I was fourteen years old when the first modern computer entered my household. We were not a well-off family nor were we ever on the forefront of technology. During the Betamax versus VHS VCR War, my family firmly entrenched in the Betamax camp. My eldest uncle had the best toys, and when he upgraded his computer he made a gift of his old one to us, a CompuDyne computer, with an original Pentium processor and 64 MB of memory.
The computer lived in the living room of my family home, on a worn mahogany desk that belonged to my grandfather. Initially it replaced the typewriter and we played simple games, run from a floppy disk. On the computer was a program called America OnLine. We signed up for 10 free hours of access and before it had expired, I was awarded a free account for creating content for the Teen Community of AOL. Now, with unlimited time to roam the Internet, I read message boards and used the chat room function to speak with strangers from across the country and the world.
In a private chat with a person behind the screen name of LovesKittens78 who claimed to be a sixteen year-old girl living in New York, our talk quickly turned sexual. While I don’t fully remember what we talked about, I do remember thinking, “People are going to use this thing to get laid.”
I sat in an empty apartment I used to share with my daughter and her mother staring at four bare walls spattered with the mottled yellow light from the streetlamps, boxes and wires littering the corners. I sat in the lone chair, too large and worn to make the trip with Leigh to her new place. She and my daughter were unpacking their boxes in a new apartment, the six-year-old not really helping but enjoying the flurry of activity. She wouldn’t delay falling asleep tonight. There were still a few days on the lease, and so I decided to stay until it had expired. There was no mattress, so I just slept in the worn chair.
I returned from Iraq unscathed in the early days of 2006 and now as the snow on the ground melted and green returned to the landscape, I was still looking for a job. I worked downtown at a law firm as a messenger and a friend there had suggested that since I was newly single and newly a veteran of war, I should try out some online dating. The online registration process was intimidating throughout. I first had to choose a Screen Name. My email addresses up to this point had been some form of my own name, but I wanted a barrier between my profile and the real me. After a few moments, I laughed at my own cleverness and typed out “Write Guy.” I clicked forward and instead of the next step I saw official-looking red letters:
“Invalid Screen Name. Screen names must be between 6 and 16 characters and cannot contain profanity, your email address, spaces, or phone numbers.”
I frowned and deleted the space. Again with the red letters:
“That screen name is in use.”
Below that I was given different options:
Was I really so unoriginal? If I couldn’t even come up with a screen name that stood out, was I doomed to fail? I chose the one with the underscore. The next page was intimidating. I entered my height, body type, hair color, eye color, relationship status, income, and that I had a child. Then it got tricky. The next question was whether or not my child lived with me. She used to, or more accurately, I lived with her and her mother. Now she and her mother lived somewhere else. Does your child live with you? No.
The next bit of direction: tell us more about yourself. The prompts encouraged far more questions than answers.
Who are you?
Who is your ideal person?
Are you looking for marriage?
Do you want more children?
What do you do for fun?
Describe your perfect first date!
I had no idea if I wanted to get married and who that ideal person would be. I had never thought about if I wanted more kids or even what I would find fun anymore. The fun I knew how to have was the fun that Dads knew how to have when handling the kids and the women and, if it was your place, the grill. How did a single man have fun? I didn’t remember. I didn’t even know who I was, anymore.
A Different World
There were many reasons I was genuinely excited to return to college as a full-time student once the Post-9/11 GI Bill passed into law. I not only had a chance to finish up my degree, but I was determined to appreciate the connections one can make this time around. After enlisting in the Army in 1998, I spent a semester at Lock Haven University and I made many friends, losing touch with all of them. My fraternity wore camouflage and carried M-16s, not hacky sacks and hemp pullovers. In my youthful arrogance, I assumed I was better than my civilian college peers. The impetus was on these so-called friends to keep in touch and it was their loss if they failed to do so. Only, it was my loss too. Friends and lovers, roommates and smoking buddies, all lost to carelessness and time.
