I'd be ur slavw, my suitor whispered to me through his keyboard. He immediately corrected his typo.
When this pickup line plopped into my OkCupid inbox, swoon I did not. Instead, I LOLed, then felt pity, for both my suitor and myself. I was 32 and single in a city of only a quarter million, with only a fraction of those available to me. The comedy of this online encounter competed with my despair.
I couldn't help but wonder, in a Sex and the City, Carrie Bradshaw type of way: Is this worth it? Will online dating help me find true love in Madison?
Dating in Madison often seems like another of what Rebecca Ryan called a "tier-two tradeoff" in the October 2013 issue of Madison Magazine. That is, we all make sacrifices to live in our beloved but small city. In dating, that sacrifice might be options.
Fishing for love in a small pond can make your odds of hooking a mate look grim. At a certain age, the dating pool dries up into isolated puddles. People become increasingly settled into relationships and families, and you find yourself searching for new and different waters.
Therein lie the hope, the horror and the humor of online dating in Madison.
Online vs. 'organic'
Now a nearly 20-year-old phenomenon, with the birth of Match.com in 1995, online dating seems to have reached its prime. In a 2013 poll by Pew Research Institute, 38% of single-and-looking Americans confessed they've searched for love (or something like it) on the Internet. Most users fell in the ripe age bracket of the mid-20s to mid-40s.
As with much of life, the Internet has colonized the dating landscape. Sites range from the big "markets" (Match, eHarmony and OkCupid) to niche communities such as GreenSingles for the Earth lovers, ChristianSingles for the Jesus lovers, and Vampire Passions for, well, you get the point. Mobile apps, such as Tinder and Grindr, connect potential matches based on tidbits like mutual Facebook friends and geographic proximity.
As the online market grows, success stories are accumulating.
In the Pew poll, nearly a quarter of online daters found their spouse or long-term partner through a site.
Another 2013 study, albeit one commissioned by eHarmony, claimed a third of its respondents met their spouses online. What's more, among the sample's 19,131 married Americans, those who had met online were slightly more satisfied in their marriages and less likely to divorce than couples that met the "organic" way. Reasons for this are still unknown.
"Online dating fundamentally changes the initiation part of relationships; it changes how we identify potential partners," says Catalina Toma, an assistant professor in the communication arts department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Toma studies the psychological effects of social networking, including online dating.
Research shows that, not surprisingly, geographic proximity is a top indicator of whom we'll marry. We tend to pair up with people inside the bounds of our everyday: through work, school, friends, etc.
But online dating breaks the geographic constraints, allowing relationship-seekers to meet people outside of their natural environments. This greater access has changed the dating game, to some extent.
"If you have more people to choose from, you might make better choices; or you might have a more difficult time settling because you think there are more options out there," says Toma.
This presumes, of course, there are lots of options out there.
Plenty of fish?
Many of Madison's singletons, myself included, jump into the virtual sea lured by the promise of more fish.
"Dating is a numbers game. You have to cast a wide net, unless you get lucky early on," says Denise, a fellow 32-year-old Madisonian. She is one of the lucky ones. She met her partner four years ago through OkCupid.
Before her fateful catch, Denise, who is queer, almost left Madison out of fear she'd never meet someone. The smallness of the city's queer community compelled her to go online just to find people to date.
Wally, who is straight, single and also in his early 30s, says online dating has made it easier for him to meet people, a harder feat the older he gets and less social he becomes.
"The 30s are a weird age to be dating; I wouldn't even know how to go about it without online dating," he says.
Denise and Wally are two of the dozen Madisonians who shared with me their online dating stories. Tellingly, it wasn't hard to find willing victims. Whether driven by necessity or curiosity, everyone seems to be doing it these days, and few are shy to talk about it.
"At some point you just say why not. It's so commonplace now, it's neither scary nor particularly embarrassing," says Sarah, a 31-year-old Ph.D. student who has been using OkCupid to broaden her otherwise-small graduate school world.
Nationally, the stigma around online dating is fading. The Pew poll showed that 21% of Internet users think online dating is only for the desperate, an eight-point decline from 2005. (Perhaps this lingering stigma is why most of my interviewees opted to hide behind a pseudonym.)
"It no longer feels like a movement of desperation," says Ann, 40, who has dated online on and off for the past 10 years. Not only has it allowed her to break out of her largely paired-up and insular social circle, it has also given her a sense of control over the uncontrollable.
"I'm not just sitting, waiting to lock eyes with a guy at the Co-op, as we reach for the same pear," she says. Ann's proactive stance has paid off; she has met a few boyfriends online, including her current one.
Finding that special needle in the haystack does seem somewhat easier online. For one, it is nice to know who else is on the market -- a somewhat awkward question in real life.
