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Issue Date: February 2004 Issue


Net Zero or Dating Hero

How desperate must you be to look for love online? You may be surprised. So, just in time for Valentine's Day, we follow the adventures of one techie — and self-described "studly player" — who takes the plunge, dabbles in online matchmaking and discov
Dan Hanson

Dan's Top 10 Tips for finding your soulmate online

1. Do your homework. Investigate several different services before committing to one that best suits you.

2. Know thyself. Spend some time really thinking about what you are like and what you are really looking for. Would you really be happy with the bitchy supermodel or the ancient billionaire?

3. Be honest. If you want responses, you almost have to post a photo. If you are a tad over playing weight and follicle-challenged, don’t use your college-football photo. Six-foot tall may attract more matches, but do you want to stand on your toes forever? It’s better to have them pleasantly surprised when you finally meet rather than disappointed.

4. Be realistic. Don’t be frustrated if you don’t receive any replies if you limited your searches to 22-year-old brain surgeons or rock stars.

5. Be brutal in your criteria. If you hate smokers, don’t like kids, need to find a certain religion, whatever " include that right away so you don’t waste your time or theirs.

6. Don’t be a player. Don’t get excited about the two-dozen matches and try to juggle them all at once. Concentrate on a few really good prospects.

7. Take your time. Avoid the giddy bliss of the first date. Use extensive e-mail and later phone conversations to confirm your compatibility or lack thereof. This isn’t Hollywood and you aren’t Meg Ryan/Tom Hanks.

8. Be safe. Women especially. Take some precautions before meeting in person or giving too much information. Don’t use real e-mail, phone or address in your profile. Have initial meetings in public and let people know where you are and when you will be back.

9. Be smart. Unscrupulous people do use these services. Lots of married people do as well. Don’t be naive.

10. Have fun. The Internet has provided a fantastic way to meet a lot of great people with whom you share interests. Get over the stigma and take a chance.

Six-foot-4 airline pilot likes to spend his millions while traveling the world on his yacht. Sensuous 22-year-old blonde is too busy modeling swimsuits to meet her soulmate.

Yeah, right.

We’ve all heard the horror stories (or watched the Aerosmith video) of who is really on the other end of the keyboard in those Internet chat rooms and dating services. And the reality isn’t pretty.

But people are swarming to online matchmaking services faster than Britney Spears to a Vegas wedding chapel. Web ads, e-mails and now radio and TV commercials entice us to "meet our match" online. Type "online dating" in the Google search engine and almost 6 million matching Web sites appear. Nearly 22 million people have tried online dating, according to American Demographics.

Not me. As a longtime techie/geek/nerd (with the math degrees to prove it), I have used the Internet for everything from paying bills to buying cars to keeping in touch with friends worldwide. But using an online matchmaking service never entered my mind. That’s for hard-up, desperate losers " not a studly player like moi. (Hmmm, not a bad ad caption: Studly Player seeks--)

But long, crazy hours at work and fewer hours hanging at clubs or bars were starting to take their toll. So I clicked on an ad and ended up in an amazing virtual world.

My first stop was Yahoo! Personals, where the process is similar to most of the other big, established sites. While looking at an image of a happy, attractive couple (Gee, the Sirens beckon, maybe you will meet someone like her), I’m encouraged to sign up for a free, standard account. I do.

After a quickie tour, where more good-looking people divulge the basics of searching for a mate, I’m ready to start.

Fill in three items. I can do that.

I’m a Man seeking a Woman. Easy enough so far.

Age range I’m seeking. A little trickier, but, assured by the site that I can modify later, I select a broad range as a test " not quite from "barely legal" to "personally knew Abe Lincoln," but close.

Finally, distance in miles from Cleveland that I will travel: I’ll cross the river but don’t take after Lewis or Clark, so I choose 25 miles.

Then the all-important checkbox: Show photo profiles only.

Hmm…

According to Yahoo!, ads with photos are searched 70 percent more often than those without. But every person I spoke to looked only at profiles that included a photo. No photo makes you suspect that the person is hiding something " like a third eye or worse. (Not that there is anything wrong with three eyes. I don’t want letters from Tri-Visual Americans.)

I go with: Photo. I figure I better send my photo, too, so I scour my hard drive for recent images. I find two fairly recent (within six months) pictures that I can crop other people out of and send them on. One is a headshot with a broad smile showing a lot of teeth and the other is more professional (I’m actually wearing a tie!).

