When singles sit down to create their profiles on Match.com or OkCupid, they have but a mouse and keyboard to answer a philosophically weighty question — Who am I? Not only that, but why would someone else love me? They have to capture who they really are in a way that is most attractive, but won't disappoint upon flesh-and-blood scrutiny.
How do they get it right? According to a recent study of the veracity of online dating profiles, they don't. Not exactly. Instead of replicating a real-life self into an online profile, online daters tend to warp time and reality to construct what's more like a promise — based on past, present and future selves —of who they could realistically be.
The study suggests that, for the hundreds of thousands of people who find love online every year (according to Match.com that is), the secret to depicting oneself on the internet is using just the right amount of elasticity with the truth.
In other words, it's expected to lie a little to get the job, as long as you can fill the slot, ahem, if you're hired.
Waiting tables now, but training to be massage therapist? Massage therapist. You weighed in this morning at 210, but at your best you're 190? 190. About to get a big promotion and raise? It would be cheating yourself not to list your future salary.
The researchers, led by Nicole Ellison of the Michigan State University, came to their "Profile as Promise" framework for online dating by conducting interviews with 37 online daters in New York City, and examining their profiles to determine how they used deception.
They found a few factors led daters to misrepresent themselves in ways deemed acceptable. For one, there are certain understood rules that everyone on dating sites realize — curvy means chubby, 6' means 5'10, etc. One single calls this "fudging to get over the hump." Second, the process of creating a profile involves telling, not showing, which lends itself to unreliable information, the "foggy mirror" phenomenon. My favorite example of this is one dater who calls himself "athletic" because even though he's developed a bit of a gut, the muscle is still under there.
But most interesting, users tended to "time-shift" in their profiles. The fact that the profile exists to serve a future purpose means daters are comfortable with creating a composite of their various selves, past, present and even future, "giving them license to evoke qualities they wish they had, used to have, or planned to have."
It sounds a little sneaky, like the guy who used to smoke, still does now and then, but calls himself a non-smoker. Or the guy in sales, who wishes he was in marketing, so he clicks the "marketing" box. But even though the online context lends itself to certain deception, in a way it's not all that different from real dating. And actually kind of sweet.
The face we first present to a potential partner is usually a little different than the one that fills out after two, three, ten dates. As we get past the dating profile, online or offline, we start to reveal how much of that is who we are, who we used to be, and who we wish to be. And we hope that some other thumbnail out there wants to stick around to see how it turns out.
Nicole B. Ellison, Jeffrey T. Hancock and Catalina L. Toma. 2012. Profile as promise: A framework for conceptualizing veracity in online dating self-presentations. New Media & Society.