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With Martha Stewart on, time to rethink online dating?

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Well, if Martha’s doing it…

When she had the idea for doing that thing to your tablecloths, we went along with it. When she invaded Kmarts with her doily lace coasters, we went along with it. When she told us to “fill a shadow box frame with dark velvet and natural elements for a creepy Halloween look,” we said, “Okay, Martha.” We are accustomed to saying, “Okay, Martha.” She is certainly the most prominent, if not the only, ex-convict telling us how to make tasteful seasonal decorations.

Now she’s trying online dating. She has a profile — yes, that’s really Martha Stewart — where she explains what she’s looking for in a man (“Someone who’s intelligent, established, and curious; and who relishes adventure and new experiences as much as I do. Someone who can teach me new things. A lover of animals, grandchildren, and the outdoors. Young at heart”).

“Okay, Martha.”

I know that came out with a survey in 2010 claiming that 17 percent of the couples married in the preceding three years had met online, and that 1 in 5 people had gone on online dates. “If you don’t know an online dater,” the study implied, “you ARE one.” And now, Martha Stewart.

Maybe it’s time to end the stigma.

For years, there were only two generally accepted facts about online dating. It was the weird solitary pursuit of people who could not cut it in bars, and nobody you met online ever looked the same as in the picture.

The popular stereotype of the online dater was somebody who vaguely resembled Napoleon Dynamite’s socially inept mustached time-traveling uncle. Of course he was dating online. He could not possibly date in person. The Online Dater sat in a basement, hissing when exposed to light. His photograph (five years out of date) was taken from the one angle where he did not resemble a weird cabbage. You had to meet him in a Safe, Public Place, and you missed him the first five times after awkwardly approaching all the men in the mall food court who you thought looked like the “judo master & gentleman maker of amor” advertised in the online description.

Later, if it worked out, “We didn’t meet online,” you would lie. “We met at a bar.” Strictly speaking, this was true. The bar was the public place where you decided to have your first in-person session.

This is still parodied in commercials and on the comics pages, but it’s drifted pretty far from fact. After all, everyone knows someone who’s an online dater. It’s not just for strange basement people any more.

Online dating has some points in its favor, and not just the fact that — as one friend pointed out — if you are a woman willing to make awkward conversation, you can get weeks of free dinners from strangers! Everyone and his dog is on OkCupid. Especially the dog. So why souldn’t you be on there too? Numerous people argue that this is the most sensible approach, given the sheer numbers.

The problems of online dating are different than the initial stereotype. It is not so much that all the people bear no resemblance to their profiles and turn out to be uncomfortably racist or wheeze through their teeth when they speak. The difficulties are more subtle — the challenge of having both parties’ intentions visible in advance. Filling out a profile correctly — what to say, what color to wear, how close to the camera to stand, what bizarre primordial cues to activate, etc. The plethora of other available options. (Numerous studies have found that more choice may make you less happy. When confronted with millions of potential matches, it’s hard to convince yourself that this Perfectly All Right And Not At All Cabbagey-Looking Fellow with whom you are about to go on your third date is, as P.G. Wodehouse would say, your specific dream rabbit. There are so many rabbits.)

But especially when you compare it to the bar scene, it makes sense. The bar scene, you now realize, conferred an unfair advantage on people naturally gifted in areas like Shouting Really Loudly Over Music, Wearing Fun Going-Out Tops and Not Falling Over On The Dance Floor. Without these skills, you were left to fall back on your ability to convey your meaning through hand gestures and ill-timed winks, and the results were seldom stellar.

Maybe this is a natural evolution. Before the club was the club-and-drag-back-to-cave, but in between was a time when parents arranged careful and shrewd matches for their children. And what we once asked our parents (why is the sky blue? where do we go when we die? what is sex?) we now ask the Internet — or Yahoo! Answers, at any rate. Why shouldn’t we have the Internet set us up, too? Maybe Martha’s onto something.

Then again, the argument that “If Martha Stewart is doing it, it must be normal, cool, and mainstream now” cuts only so much hand-packaged artisanal mustard. If we lived our lives abiding by the books of Martha, we would have a lot more tomato planters than anyone around us knew what to do with.