Smile Politely

A look into online dating: Part 1

Time for a little self-disclosure. I’m not a Chambana native, but a relatively recent transplant to East Central Illinois. I first visited Champaign about 18 months ago for a job interview. A couple weeks and an obnoxiously exhausting online apartment hunt later, I set foot in this town for only the second time, and started to unpack my life. So here I was, a twenty-something young professional with no ties to UIUC, and quite a bit of time on my hands after work. How could I meet people? I spent most of my evenings that summer with a beer sampler and a book at a local bar, which I had heard was the place to be downtown. Instead of making new friends I would get very awkward looks from whom I assumed to be locals — I seemed to make people uncomfortable. I didn’t even get hit on!

Six months later I was unnecessarily working 70 hour weeks and running (alone) to the point of severe injury and possible late-night assault — anything to avoid admitting that I lived in a bustling new town, was alone, and had few friends. It was time to reassess my networking game plan, so I crafted a New Year’s Resolution to get out and meet people. I figured I found my job online, my car, my apartment, several roommates, my wardrobe, my super fancy HDMI cables — why wouldn’t I use the Internet to look for friends? I answered an online post for a running partner and created a profile at a dating site; I was determined to meet some fellow C-U residents and try something new in this town’s seemingly elusive social scene.

It’s been a year since that time and now I feel so connected to Champaign-Urbana, I’ve been called a “townie.” I owe most of my current social network and many of my weekend activities to the couple of short weeks I spent looking for friends online; I literally can’t leave my apartment without seeing a friend, date, or acquaintance I met through my online encounters. Hell, as I sit here, a guy I met via the Internet walked into the café from where I am typing. Those I met last year introduced me to others, and I even discovered this neato (online!) gig by knowing someone who knew someone. In the last twelve months I’ve had many experiences with the good, the bad, and the totally weird of online dating and friend-finding, so I want to compare notes with friends I’ve met through electronic mediation.

Luke and Suzanne.

Luke was the very first person I communicated with at the beginning of my online adventure over a year ago. We’ve been great friends ever since. This summer he introduced me to his friend Suzanne, who he had also met online.

Emma Reaux: Okay you two, tell us a bit about yourselves and what brought you to Chambana.

Luke: I’m a PhD graduate student at UIUC, age 26. I moved here in 2002 for undergrad.

Suzanne: I’m 31, I teach English and Journalism at a high school around here. I moved here in 2006 for work.

ER: Luke, how did your social life change once you transitioned from undergrad to your PhD program?

L:  I made new friends, but lost some that graduated. People got older. I started doing different stuff — in undergrad, a lot of it revolved around apartment parties. I had a few girlfriends, all of whom I met through friends or at parties.

ER: And now?

L:  A lot more of it comes from online dating.

ER: So how did you first get involved with online dating?

L:  Around when facebook came out I realized there are probably websites where people put up profiles and want to date. So I found some [dating sites].

ER: Tell me about the sites you found.

L:  One is a free online dating site. Its main appeal is that it’s a time vampire — it sucks your time, because it has a whole bunch of questions and tests you can do — a lot of the content is user generated. I was also on a popular site that costs some money.

ER: How is that different from the free site?

L:  You have to pay to be able to use the site fully. Features like contacting people by email, which tends to weed out people who are not very serious about meeting others, or inactive about pursuing a dynamic dating life. This causes a shift in demographic to older people with more stable income. And those are two of the things I look for.

ER: Age and stability?

L:  I want them to have a little bit of life experience and I want them to be somehow already on a good path to accomplishing something in life. So they should be here, finishing undergrad, grad school, post doc, or have a job in the area.

S: Eventually, I want along term relationship. I’m looking for people who want a relationship that means something. I want a family eventually, and someone who is not opposed to that. Also I’m looking for someone who has been through college. I met one guy who is the nicest guy in the whole world, but he doesn’t have a college degree, so that was a problem.

ER: Suzanne, how did you go about meeting people when you first arrived?

S: I met people from work, and through my roommate, her friends and their friends.

ER: When did you first start online dating?

S: That year, 2006, because my roommate had done it, so she convinced me to try it.

