The words themselves have become a kind of catch-all for every good and bad thing about the Internet. The good: instant communication, a wide array of people, and a chance to meet partners that were previously unavailable. The bad: stalkers, weirdos, and people who are trying really hard not to seem like stalkers or weirdos. But as sure as haters gonna hate, it’s possible to also find some really great partners online.
Digital dating services are life-savers for harried professionals or reserved college students.
The key is to know how to navigate the increasingly crazy waters around you.
- A. Avoid aggressive guys:There are tons of nice people on the Internet, but there are also ripped-up juice-heads who just want to hook up with someone and tell their bros about the conquest. These guys — and the aggressive types on dating sites tend to be guys — are best left alone. They work on their targets with the digital equivalent of heavy flirting, from messages to questions to request for pics, but just let it roll off. There’s nothing to see here.
- B. Be honest:Your online dating profile is a lot like a job application: you can pad it all you want, but you’re gonna have to put it to the test when the time comes. Don’t say you work out regularly if you use your treadmill as a wardrobe; don’t say you love cats if you’ve got bad allergies. The white lies might seem like a way to present a better version of yourself, but they’re just going to lead to a bad match. Honesty leads to compatibility; fudging leads to awkward dates.
- C. Control who can see you: It’s 2011; there is now no excuse for not understanding how to use privacy settings online. Different dating sites structure their profiles in special ways, but you can always find a way to configure who can search for you, how much they can learn about you, and what level of online-relationship acceptance they need to clear before they see the whole profile. Don’t just put yourself out there for passersby because it’s a dating site. You need to exercise some caution and intelligence.
- D. Don’t broadcast details: Similarly, an online profile is just that: a digital version of you. It doesn’t have to be the full thing. You need to be honest, yes, but that doesn’t mean disclosing too many personal details or bits of information that could be used by someone who wants to steal your identity or just embarrass you. The time to share the details of your life is in person with someone you’ve gotten to know and trust.
- E. Enjoy browsing: Shop around! You’re on a dating site, after all. Half the appeal (at least) is the ability to window-shop for a potential date. There’s no commitment unless you want there to be, and you can take things as slow as you like. Look around before attempting to make connections.
- F. Fact-check your dates: Say you strike up an online conversation with someone who talks about their company, published work, or some other piece of info that could be verified with a quick Google search. In this day and age, you’re crazy not to check them out. You’ll probably get back legitimate results that back up their story, but there’s always the chance you’ll turn up something disreputable. (Maybe they’re an ex-con, or a Yankees fan.) There’s nothing wrong with a little research.
- G. Get specific about your interests: Online dating is the ideal time to get real about what you like to do. Do not fill up your profile talking about how much you like the outdoors, or books, or breathing. Everyone likes those things. You’ll come across as generic and bland. Write about specifics: maybe you like to hike national parks, or take roadtrips to ghost towns, or read 19th-century feminist literature. The more detailed you can get about your hobbies, the better your chances at finding someone who likes the same things. (Or, alternately, who doesn’t like any of that stuff, which will save you both some time.)
- H. Hold your head up high: Even though we live most of our lives online now, some people will probably still mock you for joining an online dating service. These people are probably working through a whole host of feelings, from prejudice to cowardice to genuine curiosity, so their reactions are understandable. But there is no shame at all in using an online service to get a date. In many ways, it’s a whole lot easier than dragging yourself from bar to bar, hoping to luck into something romantic or worthwhile. Online dating lets you set the speed of the game.
- I. Inquire about the other person’s life: It’s an easy temptation in the era of Facebook and Twitter to hit people with a firehose of information about your life, career, history, goals, first pet’s name, etc. But to really build a relationship with someone (especially online), it’s vital to ask them questions about their own life. Don’t turn every story into an excuse to shift the conversation or email thread back to yourself. Instead, let them open up, and ask them natural follow-up questions. You’ll be amazed how naturally trust can develop.
- J. Joke about yourself: Only tell people you’re awesome if you’re doing it ironically. The world is full of braggarts and self-involved people who think they’re a total catch, but the truth is that everyone’s got baggage. The best way to stand out from the pack online is to be honest and funny about your shortcomings. Scared of heights? Prone to getting lost? Worried about an asteroid hitting your house? Cop to it. You will, guaranteed, make an impression for being honest and funny, and you’ll feel real where other people come off as flat caricatures.
- K. Keep at it: Online dating has its conveniences — you can flirt without having to shower — but like its real-world counterpart, it requires a certain level of commitment for a user to see payoff. Getting the most out of online dating means keeping your profile updated, seeing who’s new to the site, exchanging messages, seeing if your interests match with another person’s, and hopefully going on a date, after which you might have to go back to the drawing board. That’s normal. The important thing to remember is that the longer you participate, the better the odds you’ll find a real connection.
- L. Lighten up: It’s just a date! Seriously, calm down and just have fun. Make jokes in your profile. Include funny pictures. Be honest and self-deprecating. If an online friendship leads to an in-person encounter, don’t freak out; you already know the other person to a degree, so it’s not like a blind date. If you wig out and get nervous, no one’s gonna have a good time.
