SHOE LEATHER: Reported Stories

How the Internet has and hasn’t changed college courtship

by Elizabeth Dana

She was halfway there, walking through a stretch of deep, ancient leafy shadows, when she became aware of the scritching sound of someone in sneakers running up behind her. She didn’t turn around; but then: “Yo! Hey! Excuse me!” …It was the huge guy from the French class, the wantonly stupid one who had tried to pick her up. How about lunch?
… “What do you want?”
“I just wanted to apologize, that’s all. Honest.”
… “For what?”
“For the other day,” said the giant, “for the way I acted, the way I just walked up…” He blushed, which to Charlotte was an indication he might be sincere and hadn’t simply devised a new way to “hit on” her, as the terminology here at Dupont [University] seemed to be.
... “Come on, let me make it up to you. Let’s go have lunch at Mr. Rayon.”

-- Tom Wolfe, I Am Charlotte Simmons

On a Friday night in January, I received a text message from my friend Michelle, a 22-year-old senior at New York University. I had helped her set up an online dating profile on OkCupid earlier in the night, and the first few messages from potential suitors had started to trickle in. When my phone lit up, I opened the text to find a screen shot of her OkCupid inbox.

MESSAGE FROM: cooljewnyc (26% match)

hi michelle,

very cute profile. i’d love to do some bong hits with you!


Though the quality of these respective pickup lines is a matter for a different discussion—both the inboxes OkCupid and the pages of Charlotte Simmons contain lines better and worse than these—there is something in these two incidents of collegiate courting that reinforces the old marketing axiom: the medium is the message.

The American understanding of the college years—reinforced by both exaggerated pop culture portrayals and the behavior of actual college students—is a picture of intense socialization, sexual experimentation and romantic entanglements. This picture has crystallized in the decades since the 1960s, as casual sexual encounters have replaced dating as the primary vehicle for college romance. “Most images that we see today of college students are in a sex-charged atmosphere like MTV’s Spring Break , where bikini contests, bump and grind dances, and ‘beach sports’ with barely clothed contestants are common scenes,” writes Kathleen A. Bogle in her book on college sexuality, Hooking Up: Sex, Dating and Relationships on Campus .

While these elements form a significant part of college life, in the Internet age, meeting and flirting happen as much online as on the quad. Though the Internet is not conventionally thought of as a place for college students to meet and mingle, a surprising number of them are signing on to find dates. Paid services, like and eHarmony , cater to older, financially independent daters, but free services like OkCupid and DateMySchool are attracting the 18-to-22-year-old set. Even college students who would never “date online” still conduct a significant portion of their romantic lives virtually: researching potential dates on Facebook and flirting on Gchat.

Student on Computer

33 percent of American college students rated the Internet as “most important” in their daily lives.

It’s not news that college students are avid Internet users. The Cisco Connected World Technology Report , released in September of last year, found that nearly half of college students rate the Internet as “close” in importance to food, air, water and shelter. The same study found that 33 percent of American college students rated the Internet as “most important” in their daily lives—more than the 23 percent who chose “going out with friends” and the eight percent who chose “dating.” Though this reliance on the Internet is not unique to college students, the fact that that a third of the students surveyed prefer to spend time on the Internet than with their friends is a sharp departure from the classic image of college students hanging out in the student union or on the quad. As the Internet has become a ubiquitous part of college life, the stereotypical dichotomy of the beer-bonging frat guy and the solitary computer geek no longer applies. In many ways, American college students are both.

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Dating in college has always been a little different from dating in the outside world. The insular, youthful campus environment makes college a relatively easy place to find a date. The intensity of college socialization has led to somewhat-unique dating practices: fraternity pins to signify a relationship, or the pressure to engage in binge drinking or casual sex. As mores have evolved, so have the ways that students date: from the turn-of-the-century “calling era” to the post-sexual-revolution trend of “hooking up.”

