Online dating has not always had the best reputation. When online dating activity was observed in the mid-1990s, some attention focused on the ease with which people could deceive others. One article in the St. Petersburg Times on Valentine’s Day 1995 stressed:
“But be warned, cyberdaters. You might find yourself having an erotic chat with someone named Bambi4You, who is really a man pretending to be a woman. [O]f course, you could be a woman pretending to be a man, or a man who is looking for a cross-dresser . . . the combinations are numerous.”
Coincident with that kind of concern were those who suggested that the quest for dates online could be socially harmful. Typical of this sentiment was a 1999 article in the Washington Post that sounded some dire warnings:
“While Internet use can expand the number of
relationships—intimate or not— and reduce the costs
of long-distance communication, habitual use can also
reduce a person's social contacts with family members
and in-person friends, experts say. In extreme cases,
spouses, children, neighbors are pushed aside.”
While the success of online dating services suggests that these extreme cases have been the exception rather than the rule, some of these initial concerns about finding a partner online still resonate today. In an October 1996 advice column, Ann Landers cited a warning from a writer who advised those considering online dating to verify their date’s identity, and to look out for signs that would-be daters are actually predators. The writer advised users to meet any dates arranged online in public places and to be wary of those who refuse to divulge both their work and home telephone numbers before meeting. Likewise, the current “Safety Tips” page on Match.com in 2006 cautions that users would be wise to do some background research on their potential dates before meeting—asking for photos and phone numbers and possibly even paying for a background check. Even more imperative, the site cautions, one should always meet in a public place for the first date. While the site acknowledges that deceptive daters are undeniably part of the mix online (in the same way one might encounter ill-intentioned suitors at a nightclub or party), they recommend that users exercise the same discretion as they would in any offline dating situation.
Similarly, the same 2003 New York Times article that prompted a glowing letter to the editor also yielded a letter of warning about dishonest daters from another reader:
“As a member of the online dating world, I can
attest that there is a frequent disconnect between
who people say they are and the truth. What's
most frustrating is not the outright lying
but the masterful deception.
“I met a woman who described herself as a
'striking blonde.' She was plain-looking
but an excellent bowler!”
This dater’s experience is more indicative of the tradeoffs that many daters accept as simply part of the game. While this user had some disappointing experiences with dishonesty, it was not the type of deception that resulted in physical harm (though notably, this letter was written by a man). He still sees enough benefit to continue to be a regular “member” of the online dating world, and he suggests that the redeeming aspects of someone’s personality may resolve that person’s exaggerated physical description. In this way, the risks and payoffs of the online dating world more closely resemble the basic realities of dating in the offline world.
Recent coverage in the popular press has reflected this. It is not clear exactly when public attitudes started to shift, but an ever-growing share of stories about people finding dates, romance, and even marriage partners online began to emerge in the early 2000s.