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Most people either know or have heard of someone who has tried online dating. Ten years ago, it was still a pretty new concept. Many people scoffed at the idea of meeting a stranger remotely and it conjured in many minds images of the crazy “cat lady” or the quiet neighbor on the block with bodies buried in the backyard. But in the face of an ever-changing global environment and relentless updates to digital communication, meeting people for love online has flourished. Personally, I know quite a few people who have had relationships or met their husbands and wives through various sites such as match.com, eharmony.com, and faithmate.com. There are so many options nowadays it can be a bit overwhelming for someone who is a novice to this new way of meeting people. Your color, nationality, age, spiritual beliefs, or lifestyle choice does not factor into the number of sites to choose from. You will be hard-pressed not to find a community that has not been marketed to. Now if you want to talk quality, that should be reserved for another post. But not surprisingly, you get what you pay for. Nuff said. Of course, you have loosely related sites for “other” activities. I am not speaking for those folks. I am speaking to people who are actually looking to be in a committed, long-term relationship that eventually leads to marriage.

It’s now reported that 20% of marriages in the United States are the result of Internet dating. And while many naysayers have come around to accepting this as a legitimate way to meet a spouse, there seems to still be a significant number of folks who give anyone on a dating site the side eye. Let’s just call them “traditionalists.” But the world is not the same as it was 20 or even 10 years ago. Our lives are busier and filled with more distractions than ever in world history. The pace of the digital age has been a technological blessing, but it has left us more disconnected in our personal lives. We are so attached to our iPads, Twitter pages and smartphones, all the while working longer hours and at the end of a long day the question still remains: When is there time to actually meet new people? If you live in a town like mine where there is no subway system and the weather is often cold, it makes encountering a possible match even more challenging.

“Traditionalists” often site the fact that you don’t know who you are meeting. Does anyone ever? If you meet someone at a party or bookstore, do you really know that person either? And there is always the argument about running into someone who is mentally unstable online. I guess that never happens in person either, huh? Isn’t it entirely possible to meet a “crazy” person in the flesh just as well as online? And if it’s just a matter of compatibility you can easily have a phone conversation or cup of coffee in a public place and realize whether or not there is a real connection.

I am not afraid to admit that I have attempted to make my own “love connection” online. And although it has not been successful for me, I believe it can be an avenue leading to marriage. I do think you have to have a certain mindset to dive into this digital dating pool. Many people while dating (the traditional way included) see a lot of red flags up front, whether it be in person or by reading a profile page, but what you do with that information is up to you. You know what I’m talking about. All those little tell-tale signs that are yelling at you to RUN and you continue to plod along, hoping it was just an isolated incident–until it happens again. A lot of people keep an inner file system AKA known as intuition locked up tight, hoping to never allow it to see the light of day. So I do caution you that you cannot go through this process with rose-colored glasses on or in some type of near nod from the dizzying array of profile pics and information. Just don’t throw common sense out the window. From my own personal experience and from what I have gathered from others, these are some of the tips I would give to anyone seeking a committed, long-term relationship through a dating website:

1. The Profile–First off, are most of the questions filled out? And I am not talking about one-word answers. Most answers should be thoughtfully filled out and preferably with very few spelling errors. It speaks to the level of earnestness and effort the person is putting into making a first impression. And really pay attention to the answers. This is really the time to read between the lines–literally. If you desire to have children, and Mr. or Ms. Beautiful DOES NOT desire children, keep clicking. This is not the time to compromise. Don’t be swayed by the gorgeous professional photo staring back at you.

2. Speaking of Pictures–Oh boy. I could really go on about this.

a. If the first pic you see is of someone holding a beer of glass or wine, this may be a very clear indication this is how this person rolls all the time. Proceed with caution. If drinking and partying all the time is not your thing, it’s probably best to look elsewhere. Pictures should be clear and look recent (no jheri curls, mullets, or hi-top fades). Pay attention to the environment this person is in while taking pics. A lot of family oriented or bar/club pictures will give you an indication of this person’s personal interests and how he/she spends his or her free time.

b. Some people don’t post any pictures. Most websites will encourage you to post a pic because it will increase your number of responses. Personally I find it rather annoying when someone initiates contact and there is no profile pic. It is only fair to give someone an idea of what you look like.

c. Maybe you like to see muscles and cleavage before you know if a potential date smokes or not. I prefer a guy who doesn’t take a bathroom photo with his shirt off. I like a nice physique like anyone else, but maybe like me you are looking for a little bit more substance. So think twice if there are more pics of this person posing in front of a Jaguar or showing off a lavish lifestyle versus a nice head shot with a sincere smile.

3. Spotty Communication–okay so you’ve started communicating with someone you share mutual interests with and find attractive. But how is the conversation? If it’s taking the person a while to reply and the answers are brief, the person may not be as interested as you first believed or is just not serious about monogamous dating. At this point, if there is not talk about having a mini date over cappuccino anytime soon, it may be time to invest more of your time on looking at other profiles.

4. Dating in an Open Space–We’ve all heard it before, but for the sake of folks new to Internet dating: Meet people in public places.

5. Pray–Yeah, I said it. Not everything is revealed with the senses. You can’t always trust what you see, hear or sense. The heart is a tricky thing and when you couple that with attraction, you are prone to miss some important signs such as STOP or PROCEED WITH CAUTION.

So if you’re single and looking to meet someone new, the choice is ultimately up to you. Whether it’s howaboutwe.com, plentyoffish.com or farmersonly.com (yes, that is a real site), there are many options to explore. Or if you still think digital dating is not your thing, try a new hobby or setting that will allow you to get out there and be seen. You may find yourself meeting a whole new social group and enjoying life more. And maybe meet a really great person along the way. Happy dating to all!