How does the chaos of Craigslist love endure in an eHarmony world?

craigslist loveCraigslist is many things to many people: To the modern Internet denizen, it’s an unsightly holdover from Web 1.0. To the open-source advocate, it’s a locked up, selfish, overflowing database of information that’s anti-innovation. And to some of us, it’s where the magic happens.

While you and I might browse Craigslist to find a new apartment or a gently used (fingers crossed) couch, there are many, many more people using it to look for love.

But why? In a world where we have innumerable dating websites, applications that tell us if someone is right around the corner, and social networks that make it beyond easy to browse for a potential new boyfriend or girlfriend, what would ever compel us to turn to Craigslist? It’s ugly, it’s arguably broken, and you know, there’s that whole Craigslist Killer thing. I mean, if there is a Lifetime movie (especially one featuring the incomparable Billy Baldwin) about the dangers of something, as a rule of thumb you probably should avoid said thing. (Looking at you, teenage pregnancy and experimental drug use).

At one point, I was paying hundreds of dollars a month to date.

Enter the Craigslist Conqueror, real name Aaron Smith. After a divorce he didn’t see coming, Smith found himself more than a decade out of the dating game and very, very alone. “I tried every dating site out there,” he tells me. “The problem is that it’s too easy to see a picture and keep moving.” Smith describes himself as a moderately attractive but not exactly eye-catching guy – one, he says, that is easy to just skip past. “I could craft a great bio, but so many people just take one look and keep moving.”

He lists the myriad of other dating site dilemmas: You find someone you connect with, but they live too far away for anything to develop. They haven’t logged in to their accounts in months. And perhaps, most discouraging of all, the cost. “At one point, I was paying hundreds of dollars a month to date,” he says.

His frustration isn’t unique: One friend who’s given the online dating scheme a go has similar complaints. “The worst part about it is definitely the cost… Aside from that, learning how to actually effectively use each site is tough. Different types of people are on different sites and it’s tough to find the type of person you want to date, quite often.” He also says that it’s more than common to never heard back from a person you reach out to, and that even those who do respond, the odds of getting them to go on a date are less than 50 percent.

After Smith’s failed and disappointing attempts at using dating sites, he turned to Craigslist Casual Encounters. “I was watching the news and there was some story about Craigslist Personals, and I figured, why not.” He says after initially writing up a rather tame profile describing himself as a nice guy with a great sense of humor, he received zero responses. “It was like crickets,” he says.

casencout

That’s when he decided to just go for it, writing ads designed to make a lady go weak in the knees. And it worked. The ads varied: “Sometimes I’d write them as a man that just wanted to dominate a woman and make her feel submissive. Other times, I’d be the loving guy that just wants to please you and make you happy all night.” Whatever character he decided to play, he got results. At one point, he tells me he was sleeping with two to three women a week, sometimes more. And thus, the Craigslist Conqueror was born.

But he realized it wasn’t him: It was his methods. “I would buy romance novels and glean details on how to appeal to women… and so I started telling my friends about it,” he says. “And they did even better. I thought I was Superman – but I just had the right tools.” That’s when he started sharing his secrets, via his book and even on the Howard Stern Show.

While his time conquering Craigslist was originally of the sexual variety, Smith ended up finding love on the site. He’s been in a relationship for some two years with a woman he met using the site, and says friends who’ve used his system have found serious, committed relationships as well.

If Craigslist Casual Encounters is the equivalent of writing your number on the bathroom door of the bar, then Missed Connections is like putting a love note in a bottle and hoping that one person finds it. More than 60 million people in the U.S. use Craigslist each month. As of late 2012, it was pulling in 50 billion page views a month. It has an Alexa rank of eight. Suffice it to say that the odds of reconnecting with that stranger you made furtive eye contact with across the bar are bad.

I figured, what do I really have to lose besides the five minutes of my life it took to write and post the thing?

But… what if they aren’t? The Missed Connections success stories are surprisingly many – and unsurprisingly, inspiring. Our own Jen Bergen is one of these lucky souls. She tells me that after locking eyes and dancing with a mystery man at a concert, he disappeared into the crowd. “The next day, I thought, ‘what the heck? Why not try Missed Connections,’” she says. “I figured, what do I really have to lose besides the five minutes of my life it took to write and post the thing.”

As a New Yorker, she didn’t expect anything to come of it. But the next day she got a response from the man himself; his friend had noticed the Missed Connections ad and pointed him toward it. “Neither of us had ever done anything like [that], so it was a bit awkward at first,” Bergen says. “We met up a few days later for our first date and the rest is history.” The rest being that the two have been together for nearly three years. She mentions she knows two other couples who met thanks to Missed Connections, and one of them is now engaged. 

“I knew it was a long shot, but Missed Connections is the first place people go when they want to find someone they had a fleeting moment with on the subway or in a coffee shop,” she explains. “Plus the anonymity thing is a big part of it.”

And therein possibly lies the catch: The guarantee of remaining undercover offers us the confidence to pour a piece of our hearts out to that stranger we felt a spark with (or find someone who wants to share a steamy, no-strings-attached sex session for a night).

Missed Connections has become a phenomenon unto itself. The Center for Missed Connections (which focuses in New York City) collects these moments, turning the wistful postings into charts and graphs, visually exploring trends within the database, as well as high-traffic locations. “Analysis of Craigslist Missed Connections postings and communities offers a glimpse into the loneliness and sexual tension that serve as the linchpin of any thriving metropolitan environment,” the center explains. “The CMC seeks to understand the longing, both poetic and banal, within public spaces.”

