All About Online Dating

from the December 2002 Newsletter
by Rob Zorn

I confess I haven't had a great deal of experience with the online dating game, but a return to singleness a while ago got me thinking about it. A perusal of a few of New Zealand's online dating sites revealed what was to become a fascinating study of human nature and behaviour and it would be good to share a little of what I've learned.

datingcouple.jpg (9488 bytes)A few points to make before we get underway:

Firstly, in my opinion, surfing the Internet is much like walking the streets of New York. It can be a dangerous place, but there is no real cause for fear or alarm as long as one uses common sense, keeps one's valuables secure, and avoids the seedier areas of town. The same applies to online dating. Some of what I write below may seem alarming or at least disquieting, but that would be a false impression overall.

Secondly I'd like to counter the common perception that looking for a partner online is somehow strange, abnormal or perverted. In the minds of those who know little about the Internet, there is often confusion and an inability to separate the horror stories one hears from reality. Or there is the perception that online daters are the same as online sex chatroom participants. This is very untrue. As you would expect from any unmonitored large-scale human activity, the Internet abounds with sexual content ranging from the safe and normal to the exceedingly twisted and bizarre, but the one does not necessarily imply or involve the other.

Nor are online daters generally socially inept, unattractive losers. These days life is fast-paced and busy and it is not always easy to meet new people. In a day and age when we share our lives with friends and family over the net, we conduct business online, and when buzzphrases like "global village" abound, what on earth can be wrong with meeting new friends online who may eventually turn into something more?

[Online dating] truly is a modern woman's tool as we really are busier than our foremothers. I work full time, bring up a family and have a huge section to keep control of, as well as "trying" to train for next week's Taupo Cycle Challenge. Finding a man would pale in comparison but the Internet has made it fun. It's kind of like leafing through a magazine only you meet the nicest people.

It just makes me sad that more and more people use it as an easy sex contact list. Its kind of changed the sexual morality of society, but if you read the messageboards, more and more women are lamenting the old fashioned values of yore.
- Howjagofaster

I opened a couple of accounts on a few of New Zealand's online dating sites and asked for people to contact me with their stories, and to answer some of my questions, and to provide any advice they might have for anyone contemplating online dating. A friend opened one from a woman's perspective and shared with me some of the results encountered. I received a lot of helpful comment and advice from people who consistently appeared sensible, thoughtful and, though one or two had made the odd mistake, intelligent. In particular I'd like to thank Emerald Green, TJ, Goldone, Howjagofaster, Sweety72 and Lunars for their candid and helpful input.

In particular my concerns were threefold. How do you place an effective profile of yourself that will get noticed by the sorts of people that would suit you? How do you protect yourself from the undesirables? How successful is online dating? I'll deal with each of these below.

Writing an Effective Self-Profile

So much can be said here. The important thing is to be honest about yourself, and to come up with something that really reflects a little bit about who you are. The first thing I would recommend you do is peruse the competition. Do a search for someone of your own sex and approximate age and have a look at what your potential rivals have written about themselves. This will give you some ideas (there's nothing wrong with a little borrowing) and will also give you the opportunity to try and think of something different. There is no right or wrong way to do it - it all depends on who you are and who you're looking for.

Most agree that a little humour is good for the mix (people of both sexes seem to be attracted to that). Take the time to write your profile well. Get someone you trust to help you if need be. Poorly constructed or incomplete sentences, bad spelling and grammar, etc, generally give a poor impression, and suggest that you're not really giving the whole matter a great deal of time or thought. If you're serious, take the time to make the best first impression you can.

Should you include a picture? Most sites will encourage you to do this, promising a higher hit rate for your profile if you do. My advice is still that you don't, at least not in your profile itself. If you must include a photo (or you really really want to because the site tells you that some people only browse profiles with photos) then include one of something else (your pet, or your teddy bear or whatever). It may even be a better attention grabber. The sites will usually allow you to send your picture to people you've contacted and are more sure about, at a later stage, but initially, for your own security and to prevent your friends or workmates finding you and having a field-day, I still suggest you refrain.

nzdating.jpg (3102 bytes)Dating sites will not insist that you publicise your real name or any of your personal details. Choose a screen-name that you think might suit you, or that best describes the sort of person you are. You don't need to worry about anyone finding out your e-mail address or your real name, unless you are silly enough to give that information out too early. Dating sites have their own internal messaging system that uses encryption and security features. Your own e-mail address doesn't come into it at all as messages to your contacts go through their servers and are readable by the intended recipient only.

findsomeone.jpg (4866 bytes)Don't limit yourself to one site. There are a number of free online dating sites in New Zealand, and some international ones that have sections for various countries, including New Zealand. A search on the word dating at www.searchnz.co.nz will bring up many results. www.nzdating.com is completely free, though you can take out a gold membership for $19.95 (three months) that gives you increased functionality. www.findsomeone.co.nz offers a free trial membership (though you can only receive contacts, you can't initiate them). They don't seem to want to tell you what full membership costs until you apply for it, so I can't tell you more on that score. www.matefinder.co.nz also gives a free trial membership, and goes to greater lengths to ascertain your profile and match you with others who are similar. Full membership charges range from $30 per month to $90 for six months.

matefinder.jpg (3080 bytes)Which type of site is better is a bit of a lottery too. Generally, you can expect to find more serious people on sites where you have to pay. On the other hand, free sites are likely to have more profiles on the books. Why not try one of each for a month and then make your own decision about what suits you best?

