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Sometime in 2002, I'd been single for almost half a year. Although I was doing okay on my own, I was starting to think it would be nice to meet someone again, perhaps not too seriously, but still. I was also starting to wonder where I could meet that new someone. For the heck of it, I joined an online dating service. Actually,I joined several. I had lots of email conversations, some of them quite interesting, some of them quite moronic. I had several dates, one of them rather enjoyable, one very awful, and some not very memorable. Then I finally managed to actually meet with this guy I had been emailing with for weeks, who was living in the same town as I and who seemed to like all the same places, only we'd never run into each other. It was not a date, I decided, I was just meeting this guy because it would be nice to know if we got along IRL as well as through email. It was NOT a date. Neither was the second meeting. (You're seeing where this is headed, right?) Or the third…We've been together for more than three years and living together for half a year now. I maintain that that first meeting was NOT a date. I'd even brought my ex along! Anyway.

You can imagine that I have a positive attitude towards internet dating. More and more people seem to meet each other over the internet (grundoon and wertperch, are you paying attention?), so I'm not the only one. Still, many other people seem to think that if you're trying to find your special someone via the internet, you must be some kind of socially inept weirdo. You'll have to trust me when I tell you I'm not a socially inept weirdo.

There are many reasons why you might choose this way of trying to meet someone. Perhaps you don't have time for the kind of hobbies that enable you to meet new people. Perhaps you're allergic to smoke and therefore hate bars and clubs and similar places where people traditionally meet each other. Perhaps all your friends, and their friends as well, are already taken. Perhaps you just prefer to have lots of choice, or you're terribly bored in your job like I was and are more or less forced to spend a lot of time online. Whatever your reason, if you're going to try the internet dating thing, there is some advice I'd like to share.

Finding a dating site
Dating sites are popping up like toadstools. There are free ones and paid ones, sites that are meant especially for dating and sites that are meant more for showing off how many 'friends' you have… you just have to pick what serves your purposes best.

Free sites are good because they are, well, free. This means no investment before you can see what it's like, and you can experiment with different approaches and see which one gets the most reactions. The bad thing about free sites is that anybody with too much time on their hands can join, so there will be people there who are just being generally annoying. If you're serious about looking, you might want to consider paying for dating site. That way you'll be sure the others there were at least serious enough to pay, too. I never paid for one though.

TenMinJoe says: Also, you might warn people to be careful about scam dating sites - I joined one where they more-or-less tricked me into paying to read messages that turned out to be (basically) spam... there are a load of dodgy outfits out there.
Sage advice, people. The best thing might be simply not to pay for anything. That way, if you get tricked, at least it doesn't cost you money. Which brings me to another thing: on free sites, some profiles try to lead you to so-called "personal websites" which then turn out to be porn, or something else you weren't looking for. This might also mean you run the risk of running into spyware or stuff like that. Keep your wits about you, especially when girls that look too sexy to be true invite you somewhere, online or IRL :).

You can find sites where you just submit a short advertisement for yourself (or browse through others'), but there is only so much you can put in an ad. Also they're rather tiring to read through. I found the sites where every member has a personal page to be most helpful for actually finding people who I thought I might get along with. An example of this kind of site is OkCupid, still free at the time of writing, where you can make a personal page as simple or as elaborate as you like, add photos if you wish, and search for other profiles by interest or location. That is the kind of site I liked best.

Creating your profile
One friend that I talked to about this subject said that one of the things stopping her from joining a dating site, was that she didn't have a clue as to what to put in a profile. She said that whatever she would put on there, would give an impression of a certain personality that would not be her. She might be right. It's almost impossible to grasp the complexity of a personality and express it in a few words. The good thing is that you don't have to!

In my opinion, a profile is not meant to give a complete overview of who and what you are. It is a means of introducing yourself. It is meant to give other people a peek into your life and personality, to give them the opportunity to try and find something you might have in common, or just something to talk about. So if you're a lawyer, and you play hockey, but your political views are decidedly leftish and you also prefer Tool to Mozart, these are the things to put in your profile. Someone might think, hey, I like hockey too. Or hey, that's a weird combination, I wonder if she likes the same movies I do. Or hey, whatever is wrong with Mozart and what does that have to do with tools? And there you have your subject to talk about. And that is what a profile is about: it should invite people for a conversation of some sort. When the connection is made you will find out soon enough whether the first impression a profile gave you was correct.