The modern college campus is a perfect incubator for a culture of sexual experimentation. The combination of youth, freedom and alcohol creates an environment that often encourages casual sexual encounters. Students who go to the same university have much in common—they are often demographically similar and have mutual friends, classes and experiences. At most campuses, everyone lives within walking distance from each other. A physical encounter with a relative stranger feels much safer within the walls of a college campus than in the outside world. Often, once students graduate, they leave this riskier behavior behind and go on more formal dates than their undergraduate counterparts.

Hooking Up was published in 2008, and the casual sexual relationships Bogle describes have remained the dominant form of campus romance in the years since. But Hooking Up focuses entirely on the in-person interactions between students at frat parties and bars and in the privacy of the dorms. The Internet only makes a few brief appearances in Bogle’s book, and she seems surprised the few times students bring it up. In an interview with a student investigating the “booty call” phenomenon, Lisa, a sophomore, explains the process:

Lisa: Like it’s usually a friend or something like that and they basically just want to hook up and that’s why they called you. Or computer IM’s [Instant Messenger], they happen now too.

Kathleen Bogle: You [can] do a booty call over the IM? ( Laughs )

Lisa: Yeah. ( Laughs )

With the explosive popularity of social networking, not only can students booty-instant-message their potential paramours, they can also search their profiles and discover a significant amount of information about them without ever having to ask. Facebook in particular creates a space for students to find out who is single and who will be at Friday’s party. A scene in The Social Network imagines how Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg), considered this idea integral to the site’s design:

“People wanna go on the Internet and check out their friends, so why not build a website that offers that? Friends, pictures, profiles, whatever. You can visit, browse around. Maybe it's someone you just met at a party. But I'm not talking about a dating site. I'm talking about taking the entire social experience of college and putting it online.”

As many students can attest, Facebook has achieved this goal, and more. Not only has it captured the college experience and put it online, it has changed the way college students socialize.

For today’s students, the etiquette of online connection and communication can be almost as involved as the antiquated dating rituals of eras past. Michelle Gao, a senior at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and self-described “Internet stalker,” explained how she uses Facebook to connect with people at a large campus like the University of Illinois.

“My roommate liked a guy in her class and discovered the first letter of his last name and we found him on Facebook—go us!—and we found out we had so many friends in common,” she said. A Facebook page, in conjunction with a Google search, can tell Michelle a great deal of what she needs to know about someone. “From that, even if I’ve only met you once, I can tell if I want to get to know you more or if I hate all of your favorite movies.”

Based on a look at her Facebook page, Michelle is petite, with long, black hair and a round face. She sings in a campus cover band, and has penned several posts about her love for mashed potatoes.

After seeing her peers struggle with the problems that arise from combining a social life with social networking, Michelle helped organize a workshop on campus about technology and relationships. As Michelle and other students have realized, the Internet can provide both comforting distance and uncomfortable closeness in personal relationships. An online profile can be managed and controlled to give the impression a student is aiming for, but it also gives access and information to people she might want to avoid.

“A lot of people like technology because you can edit yourself and put your best foot forward, but that’s not how real life works,” said Michelle during a phone interview in January. She says she still meets most of her friends the old fashioned way. “You need those awkward moments,” she added. “You need those facial cues.”

The fundamental questions are the same as they have ever been...The striking change is the way these questions are answered.

A wide social network can also make romantic mistakes harder to forget. “Freshman year I made out with someone at a party and he friended me on Facebook,” said Michelle. “I was like, ‘Whoa, I was never supposed to see you again.’ It definitely makes me think twice.”

For Michelle and her friends, the fundamental questions are the same as they have ever been [.]: How do I know if someone is single? How do I start talking to him? How do I know if we have anything in common? The striking change is the way these questions are answered.

