Saturday, September 27, 2008

a/s/l ?

Living in a city where I know no one, and facing the task (rather daunting for the shy kids of the world) of meeting new people, I've been thinking about the phenomenon of meeting people and how it's changed over time, especially recently. (And since I don't know anyone I have oodles of time to sit around and think about these things - doesn't that work out well?)

This also coincides with someone I know trying out the eHarmony thing - the first person I know to give this particular site a shot. (I have, in the past, known people who've done the J-Date thing, and people who've done the Craigslist personals thing. No, not casual encounters, the regular personals. And people who've met significant others in chat rooms/on message boards.) I happen to think it's fantastic that this person is finding out who's online - it's just helped fuel my musings on the subject, hearing about the firsthand experience.

It's the era of the internet: chat online, bank online, buy clothes/books/furniture online, rent videos online, find apartments online, so why not browse for potential friends and mates online? Shopping for people, without all that messy interpersonal interaction. The fiberoptics and satellites keep everything nice and distant. Doesn't it sound perfect?

What I've started to realize is that so many of us are so lost when it comes to meeting people that these 'shopping' sites are the only ways we can figure out how to do it. I won't make claims about what caused this phenomenon, but I think a lot of you will agree that this is the reality. Perhaps there are still small towns somewhere in America where people grow up with their neighbors, marry their high school sweethearts, and spend every Fourth of July at block parties with the same people they've known for many years. In most places - at least in the densely populated places I've lived - the art of meeting people seems to be nearing endangerment.

People do still pick people up in bars (apparently), but how many people do you know who've had a relationship longer than 24 hours with people they met that way?

Perhaps I'm completely off the mark. Perhaps I'm simply demonstrating how out of touch I am with the social interactions happening all around me. But I can't count how many times I've had the same conversation with friends: "How are we supposed to meet people?!"

What I've begun to wonder is if this move to virtual, often carefully constructed meetingplaces is unavoidable. If half the people in this town are shopping on eHarmony and, does that mean they're not out meeting people face to face? Are they too busy 'reviewing their matches'? Does that mean that if I go out to meet people in 'real life' the pool will be reduced to half the local population? That sounds like more incentive to look online, and so the cycle is perpetuated.

In the end, though, is it really any better to look to meet people online than at the local coffee shop? The bottom line is still the same - you risk rejection either way. Is it enough of an improvement to be rejected in the privacy of your own home, in front of the computer, instead of in a public place, that it's worth losing the opportunity to to meet a whole person instead of some disembodied words? Is the face to face rejection really so bad that we'd rather stay in our houses and miss the chemistry that can happen when two people are in the same room? (Can there possibly be chemistry through the computer?)

This doesn't solve the problem, of course. We still don't seem to know how to meet people - where to go, what to say, how to not feel totally awkward or to be brave enough to take the risk. I don't know if there's a solution, but if we've reached a point where we're collectively becoming more and more okay with saying "yes, I want to meet someone badly enough to pay $30 a month for the chance that I'll find someone whom I like who likes me too, and who also happened to sign up for the same website" then maybe - just maybe - we can take one more leap and say "I want to meet someone badly enough that I'm willing to go out into a public place and be awkward and say the wrong thing and hope that someone else is willing to be awkward and possibly foolish too, and if nothing else we can share our awkwardness (because the odds of encountering someone totally smooth and not awkward at all seem incredibly small)."

Could we say that? If we're brave enough to have adopted the once totally stigmatized world of online dating into the mainstream, can we be brave enough to turn to a stranger and say hello?

Have I just talked myself into something?

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