Something I saw many people (mainly guys) do was to say something along the lines of "I 'm not sure what to put in this here profile, because I'm not used to talking about myself. Just ask me whatever you want and I'll answer." This is not the thing to say if you want reactions. You need to give someone a starting point! If you really don't know how you should describe yourself, and you have no hobbies that you dare to mention, then at least write a silly story or quote your favorite president, anything. Give people something to react to!

A good thing to do is to browse other people's profiles and see what you like, what works and what doesn't. This way you can also spot the clichés that you should avoid. On one site, there were so many guys stating they liked going out as well as staying in ("I like cosy nights on the couch but I also enjoy an evening going out and partying!") that it seemed like a sort of epidemic.

Some people like to state what they do and don’t like in their profile. This is a nice way of finding common interests and common pet peeves, but you might also scare people off if you’re not careful. I used to come across many guys (one of them epidemics again) who wrote that armpit hair absolutely disgusted them. Is this a necessary thing to make clear? Does it mean they’ll only talk to you if you shave daily? Or is it just a roundabout way of saying they don’t want to date a feminist? Then again, this might have been just the effect they were going for.

A note about pictures
Most dating sites give you the option to add pictures of yourself. Usually, profiles with pictures get more attention than profiles without, so you might want to add one. On the other hand, you might not like the idea of having your face on the internet next to what's essentially a personal ad. Myself, I preferred to stay anonymous face-wise. I once ran into a guy on the street that I recognized from a dating site (I'd been browsing 'straight men between 25 and 30 yrs old in Delft' and hey presto, one was living in my street) and I was very glad he couldn't recognize me back. He was NOT my type. In order to still be found by the people browsing pictures, I stole a picture out of my favourite graphic novel off the 'net and put that on my profile. That got me many reactions, too.

There is another reason not to add your picture: because you prefer to be judged on your personality first and on your looks second. I've experimented with two profiles, one with my photo and one without. It turns out mine is not a face suitable for attracting many men :) I did get many reactions to the pictureless profile, some of them asking for a photo before they'd even start a conversation. To me this was a good way of selecting which people I wanted to chat with.

Sometimes, after you've exchanged email for a while and then decide to send a photo of yourself after all, that is the moment for the other person to sever the contact. Sometimes seeing someone's face can be enough to know that that person is not your type. This is rather insulting if it happens and it's hard not to feel hurt if it happens. This might be a reason to put up a photo after all, at least anybody you come into contact with knows what they're getting into.

So I've got a profile, and now what?
When you've created a profile to your liking, you can start the search for Mr or Mrs Right. Or Mr/Mrs Right Now, if that's what you prefer. Many sites offer the possibility to browse by location, to browse pictures, or to search by age, interests, and so on. Sometimes a matching system is in place, where people fill out a test and a matching score is determined, based on the answers they give. I’m not sure how well that works.

So now you look for people who seem nice. And you send them a message, preferably one that invites a response. “Hey, you look cute” is always nice to hear but not much of a conversation starter, “Hey, you seem nice, where did you get that awesome tattoo” might work better.

Checking off a wish list for every profile you see might not be very productive. While it is a good thing to know what you want, you might turn someone down because of a trivial thing while in fact they’re great people. I’d always thought both smoking and facial hair would be huge turn-offs for me. But I now have a relationship with a smoker with a goatee who still has an uncanny resemblance to the ideal man.

Dangers and annoyances
As with any (blind) dating activity, where you meet and perhaps go out with people you don't know, online dating has its risks. There are, however, some annoying or even dangerous aspects specific to meeting someone online.

Some people seem to think that when they move anonymously on the internet, this means that normal rules of politeness do not apply. Do not be surprised if you get a message from a complete stranger asking about your intimate grooming habits or suggesting an exciting evening. Without knowing what you look like. Or even if you are, in fact, the gender they think. It seems that mostly men do this, but there may be women out there engaging in similar activities. The idea is probably the same as with spam: if you ask enough people, sooner or later someone might say yes. I tried asking somebody about that once but never received an answer... This behaviour never seemed really dangerous to me, just annoying and rather baffling. Why would you suggest sex to someone you've never even seen? Ah well.