I reject the idea of sending a photo from my rugby days or taking a new, posed shot. I feel some immediate buyer’s remorse after uploading. Maybe I should have spent some time and found a better shot " after all, this is what thousands of women will be judging me by.

Nah. This is who I am and if they don’t like it, they don’t have to click. Harrumph!

Finally, I get to the good stuff. My screen fills with the first page of prospects. I want to scan all of the 1,000 or so profiles " a small photo, a caption and an indication of when the person was last on the service (three months, this week, today, now!) " that appear 10 per page. But it’s too overwhelming and starts to feel like work.

If you like what you see, you can click on the photo to view the complete profile or save it to a list that you can recall later. I have no idea what to do, so I save several promising profiles to contact when I figure this whole thing out.

I use the photos as my first criterion. Shallow, I know, but true. (Admit it, you’d probably do the same.) Some of the women I spoke to admit that it’s a huge ego trip when they receive dozens or more responses every day after posting their photo.

Of course, be aware that most people, unlike can’t-be-bothered me, will post the best possible photo of themselves, even if it’s from 1982. So I skip over the Dorothy Hamill and Farrah Fawcett hairdos, not to mention those in Pat Benatar outfits or First Communion dresses.

Yahoo! approves all photos and provides guidelines about content. You are able to report to Yahoo! any profiles that may have slipped some questionable stuff into their ad. So "Naughty Indian Girl Seeks Naughty Guy" made the cut (really), but much more explicit ones might not. There are other Web sites for things like that " or so I have been told.

One profile even has a photo of a woman holding a recent Plain Dealer with the "Mad Cow" headline to show it’s current. She obviously watches too many shows about kidnapping, but her ingenuity puts her on my save-for-later list.

Then I eliminate smokers, obvious tattoos or piercings, biker chicks (how many cc is your hog, dude?), Satanists and other easy choices.

While the captions can show creativity or interests, it’s difficult to tell a lot from about six words. Some are self-deprecating ("I’m too old for this!") and others more specific ("Seeking traveling partner"). Some sound desperate ("Where are all the single men hiding?") or eager ("Finally Free!"), while others unwittingly display their level of education with a plethora of spelling and grammatical errors ("Where are you at?"). A few are downright scary ("Got herpes?").

The list is still too big. To confuse the matter, you can view similar profiles to those you’ve selected. Just like buying a book on Amazon (people who like this book also liked…). So my list actually grows.

But then technology rescues me. A little star next to a few profiles indicates a perfect match with my criteria. For the others, a thermometer bar shows how closely the two of us match. Now, the results are getting more precise and my list more manageable.

I select a profile with more photos available (hey, you would, too) to reveal the full profile, which delivers answers to standard questions such as ethnicity, education, height, religion and kids.

There is also space for free-form text: the place where you get to sum up everything about yourself and what you are looking for in a few paragraphs. No pressure. Sure. Just like the photo, I should have spent some time on this, but time constraints (and laziness) caused me to churn out a few sentences. Something like "I’ve been online forever but never tried this. Wanted to give it a shot…" Yada, yada. I did, however, spellcheck it so as not to come off like Paris Hilton.

But now is not a time to fret; it’s time to act " time for an Icebreaker, a quick message to show interest. It seems relatively harmless, so, after looking at the icon for a minute before clicking, my profile is whisked off like Cupid’s arrow.

Breaking the ice is free, but you must be a paid member to send e-mails. Yahoo! membership costs $19.95 per month, $42.95 for three months or $89.95 for a year. Browse all you want and send Icebreakers, but nothing else. I’ll admit that it’s cool to find a bunch of Icebreakers in your box. Not wanting to make a career of this, I only send a couple and respond to a few more. But I don’t delete the others " you never know.

Memberships can be pricey, but people are buying. U.S. consumers spent $214 million on online personals and dating Web sites through the first half of 2003 " more than any other online-content category, according to The Online Publishers Association.

HappilyEverAfter.com

Tim Moran was cruising the Internet when an annoying pop-up ad appeared on his screen. Something about meeting new people online. Curious, he clicked on the ad and was taken to Match.com. Like many of us, Moran thought, I’m not pathetic enough to have to meet someone online. But his curiosity got the better of him.

The St. Ignatius graduate had recently returned to Cleveland and thought that, at worst, he might meet some new people. On nights out with his buddies, the now 35-year-old might meet a few women, but the online match services offered more opportunity.

"It’s like shopping on the Internet," he confesses. "You can essentially meet 200 people in a night."

Moran, Cleveland’s future Tech Czar, entered some strict criteria (graduate degree, age range, et cetera) and up popped a photo and profile of Dr. Rocio Tarvin. He was smitten. So he paid the fee to start a conversation.