Students in the Quad

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“Say, who are all these women?” demanded Kerry one day, protesting at the size of Amory’s mail.
…Amory grinned.
“All from the Twin Cities.” He named them off. “There’s Marylyn De Witt—she’s pretty, got a car of her own and that’s damn convenient; there’s Sally Weatherby—she’s getting too fat; there’s Myra St. Claire, she’s an old flame, easy to kiss if you like it—”
“What line do you throw ‘em?” demanded Kerry. “I’ve tried everything, and the mad wags aren’t even afraid of me.”
…”Sulk,” suggested Amory. “Tell ‘em you’re wild and have ‘em reform you—go home furious—come back in half an hour—startle ‘em.”
…February dripped snow and rain, the cyclonic freshman mid-years passed, and life in 12 Univee continued interesting if not purposeful.

--F. Scott Fitzgerald, This Side of Paradise

On a cold evening in November, I am late to a meeting with Sophie Bloomfield in Bryant Park. I text her a quick apology and, after several laps around the ice skating rink in an attempt to find our meeting place, I see her, her scarlet jacket standing out against the crush of black and gray coats.

Sophie is the roommate of a friend. We have met a few times before, and the one thing I really know about her is that she spends a lot of time on the Internet. Every time I have visited her apartment, I have found her sitting cross-legged in front of her computer, her cat, Baby, curled on her lap, a single desk lamp and the laptop’s glow the only light in her otherwise cave-like room. When I see her out, at a party or during this interview, it feels a little peculiar. For a moment, I picture her computer alone in her empty room, its screen glowing, waiting for her return.

Sophie has been communicating with friends she met online since high school, but it is only since moving to New York four years ago to attend Long Island University that she began dating online. She has met some dates through OkCupid, others through fiction-writing web forums and Tumblr . “I’ve met quite a few people from the Internet.” She pauses, then laughs. “It’s such a weird thing to say, like ‘I know a lot of people from Milwaukee.’”

We sit at a small metal table overlooking the skating rink. She is gregarious, good-humored and frank. She speaks quickly and laughs often, with a hint of self-deprecation. “How does the Internet affect my social life?” she repeats my question back to me. “The Internet is my social life.”

Sophie is in a relationship with a chef who lives in Las Vegas, whom she has never met in person. They met virtually on a writing forum over a year ago, and have been dating for the last several months. Though they have never been in the same room together, their friendship developed over discussions of fiction techniques and eventually led to romantic feelings. She hates Skype, so instead of video chatting, they usually text and chat online. He is recently divorced and has children. I ask her if she feels attracted to him, even though they have never met. She says yes. The chemistry comes through writing. “It’s easier to say certain things online,” she explains, and then qualifies, “But I’m really terrible at dirty talk.” When I check in with her a few months later, they had broken up, though for reasons having “nothing to do with the Internet.” They never had the chance to meet in person.

This was not her first Internet relationship—last summer she dated a teacher from Philadelphia she met online. Sophie has mixed feelings about the experience and is well aware of the problems that can arise from only knowing someone through type. “If I had met him in person, there might have been more red flags,” she says.

Even so, like many of her peers, Sophie would much rather talk online or over text than have a conversation on the phone. “I’m like ‘Hey! E-mail me! Please, please don’t call me,’” she says.

A “LOL” can signal anything from mild amusement to outright hilarity, but there is no time or need to explore the nuances in the rapid-fire pace of online chatting.

The advantage of online communication over a phone call or in-person conversation is a common theme among the students I spoke to. Many find that when talking online, the stakes feel lower. A profession of feeling that is not reciprocated can be chalked up to a misunderstood joke. Awkward situations can be escaped by simply signing off. Answers can be timed, calculated, edited and rewritten. Online chatting even has its own unique dialect constructed from acronyms and emoticons, shortcuts for expressing feelings and facial expressions. A “LOL” can signal anything from mild amusement to outright hilarity, but there is no time or need to explore the nuances in the rapid-fire pace of online chatting. There is no one watching your facial expressions or hearing your “ums” as you formulate a response. The emotional distance of the Internet allows those who struggle in person but shine through the written word—people like Sophie—to communicate at their best.

