian evangelic platform and is frequently criticized for not accepting gay users, has been categorized as the most marriage-oriented dating website in the U.S. due to its selective applicant process that requires a lengthy questionnaire and personal essays. Dating websites’ profile questions hone in on an individual’s personality, interests, and expectations of potential dates. These details are intended to construct a holistic snapshot of each user.

One of the biggest selling points for dating websites today is that they fit right into the social networking online community craze. You’re already on Facebook, MySpace, and LinkedIn. Why not try Match.com? Online savvy teens and adults are already accustomed to carefully constructing our online identities. Dating websites are much the same. In fact, these days, the division between dating websites and social networking websites has become blurred. Match.com recently introduced “Little Black Book,” a Facebook application that generates potential matches based off four questions you answer about yourself. Users must purchase a “key” to unlock communication.

Testing the Virtual Waters

How did I justify my own foray into the online dating fray? Research for an article, of course, though I admit I was looking forward to meeting a more diverse population of potential dates than I’d found in college. A dating website, I speculated, would make it easy to “assess” the singles’ market because all I’d have to do was skim through profiles—a skill I’d perfected after endless hours on Facebook.

I decided to check out Match.com. Here’s how it works: Match.com allows individuals to scour their online dating community for free, enabling potential users to familiarize themselves with members before having to fork over a one-month (or three-six month) payment. Why make all this information available for free? Match.com is banking on the probability that you will come across some appealing profile during your free search. With 15 million searchable profiles, it seems statistically impossible that a casual browser won’t be intrigued at least once.

Many first time users approach the dating website with low expectations. A common assumption is that those who proclaim their single status online are less accomplished, less attractive, and less sought after than those who refrain from advertising their interest. But when people conduct free searches on sites like Match.com, they quickly realize, as I did, that the majority of individuals on popular dating websites are quite accomplished. In fact, it’s the forward-thinking, ambitious young professionals who tend to join dating websites, perhaps because busy work schedules prevent them from meeting new people. Furthermore, the direct, proactive methodology of dating websites resonates with focused, goal-oriented young adults.

Match.com seals the deal when a nonpaying visitor sets her eyes on the profile that seemingly matches her conception of an ideal mate, someone whose background, religion, interests, and personality are exactly what she is looking for. At that moment, the soon-to-be-user fantastically envisions her own romantic comedy: two destined souls brought together by the fateful click of a mouse. Fueled by the incredulous belief that this perfect person online might just be the soul mate, nonpaying browsers immediately pay that one month fee, which allows access to email and correspondence with other users.

After all, what is $30 bucks when true love could be at stake? That very rationale reeled me into Match.com.
When conducting my first free search, I narrowed it down to profiles listed within five minutes of my Chicago address. I figured scoping my area seemed a logical and convenient first step. I had only reached the second page of results when a profile caught my eye: an attractive, Indian, young professional in his mid-20s. The profile was eloquently worded, revealing a smart and serious young man. He worked in consulting; his interests were wide-ranging. I was hoping to meet someone passionate and practical, and he fit that criteria right off the bat.

Just two minutes on Match.com and maybe I had already found my match! Flabbergasted by the promising results of my first search, I impulsively signed up for a one-month subscription. Then I had to create a profile, quickly, too, because there loomed the possibility that I wouldn’t be able to find his profile later on if I waited. Even worse, somebody else could grab his attention in the meantime! I set to work on my profile, describing myself as serious about my endeavors, yet creative in my interests. While most users provide lengthy descriptions of who they’d like to date, I chose instead to provide almost no criteria, simply stating that I was captivated by individuals who are genuinely passionate about something. I added pictures, sent my profile for approval, and started looking for my match.

To indicate you like someone’s profile, a user can either utilize the internal e-mail system or, “wink,” for a quicker attention grabber. I mostly skipped the “winking” stage, which seemed like a bizarre form of online flirting, Palin-esque in retrospect, devoid of substance. I cut to the chase, emailing the young professional with a short message about our common interests. He replied promptly, and we decided to meet up for drinks later on that week.

Let’s call him Date 1. Upon first meeting, he looked different from his photo, not necessarily less attractive, just different. Maybe I looked different, too. A survey referenced in “Managing Impressions Online: Self-Presentation Process in the Online Dating,” found 86 percent of users on one online dating site felt that others had misrepresented their physical appearances.

Date 1 was a bit reserved, aloof. We had a typical first date conversation: work, family background, interests, not much beyond the cordial chatter one would have with a passenger seated next to you on a plane. The only thing we really connected over was the coincidence that I was acquainted with the close friend he was going to meet up with later that night. So much for six degrees of separation.

We went our own ways after drinks, knowing there hadn’t been any instant spark, making no false promises to meet up again. I felt dejected, largely because I was quickly relearning how draining dating can be. Every date requires that you go through a ritualistic process: the pre-date correspondence, the agony over what outfit to wear, the habitual reciting of biographical information, and the post-date recap analysis with all your friends.