Meanwhile, Tarvin, a busy physician at Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital who didn’t like the bar scene, was encouraged by her sister to try online dating as a way to get out of the house and meet people. Tarvin admits it was an ego boost when 50 e-mails arrived in her in-box daily after posting her photo and profile on Match.com. The photo was so striking that Moran first suspected it was a plant " a stock model shot posted by Match.com to encourage men to sign up.

With all those responses, Tarvin, 30, deleted any messages that did not include a photo " including a few from Moran. After he finally posted a photo, she found that he met her strict criteria and she e-mailed him. They began e-mailing frequently, but Tarvin had been seeing a man she met at a New Year’s party. She told Moran that she would only date one person at a time, so she couldn’t go out with him.

But soon, the e-mails and evening phone calls with Moran won out and they set up their first face-to-face meeting at a wine bar. After dating for 11 months, Tim and Rocio were married last July.

Moran, a relative newbie to the online scene, had met and dated only one other woman through the e-services before meeting his future wife. Tarvin, on the other hand, had "a great time with it" and would still be doing it if she hadn’t met Moran.

She mentions the common stigma of desperation that people associate with the services, but recommends online services as an alternative way to meet people, especially for very busy individuals. In fact, one of her friends also met her fiance via Match.com.

Tarvin does caution people, especially women, to be careful. Communicating with and eventually meeting someone you only know from the Internet can be dangerous. She recommends e-mailing the person for a long time beforehand. Then, she would be the one to call, so she wouldn’t have to give her number (though caller ID can trump that precaution). If they met, she made sure it was in a public place and that friends knew where and when she would be out.

She’s heard horror stories of married men cruising the ads, but her experiences were mainly positive. Many of the men wanted to latch on too quickly, suggesting marriage after a couple weeks. "It’s not a desperate mentality," she says, "but they are very serious about meeting someone."

For the adventurous " or Pete Rose " there’s a "Try a Lucky Spin" feature that randomly selects a profile matching your criteria. One of my Yahoo! matches said that’s how she found me. I spin a few times and look at the pictures but don’t get "lucky."

Before actually meeting any matches, I run it by some friends. The guys’ responses are predictable: "You are so hard up." "Limit the age to 22." "Try for twins."

But the women are far more cautious. Even though I am 6-foot-2 with a basement full of weights, they advise me to make sure we meet in a public place.

They also suggest that I limit the first encounter to 30 minutes so I can escape easily without incurring the wrath of the she-devil who may be sitting across the table from me. Several volunteer to call me during the scheduled date in case I need a rescue or to even sit at adjoining tables. One suggests that if I give a sign, she’ll rush into the coffeehouse pushing a baby in a stroller and "confront" me. "How could you desert us?" she’ll whimper, and I will be saved.

I heed some advice (public place, 30-minute time period), but figure I can escape if necessary unless Xena the Warrior Princess is meeting me for coffee.

I’ve just loaded an old air conditioner in my trunk and am covered in grease. I change shirts in the car as I pull into the parking lot. A Yahoo! survey reports that nearly 51 percent of men spend an hour or more primping for a date. My total primping time: about 20 seconds.

As I enter Arabica, I make a quick scan. I am on time, maybe a few minutes late thanks to that air conditioner, but don’t see any familiar solo females at the tables. So I get in line for my coffee and finish tucking in my shirt " or most of it, as I later realize.

Holding a full-to-the-brim scalding beverage, I concentrate on it more than looking for my match as I head for the cream. Without another backup shirt in the car, spilling isn’t an option.

There she is, by the cream. Cindy (names have been changed, because I’m not that stupid) recognizes me and says "Hi." I respond awkwardly " still worried about spilling. I’m not sure whether to shake hands, hug or pat her on the head, so I think I manage a combination of all three.

I am still concerned about spilling as we walk to a table, but less concerned about my shirt than looking like a dork. I’m pleasantly surprised: Cindy is prettier than her pictures and a smart, fun girl. After a few generalities ("Sure is warm for January"), we talk about the online matchmaking process. Damn, I’m smooth.

Cindy, who is relatively new to Cleveland, used Yahoo! Personals to meet several friends and some dates because of her busy work and life situation. Those of us who can remember the Bicentennial (the country’s, not Cleveland’s) don’t seem to hit the bars and clubs like we used to. So it made sense for her to be able to pick from a broad range of guys with shared interests.