But though technology has increased the speed and prevalence of written communication, this preference for writing is not necessarily a new phenomenon. “My grandparents talk about how they wrote letters during the war, and how they found themselves willing to expose certain things to one another in that format that they then had difficulty talking about when they finally met again to be married,” Danah Boyd , a scholar who researches social media at NYU and Harvard, wrote in an e-mail. “What made me smile was to learn that they still, on occasion, wrote letters to one another even when they lived together. Some things were easier to say that way.”

Sophie is finishing up her senior thesis at LIU, a printmaking project about birds, and plans to go to grad school for an MFA in printmaking. She finds that the ability to connect based on common interests makes her online relationships more fulfilling than those with people she meets at school. “Even in college classes you meet people who you don’t necessarily have things in common with,” she says. “I can be more honest on the Internet. I like that about myself. At school I have to put away my intellectual side.”

Sophie is a writer too. She describes the fiction she writes, with the help of these online communities, as “post-modern.” She leaves the Internet out of her stories; her characters never meet anyone online. Sophie knows her social life is a little unconventional, but seems to find it fulfilling. “I have friends,” she says. “They’re just on the Internet.”

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Online dating sites are much more popular among students who attend urban schools than for those who live on isolated campuses. Students in cities like Boston and New York, with multiple colleges and thriving singles scenes, are more likely to venture into online dating as a way to connect with people in their city but not necessarily on their campus. However, one enterprising dating website is trying to capitalize on college students’ comfort with social networking and desire for a date, whether they live in a big city or a college town., founded in 2010 by Columbia Business School students Jean Meyer and Balazs Alexa, is a dating site exclusive to colleges and universities. With 55,000 members in over 600 schools, DateMySchool has expanded rapidly over the past two years. The site operates on the assumption that college students might be more comfortable dating their classmates than people in the wider world. Only those with an .edu e-mail address can sign up for the site, though undergraduates, graduate students and alumni are all welcome.

Students in the Class

The paradox of DateMySchool is that it is a dating site whose focus on privacy borders on obsession. Unlike other dating sites, a DateMySchool user can filter who sees his profile by school, department and age, in an attempt to allow only those who are both “unknown” and “trusted” to find him. This site has none of the naiveté of early iterations of MySpace or Facebook. Rather, it seems tailored to a generation comfortable with the Internet but well aware of its darkest corners and potential for embarrassments. This is a cohort raised on tales of web predators and jokes riffing on the pathetic nature of online dating.

Finding a date through a mathematical algorithm derived from your interests and preferences, is somehow much more embarrassing than going out with a stranger you met on the subway.

“You'll only discover students and alumni you don't know but can automatically trust because they go to the same school, pay the same tuition and share the same academic goals as you,” Alexa wrote in an e-mail. He emphasized the importance of transitioning to an in-person meet-up, making the actual site seem auxiliary. The message seems to be: sign on, meet someone and get off as soon as possible. But even though the management focuses on in-person connection, DateMySchool is still in the business of online communication. Users must first seduce with the written word. Jokey, clever, flirtatious messages are the online equivalent of making eyes across the study carrel.

DateMySchool is aware of the negative stereotypes surrounding online dating. It’s happy to exploit user insecurity: primarily by extolling the importance of privacy and anonymity. A video on the DateMySchool homepage shows a cartoon of a young woman being laughed at by her peers when they find out she dates online. “DMS is zero embarrassment,” said Melanie Wallner, the site’s PR director, in an e-mail. “Members can remain anonymous on campus and even in class by limiting their profile-access to folks they’d never see offline.”

But why would a generation of over-sharers feel embarrassed about dating online? We are already well aware of the people our peers (“friends,” in the context of social networking, is a meaningless term) are dating, what they did last weekend and what they made for dinner. Why would a group of people so enamored with the Internet⎯who already flirt, chat and stalk each other online⎯feel so hesitant about taking that principle just one step further by creating an online dating profile? What is it about the traditional offline dating narrative that makes it endure? This is a generation that thrives on information and new technology and snarky cynicism. And yet finding a date on a sleek new dating site, through a mathematical algorithm derived from your interests and preferences, is somehow much more embarrassing than going out with a stranger you met on the subway.