I went back to college ten years later; only, college wasn’t what I remembered it to be. No one at the Robert Morris University campus played Frisbee on the quad nor were they lounging under trees with books open and ignored. It was a small student population, so faces soon became familiar, especially those students whose schedules lined up: an hour for lunch between classes on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday; the same quiet workspace in the library on Thursday evenings; or fifteen minutes each Tuesday smoking outside of the Sewall Center. Only, their faces were always buried in their phones or laptops. Striking up unsolicited conversation just wasn’t done.
“Hey, I see you all the time and I just wanted to introduce myself,” I said to the woman at the table over from mine in the student union. She removed headphones and half-closed the screen of her gray laptop emblazoned with a shining white apple.
“I’m sorry?” She said. I repeated myself. She looked at me head tilted, confused. “Are we Facebook friends or something?
A year later, at the first college house party I attended in almost a decade, I spoke to the only other over thirty-year-old in the room. I introduced myself and explained that I had taken classes with the people who lived in the house and many of the guests. I told him that I felt a little silly and too old to be there. He laughed. “I hear ya, but it makes you feel young doesn’t it?” I told him it did. I asked him what brought him back to school. He laughed again, a choky thing that sounded something like cicadas singing away the summer. It was the worst laugh I have ever heard. “I don’t go to school, bro. I met this chick online,” he gestures to one of the hostesses “and she told me about the party. I guess her ex-boyfriend is here or something. But what do I care? I’m married.” He tipped back the beer he was drinking, crushed and tossed the can onto a table not meant for garbage, and awkwardly danced his way over to his date.
The Married Woman
She twirls the joined-together rings, one bearing a diamond, around her ring finger while the waiter tells us about the lunch specials. It was the first thing I noticed about my lunch date, when I went to shake her hand and she went in for the hug. Now as we order salads and sandwiches, iced tea for her and a beer for me, she tugs at it as if trying to draw my attention. I don’t bite at the lure.
We talk for a while about our past, where we went to college (Pitt for her and University of Phoenix for me) and about the various idiosyncrasies that one notices working in corporate offices. This takes us through the salads. I tell her about my daughter. Not a secret, I mention that I have a child in my online profile. Still, I tell her my daughter has developed a fascination with Legos. She responds with short sounds and one-word replies, eager for the moment when it’s again her turn to talk.
“So, technically, I have a husband.” I take a bite of sandwich to escape the necessity of response. She continues, “We are totally separated, but divorces cost money. He sleeps in the guest room now.”
“Does he know that you are dating?” I ask.
“Yes. Well, probably.” She rambles on about her history with her ex. She emotionally moved on a long time ago, but because they were married she thought she had to stick it out. Finally, he cheated on her. “We were done. I haven’t touched him since. I try to be cordial. A good roommate.” She worries that it will get ugly when it comes to custody of the dog. She asks me if I live within walking distance, and I tell her that I don’t. She looks down at her left over half-sandwich and places it in a Styrofoam box. We split the check.
Interlude: Online Interaction That Eventually Led to a Date.
ME: Hello, I really liked your profile. I enjoy watching LOST, too. What is the deal with that smoke monster? LOL. I love music too. I like my rock from the 70’s and my rap from the late 90’s. Please check out my profile and if you like what you see I would love to chat. I will keep this short because I am sure you get hundreds of email s a day on here! 😉
HER: u seem nice wat up
ME: Hey! Thanks for replying. I liked what you had to say in your profile.
HER: urs is nice 2
ME: Thanks. So what do you do for “fun?” (Her profile said she “likes having fun.”)
HER: party go out with friends normal stuff
ME: Totally! Me too! I bet we have all sorts of things in common.
HER: like wat
ME: It’s weird. “Wat” is really only one letter shorter than “What.” How much time are ya really saving leaving it out. LOL!
Me: I really enjoy corresponding with you. Would you like to maybe exchange numbers and we can talk on the phone?
HER: 7243674 Txt me.
