On Love: Onlinve love

Meredith Fineman, blogging past the stigma of online dating

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By Ellen McCarthy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 8, 2010

Meredith Fineman's online dating adventures began partly out of fear of boredom.

The 23-year-old Washington native was returning from an exciting post-college year in Argentina to face a jobless existence under her parents' roof. "I was afraid I'd be back here and just be miserable," she says.

So before Fineman left Buenos Aires in May, she signed up for a JDate account, thinking the dating site for Jewish singles would be a good distraction and a vehicle to meet new people.

It was both of those things, and a wormhole into a strange subculture she found slightly bizarre and endlessly entertaining. Fineman e-mailed her observations to friends who forwarded them to others who had similar experiences. The response was so positive she set up a blog, FiftyFirstJDates.com, to document her strange, sad and (sometimes) funny encounters with D.C.'s JDaters.

"There are just so many little awkward intricacies of the site and of the way it works," she says. Not least of which is that "it's this thing that everybody does and nobody talks about."

Especially among people in their early 20s, she says, online dating still carries a stigma of being the realm of the desperate. But once she began to talk openly about it, Fineman was surprised by how many friends admitted they'd done it, or were thinking about signing up, but scared to take the plunge. She's hoping that by laughing at the absurdities, she can help normalize it a bit.

Fineman writes only of first dates, never with actual names and always with the guy's permission. She pokes fun at some of the site's peculiarities -- canned flirtations like "Let's atone for our sins together" or "Better call a doctor, you've stopped my heart" -- and the preponderance of user names such as "MotherApproved33" and "YourGrandmaWouldLoveMe."

In D.C., she says, the JDating world becomes very small. She's ended up having friends in common with several of the 13 men she's gone out with since late May. More unnerving is the experience of seeing someone in the real world whose face she recognizes from their online profile.

On a recent night out with friends, she spotted a fellow JDater who was clearly on a first date. "And he looks at me and he knows and I know . . . and we're both just glancing back," she says. But the guy's date at least appeared to be going well. "She seemed into it. He seemed into it -- you could tell from the body language."

Fineman's decided on some JDating guidelines: Not too much e-mail buildup ("if you establish a rapport online, that doesn't always translate in person"). Drinks are better than coffee (here she quotes Bravo's "Millionaire Matchmaker" Patti Stanger -- "Coffee is cheap, lunch is an interview, drinks are an audition, dinner is romance"). Err on the side of giving people a chance, and keep your expectations as low as possible. "The dates I went into with the least expectations are the ones I liked the most," she says.

Of course, the blog has made dating even weirder than it was to begin with. She usually tells guys about it after their first date. But since it's gained some traction -- Huffington Post picks up many of her posts -- some men know about it before they know her. One recently confessed that he was waiting for her to mention it. (Luckily he was a fan of her work.)

"It's created an interesting dilemma for me," she says. "Yes, I want to be an entertaining writer, but I also joined this site for a reason."

As for whether Fineman will make it to 50 dates, time will tell. "That's a lot of dates," she admits. But if she doesn't, that might mean the site can claim success.

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