After just one date, I was willing to throw in the towel. I had started a grueling new job, and keeping up with the daily Match.com “winks” and messages felt like a chore. In a 2003 New York Times article, “Just Say No to the Dating Industry,” Barbara Whithead, co-director of the National Marriage Project, likened the trajectory of trying online dating to that of trying out a fad diet. Whithead explained, “You go through a period of being very high in the initial experience, then it doesn’t quite pan out, there’s a low, it leads to discouragement, you think, ‘Why am I doing this, I can be happy without it.’”

Though the excitement wore off quickly, I stayed the course in the name of research. During my one month on Match.com, my profile was viewed 841 times and I went on a total of three dates.

Date 2 was an exhaustingly well-read, Indian law student who talked so extensively about his views on politics and environmental policy that our date lasted five hours. Though I was attracted to his intellect and strong political engagement, it was all too much for me. Did I really need to know the name of every book and article he’d read about wind energy? This wasn’t a job interview.

Date 3 worked in the financial sector, and was conversational, pleasant, and easy to get along with. If I had been looking for a relationship, perhaps I would have been more receptive to his post-date pursuits. But, at the time, my job had taken over my life and a relationship didn’t seem like a priority. As with Date 1, Date 3 and I found a point of connection: he shared the same, very unusual last name that many of my relatives have. Once we started talking, we discovered that his father and my mother were from the same town in India. I was somewhat alarmed: had I unknowingly gone on a date with a fourth or fifth cousin?

Commonality vs. Chemistry

Dating websites like Match.com use an individualized algorithm to suggest potential “matches”—individuals you are likely to be compatible with due to commonalities detected in both your profiles. The logic is that individuals who share more in common are more compatible and have greater relationship potential. Thus, commonality becomes the glue of potential romantic relationships, not chemistry.

The idea that commonality is the key to monogamous romantic relationships clearly isn’t anything new. Millions of people approach friendships and relationships this way, and arranged marriages have been conducted on this basis for centuries. But what about that old adage, opposites attract? What about chemistry? Chemistry.com thinks they’ve found the answer to that question, but I have my doubts about their algorithm as well, with its use of “doodles” and questions like, “How messy is your desk?”

Regardless of the specifics of the questions, online dating requires systematic identity construction. Users must continually devise creative ways to make their online personas intriguing. It’s all about your profile. For those who struggle with selling themselves, there are numerous websites which offer assistance and, in some cases, will even write your profile for you. Online profiles present an opportunity to showcase our best possible selves; we put up our most flattering photographs, advertise our most refined tastes. We highlight our most impressive accomplishments—though, wanting to appear modest, we find some less obvious way to do so.

Nowhere on my profile did I mention my quirks and tics, or my forgetful (ahem, endearing) tendencies. And neither did any of the guys I dated. We built our expectations of one another off those perfectly constructed profiles, and when it came time to meet in person, our real selves didn’t quite match our profile personas. Date 2’s profile had said “British born,” presumably because he knows that American girls are attracted to foreign guys with cute accents. There was no trace of a British accent when I met him, and yes, I was slightly disappointed.

In a 2007 article from Slate.com, Columbia Business School Professor Ray Fishman discusses a speed dating experiment he conducted with two psychologists and another economist. Speed dating is like online dating, only expedited. You must sell yourself in a few minutes, in person, rather than through an online profile. Deduced from data on thousands of decisions made by more than 400 daters from Columbia University’s various graduate and professional schools, Fishman found that men respond more to physical attractiveness and prefer women whose intelligence and ambition don’t exceed their own.

Rishman and his colleagues also determined that women of all races exhibit a strong preference for men of their own race. I can speak to this. Despite the fact that my three dates were Indian, I sincerely didn’t set out to date within my ethnic group. On the contrary, I’ve always considered myself very open-minded and progressive. I have many non-Indian friends, and I approached the online dating experiment with the intention of dating men of varying backgrounds. But a disproportionally large number of Indians on Match.com “winked” at or emailed me, leading me to assume most of them were conducting searches using the ethnicity filter to show profiles of only Indian girls.

Frankly, it was easier to go on dates with Indian guys. Going on a date with someone you’ve never met before is a slightly risky move, and I felt less inclined to believe that an Indian guy from Match.com would threaten my safety. I also like to tell various culture-specific, family oriented anecdotes to entertain and amuse new acquaintances. These humorous tales are prime conversation material for successful first dates: they entertain, pass time, and emphasize my family’s atypical liberalness. And they make most sense to other Indians.

Key Take-Aways

So would I try online dating it again? Maybe one day, but I’m wary of how much time and energy it demands of active users.

Additionally, reactivating my Match.com account would be a hassle. See, many dating websites make it nearly impossible for subscribers to remove their profiles from the community of profiles. You can cancel the subscription payment, but on the surface, the only option to remove your profile is to make it “invisible.” People can’t see your profile, but Match.com still wins: even though you didn’t find love, your profile exists on their site and is therefore counted as one of the “15 million profiles” the company claims to have. From my experience, you have to go through some pretty complicated customer service inquiry to actually remove yourself.

Regardless, I acknowledge that online dating gave me the opportunity to meet three impressive men who I probably wouldn’t have met otherwise, and I gained a greater understanding of online dating etiquette, dating beyond college, and the non-student budget.