ME: I’ll probably call, if that’s okay. Just to, you know, hear each other’s voices?
HER: whatevs ttyl
That’s What It’s All About
In 1996, Andrew Conru also thought that people would use the Internet to get laid. He launched FriendFinder.com, a website that was one of the first widespread online dating sites. Soon he noticed that those who would sign up were easily categorized by the type of friends they sought. There were religious folks looking for a soulmate; there were married people looking to cheat; there were swingers and fetishists who were taking their communities out of secret backroom clubs and onto the ‘Net.
Since then FriendFinder Networks has branched off into a number of different websites. There are sites that are marketed towards certain ethnic groups such as Amigos.com, KoreanFriendFinder.com, ItalianFriendFinder.com, among others. They also have sites that cater to people’s religious tastes like JewishFriendFinder.com and BigChurch.com. However, their most popular sites are AdultFriendFinder.com and Alt.com, which focus on anonymous sex and fetishes. AdultFriendFinder (or AFF) is a site where people who are merely looking for sex can meet other like-minded individuals. “It makes sense,” said a married colleague who told me about the site. “People are looking to screw. This site just cuts out all the bullshit.” His testimonial made sense to me. The two of us were in unhappy relationships—one cheating, one not. It made sense to us that people would want a way where they could get down to the business of fucking that was nobody’s fucking business.
Although, perhaps people don’t want a place just for online sex or at least not at the premium that FriendFinder Networks is asking. In the mid-2000s, allegations began to arise that Andrew Conru was bamboozling his clients with false mail and spamming email addresses with marketing designed to look like personal correspondence from a sexy stranger. He also was accused of never purging inactive accounts, making the number of users on the rolls disproportionately larger than those that were actually active on the site. It became a place for prostitutes to post ads and solicit clientele, with many layers of digital protection between the woman and the john. There were also allegations that Conru and his staff did nothing to police the site for minors and would routinely send spam to them as well.
Despite these controversies, Penthouse Media Group purchased the site in December of 2007 and AFF ranks in the top 100 websites visited in America. Penthouse has a very rewarding advertising program where it pays $1.01 per unique click. On adult websites, there will either be an instant message from a web robot posing as a sexy stranger that encourages the user to sign up for the site and talk to her. Some simply say “Get Free Sex in your Neighborhood!” Some years later I ask my still-married friend if he still uses the site. “No,” he says, sounding forlorn. “I was looking at pictures on the profiles of swinger couples and,” he pauses, drops his voice, “I found her parents on the site. I deleted my account and have to sit through every holiday knowing what my mother-in-law’s tits look like.”
You Can’t Always Get What You Want
Kelly is the perfect woman for someone. She is blonde, lean, and laughs with her whole being, bright blue eyes blazing. Her career is in retail, managing a boutique fashion outlet, and she is consistently the highest producing store manager in her region. She reads voraciously, mostly memoirs and historical nonfiction. She also reads the newspaper. She loves free-flowing, hippie-style clothing and banjo music. She hates choosing where to eat, but will almost always agree with Mexican. She doesn’t smoke, but will often drink. She’s not religious, but is moral and honorable. She’s an easy person to love, but fiercely guarded and suspicious. Simultaneously her greatest strength and deepest flaw is her unflinching honesty. Only, her multiple online dating profiles reflect none of this.
Her profession is listed as “smooth criminal” and her interests are listed as “stuff,” “glitter,” and “aqua net,” among others. Instead of listing her finest qualities, her profile is a mishmash of angry ranting and farce. In fact, the third thing she lists about herself is, “I like to lie and make things up.” One of these lies comes later in her profile. Kelly is an aunt and very close to her teenage niece and 10-year-old nephew. She isn’t as close with her brother’s children who aren’t yet school-age and live twice as far away, but she’s attentive and loving when they are around. Yet, in her profile she says, “And speaking of your babies, if you have them, know that I do not possess the ability to relate to children. It’s next to impossible for me to feign interest in macaroni art, or tell them the picture they colored is amazing when they clearly colored outside the lines.” This is hardly true. Even with the children of her friends, she is exemplary. The kids attach themselves to her and she to them.
