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Clicking for love: The perks and perils of online dating

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Once online dating became exactly as simple as shopping for books on Amazon — which it totally is — then everybody could do it. – Benjamin Karney, professor

Erika Anderson sat across from Jeffrey Neu at an Indian restaurant in Manhattan's Flatiron district on a chilly March evening, toying nervously with the scarf around her neck, a sparkly white one on loan from a roommate.

They had exchanged emails for a month. She knew his birthday and where he had gone to law school. They had talked about their careers and their lives in the tri-state area. She, then 25, had even re-read their online exchanges, a miniature study session to brush up on the particulars of Jeff, then 32.

Over dinner, they discussed their food — her first time tasting lamb — and noticed they both had jeans on.

But this night, their first date, was also their first time seeing each others' faces, deciphering their expressions.

"I looked across (at Jeff) and was like, who is he? Who is this person?" she said later of the evening. "I did know a lot of random facts about him, but I didn't really know him." Their fledgling online relationship, though extensive, had not erased her first-date butterflies.

Eight months later, Erika and Jeff were married.

Online dating is a modern paradox. Once widely considered a tactic only for the socially inept or the hopelessly creepy, exploring romantic possibilities online has slowly but surely made its way into mainstream American culture.

But while dating online definitely has its advantages, a new sociological study reveals that many dating sites' claims — that their services will improve the likelihood of long-term relationship success — are insupportable. In fact, entering the world of online dating presents some very specific challenges that make romantic progress in the 21st century as difficult as ever. And some of the best advantages of online dating are exactly what make it perilous.

A history of online dating

In 1995, when the internet was still in its infancy, social dating consultant Trish McDermott joined a team launching a brand new company: match.com, a service to help single people meet and communicate for romance through the internet.

The idea did not take off right away. "There was a sense that anybody who had to use technology to find love was in some way a loser," said McDermott. Who would email a potential love interest instead of simply approaching them at a bar or a social event? The answer could only be the geeky, the unsightly or the awkward.

So the young dating services hit upon a way to tackle consumer embarrassment: anonymity. Limiting information "would be more secure and it would encourage people to try online dating" without fear of stigma or danger, explained McDermott. Most services still operate in this way.

In the nineties, even successful couples were wary to broadcast their history. McDermott said some of the early match.com success stories wanted a hard copy of their online profiles mailed to them to cherish, but only "in a brown paper envelope with no markings."

But as the digital revolution gained steam, pop culture began to catch on to the new dating landscape. "It really wasn't until the movie 'You've Got Mail' (1998) came out that we saw the lightbulbs go off," said McDermott, explaining that the romantic comedy featured two successful, attractive leads who fell in love through instant messaging.

Fourteen years after the movies helped to glamorize internet romance, the phenomenon has yet to entirely escape its humble beginnings.

Anderson (now Neu) admitted that she initially lied about how she met Jeff, telling people brightly but vaguely that their first connection came through a mutual friend. Her own grandmother was scandalized when she discovered the news.

But soon Neu began owning up to the eHarmony version of the story. Once she started talking about it, "I couldn't believe how many people had dated someone online," she said. "I think it's becoming more and more common."

Singles try out online romance for all kinds of reasons. Neu signed up online after a spectacularly depressing speed dating session. Maurine Cobabe, 27, a medical student at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, tried it when she felt she'd "dated everyone that was dateable" within the Mormon community in her town.

The power of access

Neu's and Cobabe's motivation speaks to a uniquely powerful aspect of online dating: no matter where you live or who you socialize with, you suddenly have access to a pool of single people who, just like you, are actively looking for someone. And because of the explosion of internet activity among a variety of people, that pool is only growing and becoming more mainstream.

According the industry trade report Subscription Site Insider, almost 25 million unique visitors used an online dating site in April 2011 alone. The internet was the third most common way for couples to meet online in 2009, behind meeting through friends and roughly tied with meeting in public places, according to a study coming out this year from Dr. Michael Rosenfeld of Stanford University and Dr. Reuben Thomas of the The City College of New York. The authors also found that since 2005, more than one in five couples have met online. "It is possible that the Internet could eventually eclipse friends as the most influential way Americans meet their romantic partners," the researchers concluded.

"Everyone's online," said McDermott. "Everyone's using the internet in all aspects of your lives." Bill paying, chatting with mothers and brothers and friends, shopping, listening to music — it's all online. Why not dating?

"Once online dating became exactly as simple as shopping for books on Amazon — which it totally is — then everybody could do it," said Benjamin Karney, a professor of social psychology at the University of California Los Angeles. "And it can be completely anonymous. Once anybody can do it, it loses its stigma."

But while research shows that online dating has distinct advantages, experts caution against assuming that the instant accessibility of hundreds of profiles will translate into the deposit of a living, breathing soulmate.

According to Karney's research, the very strengths of online dating in the twenty-first century — ease, access, instant communication — can also inhibit long-term relationship success.

Weaknesses in the model

Karney and four other experts on intimate relationships released a study in February, right around Valentine's Day, on the pros and cons of online dating. They set out to determine whether the claims of online dating sites could be backed up with science: whether sites were truly providing something completely different from the non-virtual dating world and "whether online dating promotes better romantic outcomes than conventional offline dating," as many sites promised could be done thanks to a particular algorithm.

Results were mixed. Karney and his colleagues found that online dating does indeed provide what Neu and Cobabe found: access to a wider pool and a convenient method of communication to that pool.

"For the people who have trouble meeting singles, internet dating is a real boon," confirmed Karney. "For some people, access makes all the difference. If you don't meet anyone, you have no chance of success."

But that chance, the study found, is not necessarily expanded by dating sites' claims of matching singles with soulmates. "There is no evidence — none at all — that a website has a unique ability" to pair people who will be compatible in the long run, said Karney.

None of the websites' algorithms, the researchers found, were backed up by scientific literature. The weakness of the websites' claims lies in their reliance on the information that's provided online. The "matching," Karney explained, is based on online profiles: politics, religion, likes and dislikes.

"If profile similarity was a great predictor of long-term relationship success, that'd be awesome," said Karney. "But the effects of similarity on relationship success are tiny. That's just not worth that much."

Cobabe found precisely this when she was first chatting online with her future husband. "I actually hadn't seen his profile before he instant messaged me. He won me over with a sense of humor," she recalled.

"Had I just glanced at his profile I might not have talked to him. We just didn't run in the same online circles."

Not only does the emphasis on profiles highlight an aspect of romantic chemistry that doesn't ultimately matter much, online dating's special strength — access — can actually be detrimental to relationship success.

"The ready access to a large pool of potential partners can elicit an evaluative, assessment-oriented mindset, that leads online daters to objectify potential partners and might even undermine their willingness to commit to one of them," wrote the researchers in their article summary. "It can also cause people to make lazy, ill-advised decisions when selecting among the large array of potential partners."

Get thee to a dinner date

The key to combating these challenges, Karney concluded, is simple and time-tested: singles who find each other online should meet face to face. "A lot of romantic attraction is based in the exchange of behavior," he said. "Find people online, then meet them offline as soon as you can because the in-person interaction is just that crucial."

In the meantime, he said, consumers should be smart about buying into the extravagant claims of many online sites that make a hefty profit from selling the soulmate idea. He and his colleagues even suggested in their study that dating services' claims should perhaps be regulated.

"People should know what they're buying. You can't say, 'If you eat my cereal, it will cure heart disease.' But you are allowed to say, 'If you use my website, you will meet your soulmate'?" said Karney.

"Relationships really matter. I daresay a lot more than what cereal you eat."

EMAIL: lmarostica@desnews.com