She is amused by my friends’ warnings and offers for rescue. Cindy has never had a bad experience in her meet-ups, though she agrees that meeting in a public place makes sense, especially for women, if not for 6-foot-2 weightlifters.

When her cell phone rings, I jokingly ask if it’s her rescue call. She claims it isn’t, but I would not blame her if it was.

I am strategically placed so I can see the clock on the wall (OK, it was an accident, but worked in my favor) and am surprised when I look up and almost an hour has passed. We’ve given the CliffsNotes version of our lives: work, family, interests.

We parked in the same parking lot and, after an exchange of contact information, head for the cars. It turns out she saw me pull in, but I, being preoccupied with changing shirts, never saw her or even another car. (Note to self: Park the car before changing clothes.)

I didn’t need to call in my personal cavalry for rescue, so I grade it a successful match and worth pursuing.

With about 2 million members worldwide and 250,000 new members each week, Date.com should have someone for me, right?

With a search process similar to Yahoo!, Date.com boasts that it was created by "relationship experts, psychologists and communications professionals" and offers relationship advice, dating ideas and trips and events.

Date.com focuses more on chat rooms, though I don’t venture into any. I just know the hot babe would turn out to be some weirdo guy covered in Cheetos dust. I suspect these chat rooms are full of married people anyway.

I select a match who contacted me (I haven’t had time to contact any of them " you should really stick to one service) and set up a meeting. I stick with the coffee-shop format and leave the house with a clean shirt and no messy chores along the way. I am learning " but not as lucky.

Sheila (also not her name) didn’t even resemble her posted photo or age. Instant turnoff. Not because of the looks or age " I would have selected her anyway with a realistic photo and age " but because of the dishonesty.

It’s like having the tune to "Mickey" ("Oh Mickey you’re so fine, you’re so fine you blow my mind" " sorry) running through my head. Whatever she says, a constant voice tells me she has scammed me already.

Then again, maybe I was spoiled by the first encounter, so Sheila never had a chance.

I offer a less enthusiastic version of the CliffsNotes tale and suddenly realize I’m running late for the office. No shrimp on the barbie for you. G’day, Sheila. (Of course, if she really had an Aussie accent, I would still be there.)

Instead, I’m back at it. This time at increasingly popular Match.com, which offers one-way searching for dates and friends (view people who meet your criteria) or two-way, dating-only matching (view only those who meet your criteria and you theirs).

Anyone can take the personality-profile test (Choose one: Usually I am bold or funny) and members can have their results used in the matching process. But this seems like a lot of hassle to me. Let’s get to the photos.

"Quizlets" allow you to take quick tests to discover if you are a Party Animal, Manly Man, Truly Happy or dozens of other labels. I try a few, but they seem like fluff " the kind of tests you’d find in a magazine. (But not this one, of course.)

Instead of Icebreakers, they have "winks," which even nonpaying members can send. I was getting a bunch of these. One was from Minnesota, who said "great smile." I’ll go to the West Side, but not that far west.

You can even view the matches as a photo gallery, all pictures, for faster scanning for shallow people like me. By now, I’m getting inundated with Icebreakers, winks and e-mails from all the services, so it’s difficult to spend too much time on these beyond looking at the photos and occasionally clicking to see more.

But I am intrigued by the match that says, "I’m looking for someone whose last name isn’t MANSON, BUNDY or DAHMER. If your last name is JACKSON you’re in the wrong gender and wrong age group, everyone else is free game. He must have high aspirations of at least being a Wal-Mart greeter or head fryer at McDonald’s. Must be able to keep the conversation flowing and have a sense of humor as warped as mine."

And I’d follow through, if not for the arduous time spent on eHarmony. Like a protective father making sure that you don’t get near his little girl, eHarmony uses an extensive personality test and step-by-step matching process that is based "on the 29 key dimensions that determine who is truly compatible with you."

To be honest, I didn’t know I even had that many dimensions, let alone key ones.

And while eHarmony is all the rage, boasting a lot of success stories, the process and extra financial commitment is significant ($49.95 per month, $99.95 for three months and $249.95 for a year). And no photos until both people have completed the five stages of tests. It feels like work or school: With dedication, perseverance and extra effort, good things will come. But the next day just brings more work. Sigh.

Still, I’ve been looking for matches online for a few weeks. And the results have been promising. I am surprised not only at the quality of matches but also by the number of friends who, after hearing about my search, mention that they met their significant other this way. Plus, I’ve got an in-box full of interested and interesting females, a few developing friendships and the promise of Ms. Perfect from the arduous eHarmony process.

It looks like I may need to buy some more shirts.


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