The Snakes in the Grass

The truth of the matter is, when you make a contact through a dating site, you have absolutely no idea who that person is, or what their real intentions are. Most obnoxious contacts will make themselves clear pretty quickly and dating sites always provide a means of blocking contact from anyone you don't feel comfortable about. Like most bullies or attention seekers, too, these people will go away if you ignore them.

ballerinakiss.jpg (5254 bytes)As soon as someone contacts you, you should look at their profile. That will usually tell you whether they are worth replying to. If they look genuine, but you're not interested, a polite "thanks but no thanks" return message is the courteous thing to do. Most contacts will respect that and not bother you again. Don't play games with people or continue contact with anyone you aren't interested in. Some insecure contacts may feel the need to become troublesome if you've written a few times and then decide you don't want to have contact with them. Don't lead anybody on unless you are serious. Sweety72 writes, "Always play it safe, and never be ambiguous. If someone gets the wrong idea, make sure you're not the one who has caused the problem."

Those who wrote to me with feedback for this article all indicated that they had become pretty good at screening out the weirdos and undesirables. "My screening technique is partly intuition and lots of conversation," writes Howjagofaster. Goldone agrees: "I ask a lot of questions and try to catch them out to get a feeling for how truthful they are, that sort of thing." Now while all this may sound unnecessarily "cloak and dagger," it needs to be remembered that the overwhelming majority of people who use these services are genuine, normal people. They might not all be quite your cup-of-tea, but they mean no harm. Howjagofaster: "Important, really, to take everyone as a good person until they prove otherwise."

I received an interesting reply from Lunars, a representative from the homosexual community who use online dating sites. Unfortunately "gay-baiting" remains a fun pastime for some, so, almost by default, a gay network has arisen through which they can warn each other about dangerous or insincere contacts. I wonder whether a similar function could exist, particularly for women, whereby they can see feedback from others about a particular contact who has made a nuisance of himself (similar to Ebay's feedback forum, perhaps). Even if the sites themselves didn't develop the facility, there would be nothing wrong with you contacting someone with a profile similar to your own, and checking with them about a particular contact you are wondering about. Perhaps they have an experience to share.

Some among my correspondents said that they invited prospective contacts to correspond with them via Microsoft Messenger or ICQ as soon as they felt safe with the person. This allows them to correspond more freely and spontaneously, and thus get an even better feel for the new contact. There may be some merit to that, and it would certainly speed your ability to get to know someone. However, it comes with the usual dangers. Just be sure that your personal details (surname, e-mail address etc) are not accessible to them through your communications program settings.

Generally speaking women will get many more responses to their ads than men. This was certainly confirmed by the ad we took out from a woman's perspective. Of the 15 contacts received the first day, 13 seemed genuine and two were sexual invitations. Admittedly, these two were from people who clearly advertised that they wanted a sex relationship only, but it was still annoying that they would respond that way to our ad, which avoided any mention of sex whatsoever. Ads from males rarely if ever receive these sorts of replies, so ladies, it looks like this is something you may just have to put up with. The overtures were not overtly graphic (though no doubt they would become so if encouraged) and they did not persist when we ignored them.

The other 13 were all straightforward apparently genuine replies. Many were appallingly written and made a terrible impression, but were not deemed questionable in any way. A few were from educated, successful and articulate people. Some included photos, and some did not. It certainly looked to me like, if you're a woman looking for love online, you're going to have plenty of choice. Unfortunately, men, there's a lot of competition out there, and you're going to have to come up with something really different in order to get noticed. Men, too, have to remember that, regardless of our progressive age, traditional attitudes linger. A lot of women still prefer not to make the first contact.

That First Meeting?

Okay, so you get to the stage where you feel it might be nice to meet this new person. Without a doubt you should choose somewhere neutral, such as a cafe or bar. One of my correspondents had a frightening encounter when a lapse of judgement led to her inviting someone to her home, but when he didn't like how things turned out, he refused to leave. Eventually a restraining order became necessary. This sort of thing really needs to be avoided, and can be easily enough. My suggestion would be that the first few meetings are conducted somewhere public. There's plenty of time to let things develop, and now is not the time to be rushing. Don't change your plans and agree to go anywhere else once you've met. Both TJ and Emerald Green say that they always tell someone else that they are meeting someone new, where when, and all the details "in case something dodgy happens." After a couple of safe, neutral meetings, you probably know this person as well as any other new acquaintance, or friend of a friend, so you should feel safer relying on your own intuition. Take it from there at your own pace. With common sense this all should go smoothly enough. Trust your gut. If there is any doubt, play it safe. Don't persist with anyone that makes you uncomfortable, even if you're not sure why.

More Online Dating Advice
Abe's Online Dating Advice
MSN Love Experts
AskMen.com
Match.Com Safety Tips

Be ready for disappointment; either on your side or on theirs. A couple of correspondents mentioned that they had learned lessons through counting chickens too early. TJ wrote about a number of times when she had been getting on well with someone and then they sent their photo through. "It's the type of photo that makes you go 'argh.' Suddenly the phrase `computer geek' springs to mind." Heh heh. Sweety72 writes, "Sometimes you can find yourself getting on really well online and you get your hopes up that something might come of it, but when you finally meet you find it was all just a figment of your imagination."

Does Online Dating Work?

This is a hard one to answer. I would not expect to have heard from many people who had ultimately been successful in finding romance online because I assume they wouldn't be there anymore. Perusing the ads, though, I did notice a few profiles that mentioned that they were only looking for friendship as they had found a steady partner. It certainly has some good results for some people, though quantifying this would never be easy.

Obviously it's not for everyone, and many who try it give up before things have a chance to get underway. Each of my correspondents mentioned having had at least some success, if only temporarily. Lunars found a partner he was still seeing. Sweety72 found someone too, but circumstances made it unable to work out. A similar thing happened to Goldone. TJ found love, but it eventually dwindled into a friendship. Howjagofaster writes, "I have made some terrific friends and had one or two relationships through people I have met here. It's more than I would have if I had tried to meet someone while living my usual busy life, aye?"