Lin doesn’t know if she’ll hear from him, but that didn’t stop her from dreaming up her own romantic comedy.
The 24-year-old Dupont Circle resident walked past a tall, bespectacled man outside a Juan Valdez cafe few weeks ago, and they exchanged glances. The first wasn’t anything out of the ordinary, but the second? It made her heart flutter.
The serendipity of the moment led Lin to post on Craigslist, describing the guy’s plaid shirt and partially dyed blond hair. Maybe he would see it — and then they’d fall in love, move to California and open a bookstore together called Missed Connection. You know, she said, “silly stuff like that.”
A missed connection is fleeting, in terms of the encounter and the corresponding post’s seven-day shelf life. The popularity of Missed Connections might have peaked somewhere between “You’ve Got Mail”-era chat rooms and the creation of dating apps, but it’s still common to find at least a dozen new posts on the D.C. page each day. Seventeen years after its was established, the Craigslist section lives on.
“The post is your opportunity to be heard,” said Lin, who spoke on the condition that only her first name be used. She believes the anonymous quality of missed connections is part of what makes them so appealing.
They’re also kind of romantic. We tend to believe in “interpersonal magic,” such as love at first sight, says Stanford University sociology professor Michael Rosenfeld.
“Some people will find you funny and laugh at your jokes in a way that makes you feel smart and attractive, and other people will look at you like you’re crazy when you tell the same joke,” he said. “You’d rather be with the first person than the second, and there’s no way of knowing whether someone will get you without spending time face to face.”
Missed connections, similarly, are based on a more personal level of attraction than just swiping right on a Tinder profile.
It’s “baloney” to claim that online dating has undermined interpersonal relationships, says Rosenfeld, who considers the Craigslist posts to be a “direct analog for … personals that we used to see in weekly newspapers.” These in-person encounters are the only way to “get a sense of if the person is as tall as they say, if they’re going to laugh at your jokes and how their breath smells.”
“If you want to meet somebody, you have to go where other people are,” he added. Missed connections are probably still around because of the digital element, but the serendipity involved gives them an extra sense of romance.
Tryst, the beloved Adams Morgan coffeehouse, used to have a missed-connections website, too. For a few years after it opened in the late 1990s, visitors were able to post an “I Saw You At Tryst” message on the coffee shop’s website, and others could reply. They often did, general manager Elias Montilla recalled, potentially because of the establishment’s romantic mood. “It was a cool thing to add to the dating atmosphere,” he said. “Still up to this day, a lot of people meet here for the first time or have first dates here. That helped.”
Montilla couldn’t remember why the coffeehouse got rid of the site, though he said the posts were “dwindling” after a while. Craigslist’s Missed Connections, however, remain popular, according to spokeswoman Susan MacTavish Best. “Humans really do value a long shot,” she said in an email. “The idea of getting a second chance, however small it may be, is very powerful.”
Sheer curiosity about the feature’s popularity inspired Brooklyn-based Dorothy Gambrell, a graphics editor at Bloomberg Businessweek, to do some digging a few years ago. She scanned through posts from all over the country, eventually creating a graphic for Psychology Today that depicted geographic patterns. Missed connections in urban areas often involved public transportation, she said, while rural ones tended to be in supermarkets. The most common location in Washington was the Metro.
Gambrell also dove into demographics. A majority of posts — 59 percent, she said — were from men looking for women. Approximately 27 percent were from men seeking men, 13 percent from women seeking men and just 1 percent were women seeking women.
“The major group was people who were having a very pleasant time with someone and should’ve just asked for contact information at that point,” she said. “You feel like going through the screen and asking someone why they didn’t.”
Thomas Edwards — who works as a “professional wingman” who trains people to approach potential love interests in person — isn’t surprised by these statistics. More often, he said, men are the ones expected to make the initial approach. “When those opportunities slip away, it’s easy for guys to feel regretful and make amends for it by going to the platform,” Edwards said, referring to Missed Connections.
Edwards shared Gambrell’s sentiment in wishing the Craigslist users would have just asked for a phone number when they saw or interacted with the person, rather than posting online about it later. Missed Connections are a crutch of sorts, a way for people to avoid the daunting task of approaching someone in real life.
“It comes down to the fear of rejection,” Edwards said. “Specifically with guys, we always try to find the perfect opportunity where we have the best chance of getting a positive response from someone we want to talk to.”
Sometimes, there’s a professional barrier. As executive director of Friends of Woodley Park, Ryan Wegman often speaks at community events where he meets new people. But his high-profile standing can make it awkward for him to pursue any interests that aren’t purely professional. “In the corner of your mind you’re always thinking: If I wasn’t here in this capacity right now and was attending as random guest A, I would love to talk to that person,” he said.
Wegman, 33, once received a response to a Missed Connection post, though his expectations have shifted with the rise of dating apps. People are more likely to turn to Bumble or Tinder than Craigslist in pursuit of a relationship, but he doesn’t think that means the pages are done for.
Julia Crantz, a 33-year-old Bethesda resident, would agree. It was Christmas Eve in 2013 and, as per tradition, Crantz and her friends had plans to see a movie and attend a party afterward. Despite having a wonderful conversation with a guy sitting near her, Crantz dashed off as soon as the credits to “American Hustle” rolled.
A week later, she pulled up the Missed Connections page to see if he had posted anything about their chance meeting. To her surprise, he had. “It described the interaction and was like, ‘Let’s meet up. Let’s connect,’ ” she said. “We did, and it was lovely.”
Though the two are just friends now, Crantz hasn’t entirely ruled out the site. It’s still fun to scroll through, she said, “like people-watching but different.”
“In this swipe culture, it’s real in a way that some other interactions aren’t,” she added. “It’s almost like clinging to the possibility that a meet-cute can still happen. And who doesn’t want a meet-cute?”