Another difficult point is that the way people write something and the way you read it might not be the same. You might think someone has a great sense of humor and then find out they'd meant it all quite seriously. Or the other way around. Also, because writing gives you more time to think than talking, somebody might be very eloquent in e-mails, but rather shy and introverted in real life. In short, it's easy to get a wrong impression if you just go by the way somebody writes. This might mean you dismiss somebody who might have turned out real nice, but you might also get a huge crush on someone based on the image you built of them in your head in stead of the actual person.

Most seriously, the internet is the perfect way to pretend to be someone you're not. In most cases, people are who they say they are or the differences are of the innocent kind. However, there are some real creeps out there, and you just might be unlucky enough to run into one of them. It’s better to stay on the safe side. I'd advise to start contact with people through the dating site if at all possible, and if you switch to a personal email address, consider getting one that doesn't point to your real name or address. If your normal email address contains your surname and it's not a very common name, then combining that with your location might easily lead someone to your number in the phone book. It's hard to tell whether somebody is telling the truth about themselves and when you can trust somebody enough to give more personal details. To keep up a lie in a lengthy conversation is hard, so the more details someone gives that match, the bigger the chance that s/he can be trusted. Then again, some people are very good liars. I guess you'll have to trust your instincts.

Phone contact
Some of the problems of false impressions and identities might be avoided by speaking to someone on the phone before you meet them. If you have to react immediately in a conversation instead of taking your time to write your responses, putting on a fake personality or telling pure lies becomes more difficult. Also, if you manage to get someone’s phone number you have a way of checking their identity. This doesn’t work if you get a mobile number, of course. Then again, giving somebody your own phone number also gives them the opportunity to check on you, which might also be a consideration. A phone stalker is no fun at all.

Personally, I have a mild case of telephone phobia (I hate calling strangers) and I preferred meeting people in person without speaking to them on the phone first. I also know quite a few people who are lovely in person, but utterly incapable of having a nice chat on the phone. YMMV.

You can get some of the immediacy of a phone conversation without the difficulties by using an instant messenger program, which might be a nice option. I've only tried that once or twice, but TenMinJoe says: FWIW, I found that instant messenger was a great way to get to know people a bit; more immediate than e-mail, not as scary as a phone call. I did a LOT of IM flirting; I think I got quite good at it even :-P
So there you go, you could give it a try.

An actual date
Here’s where the real fun begins! You’ve met someone online, you’ve sent tons of e-mails, even chatted for hours, and now they want to meet you in person!

So this is the moment of truth. You’ll get to find out if your good impressions were right, and so will your date. Keeping in mind that your date might turn out to be a complete bore, I’d advise you to organize an “active” date, where if conversation stops there is still something to do. Also make sure that you can get away after a reasonable time if things don’t work out. Going to a museum might work, you can talk about what you see, a coffee date might work, you can occupy your hands with holding your cup. Something like that. Think up an excuse to leave for cases of emergency. If your date turns out to be lovely you can always prolong the meeting or meet again later, but if they’re not, you don’t want to be stuck with them for hours.

For those of you who are not yet bored with the personal anecdotes, I’ve had a few dates with people I met through a dating site and they ranged from rather nice to thoroughly annoying. The truly annoying one was with this guy who wasn’t all that awful personality-wise, but was just incapable of being even moderately entertaining company. As soon as I saw him I knew I just wasn’t attracted to him, but hey, new friends are always good, no? But he would answer questions with just a few words and then be silent again, too shy to ask any questions himself or hold up his end of the conversation. I’m not all that good with strangers myself, but on this date I just had to keep talking, so much that I got sick of myself. The worst part was that the guy was apparently having a good enough time that he didn’t want to go home. And I didn’t have the heart to tell him I’d had enough of the date. So we went to see a movie, had a drink afterwards, then went to a club (where he would only dance if I did, trailed behind me like a lost puppy, never once went to get a drink and still didn’t have anything to say) and then he even missed his last train home. On purpose. It was then I decided enough was enough, there was no way I was going to invite him to my house. So he called a friend he knew in town and arranged to sleep there. And that was the last I saw of him.

It’s always wise to meet your date in a public place and to tell someone where you’ll be and who you’ll be with. This, again, is to maximize your safety in case of creeps. If you don’t report back after a certain period of time, your friend can call the police. Or you can use that good old trick of arranging for a friend to call you sometime during the date, so they can ask how you are doing and pretend to be someone in need of urgent assistance if that’s necessary.

From this point on, internet dating is much like any other kind. And you know what they say about dating advice

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