Samantha Henig | Glamour
I grew up with a Hollywood-crafted notion of a first date. It happens in montage form, of course, and in a variety of locales—on a picnic, in a rowboat, as you learn the pachanga—while discovering your random common interests: salami sandwiches, Dickens novels, and whatever else we cannot know since the swelling music obscures the words, but any observer can tell it's all charming and perfect.
Classic Hollywood would cringe at the 2013 version: You're not in a rowboat, and you're not bathed in candlelight. Your face is illuminated by a computer screen, your body is swathed in sweatpants, and you aren't gazing so much as glaring while you fiendishly prowl Google and Facebook for every possible shred of information you can find about the man you might meet for coffee. You're not dating yet, but you are doing what you might call "pre-dating"—and it's as much a part of courtship these days as exchanging phone numbers or buying new underwear.
The methodology varies—some favor LinkedIn; others, Twitter or blogs—but a good 48 percent of women research a guy on Facebook before the first date, according to a new Match.com survey of 5,481 singles. "I start googling people as soon as I have a crush on them," admits Gigi Swift, a 28-year-old consultant in New York City. Clicking through someone's public photos "is kind of like passing him in the hall at school," she says. You see him and get a sense of his life without actually having to put yourself out there. Pre-dating also saves time, says Jessica Bennett, 31, executive editor at Tumblr. "You can basically skip the first couple of dates and go straight to Google to see whether you're compatible. You definitely want to know the things you could find out on a résumé. Except that it would be weird to ask for someone's résumé."
But is the time you spend with someone's online persona messing with what might develop in real life once you're actually together? Experts say absolutely yes. "Too much information is detrimental," explains Amy Van Doran, a matchmaker in New York City. "It makes it hard to fall in love. For that, you have to be in the moment." Still tempted to snoop? Tough love time. Here are a few hard-core reasons you shouldn't:
You turn into a comparison shopper.
Trolling online for intel can certainly help you avoid dates that were destined to go nowhere (he likes Michael Bublé?! I didn't know anyone but an elevator liked Michael Bublé!), but it may also lead you to pass over Prince Charming, experts say.
"Technology makes it very easy to eliminate people on the basis of what, in the grand picture of a relationship, might end up being a pretty negligible point," says Nicole B. Ellison, Ph.D., an associate professor of information at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, who explains that the treasure trove of data available via social media sites has encouraged people to treat their dating options like a shopping experience. I've certainly been guilty of the picky-shopper approach: Some nights I have two tabs on my computer open at once—Anthropologie for clothes and OkCupid for guys. I toggle between them, clicking and evaluating. This sweater is too cropped. That guy is too short. Too conservative a neckline. Too conservative a profile. Mama's boy? Dry-clean only? Too high-maintenance. Next.
"You're trying to suss out: Will this person and I have a connection? Actually, there is no evidence that we can assess that online," says Eli J. Finkel, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, whose research on online dating shows that misconceptions are rampant. "You think you know what you want, but what you really need is to sit across from each other and get a beer."
Remy Kauffmann, 27, an assistant at a Washington, D.C., museum, didn't do that when she discarded a date because of a detail she learned about him online. She had met him—they'd gone out for dinner, over which they got excited discovering they played on the same kickball league. He was somewhat vague about his job, so when she got home, she promptly started her browser and found out that he worked for the gun lobby. "He was really cute and even opened my car door," she says, "but we differed so much on that issue, I couldn't go out with him again." And then she—like so many of us—crossed him off her list.
You hijack the chemistry.
But experts say Kauffmann's discovery could have had a happier ending if she'd made it face-to-face rather than face-to-Facebook. In-person conversations allow you to take into account your date's tone of voice, body language, and facial expression—and to open yourself up to things you might dismiss online. "You can't determine if somebody is a potential mate by any means other than being together and looking into his eyes," says Brian Alexander, coauthor of The Chemistry Between Us: Love, Sex, and the Science of Attraction. And he means looking into someone's eyes literally: "Eye gaze is one of the chief tools humans have used throughout evolution to gauge each other's intentions,"
explains Alexander; biologically, it triggers the release of neurochemicals like oxytocin, a hormone that lowers anxiety and increases our ability to get close. Touching and having an intimate conversation can do the same.
No hormones are released, however, when you Yahoo- search someone. "If we sat down and rationally thought about it, we would never fall in love," asserts Alexander, "and we would certainly never have babies, because it's a pain in the ass." That's where all the neurochemicals come in. In the throes of attraction, you're more willing to date a guy who doesn't exactly match all your criteria but, as you get to know him, turns out to be the perfect long-term mate. "Love makes you stupid for a good reason," Alexander says.
You get too judge-y.
Another reason to go easy on the online digging: The more you learn about someone, the harsher you may judge him, according to one study. For example, Google might find that your new guy likes soccer, bourbon, and Lost reruns (hey, you too!). But it also reveals he was president of his fraternity (and you weren't into the Greek scene). Once you learn that one thing you don't like about him, you tend to latch onto it, the study showed, and now those photos you unearth of him playing beer pong with his buddies are more likely to strike you as further evidence that he's just too fratty for you.
The study examined online daters, but the findings apply to all of us, says coauthor Jeana Frost, Ph.D., who conducted the research while at the MIT Media Lab, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Investigating a date on the Internet "compresses time," she says. "Your disillusionment with someone during a conversation might take hours, during which your date has the opportunity to explain himself, whereas online that disillusionment can happen almost instantly." You go from crushing to cringing in a matter of minutes, and since the poor guy never knows it's happening, he never gets to set the record straight.
"Fantasy is important when you have a crush," my friend Clarke told me, explaining why she abstains from Facebook research before a date. "You can destroy the excitement if you think you know stuff about someone. It's so much more fun to have your feelings for a person not be colored by anything."
But let's be real...
So what's a tech-savvy, time-strapped, and curious girl to do? Obviously, some digital diligence can save you from disaster (guy with girlfriend, serious drunk, misogynist, jihadist, ax murderer). But how do you not kill the mystery?
Try speed dating. Yes, seriously, says Finkel. We turn to the Internet partly because we're busy and want to find The One already. "But if it's a choice between four minutes in front of each other or 20 hours of Google-stalking alone, I'd meet in person," he says. "The stuff you can tell within minutes of conversation"—whether you have a good rapport or sexual chemistry—you still won't know after hours and hours of staring at your computer screen.
Don't be too quick to hit delete. If your searching turns up three DUIs or a blog of photos of him setting squirrels on fire, well, you're right to run. But smaller turnoffs shouldn't be deal breakers. His cheesy emoticons may seem endearing by the time he's also showing his feelings by stroking your hand and feeding you Phish Food.
Google yourself. You're not the only one Internet-stalking; he's doing it too. It helps to know what he's finding out—and to be reminded that not everyone is perfect.
Finally, if you've already fallen for a guy through online clues before going on your first date, don't expect a walking incarnation of Prince Charming. As one friend described it, "There's a fictional element to all your interactions online. It's like reading a novel about someone. Then in person, you meet the big-screen version of the character—kind of different! Maybe very different! Maybe the actors don't even resemble the characters in your head." But as long as you're not spending the whole movie making comparisons to the book, you could actually enjoy yourself.
Samantha Henig is the online editor at The New York Times Magazine and coauthor, with Robin Marantz Henig, of Twentysomething.