When I first went to work at Nerve.com, the online sex and culture magazine, I knew very little about the "personals" side of the site. No, I was a big editorial snob, too busy soliciting personal essays on Canadian toplessness and begging Michael Chabon for table scraps to pay much attention to the tech-heads to my left, who were beta-testing classified-ad databases. Little did I know about the real literary revolution taking place—that out of the inky duckling of the print personal ad was emerging this proud and freaky swan, the online profile.
The old-style personal ad was a solitary, faintly musty, two-line cry for help, delivered with haiku-length concision. The language was as coy as that of a real-estate ad: Rubenesque meant fat, generous meant rich patsy, artistic meant broke. Two types of daters were assumed to use these ads: the extremely lonely and those with narrowly specific sexual kinks. Before a meeting, one likely knew very little about one's date, other than the fact that he or she would be sporting a glittery beret as a signal.
Online ads, in contrast, are more informative, more frank, and judging from anecdotal evidence, much more popular. Every single single person I know has placed an ad—whether they've done so at self-consciously edgy Spring Street Personals (which fuels Nerve, the Onion, and Salon, among others); over in that big bus station of cow-eyed romance Match.com; at one-stop gay emporium PlanetOut; or at JDate, the Jewish singles site. If there's still any stigma attached to online dating, it's on its way out. Part of this is generational: Young People of Today don't view the Web as dorky (or dangerous) by nature. While everyone has heard scary stories about online romance (beware the pedophiles and married creeps!), the chiding articles, like anti-drug ads, may trigger more curiosity than caution. And then there's the sheer convenience: Where else can you make a romantic impulse-buy at 3 a.m., other than the West Side Highway?
What's more, creating an online ad is in and of itself a weirdly satisfying creative experience—and most often not a solitary one. A newsprint personal is terse and permanent, something one whispers to a copy editor during work hours, hand cupped over the phone. In contrast, a personal ad online is a linked, living creature—it can be drunkenly altered at 2 a.m. or mass-edited by a squad of enthusiastic co-workers or critiqued snarkily via instant message. It can be hidden for six months then revved back to life like a discarded motorcycle.
Rather than seeing this technical innovation as the death of romance, or some kind of mechanized nightmare, I wonder if it isn't in fact a change for the better—and not necessarily because it creates better relationships. (As with most ways of meeting, the payoff rate for online personals is inevitably low, and the oh-well anecdote rate high.) Instead, online dating has social benefits that extend beyond the dinner-and-a-movie circuit. For starters, profiles turn good writing into a turn-on, rewarding wit, concision, and creativity. The best ads find new ways to brag: "I have been told that I am a phenomenal lover" (from a Match ad) is radically less convincing than "I eat the hot sauce with the warning labels" (from Nerve). While plenty of ads are stupid or depressing, sharp language gets you more play, and thus even the dullest profile-writers are forced to gaze at their own words with an editor's eye.
Lately, I've been nudging recently broken-up friends to place ads—because it allows them to start dating (mentally at least) without actually having to date. Besides, the placement of an online ad is a social bonding ritual. People not only edit one another's ads, they cherry-pick ads for their friends to answer, cheer for them if they make "Personal of the Day," and generally get so involved in their friend's dating lives that it's all, granted, a little frightening and occasionally adolescent. But this companionship makes dating less like grim tryouts for Noah's Ark and more like a game of Madlibs. Are guys who mention Henry Rollins likely to be independent-minded or just narcissistically personality disordered? What about yoga: sign of limberness or soft-headed New Age beliefs? These are questions you need your friends' help in figuring out.
Certainly, online ads offer plenty of material to analyze: pictures of pets, lists of favorite movie sex scenes, accounts of geographic origins—in other words, stuff you'd never find in a print ad or even the richest description of a potential blind date. (Among the responses to Nerve's "most humbling moment" question: "having to wear a size XS athletic supporter in 7th grade gym" and "getting cancer at eighteen.") My editor for this piece claims she learned personal details from a friend's ad that she hadn't known about in their seven years of friendship. And unlike purely print ads, online profiles most often have photos. This has at least one major benefit: You can reject, or be rejected, for superficial reasons before ever meeting—in fact, before exchanging a single line of correspondence. (What, it's better to go to the cafe and have an awkward conversation, and then be dumped for your double chin?) The first date itself is transformed by reams of preparatory dialogue: It's more like a real date than a blind one.
But perhaps the best part of the whole personals process is the randomizing effect of diving into a database in the first place. One might imagine that being able to pick and choose hair color and geography would narrow the dating pool—that people would zero in on only someone who fit all their parameters. But in practice, most people are probably lesspicky in an anonymous database than they are in a social situation. In real life, flirting with strangers has all sorts of risks; online, one can take a cautious, well-researched risk. This is perhaps the most idealistic potential of Internet profiles: that they may knock people out of their established social circles. After all, in real life, few people meet cute. We date in the same way we get jobs: through connections. Friends of friends mean same schools, same professions, same ethnic group. This might guarantee compatibility, but it also maintains the social status quo. Paradoxically, by entering the rather rigid and literal-minded algorithms of a computer (as opposed to the two-degrees environment of a party), one is more likely to come across a genuine stranger. It's hardly a radical redistribution of social connections (sites like JDate still focus on like meets like), but it's a nudge outward.
Still, the greatest strength of the online dating sites is their playfulness—they're more like video games than premarital business spreadsheets. In a culture that seems to regard singleness as a problem to be solved, they turn the process of dating into something that can be turned on and off as easily as your computer. Some might call that trivializing. I call it progress.