- M. Make the first move: Don’t think that creating an online profile and saying you’re open for business is going to have people lining up to meet you. Somebody’s gotta make the first move, so it might as well be you. Online dating sites can be a bit like a middle-school dance: all the boys and girls are there, but everyone’s on opposite sides of the room, too scared to actually dance. This is totally understandable, but also pretty dumb. If you see someone whose profile you like, send them a message. The worst they can do is refuse to answer, at which point a person you’ve never spoken to will simply continue not speaking to you. At best, you can start a new relationship. It’s win-win.
- N. Never get mean: The Internet is full of trolls. It’s a regrettable but seemingly unavoidable side effect of the fact that the greatest communications device in history is used mainly for porn and coupons. For reasons no one can fathom, they even show up in membership groups like online dating sites. Maybe it’s one of the aforementioned aggressive guys who goes too far; maybe it’s just somebody with no interpersonal skills. If you get hit with a personal attack, don’t respond in kind. Ignore them, delete them, report them for system abuse. Just don’t get down in the mud with them. It won’t end well.
- O. One thing at a time: You might think that using an online dating site means you can multi-task and date several people at once. But you’re not Zack Morris. If you want to go on a few casual dates in a row with different people, have at it, but if things start to pick up with one relationship, you owe it to the others not to pursue them. At best, it’ll get confusing, and at worst, someone’s gonna get hurt.
- P. Physical comments get creepy fast: You know when you should compliment someone’s physical appearance? In person, if you get that far, and even then you should still keep it limited to overall remarks like “You look wonderful/amazing tonight.” Seeing someone’s picture on an online profile and sending them a direct message saying “You’re hot” or “You’re so pretty” is not kosher. It’s too much, too fast. You will, guaranteed, freak out whoever you’re trying to impress. Exercise self-control.
- Q. Quit whenever you’d like: Online dating does require a commitment to see payoff, but the good news is that you’re not required to do more than you want. If the set-up isn’t working for you, or if you’re just not comfortable with getting to know someone via emails or direct messages, feel free to take a break or even walk away. You might decide to start up your membership again later and discover what you really want to get out of it.
- R. Resist the urge to stalk: It’s not a good idea. Some sites tell you who’s visited your profile and how many times they’ve done it, which means cyber-stalking is going to show up like a red flag on your crush’s account. Even if your particular dating site doesn’t report those stats to members, is that really what you want to do with your time? Soak up pics of someone in hopes of catching a glimpse of skin? Save it for Facebook.
- S. Set reasonable goals: Sites like eHarmony and Match.com boast about their track record in bringing together people who eventually get married. That’s a possibility, sure, but entering the field of online dating with the goal of finding a spouse is a bit impractical. It’ll only distract you from the chance to connect with someone or to work on yourself. The key to success in online dating is, unsurprisingly, the same as it is for more traditional types: just relax.
- T. Take a chance: Obviously, you should never do something you’re uncomfortable doing. But online dating is a great way to go outside your comfort zone a bit. Feeling a connection with someone whose politics are different from yours? See where it goes. Starting to click with someone who lives far away? Don’t rule out a long-distance relationship to start. The bottom line is that you can easily limit yourself so much that you never get anywhere. Instead of that, try seeing what’s out there that you haven’t explored.
- Use real words: Just because you’re meeting someone online doesn’t mean you have to write like a barely literate middle-schooler. When it comes time to send that first message, avoid clunky abbreviations like “u r,” “wat,” and other pointless contractions. You’re a functioning adult; write like it. Besides, you’re not in a hurry. You have no need to shave nanoseconds from your day by writing “wat r u up 2?” when you could formulate a coherent sentence.
- V. Vary your approach: If you’re not getting any responses to your online flirting — or worse, if you’re getting weird or angry responses — it could be time to change your game. Nobody responding to your jokes? Take a hard look and see if they’re actually funny or just offensive (or nonsensical). Coming across as weak? Dial down the sensitive guy shtick and act normal. Worried about being perceived as ditzy? Cut out the nervous laughs or deferrals. Dating online is a great way to refine your public persona and figure out what you’re looking to achieve.
- W. Watch out for scams: Legit online dating services are out to make a profit, but they want to do it by helping you. Satisfied customers create good word-of-mouth. Major sites like Match.com or eHarmony are good bets, but if you find a lesser-known site that asks for your credit card info, do some research before signing up. (Even then, see if there’s a free trial available.) Identity theft is a high price to pay for a date.
- X. Xenophobia will come back to bite you: Don’t be scared of someone who doesn’t fit the mental image you’ve got as the ideal mate or “type.” Online dating is a great way to get to know who someone really is, past the exterior hang-ups that often keep us from looking outside a specific racial and physical template. Use this as an opportunity to let yourself see things in a new way, and to stop fearing things that are different.
- Y. Yearn for the right partner: There’s a temptation in online communities to be too cool for the room. This is suicide in online dating. Yes, you don’t want to rush things or scare someone off, but if you’re just cruising the scene, you’re going to get disappointed, fast. It’s OK to unironically want to be with someone, and with a specific kind of someone. If that’s scared you off the bar and club scene, know that the online dating world is more welcoming. It goes back to honesty: directness always gets you farther than sarcasm.
- Z. Zero in on your ideal relationship: For all its technological differences, online dating is just like the original version: it’s all about finding out what kind of person is right for you, and what kind of person you want to be. You’ll get the most out of a dating site if you really commit to using it in the right way, meaning you let your experiences shape your personality to the point where you know who you’re looking for and why. Even if you don’t find them online — or even if it takes longer than you’d imagined — it’ll be worth it in the end.