ER: How was it to start off with?

S:  Crazy. The people I met at first were weird. I used the same paid site Luke was talking about.

ER: Weird how?

S:  The first date I went on, I let the guy pick me up. He took me to his apartment instead of the restaurant and he immediately tried to kiss me. Then after dinner he tried to kiss me again, so at that point I asked him to take me home and he tried to take me to his apartment and I threatened to call the police.

ER: You must have been terrified.

S:  Even though it was nerve wracking I had looked him up online and he was a professor here and he’d graduated from an Ivy League school, so I figured he had too much to lose to do something stupid. He was obviously just trying to see what he could get out of me.

ER: Do you think a lot of the guys looking for dates online are like that?

S:  No. If they are like that they are more subtle about it. Most say they are just looking for a relationship so that’s why they’re on there. Usually if they are out just for fun you can tell by their profile.

ER: Luke, how did you know these sites were safe to go on? Any horror stories?

L: There were advertisements for the paid sites on TV. And the free one was taunted as a nerd haven at first. Meaning, nerds developed it and there were a whole bunch of people on there who were actually who they claimed to be, and they didn’t want any money. There were definitely some people [I met] who could have been nuts — the evening taking a turn where I’d have to make sure they don’t drink and drive. Otherwise, not really any bad experiences like hers.

ER: Do you think the women you talk to are ever hesitant or nervous to meet someone from the Internet?

L: Oh yeah, definitely. There’s a wide spectrum of how willing women have been to meet me. Many of them had absolutely no problem meeting someplace on short notice, but a few of them had some horror stories of their own, so they were hesitant to meet people. So it varies between those two.

ER:  Is it more difficult for women on these sites to get out and actually meet someone face to face? Like, scarier for them despite the fact they are looking online?

L:  Given the horror stories I’ve heard from female friends who have been on these sites, it seems a bit more troublesome.

ER: Have you ever felt unsafe posting for dates online?

L:  No.

ER: Have any of your dates turned into relationships?

L: Yes. I had about a year-long relationship with someone, and several shorter-term relationships.

S:  The longest relationship I’ve had from online dating was six months. My roommate convinced me to try online dating — she met her husband on there. I met a guy through her, so I stopped online dating for a while, then we broke up and I started again. That’s when I found the guy I dated for six months.

ER:  Do you think these relationships were better than those where you met the person at a bar or party? Did they start any differently?

L:  I think regardless of where I meet people, every relationship is different — I don’t think there’s any difference once it turns into a relationship, but there is a big difference in the beginning. Mainly, that it was often the case that when I had a date scheduled with someone. I would have a date with someone else a day or two later, and the same might have been true for the girl I was meeting. So the main difficulty is that people take a different approach to how they go about meeting people.

S:  I do think they start differently. I guess I was just more comfortable with people I met online right away.

ER:  Yeah well you have already overcome the hurdle of admitting, “Okay, I’m online to look for a date.”

S:  You’ve talked already and you know some things about each other. But sometimes you don’t know because you haven’t met face to face. I’ve actually met someone who was a different race than he said. And another guy who had a daughter he didn’t tell me about — the kid was at the apartment when I met him.

ER: Do you feel like a lot of people are dishonest on there?

S:  No, it’s really strange because the first time I tried online dating was when I met the crazies and liars, and now for whatever reason I don’t. Maybe I’m approaching it differently, or there are more people on it.

ER: Have you had the awkward situation where you had to explain to non-online daters where you met a friend or sig-other?

S: Yeah, I was at a bar with Luke, actually, and some friends were there and asked how we met. Before I could even blink Luke had made up some story. But I think guys are usually more weirded out — it’s more awkward for them to admit it than me.

ER: That’s interesting. I remember Luke once told a room of my date’s friends we had met online and my immediate reaction was embarrassment, even though Luke has only ever been a friend. Luke, you’re so versatile in those situations!

L:  Well you had met that guy online too, so I figured it was okay.

ER: How do you think your life would be different living in C-U if you hadn’t tried online dating?

