By
msnbc.com contributor
ESSAY

Years ago, before the dawn of the Web, I worked with a woman who, when asked how she met her husband, would laugh and say matter-of-factly, “at a bar.” She knew there was a cultural stigma to having picked up a guy in a place like that, much less gone on to marry him. I always admired her for being honest, but then again, why shouldn’t she have been? Probably for the same reason that some people are embarrassed to admit that they use the Internet for dating.

“It's a pleasure to meet your new husband,” I told an old friend recently, as they left my place after a visit. “Yeah, he’s great,” she responded, slightly sheepish, but clearly happy to say it out loud: “I just dialed him up on the Internet.”

Welcome to love in the modern age. Answer a few questions about yourself. Fill in the blanks about what turns you on, and off. Compose a pithy headline. Attach your best photo. And, voila! You, too, can dial up a spouse. Or a date. Or a tryst. No bars necessary.

If you’re below the age of 30, you probably don’t think this is weird. After all, you’ve grown up with computers, in a world where you can dial up everything else online - so why not dial up sex?

Others of varying ages and marital status may find all this a sad, horrific commentary on the state of romance. You may thank your lucky stars you’re in a relationship (even though you’re not always thrilled with it, the idea of dating again flips you out.) Or, you may see online dating as an enlightened, necessary tool in a post-feminist world where marriage is an option, and we no longer are born and die in the same neighborhood, marrying the boys and girls next door.

Times and relationships, of course, have changed, but there’s really nothing new about the concept of personal ads. I remember in the seventies watching a divorced family friend flip through the back of the Village Voice, composing responses to listings that looked intriguing as my mother offered encouragement. Ads in the back of magazines years before touted long-distance ‘pen-pals’ looking for romance, not unlike Web sites today hawking women from faraway places hoping to meet American men. My friend, the journalist Bruno Giussani, has written about a book from 1879 called WIRED LOVE; it’s about romance using the telegraph.

Not only is there nothing new about personal ads, there’s nothing new about the quest for love. Thanks to the magic of searchable databases and high-speed Internet access, that quest is just a bit more efficient now.

I’m not ashamed to admit it, although perhaps you would be: Ever since my heart was smashed to teensy bits 20 months ago, I’ve found myself logging on to those dating services and reading the personal ads. Just looking at smiling pictures of the guys trying to sell themselves makes me feel a bit better, even if none of them (so far) have been my type.

Occasionally, I’ll write to someone who looks intriguing, or someone will write to me. (I never have posted a picture, so the inquiries are very rare-only someone completely intrigued by narrative will take the chance that you might look as good as you sound.) Only about a half dozen times have I gone on to meet them in person, using the recommended safety precautions. None of the men have been freakishly weird or offensive; most of them have been extraordinarily nice and “normal.” Kind souls looking to connect, no more or less than any kind soul I’d meet in the offline world. They just haven’t been “right” — which is proof that a short list of criteria and a carefully crafted essay about yourself does not necessarily add up to romance.

Just because you can weed out the guys who smoke, who hate their jobs, who don’t like to do what you like to do, doesn’t make it easy to find the perfect partner. Certainly, it helps: I have friends with certain fetishes who use and depend on the Internet to feed them. Other friends, like those who only want to date people of the same religion, or who desperately want kids, rave about the online medium for its efficiency. But, the fact remains: You can’t will chemistry — if indeed chemistry and love, and the attendant magic, romance, connection, are what you’re looking for. Of course, some people are simply looking for some cohort so they can say they’re part of a couple, and stop the ghastly process of searching.

In other words: The good thing about online dating is that you can categorize people. But: the depressing thing about online dating is that you can categorize people. Sometimes it works, of course-just read the wedding announcements, or poll the people around you, if you don’t believe it. Why wouldn’t it? Meeting someone who is advertising that they’re looking to meet someone seems to up the odds that it’ll work. It sure beats hoping you’ll run into someone terrific in your daily rounds, that they’ll be available, too, and that they’ll want the same things as you.

Of course, the beauty of life is that that just might happen, too.

In an interview published last week in the New York Times, pop star Billy Joel revealed that despite his vast fame and fortune, all he really wants is a girlfriend. He’s going to rent an apartment in Manhattan so he can meet more prospects, because he’s dying to be in love. Maybe Billy should list himself online and console himself with the fact that the quest for love is universal. I know it consoles me to know he’s looking for it, too.

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