One part of her profile that she would say is true is that she’s “incredibly judgmental and undeniably shallow.” She took to the Internet after a boyfriend, with whom she uprooted her life in Pittsburgh, PA and moved to New York, NY, dumped her unceremoniously and with no warning. She was a wreck for the next few months: lonely and prone to tears with little provocation. Online dating seemed an easy introduction back into the game.
On the eve of her first meeting, she looked at the pictures of her date, Larry, and reconsidered her readiness. She had a drink to calm her nerves. During the date—and after she saw how Larry was significantly older than his posted photos—she realized that finding men online wasn’t serious. It was just the same as meeting men at the bar, the bookstore, or anywhere else. She didn’t order any food and became increasingly drunk. Larry got her to a cab, but not before attempting to force a kiss goodnight on her. She shoved him away.
In the days after, Kelly felt guilty about not giving Larry a fair shot. She realized that she wasn’t ready to date again, but it wasn’t his fault. They went out once more and this time she drank only water and coffee. She wasn’t attracted to Larry, unsure if it was because of the deception of his pictures (six years later, this man still has the same pictures on his profile) or for more animalistic, instinctual reasons. Yet, she felt that this guy was a worthwhile person. He made her laugh and they got along. Would she have grown to like his face over time? She’ll never know. He kissed her again at the end of the date, and as before she shoved him away.
After the type of rejection that Kelly experienced, film and television would have us believe such attention from Larry would be welcome. Yet, rather than be flattered or validated by the affections of this man, Kelly instead felt objectified. In fact she felt this way many times since; once the man involved created a new dating profile just to send her hate mail. She replied by telling him not to be so ugly. Eventually, she met and dated a tall, well-built guy with whom she didn’t feel much of an emotional connection, but was four years her junior and very cute.
You’re Making Us Look Bad:
Terms and Conditions for Male Mail
The undersigned hereby agrees to the following:
*The right time is not guaranteed.
The Female Burden
While researching, I joined a number of personals sites and merely observed. My intent was to gather information and did not want to correspond with any members of the site. Across four different sites and over two months, I only received one email and it was from a man. I asked some of the female friends I knew who used personals sites how they solicited contact and did they have any problems getting responses to emails. They laughed. “I hadn’t logged into my Plenty of Fish account in two weeks and when I signed back in I had 50 messages. And I don’t even have a picture up!”
At my desk that night, I sat in front of the computer with the lights off, feeling slightly ashamed. I registered for another online dating site, only this time when it asked for gender, I selected “Female.” I left everything else the same. I answered truly about my height, weight, and other statistics. When it came to answering the questions I added only one line from my real profile: “I am not even sure myself what I am doing on this site, but if you want to email me, feel free to ask anything.” I signed out. After a month I logged back in to 127 messages in my inbox.
That night, my friend and I went through the messages and a bottle of wine together. The majority of the messages were only a sentence long and some variation of a request for pictures. Some of them were kind enough to include pictures of their penises as a gesture of good faith.
A 48-year-old divorced man wrote wondering if age was a factor. He promised to be very generous with his affections and his money before his wife took it all. A 22-year-old college student sent his phone number and a picture of himself shirtless in the mirror. “If you’re serious about a good time,” he wrote, “call me.”
We called him. My friend said, “Hi, this is Lola1970 from Plenty of Fish.” He promptly hung up the phone. I thought that was weird, but she said there were no shortage of weirdoes out there. She told me, “I got a message from a guy last night who told me he was a paranormal investigator. He asked me what size feet I have.” She didn’t tell him. She didn’t even reply. I asked her if she ever met anyone from the personals. “Oh, I go on dates all the time. Most of them are just awkward. They stare at their shoes and, you know, just let me talk.”
The Failsafe Way to Find True Love on the Internet