How to (Not) Find Love Online

Hint: Avoid side-profile photos. Admit if you're looking to get hitched.

Online dating has become so ubiquitous that it now seems more outré to meet someone the analog way — meaning at a bar or a party. Don’t believe me? Three of my friends met their sweethearts on OkCupid, and of those couples, two are now hitched.

Yet there’s still a weird mystique around online dating — probably because it’s a combination of two things that leave a bad taste in your mouth: cyberspace and old-fashioned matchmaking. It’s curated in a way that invites high expectations. (“Some people are afraid to say, ‘I want to get married’ in a profile. If that’s what you’re looking for, say it!” says cyber-dating expert Julie Spira in one of her promotional videos.)

However, the wrong kind of profile can immediately arouse suspicion. A couple years ago, a male friend looked at my profile on OkCupid and found something with wrong with every single photo I had posted. The ones I thought looked serious or pensive actually looked cruel and stern, he said; the side profiles suggested I was hiding some kind of deformity. One of them had what OkCupid blogger Christian Rudder calls a “MySpace angle” — i.e., holding a camera from a high angle in attempt to show cleavage, or alter body proportions. (Interestingly, OkCupid stats indicate that a janky MySpace shot is actually one of the most effective, particularly on women’s profiles.)

Men are less likely to post duplicitous photos, said a writer colleague who recently retired her dating profile, because they simply don’t know what constitutes a flattering image. Thus, the ten or fifteen men she met in a year of dating online actually looked better in real life. Unfortunately, that didn’t mean she felt a spark upon meeting them. I’d hasten to add that some men post photos of themselves the one time they take a shower and put on a suit.

The words you choose to describe yourself are also important. It starts with your screen name. Researchers at Nottingham Trent University in the UK found that seemingly trite descriptors — “cutie,” “sweetie,” “fun2bwith” — ranked pretty high for both men and women; they also found, rather disconcertingly, that straight men are a lot less likely to contact a woman who advertises herself as “well educated.” The website argues that gay men have “perfected the art” of the screen name, and cited a tried-and-true example: “bottomboi69.” For the less literally-inclined, though, it helps to use a goofier proper noun. Zak Nelson, a former East Bay publicist who used to date on the website Fast Cupid, said one of the things that drew him to his wife, Angie, was her screen name: Tangelo27.

Then, of course, there’s your elevator pitch. Most sites have a template to fill out:‘s is pretty standard, including career details, body type, activities and interests (chosen from a checklist that includes non-threatening stuff like book clubs and hiking), income, and zip code. It’s reputed as the best hookup network for people who want to get married. Match’s subsidiary, OkCupid, is known for being younger and hipper, and more oriented toward witty Millennials. And the profile questions reflect that. They include fill-in-the blanks (e.g., “Message me if …”), bullet-point lists (e.g., “Five things I could never live without …”) and “interests” sections that allow you to import directly from Facebook. They also encourage cleverness. A journalist friend who goes by screen name 22-fillmore said he got a lot of traction by posting a photo of himself wearing a pink shirt and pushing someone else’s kid in a stroller. The caption read: “This is so totally not my kid. I just posted this to prove that I can rock a pink shirt, and I am hella nurturing.”

Of course, the biggest difference between OkCupid and Match is that the former costs nothing, while the latter charges a subscription fee — ranging from $34.99 for one month to $16.99 per month, if you commit to six months or more. (It comes with a guarantee that if you don’t find love within that six month period, you get the next six free. Oh, joy.) What the price accomplishes, besides, well, generating revenue, is that it helps filter out people who are either totally broke, or totally noncommittal. Free sites like OkCupid don’t have that advantage, so don’t be surprised if you’re a single woman on the site, and some guy messages you with an extremely scrubby and/or mercenary line – e.g. “Hey, wanna buy me a drink?” Or: “Hey, can you give me any advice on finding a job?” Or: “Hey, I’m in a band. Do you want to write about us?” (These were actual messages I’ve received.)

In a recent piece on cyber-dating, San Francisco Magazine writer Gordy Slack bemoaned the fact that it’s so hard to avoid class conflict when dating in San Francisco: It’s one of the few cities where moneyed, techie strivers really do constantly rub elbows with unemployed artists, so there’s always that awkward moment of deciding whether to spring for a date at Delfina, or opt for a candlelit dinner of Ramen and PBR. Such tensions are less pronounced in Oakland, where a larger portion of the populace belongs in the 99 Percent. Still, there’s a certain unease that comes with knowing someone’s net worth before you actually meet them.

Which is why, in many senses, the old low-tech way still has a certain appeal. “I met my honey 21 years ago via East Bay Express, back in the days of paper-only,” one woman wrote, in response to a query on Twitter. “It’s been a happy 21 years ….”

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