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Playing the field

Abundant online dating resources make it easier (and safer) than ever to find a mate

by Ali Hibbs on February 11, 2010

So. It’s Valentines Day . . . and you plan to spend it in the dark, drinking tequila and eating Betty Crocker Rainbow Chip frosting out of the container, while watching all the Scream movies back-to-back and telling yourself that all relationships eventually end in homicide, or Tori Spelling anyway.

You’re not bitter. You’re just not into the bar scene anymore. You’re done with random hook-ups. Your friends all seem to have found their special someone—even the dependable holdouts sold out and got married this summer. There aren’t any viable options where you work and none of your friends have cute siblings. You’re pretty sure you’ll die alone.

Fear not. You have the whole inter-sphere at your fingertips. And, suddenly, online dating is not just acceptable—it’s become rampant. You probably know at least one person that has gotten engaged to someone they met via an online service. These days, there is a site for virtually everyone, making it possible to be extremely specific about what you’re looking for. And, it seems to work. Online Dating Magazine estimated in 2007 that more than 120,000 marriages a year are the product of online-inspired romances. So maybe you want to try it out, but the prospect seems a little daunting. Read on.

The sheer amount of online dating sites is enough to make one’s head spin and can make navigating the “scene” tricky and even a little scary. There are paid sites and free sites, matchmaking sites and choose-your-own-adventure sites. There are sites that are sexuality-specific and those that are come-one, come-all. There are sites for people of certain religions, regions, and age groups. To further complicate things, there is an even wider spectrum of people who use these sites, ranging from the honest and sincere to the downright creepy and, occasionally, the dangerous. Before diving in, it may be best to consider your options first. Here are a few tips:

If you don’t mind paying a fee, eHarmony and Match.com are the most widely known online dating sites. eHarmony is more expensive but has the highest success rate for making matches that end in matrimony. Thirty-year-old Amanda says that she knows five couples within her circle of friends that have ended up at the altar after meeting on eHarmony. She believes it’s because the type of people who choose this site are more committed to finding long-term, committed relationships. eHarmony is a matchmaking site, meaning that you must answer a litany of questions before being matched by an algorithm assessing your compatibility with others who have answered the same questions. Your choices are limited to users that the site deems compatible. Match.com is more self-directed, allowing users to peruse other’s profiles and pictures before contacting them. You still find out what areas you’re compatible in, but are not limited to talking to those with the highest percentages. Melanie, a 39-year-old mother of two, has spent quite a bit of time on this site. While she says she has found it useful, she also says that it’s only on par with some of the better free sites.

If you’re not sure about committing yourself entirely at first, it is probably best to start with a free site anyway. As it happens, the site that consistently receives the most accolades from experienced online-daters is free. OkCupid is newer than many of its bigger competitors, but has received consistent praise for ease of use and variety of choices. Guys, in particular, seem to overwhelmingly prefer this site. “I’m really impressed with it,” said 32-year-old Greg, commenting specifically on the internal messaging system and lack of spam. Greg signed up only three weeks ago, but said that he’s already begun communicating with more than one potential match. Fernando, 28, went on a third date this Sunday. After an afternoon spent at the museum, he seemed very hopeful about continuing to see his new companion and has even gone so far as to disable his OkCupid account for now.

Plenty of Fish, another free site, has received more mixed reviews. Melanie has had a few encounters on this site that disturbed her, such as the time a potential match sent her a picture of his “package” less than 10 minutes into their first phone conversation. Amanda claims to have met some nice people through this Web site, but also “lots of slimy and weird guys. There was one that was even potentially dangerous.” She found this out by Googling his name and finding court cases in which he had been named. “Moral of the story,” says Amanda, “Run background checks.”

Safety is crucial when navigating online relationships, especially when meeting someone for the first time. It is important not to forget that, even though you may have been communicating with someone for a while, you can’t be sure of anyone until you’ve met them and ascertained their honesty and intentions for yourself. Misrepresentation in online forums has been rampant since the days of Prodigy and it’s good to remain aware, even while you’re only corresponding electronically. Online Dating Magazine has a list of risk and safety tips available on its Web site, as well as reviews, topical articles and extensive STD information and statistics. You can never be too careful.

Craigslist? It’s an option, but don’t go there. Lives get lost that way.

The list of dating Web sites is seemingly endless. Yahoo Personals and Lavalife are both commonly used and well-regarded. AshleyMadison.com is for significant others looking for new extracurricular activities. ItsJust Lunch Albany.com is local and WooMe.com is fast. If you’re in your twilight years, SeniorFriendFinder.com and PrimeSingles.net are good options. You have only to type the words “online dating” into your search engine to find a plethora of sites for others with the same religion, the same sexual preferences, or the same IQ. Be sure to read some reviews before signing up.

It’s a crazy world. The old rules no longer apply. Put down that tequila. By next Valentine’s Day, you too could be one of the 120,000 people that are suddenly realizing what they loved about being single.