Susan can still remember the first time she did it. The 41-year-old was recently divorced, and figured, Why not check out the world of Internet dating? “The first day, I got 86 hits!” she recalls. “It was a total ego boost – especially since I’d just been dumped.”
Soon, she found herself embroiled in a relationship she hadn’t planned on – with her computer. “It became my world for two years,” says Susan. “I met some great guys – they just weren’t right for me.” Still, she kept going back. (It’s over now: She has a boyfriend who, for the record, she met offline.)
More and more New Yorkers are finding themselves in an obsessive-compulsive relationship with cyberdating. The passive-aggressive format of sites like Nerve.com and Match.com has a way of luring vulnerable souls in a bit too deep: You post a mini-profile of yourself (“You really post who you want to be,” says a 32-year-old), then eagerly wait for people to bite, all the while scrolling, Peeping Tom–ishly, through thousands of other profiles. Since the sites have such large memberships (Match gets 3.8 million monthly hits, Nerve has cornered New York’s lit-hipster set, and – yes, you guessed it – everyone’s traffic is up post–September 11), it’s likely you’ll get multiple hits a day. Which may leave you wanting more.
“The whole thing is so intensely fucked up,” huffs 26-year-old writer Rebecca, who’s spent three months lurking among the singles on Nerve. “At first I was like, I’m doing this, but I’m not really doing it. Then it was, I checked five hours ago, maybe I’ll just check in and see if there’s anything new. Now it’s like, Friends, stop me – this is a bad, bad place to be.”
“It was like putting yourself up permanently on amihotornot,” says a recovering 30-year-old East Villager, referencing the Website where you do nothing but rate strangers’ looks on a scale of 1 to 10. “It hit me the same place that cocaine does.”
Elizabeth, a Manhattan-based therapist, actually went as far as prescribing Internet dating to lovesick patients, before discovering the backlash. “It was a good way to get some patients who had just come out of a bad marriage or relationship out there, get them some practice,” she says. But, she learned, what’s supposed to make people feel welcome and attractive often just breeds new anxieties: Why didn’t I get any hits today? Should I update my profile? But I just updated it! So, damn it, where are my hits? This was supposed to be fun! “I’ve had interesting sessions where we just end up discussing the whole phenomenon. The word addictive does get thrown around a lot.”
Most users say that fiber-optic flirtation usually leads to lame dates in the real world. But when you’re getting 86 hits a day, it’s not so hard to set up multiple dates in quick succession. “It’s the junkie thing,” says a 32-year-old man who for a few months found himself on two or three first dates a week off Nerve. “You have two horrible dates, and you think, To hell with it. Then you have an okay one, and think, Maybe I’m getting somewhere. It’s all very strange.”
“I don’t write to people anymore,” says Karen. “I just let them come to me – it’s safer that way.” The 25-year-old aspiring photographer’s experience with Nerve has run the gamut from silly to semi-psychotic over the past two years, and she’s weary of the process. But not entirely. “I have a Nerve date tonight, actually. I don’t even remember his profile. See, I’m really not that into it anymore. He e-mailed me, and I was just like, Sure, whatever. I mean, it can’t hurt that bad.”