"It's not like people wear a bracelet that says, 'I'm single, ask me out,'" says Emily, 28, a former OkCupid user. She went online after ending a long-term relationship; it helped convince her there were indeed more fish in the sea.
For Madison's LGTBQ community, being on a dating site can resolve key questions.
"It's helpful to know that someone is out publicly, whereas you might meet someone at a bar and not know if they are gay or straight, or if they're single," says Sean, 29. He likes that online dating gives him more control, even if it removes the spontaneity.
But while online dating can give the plenty-of-fish impression, the sense of options might not be entirely helpful, or true.
The Man Catalog
I jokingly refer to OkCupid as the Man Catalog. Clicking through profiles feels like sifting through the pages of the latest fall trends. Oh, that 35-year-old who plays the mandolin would look great sitting next to me at the Weary Traveler; and that blue-eyed 30-year-old who likes to cook, he'd pair well with my appetite for Italian food.
A 2010 study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships coined a term for this: relationshopping.
The study found a marketplace mentality within the online dating experience. With the increased supply of potential mates dating sites offer, "consumers" evaluate the worth of the goods, choosing exactly what they want or don't want in their ideal partner.
At the same time, online dating can encourage users to evaluate their own worth, with profiles serving as their own personal shop window. As a writer and thus a relentless self-editor, I admit I've wasted too much time tweaking my profile's sales pitch.
The average OkCupid shop window displays a lot of interesting details about someone that couldn't necessarily be gleaned from an initial conventional encounter. Depending on how well a man has crafted his profile, I could know the six things in life he can't live without, his beliefs on God and politics, or his preferences in the bedroom before I even know his name.
To aid the selection process, some sites use algorithms that determine compatibility scores between relationshoppers.
OkCupid plugs my answers to its user-generated questions -- of which there are thousands -- into its algorithm and tells me what percent match, percent friend or percent enemy I am with a given man's profile. The questions range from the meaningless ("which super power would you rather have?") to the meaningful ("how do you describe yourself politically?"), and the informative ("do you mock religion?") to the over-share ("is your ideal sex rough or gentle?"). I've had the patience to answer only about 200 questions; as a policy, I do not answer the over-shares.
But does having all these options and data at our fingertips add value to the online dating experience?
The 'perfect' match
The danger of too much of a good thing is falling into the paradox of choice. Choosing between so many options might actually be psychologically taxing, causing undue anxiety or indecision.
"It can give an impression that there is somebody better out there. Online dating has been compared to being a kid in the candy store," says Toma.
The relationshopping study warned the marketplace mentality can make online daters get fixated on finding the perfect "product" instead of on the relationship-building process.
"It's easy to become a Jerry Seinfeld. Because of this endless number of new women who join, you can get trapped into trying to find a theoretical perfect match," says Harry, 47.
René bemoans the burnout that can come of too many first dates. "Online dating enables you to talk to more people, but then it can also make dating feel like this conveyor belt," says the 28-year-old.
Fatigue is not the only potential side effect. A 2012 review of the academic literature on online dating (yes, that exists) suggested that browsing potential partners simultaneously -- instead of separately, as is more typical in offline dating -- might actually undermine your chances of finding a good match. In culling profiles, users tend to judge harshly, prioritizing details that might be irrelevant, or even contradictory, to what could actually make them happy in real life.
The abundance of choice might also be just an illusion.
"Not everyone is an option just because they are online. In fact, for me, none of them have been an option so far," says Wally, who has had a lot of first dates but nothing that's stuck.
Especially in Madison, you also run the risk of eventually hitting the bottom of the list.
"Online dating is helpful in narrowing down to people who are ostensibly looking for the same thing," says Sean, flippantly adding, "but it's sort of sobering when it turns out to be only 30 people."
Madison's supply of singles might be limited not just in numbers, but also variety.
"The diversity of people you find in large urban centers is missing to some extent in Madison," says Sarah, who is dissatisfied with OkCupid's poor ethnic and racial diversity.
However, if you are on the market for a Madison stereotype, there is no shortage. OkCupid, at least, is rife with nerdy graduate students, Epic employees, the outdoorsy types, and near-east-siders who like biking, gardening and beards.
But even if you manage to narrow in on your perfect on-paper match, there is still that one intangible and mysterious thing even an algorithm can't predict: chemistry.
The offline spark
I rarely entertain the idea of communicating with a man who is less than an 85% match with me. Yet, nearly a year into my on-and-off relationship with OkCupid, and despite many dates and one short-lived "thing," I still haven't felt that in-person magic with anyone. In fact, the man with whom I've had the highest compatibility score turned out to be on a very different page.
The offline spark is difficult, perhaps impossible, to replicate online. It may be the part of the relationship initiation process where conventional dating will always trump the virtual version.