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It is Thursday night in December and four young women—three college seniors and one recent graduate—are scattered around a bedroom of an East Village apartment. They’re sharing a liter-sized bottle of Pinot Grigio and talking about—what else?—dating.

“I was never actually going to do it,” says Rathna, a striking Indian girl who speaks in an analytical rapid-fire that betrays her ambition to be an attorney. “So the reason I feel weird is that I feel like I’ve sunk to my last resort.”

Kelsey Schroth, a drama major with a blue-green highlight streaking through her dark brown hair, is nearby, reclined on Rathna’s bed. “I feel like this is also way younger than I expected to be,” she agrees. “Like I’m 21 years old and I’m looking into online dating. Isn’t that what 77 year-old widows do?”

Rathna’s roommate, Harini Venkitarama, a 21-year-old banker with a Minnie Mouse voice, breaks in. “I think older people get into online dating because they have figured out something late in life that we are figuring out young,” she says. “Online dating is awesome!”

Rathna is not so easily reassured. “At the same time, as much as I know it’s normal because all my friends do it, when I go home for example, if I tell people I’m dating online… that’s not going to work.”

“So don’t tell people,” Harini says.

“But this isn’t a college campus with frats, where you see people you go to college with, people your own age, at the same places,” says Kelsey, articulating a problem that affects students at large, sprawling institutions like NYU.

Harini is undaunted by Rathna’s protests. “Rathna,” Harini says, “we’re making you an OkCupid.”

“I understand,” she replies. “And I do want to do it, but it’s a very complicated thing in my life and I wish it weren’t. And, to be fair, God knows that what we’re doing now is not working to meet guys, so…” She trails off. Harini fires up the computer.

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A few months later, Rathna is dating a very tall paralegal she met on OkCupid. She is happy, but her reservations about using the site have not diminished. She and her boyfriend have both decided that if they break up, neither of them will attempt online dating again. I ask her how she would prefer to meet people, if she has so much hesitation about dating online. “Every other successful relationship I’ve had has started through mutual friends, or when we came to a place where no one knew each other and everyone had to make friends,” she says, listing the first weeks of college and a summer internship as examples.

For many college students, online dating bears little resemblance to the ideal dating narrative. There is something deeply appealing about the idea that a friend might suddenly want to be more than friends, or that in a large group of new people someone chooses you as the person they want to be with. Romantic comedies are filled with charming ways for characters to meet: at a bar, in yoga class, at the dog park. Much of the allure of these scenarios comes from the mix of spontaneity and serendipity: of being picked out of the crowd while just going about daily life.

With perhaps the exception of the movie You’ve Got Mail , there is very little romance or whimsy in the online part of online dating. It involves trusting your romantic future to an algorithm and your ability to articulate your best attributes. You assess potential dates based on a profile picture and a few paragraphs. This leads many students to trade the fantasy of the serendipitous encounter for the fantasy of the ideal match. “Many people are obsessed with who will be their ‘perfect’ mate,” explains Boyd. “They imagine this person based on their descriptive qualities and then go looking. Most online environments encourage this kind of imagination-driven dating pattern.”

This superficial, “imagination-driven” profile surfing explains some of students’ discomfort with dating online. Much of the advantage of casual dating in college is that failures can be blamed on awkward circumstances, strong drinks or stress. The stakes are lower and people rarely get around to stating explicitly what they want out of a relationship. College students often describe their romantic encounters as “random” or something that “just happened.” By absenting themselves from the process, they never have to admit responsibility.

But waiting for a serendipitous connection in the outside world is clearly not enough for many college students. Creating an online profile offers a chance to actively pursue a romantic connection, but is also an avenue to more vulnerability. Though people are judgmental both online and in person, you have more control over how you are perceived in an online profile. The fledgling research in this area finds that we think about ourselves differently when we know people on the Internet are watching and evaluating us. In Born Digital —a book marketed as a sort of user guide for the parents of “Digital Natives”—John Palfrey and Urs Gasser argue that the Internet is crucial to identity and relationship formation for young people. “The creation and revision of identity [online] is a sort of feedback loop,” they write. As Palfrey and Gasser describe, you project your identity online, others respond and you adjust accordingly. In online dating and social networking, users are constantly forced to ask themselves: what is so attractive about me? And then adjust their personalities/profiles accordingly.

