The first time I realized that the then-ubiquitous online personal ad banners on websites serviced real people—lots of them—was when I caught my boyfriend of two and a half years using one in 2002.
Lest you think I was snooping or even mildly suspicious (sadly, I wasn't), I had hopped on his computer that fateful morning to check my work email, only to discover that before I could type the second letter in "mail" that his browser filled in "myprofile.personals..." Crying, I called his office and he raced home; he eventually admitted everything, including that he couldn't get anyone to go out with him, and we agreed to try and work it out. I wasn't sure whether it was more humiliating that he advertised to the world that he was trying to fuck someone other than me, or that no one else would actually fuck him. Unsurprisingly, the relationship didn't work out.
Since then, I've known friends who have had many more positive experiences than I with online dating—people who have met long-term relationship partners, people who have begun romantic relationships that ended in good friendships, and even people who have used it to meet sexual partners without using it to cheat on their significant others. But, I've had one more significant other use it to try to determine if the grass is really greener on the other side of the monogamy fence, which made me ever more wary than I was before.
So I basically stayed away, except when I used it to indulge my morbid curiosity whether I could find the people I was dating on a site. And, in the midst of one dating dry spell and on a friend's advice, I scrolled through the ads on one free site but found myself suspicious of each and every person, wondering if the other side of this cropped picture was a smiling (and still current) girlfriend, or if a particularly female-friendly list of movies in that profile was an indicator that someone's significant other had dragged the person along.
Which is not to say that I haven't dated anyone after meeting them online—far from it, actually. From a rather infamous bad date with a commenter on my personal blog to an e-introduction that ended in a mediocre-relationship-cum-best-friendship to many a date arranged over email, I've used the Internet to conduct my dating life, while still maintaining a determined distance from personal ads. Part of that, for me, is the serendipity of meeting someone, that spark before you really know them and the ability to cross-check at least some minimal references are all important—and, given that I am not really the type of person specifically looking for a relationship or even to date for its own sake, putting a lot of effort (and money) into doing so always seemed like a waste of time.
So, what's the difference between using the Internet to start a relationship, and using online personal ads? Damned if I really know... but, even if I did and even if I was looking, I don't think I'd be filling out a Match.com profile. But, for those who do, I wish you better luck than me, and just as good a luck as my ex had: after we broke up, he met his now-wife through an online personals site.
[Image via jordansmall on Flickr, Creative Commons licensed]