Online dating a journey of self-discovery not for everyone

    I always thought it was for divorcees or middle-aged singles. But when I polled various friends from before, during and after college, I found I was the only one who had not tried it.

    I grew up in a time when getting online required a five-minute process blasting the unholy sound of unexplained crackling and random tones — same as most of my friends. But I felt like they had passed me by when I realized they were going through personality checklists and percent matchability scores with potential dates online — before even meeting them in person.

    It came as a shock when my friend Renee showed me her profile on OKCupid, then clicked through to show me some of our friends’ profiles. No one ever talked about online dating.

    I always thought it was for divorcees or middle-aged singles. My 20-something friends constantly go to bars, happy hours, sport clubs and social groups. I thought surely they’d be capable of meeting attractive, interesting singles outside of cyberspace.

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    But when I polled various friends from before, during and after college, I found I was the only one who had not tried it.

    It was like that time in the second grade when I realized I was the only one who admitted to still watching “Barney & Friends.”

    Better to meet people by chance?

    I don’t know when they started cyberdating. I first noticed it six months after I graduated from college — maybe because I was making friends in a new city. Maybe because I was recently out of a long-distance relationship.

    I’m not a romantic, but I have this idea that I’ll meet my next boyfriend by fate at a coffee shop while sipping a hazelnut latte and reading a newspaper.

    It just seems unnatural to be so calculated about dating. It’s such a trial-and-error process — and I’ve been surprised by what bothers me in a guy and what doesn’t. Dating someone with interests different from mine can be interesting. Also, I’m in no hurry. Good things take time.

    Richard Roberts, a personality expert, said my concerns are somewhat legitimate.

    “You’re spitting out information about yourself that could be flawed self insight,” he said. “You tend to have a vision of self that’s related to the context that you’re in.”

    Roberts cites differences among any given person’s Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and other social media profiles. Their contents will likely depend on the audience — not necessarily in a deceptive way, but in presentation and selection of information.

    To get a better understanding, I interviewed friends and acquaintances about why they date online.

    The most common reason I heard was adjusting after a move.

    Roberts thinks this is common — given the loneliness that comes with leaving a familiar situation.

    Less risk, but less honest?

    My friend Paul first tried online dating two years ago, when he landed a job in a small town at age 23. He started using the free site Plenty Of Fish. When he got a job in a bigger city, he signed up for paid site eHarmony — to weed out the less-serious.

    Paul said he liked it (though he didn’t meet anyone he liked enough to date seriously) because it’s a lower-risk version of face-to-face dating.

    “I’ve never been good with meeting people at bars,” he said. “Plus, if you’re not interested, you never respond, [but] in a bar you can’t just not respond.”

    Paul is currently dating someone he didn’t meet online.

    Meanwhile, 24-year-old Scott tried online dating because he was new to Philadelphia. His experience was less positive.

    “I felt awkward and didn’t really think I would like it,” he said. “Sounds cynical, but it’s a lot easier for people to lie.”

    Sidni, a 23-year-old graduate student, also encountered some unsettling dishonesty while dating online.

    “A couple times guys messaged me saying that they were married [and wanted] to have a secret sexual relationship,” she said. “These are problems that are already there [that web sites] are enhancing.”

    Overall, she’s not a fan and would prefer to meet someone doing things she loves, like rock climbing and kayaking.

    But for college student Nicole, 21, online dating has been a self-discovery process. She identifies as bisexual and hadn’t dated until she used online dating sites.

    “For me it was trying to figure out who I was, who I’m attracted to and what I’m interested in,” she said. “Dating websites kind of got me to explore the idea as to whether or not I’d be interested in dating guys and girls.”

    Self discovery

    And though Renee isn’t new to dating, she’s on a different journey of self discovery.

    At 24, she tells me the one piece of advice her mother gave her was to not get married young. She almost did. So she began to date online because, in her words, people of our generation are serially monogamous. “I was always single or in a relationship,” she said. “It was never in between.”

    She says the last six months of online dating have changed how she interacts face-to-face with men or people she’d like to be friends with.

    “When you talk to someone you don’t know, you’re afraid of their reaction,” she said. “In any given relationship, that moment is really scary. It’s not actually that scary.”

    Her advice?

    Don’t knock it until you try it — even though she did.

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