When people are online looking for a date with specific attributes, this feedback loop gets even stronger. Online daters may be rewarded for having an attractive picture or a witty profile, but they are also more likely to be rejected for something equally superficial—for being short, unphotogenic or listing a schmaltzy TV show, like “The Bachelor,” as their favorite. The reason that students are so drawn to the Internet is also the reason online dating can be terrifying. Editing and perfecting a profile lets you put the best version of yourself out there, but what does it mean, then, if no one likes the best version of you?

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Someone comes in I don’t want to see so I start talking to this Freshman sort-of-yuppie guy. “Brewski for Youski?” he asks.
…I keep talking to this square. This guy who after every bit of innocuous info he hands me says in a tone that he thinks sounds subversively hip, “Hey, Laura,” and I keep telling him, “Look my name’s not Laura, got it?” and he keeps calling me Laura, so finally I’m about to tell him off when suddenly I realize I don’t know his name. He tells me. It’s what? Steve? He, Steve, doesn’t like that I’m smoking. The typical drunk (not too drunk) nervous Freshman.

--Bret Easton Ellis, The Rules of Attraction

Rebecca Vineyard is beautiful in a way that appeals to boys who like comic books. Her large, round, green eyes suggest a damsel in distress. Her lopsided, wry smile reads “woman of mystery.” The nimbus of dark, curly hair framing her face is almost cartoon-like. She has a signature pair of black suspenders that she pairs with a bright yellow belt.

Rebecca is 22 years old and a senior at NYU. But she’s also an artist, and always has various filmmaking, acting and writing projects in the works. The Craigslist post that led to her last relationship was originally meant to provide inspiration for one of these projects.

“What better way to get fodder for a performance piece than Craigslist?” she posits during a Skype interview from Florence, where she was studying abroad, last November.

She never meant it to be a true personal ad, though her dating experience at NYU so far hasn’t produced any satisfactory relationships. Attending an art school where straight men are scarce makes it hard to meet someone she can connect with, she says. However, prior to her Craigslist post, she had never considered turning to the Internet.

The post was short and listed in the personals section. “‘I want to talk to somebody. I’m bored.’ That was the gist of it,” she says. “And I told them to put ‘Spiderman’ in the subject of their e-mail.”

She received several responses, including crude, grammar-less invitations for sex. But one reply stood out.

Talking online is a way to plant yourself in that person’s mind. It’s easier and stealthier than picking up the phone."

“I’m Phil, 24, vaguely hipsterish, completely awkward. No velociraptors. Looking forward to hearing from you, unless you’re a velociraptor,” says Rebecca, recalling the e-mail from memory. Phil and Rebecca’s shared sense of humor was enough to keep them e-mailing each other for several weeks. They sent pictures and agreed to meet in person.

Rebecca repeats several times that she had “nothing to lose” by meeting Phil offline. It seemed unlikely that he was a Craigslist killer, so the most painful thing that could happen was an excruciating blind date. She was game for the adventure, but with hindsight, adds, “It would not be my ideal way to meet somebody.” The two dated for several months before she left for Florence. Once she came back, they were friendly but no longer involved.

Rebecca says she would prefer to meet someone in person, but often takes advantage of the emotional distance online communication allows. “I’ve never dated a guy that I didn’t talk to a lot online. Talking online is a way to plant yourself in that person’s mind,” she says. “It’s easier and stealthier than picking up the phone. I’m terribly awkward in person.” She laughs in a low, self-conscious way.

In the struggle between the distant sardonicism of the Internet and the terrifying messiness of real life, many students feel more comfortable with the cut-and-dried clarity of a dating site.