"People can look good on paper for each other and can have good [online] conversations even. But then you meet in person, and you don't really groove with each other," says Phin, 39.
According to Toma, social psychology research casts doubt on whether algorithms, which essentially measure personality traits, can actually say anything about compatibility.
"[Compatibility] is much more complicated than a simple personality matching system," she says, adding that relationship maintenance involves much more than just harmonious personality traits.
No two-dimensional profile can convey the full complexity of a person or of human interaction. And, with the curated nature of profiles, there is also the risk of false advertising.
Toma's research has focused on the prevalence of deception in online dating. In a study of New York City daters, 80% of them lied about their height, weight or age in their profiles.
Their fibs were pretty minor, however. Men tended to exaggerate their height by an inch, and women fudged their weight by about eight pounds. Toma called this strategic lying, or explainable compensations for perceived shortcomings.
Fortunately, the Madison men I've met appear truthful, although I've never carried a measuring stick with me on dates to be sure. A handful of my interviewees haven't been as lucky; the most extreme surprises included a possible mental disability, an apparent psychological disorder and a certain crime record.
A crowded pool
The initial plunge into Madison's online pool can be invigorating. The options seem endless, and the attention is flattering. Then the weeks pass, the number of new and interesting faces dwindles, the messages slow to a trickle, and the challenge of dating resurfaces.
"When you're in a place for too long, you know all the faces already," says Max, 29, who used online dating to meet men when he moved to Madison last year.
A former New Yorker, Max has found Madison's petite online dating scene both charming and frustrating: "Eventually you go on dates with people who know each other."
Indeed, the probability you are already connected in the real world to whoever has caught your eye in the virtual world is high in Madison.
"Especially being gay and dating in Madison, I am mutual friends with any gay person," says René. Online dating gives her a more direct way of talking to a girl she is interested in, rather than scoping her out through friends.
This challenge is not unique to the LGTBQ community.
When he first joined OkCupid, Harry's immediate top three matches were women he knew personally. "OkCupid tries to set me up with my old roommate all the time," he says lightheartedly.
Inevitably, you'll also end up recognizing complete strangers on the bus, in the Jenifer Street Market, at Alchemy, at a friend's house party or [insert other real-life Madison location], only to realize you've viewed their profile.
Even online, geography may still determine whom you meet in Madison, a city seemingly zoned by stereotype.
"The funny thing is that as wide a net as I've cast, I end up meeting people [who live] in my neighborhood, who I might not otherwise know," says Phin, a near-east-side Ph.D. student.
I am also a near-east-sider and a former UW-Madison graduate student. I too have found it likely that the gentlemen I choose to meet live nearby. The closest lived half a block from me.
Madison's size also makes dating overlap comically probable, especially if you and your friends have similar tastes.
Emily, a friend of mine, ended up sharing dates repeatedly with a mutual friend of ours. "Basically everyone that I dated had already dated Debbie," she says.
Once I had my eye on one man's profile and had been considering making the first move, and then I found out a good friend of mine had just had a very romantic evening with him.
A few friends of mine have even jokingly discussed creating a shared Google spreadsheet of the men they've met online, to compare notes. I think they were half-serious.
As the profiles become increasingly familiar and the first-maybe-second dates pile up, the Madison dating pool starts to feel not just small, but also crowded, creating another high probability: that of uncomfortable situations.
When he first joined OkCupid, Sean identified as bisexual. A little while into one of his first dates with a man, it slowly dawned on him that he had been out with his date's sister the week prior. An awkward conversation confirmed his suspicion. There was no second date with either sibling.
Sarah once ran into two former dates in the waiting room of a doctor's office, on the same occasion.
As I was writing this article, a man I had corresponded with months ago but never ended up meeting sat at a table next to me in Ground Zero Coffee. I feigned concentration on my laptop, and he was engrossed in a group discussion, but I could sense the mutual realization.
Is it worth it?
Despite its follies and shortcomings, and if my batch of interviewees are at all representative, few online daters would dissuade anyone from giving it a shot.
"With online dating, you have this reminder that there are a lot of people that want what you want too," says Max. He wondered why any singles wouldn't want to increase their chances of meeting someone.
And successes do happen. I count among my successes making at least one good friend and having several learning experiences.
"I've learned a lot about myself. I've learned how to get a sense of how compatible someone might be with me," says Phin. A self-proclaimed former serial monogamist, he hadn't dated much prior to diving into the online pool. He credits his experience for the ease he now feels on first dates and for adding several friends to his life.
Denise, the only one among my interviewees to find a spouse online, tells friends who are fed up with online dating not to give up. "It's hard to discount it when you ultimately meet your partner on it," she says.
Online dating may not be the ideal way to find a partner, but until Prince Charming reaches for the same pear as I do at the Co-op, I'll keep at it.