My friend Michael first ventured upon online dating more than two years ago. He started with chat rooms on gay.com, and at the time, he deemed this as an acceptable way of growing a circle of potential gay friends as he moved into a new city. Despite gay.com’s reputation as an internet quick stop to hooking a lay, there was no way, he assumed, that every chatter on there was a sex fiend. In an east coast city ripe with young professionals and graduate students, he was bound to find others like him who weren’t necessarily looking for hook-ups, but instead found themselves online in search of friends, conversation, and actual, old-fashioned dating—albeit sparked through a new medium.

From what I know, it worked in spurts. Over the past two years, he’s reported a few dates—even chains of dates—all stemming from his chat room adventures. But unless he’s pushed me out of his Circle of Trust, none of the results I’ve heard from him has extended past four outings. Hook-ups? Yes. Dates that ended in sleepovers? Yes. Pursuits that looked promising until date three? Yes. But friendships or relationships of the long term variety? None of that.

And so the same went with Dlist.com, Adam 4 Adam, and even mixed-audience sites like Facebook, MySpace, and Match.com: his participation in sites aimed at both social networking and sex left him, for the most part, empty-handed. He wondered where he went wrong. After all, he put up his best pictures, carefully worded his profiles, and dutifully depicted himself with the sense of humor, intelligence, and fun that make up a generically attractive and mature gay guy. And though I may be biased as a friend of his, I think he’s a pretty good catch. And yet—nothing.

Last week, Michael decided to reverse years of habit and shut the door cold turkey on this ever-so-emerging pathway in both the gay and straight dating worlds: the internet. Dissatisfied with his lack of a substantial gay social life over the last two years, he concluded that the online dating forum was not as clutch as he initially evaluated it to be in terms of assimilating into a gay community or meeting potential mates; instead, it was a crutch that kept him tied to his computer, where he relied on hope and chance that at least some of the hundreds of people in cyberspace who came across his screen name might contact him, that at least one of those connections might indeed be the connection for which he was waiting. He resolved to erase his tracks, delete his profiles, and ditch the World Wide Web for the real world.

I feel like I’ve been there, done that, and then gone there again. Of the people I’ve dated, I’ve met about half of them online. If I compare guys that I’ve met online versus guys that I’ve met in real life, I can’t detect a pattern that would make real life guys better than internet guys, or vice versa. Each mate had his pros and cons; if there were any real differences, then it may be just this: that with the internet guys, I was able to arrive at those pros and cons of humor, intellect, and interest online; that with real life guys, I was able to arrive at the pros and cons of chemistry more. Behind a computer screen, I could message someone’s profile or screen name with relative ease, whereas the equivalent at a club would involve the risk of approaching someone and being rejected to my face. On the other hand, behind a computer screen, others could also be whomever they wanted to be—hotter than, funnier than, cooler than they may have actually been in real life.

I’ve struggled with accepting online dating. I’ve heard it described as a last resort, the final place to try your luck if real life left much to be desired—or if real life felt you left much to be desired. It connotes desperation, social awkwardness, and abnormality, and the actual act of browsing through profiles and messaging isn’t quite as irksome as having to dealing with those stigmas. To defend myself, I’ve argued that the stigma is anti-progressive: online dating, I’ve said, is not at odds with conventional flirting and dating; rather, it’s the same thing happening in a different place. Either path leads to some sort of live interaction anyway. Yet I’ve gone back and forth with giving it up—like Michael, my luck’s been rare and the implications of being an online dater are heavy. I’ve sworn it off in favor of real life endeavors, only to tip toe back into it half a year later, its conveniences and temptation creating a strong gravitational pull.

Although the traditionalist in me has said that I’ll never meet anyone if I keep “looking,” my inner opportunist has also committed to the belief that I’ll never meet anyone if I let any opportunity pass me by—whether it be cyberspace or the counter-space of a bar. If many of my personal and professional achievements have been founded upon by proactive view of my life, then why make this an exception? Inevitably, what does it hurt that I’ve spent moments of downtime scrolling through potential friends or mates? At its worst, it’s procrastinatory entertainment; at its best, it could be my lucky trigger of fate. Is it the best and fastest road to romance? I don’t think so. But is it keeping me hibernating inside my house? I don’t think so either. So when has keeping my options open and playing all my cards ever been a bad thing? Why close any door that could lead to love, no matter how unusual the journey? At the very least, it’s worth a try.

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