Rebecca has a DateMySchool profile, but, like Rathna and Kelsey, considers it a “last resort kinda thing.” But in the struggle between the distant sardonicism of the Internet and the terrifying messiness of real life, Rebecca seems to [many students] feel more comfortable with the cut-and-dried clarity of a dating site. “Sometimes, the guys you meet in person—the intentions aren’t as clear,” she says. “When you go on an online dating site, you want to go on a date. You can go online and state what you want and there’s no risk because the person isn’t right there.”

But stating what you want so explicitly carries its own risk. Creating a dating profile admits to singleness, which even for college students can be surprisingly shameful. It shows an active pursuit of what you want, which is difficult for those who cling to a laissez-faire concept of cool. In-person flirting thrives on eye contact and body language: the tension under the surface of a banal conversation. An online profile, on the other hand, is as clear as it gets. Though being online removes you from an in-person interaction, you are less removed from your motives. You are not out at a bar with your friends, or just playing Frisbee on the quad, when someone approaches you. You are online to find a date.

At Rice University, a college of 3,700 undergraduates sequestered in a leafy pocket of Houston, the tight-knit campus has earned a reputation for high marriage rates among Rice alums. However, for students who are not part of the mainstream dating culture, and especially for queer students, this environment can be isolating.

David, a gay sophomore philosophy major has attempted something many of his straight classmates would never dream of doing: he dates online. “If you’re straight, you can go to a party and expect to hook up at the end of the night,” he says. “I would say the main difference between straight dating and gay dating at any small school is if you’re looking for a gay relationship you have to put yourself out there.”

David is a lean young man with a shock of black hair, dark-framed glasses, and a charming smile. Frustrated with the gay dating scene at school, and wanting to put himself “out there,” he signed up for a few dating sites in Houston and in his hometown of Baltimore. He went on dates with two different men in Baltimore, but has yet to find “anyone of substance.” He has had difficulty finding someone online with whom he feels comfortable. “In the gay community there’s an implicit sense of promiscuity,” he says. “That narrative underlies online dating.”

As far as his classmates, David has found a few others with profiles on dating sites, but is unsure of how to approach them. He described his online dating experience as “very awkward.” His ambivalence is telling, and he asked me not to use his last name for fear that news of his online activities might reach his classmates. Though he is pursuing a perfectly logical solution to his problem—the paucity of gay men on his campus—diverging from the norm of meeting someone in class or at a party is a source of embarrassment for him.

David and Rebecca have discovered online something that anyone who has ever been on a date—virtually or in person—already knows: dating is awkward. But while they might have been wallflowers in a pre-Internet age, now all that awkwardness can be packaged into a dating profile and sold as wit. A profile, as a managed image, provides a degree of distance, a distance that makes many college students, coming of age in the era of online communication, feel much more comfortable.


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But one sunny, cold morning in February Elgin saw her standing in front of Sever Hall. She was wearing long blue woolen socks, and she was talking to a pock-marked boy in a raccoon overcoat. Elgin suddenly turned and went into Sever and waited in the hall until the bell rang. The girl came in and Elgin followed her upstairs and into a classroom; he sat three rows in back of her. It was a course given by Professor Bush on Metaphysical Poets of the Seventeenth Century. And that afternoon Elgin went and got permission to transfer from The Victorian Novel into that class.

--Harold Brodkey, Sentimental Education

Keren Baruch, a sophomore at the University of Buffalo, is convinced that her classmates are hopeless when it comes to communication. The modern preference for type instead of talk, in her opinion, has degraded college relationships beyond repair. As the first-ever sex columnist for the UB Spectrum , Keren has a knack for writing unsettling food-related double entendres (“Ready for his gooey marshmallow to make the inside of your graham crackers complete”), and her columns manage to be simultaneously encouraging and blunt.

