Saved by Online Dating, Cont'd

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

It’s a popular topic among readers, unsurprisingly, and many of them continue to have interesting insights. This Millennial reader certainly reflects her generation:

I’m a 32-year-old woman who has never have a long-term, committed, relationship initiated offline. My first real boyfriend was with another teenager whom I met in an AOL chatroom in 1998. My second serious relationship was started after responding to a Craigslist ad that a friend saw. Last year, after living traveling abroad and having flings and cross-cultural mis-relationships, I started using OKCupid, where I met someone I dated for a year. Then I got on Tinder, and after having a few flings, I met someone who I’ve been dating for a few months.

For most of my adult dating life, I’ve felt conflicted about my inability to have more serious relationships that start in other venues than online. I’ve spent some time thinking about this, but I hit the crux of why this works for me: 1) I’m shy; 2) with online dating, people are (usually) upfront about what they are looking for; and, 3) I have time to spool out the “getting-to-know-you” phase.

Another young woman with lots of experience dating online shares her lessons:

Hi Chris! Your reader’s note feels a little like the story of my life right now. The biggest thing I’ve learned is that love is so much more than and nowhere close to a fairy tale.

In short, I’ve been on 45 first dates in six months (not including second or more dates, or the hundreds of messages exchanged), and I’ve learned more about myself than I could ever imagine. More importantly, though, I learned what love should be. It’s not algorithmic, sure, but it’s also not a flash in the pan and all Cinderella-like where you look across the room and you see the person and fall madly in love with one life-changing look.

Online dating has taught me that love isn’t something that comes out of nowhere; it grows and it changes and it is, most importantly, a CHOICE. You choose the person you like being around the most and you make a choice to grow and learn and fight it out with someone. In a world (and especially a city!) where we constantly have what Barry Schwartz terms “the paradox of choice,” love is something that is special because it’s a choice to commit, and that’s hard to find.

In that way, online dating is the answer to so many questions and concerns. Life would be great if everyone could find that one person destined to be their great love, but I don’t believe that’s how it works. One day the shiny newness will go away, and we will have to choose to still muddle through together. I’m thankful that online dating allows me to get to know someone “long distance,” even if that just means I’m in Harlem and he is in Brooklyn. We can all put our needs and wants front and center, and the anonymity of online dating makes that easier than ever.

So online dating saved me in a weird way. It made me put my priorities in line so that I could articulate them to another person and weed out those who don’t want to commit to the same choice I do. It allowed me to realize that I have control of this ship, and sometimes that’s half the battle.

That theme of “choice” is especially emphasized with Bumble, the new-ish dating app that doesn’t allow men to initiate contact; women have to send the first message. It’s a small difference from other apps like Tinder but theoretically has a profound impact on dating culture, since it both empowers women to make the first move and lets guys off the hook for once—and limits offensive messages. Kelly Diamond, a blogger at xoJane, recently tried it out:

By forcing myself to take Bumble seriously after downloading it, I realized how hard it really is to reach out first. I understand now why some guys crack and say disgusting things. Their brains are haywire from all the pressure. It doesn’t mean I excuse their behavior in any way, but I (sort of) understand it.

Another reader provides a window into the very early days of online dating:

My experience happened before the ‘net had much to offer. First I put an ad on the local cable channel, which did lead to a six-month relationship. After that I took out an ad online for a site that let scientists connect for non-science interactions. Though that didn’t lead to a romantic relationship, I did communicate for several years with a woman I met there.

I subsequently took out an ad in the newspaper that got me three responses (though one of them left a six-digit phone number, either through a brain cramp or last-moment cold feet). I married one and have stayed friendly with the other. This was 18 years ago.  

To me, the takeaway from this experience is how it short-circuits the typical tentative beginnings. Because I was quite frank and open about what I had to offer and what I was looking for, my future wife and I were able to have serious discussions immediately. If I attempted to talk about marriage, children, retirement locations, etc. on a first encounter in a bar, how likely would that lead to a relationship? But because my respondents “pre-screened” themselves (meaning any other woman who read my ad and wasn’t interested simply didn’t respond), we were able to cut through the typical uncertainty when meeting in any other social situation.

I suspect that these dating sites, algorithms or no, allow for the same sort of pre-screening that happened for me. (Though I didn’t get any information on them; it was all one-way back then).  If your “about” page says you are looking for casual hookups, you won’t get any attention from someone looking for a long-term committed relationship. Try and make those sorts of screening decisions in a bar!

A final reader suggests some further reading:

I just thought I’d pass along an article about how a programmer found his fiancee through gaming the online dating system: “How a Math Genius Hacked OkCupid to Find True Love.” As if to give both the “true love” and “love is probabilistic” viewpoints support, the programmer ended up proposing to a person he had only a 92 percent match with, as opposed to those the algorithm gave much higher probabilities for.