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An experiment in online dating


Take a moment and think of a typical love song. It probably declares something like "Love Me Tender" or "It Had to be You." It probably doesn't croon, "I clicked your photo." (Though there is at least one song about online dating. It's called "Web Site Story").

Internet romance might not have much of a presence yet in music lyrics, but it's beginning to create its own genre of love story in real life. Online dating is now a big business, generating an estimated $2.1 billion annually through more than 1,500 websites. While the numbers are overwhelming, it ultimately comes down to one-on-one relationships – relationships that start by browsing through a seemingly endless supply of partner profiles.

“I’m not going to go out with a guy named Diesel Rig. I can already tell that I’m not going to have much to talk about with a guy named Diesel Rig,” says one woman, who asked to go by the name Elizabeth. “You look like someone I went to high school with—not going to happen,” Elizabeth declares to her computer screen. “He’s 35! No way. And he smokes! Yeah, not going to happen. He’s got a picture of himself and a RAT? No! What are you thinking! Oh god!”

Elizabeth has gone on about ten dates using an online service. “If anything,” she says, “I’m in a relationship with the Web site, as opposed to anything else.”

Elizabeth is a really cute, intelligent, honest, and compassionate person – someone you’d really want to date. But the thing is, she’s busy. So, looking for someone online ends up being more convenient than looking for Mr. Right at a bar. Still, navigating an online catalog of people takes a little getting used to.

“One of the hard parts is that you can’t shake the feeling that, if this person’s the one and then you guys got married, you’d never have the story of how you met,” Elizabeth confides. “It’d be like, ‘I looked online and then I picked them because they were attractive and their grammatically correct sentences appealed to me.’” Elizabeth says you just have to let go of that response to online date successfully.

The pressure of the "love story" is a pressure that’s caused Elizabeth to join, quit, and rejoin sites numerous times. But recently, her optimism is high as she looks over her online profile. “I’m checking it to see that it accurately reflects the person I am,” says Elizabeth.

Once satisfied, she starts her precarious search. “So now begins the process of me flipping through these human beings.”

After a series of “no’s,” Elizabeth settles on the profile of one man. “This guy looks like a totally decent guy. Friendly, nice, we have a high match rating in common,” she notes. Elizabeth and her prospect – we’ll call him Mr. Darcy – don’t just have a high match rating; they’re pretty much a perfect match.

“He's really cute, his grammar's all perfect. He's really smart.” That last fact Elizabeth surmised after cross-referencing the man on Facebook.  “He went to Berkeley, and he double-majored just like I did,” reports Elizabeth. “He studied literature and a foreign language – I did too! I think it's going to go well, I think we're going to have a lot to talk about.”

Elizabeth quickly sends a message to Mr. Darcy. So now what?

Elizabeth has the process down pat. She says he’ll look at her profile, see if he’s interested, and send her a message. After a brief stint of messaging back and forth making small talk, someone, likely Mr. Darcy, will ask to meet in person. “And then,” Elizabeth says, stifling a groan, “you have to make the transition from, ‘Here’s my phone number.’” That’s when she’ll be faced with the choice of whether to text or call him.

Fast-forward to a few nights later and everything that Elizabeth predicted to happen actually happened. In fact, it’s gone splendidly – Mr. Darcy’s messages were witty, funny, and he seems to really like Elizabeth. If anything, Mr. Darcy is Elizabeth’s soul mate – at least on paper. Now it's time to meet face to face.

Elizabeth stands outside the bar where she and Mr. Darcy have arranged to meet. She says she’s nervous. “I’m not nervous that he’s not going to like me. I’m nervous that I’m not going to like him. I’m nervous that I’m going to find out that he’s not going to be the person I want him to be.” Elizabeth isn’t usually the nervous type, but this time, she really thinks Mr. Darcy might be The One.

Elizabeth says she doesn’t see much of a difference between getting a glimpse of someone’s internet profile and meeting them in a bar. “If you’re meeting someone at a bar for an hour and a half, you’re getting the image of them in that bar, in that lighting, on that night, and you’re getting the conversation you guys are having, lubricated by alcohol.”

At this moment, Mr. Darcy walks into the bar and sits down at a table to wait for Elizabeth. Elizabeth’s already seen him; she takes a deep breath and walks over to meet him. Over the next hour, the date appears to go well. They’re laughing and the conversation is flowing.

Later that night, Elizabeth reports on how the date went. “It was fine,” she says, disappointed. “I guess it just wasn’t there. I had my hopes up. I wish that it had gone well. I feel bad. Well not bad, but disappointed. I just let myself get high hopes.”

Later on, Elizabeth reflects on the process of online dating as a whole. “When you’re on a dating website, you’re constantly questioning why you’re there. What is it about me that put me there?” Elizabeth wonders.

This story doesn’t end with “happily ever after,” but that doesn't seem to be how love works – it doesn’t end when eyes meet, at the first kiss, the wedding, the children, or even the grandchildren. It's a process. It's a process that can last a lifetime; sometimes, it lasts a fleeting moment. This time, it didn’t work out, but Elizabeth finds a silver lining at the end of this short love story. “Nobody likes the point in the relationship when they realize it’s not going where they want it to. I guess the dating site cuts to the chase on that,” she concludes.

For Elizabeth, and probably the millions of others looking for love online, it’s not about circumventing romance; it’s about not leaving it all up to chance.

This story originally aired on February 10, 2010.

Erica Mu is a reporter and producer for the "Hear Here: A Pop-Up Radio Project" in conjunction with KALW and the Association of Independents in Radio. Mu has reported on the serious side of health and the quirky side of arts, and she's also helped KALW pioneer the digital frontier as the news team’s web strategist and editor. Mu has also organized and directed KALW’s live storytelling events.