Underneath all the food metaphors, though, she takes a rather apocalyptic view of the modern dating dynamic. “Dating has definitely become a lot less personal and special,” she wrote in an e-mail in February. “The Internet has decreased the romanticism that is felt the first time a couple says ‘I love you,’ because when it's said online it just isn't the same.” Keren attributes this overall decline to problems like Facebook-induced jealousy, a lack of honest communication and the shallowness of relationships formed online rather than in person.

“A Skype or iChat date is equivalent to going out to dinner in some people's eyes,” she said. “It’s common to go days without speaking to a partner in person due to all of the easily accessible methods of online communicating. The Internet has spoiled the beauty of solid relationships that form in person.”

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My own attempt at online dating occurred in the spring of my junior year. The first date I went on was with a tall, blond video editor from Nebraska named Dan. It had been a while since I had been on a formal date, and I was nervous but hopeful. He fit much of my criteria for an online match—over six feet tall, smart, artistic, cute. I was smitten by the Midwestern charm evident in his profile (several photographs of him wearing plaid and smiling). His messages to me were witty and genuine. He had been in New York for several years and lived in a loft in Williamsburg. In his spare time, he liked to paint.

We met on a Saturday at the Pulse Contemporary Art Fair in Chelsea. I remember feeling self-conscious because my voice was hoarse and I was a little hung over. It didn’t seem to bother him though, because I soon felt his hand on the small of my back. I was surprised by his boldness—we had met less than 30 minutes before—but pleased by the attention. We looked at art and made small talk about school, movies and music. He was drawn to intricate, geometric line drawings. I was fascinated by two enormous photographs of children dressed in Edwardian clothes with haunting, ice blue eyes. We both thought a sculpture made from an old guitar and some silk flowers was stupid.

After a bit of awkward dithering, we decided to have dinner at a nearby Thai restaurant. I had let on that I didn’t have any plans for the rest of the day, and he admitted that he didn’t either. Though it seemed unconventional, we decided to keep the date going. We went to a bar near Union Square for drinks and Skee-Ball. Over pints of Checker Cab, he told me about his dream of making a children’s movie about a bird learning to fly. He explained that he wanted the bird to be female, because there aren’t enough children’s movies with good female heroines.

After hearing horror stories and cautionary tales about online dating, I couldn’t believe my luck with Dan. He was good-looking, smart and charming. We had much in common, beyond what we had written in our profiles. We were a good match on OkCupid, and, it seemed, in real life as well.

Though I had promised that my hand-eye coordination was miserable, I ended up scoring over 200 points in our game of Skee-Ball, beating him handily. He seemed baffled by the upset, but good-naturedly bought me a drink to celebrate my victory. We walked for ten or fifteen minutes to another bar on the Lower East Side. We talked about our families and about growing up in the Midwest. I showed him pictures of my dog. Some time after midnight, he walked me home and left me with a hug. We had spent a total of nine hours together, laughing and drinking and getting along famously. I never saw or heard from him again.

Maybe despite all our high-tech improvements—our emoticon-filled messages, our online personas, our mathematical algorithms—dating is still an exercise in the randomness of human emotion.

I didn’t let Dan’s abrupt rejection deter me from online dating, but I was mystified by his coldness. Didn’t he at least owe me a text telling me that he was too busy, or never got over his ex-girlfriend, or was moving to Thailand or something? Online dating was supposed to be more civilized than this. We had both wanted to go on a date, we were deemed compatible by OkCupid’s algorithm, and we had a great time together. So where did it go wrong?

Maybe it was because we had no mutual friends. No overlapping social circle would force us to run into each other again, and silence was easier than a conversation. Or maybe it is fundamentally easier to reject someone who you met through an Internet dating site. No matter how good the in-person connection, it was never a physical spark that brought you together. Or maybe it had absolutely nothing to do with the Internet. Maybe despite all our high-tech improvements—our emoticon-filled messages, our online personas, our mathematical algorithms—dating is still an exercise in the randomness of human emotion. Maybe it was because sometimes you meet someone, and it doesn’t matter how you met him, and you have a great time and he never calls you again.

NYU Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute