When I began online dating in 2001, it was so taboo I couldn't even tell my BFF. One time my secret slipped out and she lectured me about how I could be raped in a back alley (...of the suburbs). Needless to say, being an early adopter at 19 posed a lot of problems.
As time went on I was never afraid to develop relationships in the cloud, whether I was on Match.com, Myspace or in AOL chat rooms. So it came as no surprise to those who knew me back in the dial-up days that I now make a living as an online dating expert.
Which brings us to today. A new Pew online dating study proclaims the official demise of the online dating stigma, which couldn't make a kid who grew up eFlirting on the Internet happier. Fifty-nine percent of Internet users agree that "online dating is a good way to meet people" and 42 percent of Americans know an online dater. They're using it for relationships, too -- not just for hook ups or catfishing. Here's how online dating is trending in 2013:
Free Sites Are Just As Good As Paid Ones. In the early 2000s, my dating site options were basically Match.com or Yahoo! Personals. Today there are more than 1,400 dating sites -- both free and paid. Online daters often ask me if paid sites mean premium quality. The answer is yes ... and no. Sites are virtual communities that attract their own crowds. Since there is typically more mass on free sites (and let's be honest, incomplete profiles), searching for a mate on them naturally takes a bit more work. But that doesn't mean love can't be found via a freebie. Half of the most common online dating sites are free (Plenty of Fish, OkCupid, Zoosk). What's more is that only a third of online daters have paid for a dating site or app.
Online Dating Got a Socioeconomic Boost. My very first online date was with a guy who was (secretly) unemployed and "forgot" his wallet. He later told me about his job situation on AIM (after our terrible, horrible date, mind you) as a way to woo me into a second one. No thanks. Today, the quality of online daters has seen an enormous boost. I've noticed this shift in my clients over the years as I work with an increasing number of serial entrepreneurs and C-suite executives. Similarly, the study looks at income and college education and found that 57 percent of all college graduates and 57 percent of Americans with an annual household income of $75,000 or more know someone who uses dates online. Forty percent of each group knows someone who's met a spouse or long-term partner online.
The Grass Can Be Greener -- Even Digitally. Marriage-minded singles are dwindling (a record-low of 51 percent of the public is currently married) and online dating may not be helping. It's easy to have late-night browsing sessions simply because you can get bored, with thoughts questioning your budding relationship popping up. This wasn't an issue back in the day when the general quality of online daters was lower, but more users means shining up your dating profile and first impression. Proof: my company has worked on more than a thousand online dating profiles to date. Additionally, 22 percent of online daters have asked someone to help them create or review their profile. Consequently, 32 percent of Internet users agree: "online dating keeps people from settling down because they always have options for people to date."
Enter The New-School Background Check. My first major AOL crush was a Texan who said he was 22. Being 17, I was so virtually enamored that I bought a microphone and joined voice chat rooms with him. He planned a trip to visit and ended up standing me up -- at the airport. The next week (via IM) I found out he was 39 and married. Needless to say, I learned the power of the background check pretty quickly. But forget credit and identity verification: #creepin' is the background check 2.0. Thirty percent of social networking users with recent dating experience have used a social platform to get more information about someone they're interested in dating. On the flip side, this makes it less likely you'll be catfished.
It's Time to Re-define Online Dating. Previously, "online dating" meant a website specifically developed for communicating with singles. Now, flirting is happening on various platforms. Even on the web front, niche sites are pushing the dating industry forward. One of the top five most used dating sites in the country is now the religious site, Christian Mingle. And 40 percent of online daters have used a site or app for people with shared interests or backgrounds.
Every major dating site has an app; it's a way to stay connected on the go. App-only platforms also exist, like Tinder and Grindr. Today, one in every 10 American adults between the ages of 25 and 34 has downloaded a mobile app.
And eFlirting is even evolving on social platforms. After all, dating is inherently part of our social lives! Fifteen percent of social network site users with recent dating experience have asked someone out on a date using a social platform. And 12 percent have friended or followed someone specifically because one of their friends suggested they might want to date that person.
I actually met my fiancé on Twitter four years ago and wouldn't change a moment of our #lovestory. Though we may have been a bit before our time, I'm glad others are finding avatars that make their hearts skip a byte.
Laurie Davis is the founder of eFlirt Expert and author of Love @ First Click: The Ultimate Guide to Online Dating. She helps singles navigate the Wink Wide Web via dating profile writing, text decoding, Facebook flirting and offline meeting.