Here are my three key take-aways from online dating:

1. Dating is expensive for men (in the heterosexual context).

Even though most women insist on splitting the bill, all the men I met from Match.com insisted on paying. When you factor in drinks, an appetizer, main dishes, and perhaps dessert, men usually spend a minimum of $50 on a first date. So if a man goes on three date like I did, he’s probably down 200 dollars, in addition to time spent, and there’s no guarantee that those dates will lead to anything more substantial.

2. People use dating websites as a source of self-affirmation during break-ups.

Many people actually admit in their profiles that their motive for joining a dating website is to get over a bad break-up. When separated from a cherished ex-significant other, individuals rebound by masking their tarnished hearts in a supposed desire to reenter the singles’ dating pool. If attractive, this individual probably strikes gold online, receiving a flurry of “winks” and emails from hopeful prospective dates. As one of my former coworkers proclaimed—after breaking things off with her unmotivated boyfriend, signing up for Match.com, and receiving the attention online that he wasn’t giving he in her in person—“I’m hot, and now I know it.” This scenario often lends itself to disappoint for the users that they date; more frequently than not, newly single individuals rekindle their romance, either in a casual or serious manner, with their exes.

3. The “embarrassment” factor is an issue.

Match.com went conspicuously unmentioned on all three dates, leading me to believe that users of dating websites are still, even today, embarrassed about having resorted to online dating. Each date functions like a blind date, except that you know tidbits of information about the other person. And, unlike with blind dates, this gives individuals the chance to go into a date—which, in some cases, can feel like an interview—prepared. One of my dates actually looked up my “last read,” The Emperor’s Children, and surprised me by reciting an analysis of the novel at dinner. I found out later that he had just read the synopsis online.

Still Single?

My hair was short this summer when I embarked on my three dates. I mention this because one date actually asked if I preferred long hair or short hair, which is a pretty strange first date question. But as soon as he inquired, I recalled that one of his listed “turn-ons” was long hair. It was clear to me that he was trying to gauge the likelihood that my hair would grow to his length of preference.

Only then did I realize how problematic some of our dating criteria can actually be. Just as I hoped to meet someone who could fulfill my ideal “Wanted Ad,” my date was hoping I could embody the physical appearance of his “ideal” potential mate.

The biggest mistake many of us make during dating is to hold the individuals we date to unrealistic, idealized standards. And often, the ways we describe one another—techy, artsy, brainy, mavericky—are simplistic constructions that do not reflect that we have learned who people really are. The same is true when we use those kinds of descriptions as “shorthand” to describe ourselves.

Like most things in life, dating success appears to be one of those “right moment, right time” type of things. By a stroke of good luck, a random mouse click, a brush against someone‘s elbow, you could potentially meet a really intriguing partner.

But these “serendipitous” moments are out of our control. What is in our hands is how we react to them when they do occur. The challenge lies in whether or not we embrace opportunities to meet and date new people who might not fit our ideals, but whose individual eccentricities, if we take the time to discover them, might compliment us in ways we never realized possible.

Open-mindedness doesn’t mean that you should let go of criteria that truly matter to you in a date, but it will increase your chances of finding someone who might surprise and exceed your expectations.

There will always be a trade-off with those individuals you choose to date. Person 1 will have qualities that person 2 won’t have, yet person 2 has qualities person 1 lacks. Inevitably, it’s about which qualities compliment your personal growth, both individually and within the relationship. The best approach is to go with your gut. If you’re just not into a date, don’t try to force it. Rather, enjoy the fact that you’ve at least met someone new, and be okay with the notion that not every date will evolve into something long-term.

My mom always tells me that I’m lucky to have the opportunity to learn and grow from dating during my early 20s. She only ever dated my father, to whom she’s still happily married to 30 years later, but she, like many of her generation, didn’t get the privilege of “just dating” like we do now.

Dating is a privilege, a chance to meet new people, share facets of yourself, and imagine different possible partnerships. Online or offline, I’m game.


Online Dating by the Numbers

20 million people visit at least one online dating service a month. (Online Dating Magazine, 2007)

31 percent of adults in America say they know someone who has used an online dating service. (Pew Internet & American Life Project Report, 2006)

120,000 marriages a year occur as a result of online dating. (Online Dating Magazine, 2007)

18-34 year olds comprise almost half of all online daters, making them 59 percent more likely than the population as a whole to participate in online dating. (MRI Data)

24.2 percent of online daters are between the ages of 35-44. (MRI Data)

40 percent, or roughly 36.2 million, of the 97 million Americans who are 45 or older are single. (U.S. Census Bureau)

$239 per year is spent on average by those paying for online dating services. (Jupiter Research)

$650 million were generated by the online dating industry in 2006. (Juniper Research)

51 percent of American men spend over $100 monthly on dates, and 29 percent spend over $150. (Survey conducted by It’s Just Lunch, 2006)

16,000 first dates are set up by Chemistry.com each week. (Chemistry.com)

15 million users are on Match.com. (Match.com)

20 million people have created profiles on eHarmony since 2006. (eHarmony.com)


Rupa Dev is a recent graduate of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. She currently resides in the Bay Area.
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