S:  Boring. I don’t know who I would meet. Alcoholics at the bar? Where do you go to meet people? The grocery store?

L:  A lot of ways I met the people I used to date would be friend of friends.

ER: It’s difficult. I probably looked like one of those alcoholics when I first moved here! At least you’re involved with the University, Luke.

L:  Yeah, but a lot of people I’ve met through the University expressed their displeasure with not wanting to date within their department, and since most of their friends are in their department they decide to try online dating.

S:  I like to run, it’s not like I’m going to stop someone on the street and ask if they want to go out on a date.

L:  Unless you post on “Missed Connections” on Craigslist.

ER: Speaking of, I met my running partner on Craigslist and she’s my best friend in town now.

S: How did you meet her there? Are you selling your running time?

ER: Under “Strictly Platonic.” After a near death experience running alone last January, I searched for fellow runners online. Anyway, back to you two — you met on a dating site. Did you date?

L: Would you call that dating?

S: No, would you?

L: I don’t know.

S: That means we don’t want to answer the question.

L: We might be getting a house together, but strictly as friends, as roommates.

ER: So, is it safe to assume since you got into relationships via online dating that you have slept with people you’ve met on these sites?

L: It is very safe to assume that. I’ve noticed that between LTRs I have a couple more casual sexual relationships. I think it’s like 3-5 casual partners between relationships.

ER: What’s causal?

L:  It means mostly sexual, mostly sex that doesn’t turn into a relationship. But it can turn into a friendship.

ER:  Do you have any extra concerns about having sex with people you meet online than if you met them otherwise?

L:  Safety is always a concern, but it’s the usual — safety, diseases. Getting tested regularly is something everyone should do, regardless of how they meet partners. Another thing that happens is that this is a very small community, so chances are whomever you end up dating, you will have a friend in common.

ER: Since the number of people you meet online is more than you would meet otherwise, does that make it weird to see them everywhere?

L: Depends on how things ended up. I don’t find that I see people more often, though.

S:  I probably don’t have as much sex while online dating because I go on a lot of dates and I refuse to sleep with everyone.

ER: The increased number of dates makes you more picky?

S:   If not for dating online, I’d either be single or in a relationship where it’s unlimited sex.

ER: What’s your criteria before you sleep with someone you meet online versus more naturally?

S: I’m more strict because I don’t want to rack up a big list and you meet more people [online], and need to get to know them more, because you can’t go ask a friend about what that person was like in high school or college or past relationships.

ER:  Even with all the commercials and this whole community of people who use online dating, why do you think it still gets a bad name?

L: Negative stereotypes about it are slowly disappearing. In C-U they don’t seem to hold very well because a lot of people on those sites are simply busy with their careers or they are in school here or professors.

S:   I don’t think it gets a bad name. From the profiles I read the guys say, “I’ve never done this before and it seems awkward,” but I grew up on the Internet, so it doesn’t seem awkward to me. Maybe it’s more weird for older people who haven’t had access to the Internet their whole lives.

ER: Do younger generations seem more open to meeting people this way?

S: Absolutely. I think it’s fun but I think guys get the bad rap, they have to do the majority of the work. They still pay for me when we go out. Even if I offer they won’t let me pay. That must get expensive.

ER: We must have met different guys. I was going out so often, I went broke!

S: I think I probably paid for maybe two dates ever.

ER: That would be nice — free meals! Do you think you’ve experienced more of C-U from doing this?

S: No, but I did start biking thanks to someone I met, which was new.  

ER: What is the biggest selling point for you about using these sites, since it seems like you’ve used them for a while?

L: They work for me.

ER: What has been your favorite part or moment?

L:  The friendships I’ve developed and the relationships I’ve had. I’ve grown a lot and experienced a lot because of the people I met.

ER: Is online dating a lifestyle now?

S: Yes, until I can’t date anymore. I’ve met better guys online than I have through my friends.

ER: And I’ve met great friends like you two thanks so those sites! Cheers!
Have stories about online dating, or using the Internet to meet people in C-U? Email me at [email protected] and we might use your story in Part II of this article!

Photo illustration by Emma Reaux and Ross Floyd

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