The project was started in 2009 as a result of Ingrid Burrington‘s curiosity. “I wanted to know where was the loneliest place in a city. Missed Connections seemed like a  pretty obvious way to build a dataset on loneliness in cities. It kind of just snowballed from there,” she tells me.

missed connections superlatives

A few of the CMC’s projects have been taking data from Missed Connections and finding the most common superlatives used in postings (PDF), the relationships between subjects and their seekers (PDF), an analysis of location, as well as probability reports to increase your likelihood of being a Missed Connection (which comes with a one-time $25 fee; Burrington says these aren’t meant to be taken seriously; “It’s kind of like commissioning a portrait, presenting someone in the context of this dataset”). 

(Sidenote: I would absolutely love to see some stats on the spike in Missed Connections and Casual Encounters postings that hit the site February 14). 

missed connections taxonomySomething about all this has clearly hit a nerve. However, despite the gut instinct pulling us back to Craigslist for relationship hunting, there is some real risk involved – of the infectious disease variety.

New research shows that a rise in sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) can be tied to Craigslist. “Our study results demonstrate that Craigslist, as a minimally regulated online intermediary with no posting costs, increases the number of transactions taking place, including transactions that have undesirable social consequences,” the paper, titled Internet’s Dirty Secret: Assessing the Impact of Technology Shocks on the Outbreaks of Sexually Transmitted Diseases, says. Really, what this is saying in the nicest possible way, is that because Craigslist lets anyone put their dirty little selves out there with no restrictions – save an Internet connection – a hive of scum and villainy is materializing. And it’s full of The Sith the syph (see what I did there?).

The paper found a few rather frightening things, including:

  • “The entry of Craigslist creates an 18.8 percent increase in the rate of new syphilis cases…”
  • The increase in the AIDs rate is influenced by the number of ‘Men Seeking Men’ ads. The increase in the syphilis rate is influenced by both the number of ‘Men Seeking Women’ and ‘Women Seeking Men’ ads.
  • The rise in STD trends caused by Craigslist entry into a given market is attributed to casual encounters solicited via the site and not market-related sexual transactions such as prostitution or escort service activities.” (Which simply means that the hookups you find there – not the ones you pay for – are the cause of this STD climb.)

While researchers also advise that some form of heavier and more dedicated regulation could ease the issue, it’s ridding the platform of the two things that make Craigslist such a magical place that would solve it nearly entirely: Anonymity and its price tag-free existence. Real Internet identity already has a place – Facebook. As does dating with your dollars – every dating site out there. There’s a sort of visceral, tangible change happening in the online hunt for relationships as a reaction to these two options.

We always know what you’re doing, eating, saying, thinking. There is no leaving things up to chance. There is no “if it’s meant to be.”

The OkCupids and eHarmonies of the Internet tout themselves as science-based methods for finding a match. You fill out questionnaires, you rate things on scales of 1-5, you create profiles with photos and links. Algorithms then find you potential partners, based on how well all the data you’ve offered up matches theirs. It’s like a lab for love.

Problem is labs can be cold, isolating places. These methods, though they clearly work well for some, do take serendipity out of the equation – something that social media has been hastily trying to inject back into our digital lives. The Internet in whole, and lifecasting apps like Facebook, Foursquare, Twitter, Instagram and the like, have killed fate. We always know what you’re doing, eating, saying, thinking. There is no leaving things up to chance. There is no “if it’s meant to be.” We make it be, thanks to social networks and constant connectivity.

But we’re seeing some reactionary products as a result. The recent BangWithFriends app, controversial as it may be, stems from this. And the intersection of social-local-mobile apps like Highlight are trying to pinpoint this tension (and there are a bevy of dating-specific SoLoMo apps out there as well). Even the traditional dating apps are experimenting a bit, breaking out of their charts and graphs to appeal to the romantic in us all: The new OkCupid Crazy Blind Date app hooks you up at the drop of a hat, and Match.com has been featuring group events since last year, well-orchestrated scenes that are more casual, but come with the attached guarantee of finding someone else who’s single.

“[An] advantage of these apps is that many of them revolve around immediate face-to-face interaction, and thus help eliminate one of the shortcomings of dating sites – [like the fact] that you might end up wasting a ton of time and energy interacting with someone online who turns out to be a weirdo or a creeper. Or, more commonly, just someone with whom you don’t have any chemistry in real life,” says Sociology Professor at UC San Diego Kevin Lewis, who focuses on culture and social networks. “These apps often allow immediate contact – and therefore an immediate sense of chemistry, or lack thereof. They are much more efficient in that sense.” Still, he’s not ready to to call this trend the wave of the digital dating future, and points out the fact that the veterans of the online dating market are still creating solid results. 

“Even if people might not like a giant, mainstream website like Match.com or eHarmony, at the end of the day it’s hard to argue with the fact of their sheer membership size- and thus, by the numbers, a higher likelihood that someone compatible with you is ‘out there’ somewhere on the site.” 

Asking Smith (aka, the Craigslist Conqueror) about this new, fate-favoring trend in digitally-manufactured, romantic serendipity, he offers a theory. “Everyone stops looking for techniques for finding The One once they find him or her,” says Smith. “I believe that the journey usually begins with looking for someone in your immediate social circle. The next is the traditional dating sites. But what happens when you’ve been on all of the traditional dating sites for a year? Two years? Three years?”

“So whatever ‘next thing’ comes along in meeting people gets a try – speed dating, dating apps, Craigslist, whatever. After all, we all know the perfect person is out there, and hope springs eternal that your ‘one’ is just around the corner – perhaps looking for you on the next site, the next app, the next personals ad.” 

Editors' Recommendations

The best texting games

alternative biometric security systems photo of a young woman holding her smartphone in bed