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The 300-year History of Internet Dating
Heather Whipps
Heather Whipps is a freelance writer with an anthropology
degree from McGill University in Montreal, Canada. Her
history column appears regularly on LiveScience.
Column archive]
Almost everyone these days can name a couple they know that met on the Internet,
though it wasn't so long ago that skimming the online personals for love was considered
strange, even a bit desperate.
Taboo or not, the practice certainly isn't new. Personal ads have a history going back at
least 300 years, according to a new book on the subject entitled "Classified: The Secret
History of the Personal Column" (Random House Books, 2009).
Internet dating is just the modern version of the first "matrimonial" agencies of the
1700s, which helped lonely bachelors search for wives through printed ads, said author
H.G. Cocks, a history lecturer at the University of Nottingham, UK. In between, the
social acceptance of personals has waxed and waned with the times.
"Advertising for a husband or wife has always attracted criticism and the people who did
it were always thought of as failures in some way. However advertising like this has a
long and unbroken history, and was used by many people with some success," Cocks
From shameful to bohemian and cool
It only took a few decades after the invention of the modern newspaper in 1690 for the
new medium to become a way for people to meet in Britain. Matrimonial agencies were
big business there by the early 18th century, printing ads on behalf of men who paid the
agency to recruit them a good wife. Being single passed the age of 21 was considered
almost shameful in that era, and the ads were often a last resort for the men who
advertised and the women who read them. If a match resulted, it is unlikely that you
boasted the fact to your friends, Cocks said.
"You probably wouldn't talk about it if you were very respectable," he said. The
personals sections of those 18th century newspapers were also useful for gay men and
women to meet lovers, back when homosexuality was still illegal (it remained so in the
UK until 1967).
Personal ads went mainstream in the early 20th century, with expectations at a much
lower level than their earlier incarnations. Many of the postings were simply calls for
friends or pen pals, becoming especially popular among single servicemen, called "lonely
soldiers," during World War I.
"At that time advertising for pals or for lonely soldiers was fashionable and contemporary
- something done by those who were, as they put it in their ads, 'bohemian and
unconventional,'" Cocks said.
Personals died away again until the 1960s, when ads became part of the growing
counterculture in the UK, along with drug experimentation and the Beatles, the author
explains. Like the latter, though, it took some time for the personal ad to be accepted
by the Mom-and-Pop public.
"In Britain, the personal column was suspected (much like the Internet is now) of
harboring all sorts of scams, perversities and dangerous individuals. At least that is what
the police tended to think, and they only stopped prosecuting lonely hearts ads in the
late 1960s - until then they often thought that they were mainly placed by prostitutes
and gay men," Cocks said.
Dating sites now suit the older single
Personal ads became relatively 'acceptable' by the mid to late 1990s, say experts,
helped in no small part by the explosion of Internet use. More and more elements of
people's lives, including love, have gone online in the last few years, and self-promotion
on the Internet in general is now just a fact of life.
"Short self-descriptions aren't only the preserve of Internet daters, they are also the
essence of things like Facebook and other social networking sites," said Cocks.
The difference between the personal ads of the previous centuries and today's is the
age of those using Internet dating sites, according to statistics. The core demographic
of those publicly "looking for love" has been turned on its head, with people settling
down and marrying much later (if at all) in Western cultures. Internet sites tend to favor
older singles, many of whom turn to the technology after a divorce or traditional forms
of courtship have failed, Cocks said.
"Someone from an Irish radio station asked me whether the essence of all Internet
dating ads was 'Loser seeks Winner,'" he said, "but I think those opinions are really those
of younger people, [such as] those under 30 who see no need for Internet dating. Or of
married people."
User is a friend of user. And sometimes even more. The phrase "We met online" no
longer leads to enthusiastic trembling. At worst, they will look at you as a little child,
at best - will answer: "We too". Only for 10 - 15 years the virtual acquaintances have
undergone a serious evolution.
Over 40 million singles are now using, or have used, an Online Dating service
according to a recent survey. That's a mighty huge business we're talking about here,
and that has started a whole new era of dating with its own rules
.
Theorem. To catch a good fish, you must offer a very good bait.
Numerous dating sites are colorful with ads. Smart ones post their profiles on several
sites simultaneously. The persistent ones, not spare money, raise their profiles on
the top row every 2-3 days. Beautiful ones hope for professional photographs. Ladies
expose the most attractive parts of the body, talently take tempting poses of the
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