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First off, I'm a pretty cool chick. There. I said it. I mean, at least that's the way I see it. I'm not scared of much and am curious about everything, so I'm able to figure a lot of things out. I can think, I can build, I can write. I'm creative, knowledgeable, and thoughtful. I'm not too old or young, too pretty or homely. I'm comfortable in sneaks or heels, indoors or out, talking or listening. I'm mellow, I'm adaptable. You get the idea, right?

The question is, why the hell am I single, yo?

No good reason I could think of.

So I set out to unsingle myself. Via online dating, which seemed like a scary proposition at first. Turns out, it's not that bad.

Whether you're looking to just get started in the online dating scene or to up your game after a slow start, you're in the right Instructable. Lots of things are easier with a partner, so let me walk you through this.

But first, let's take a dramatic Rod Serling intermission:

"This is a jungle, a monument built by nature honoring disuse, commemorating a few years of nature being left to its own devices. But it's another kind of jungle, the kind that comes in the aftermath of man's battles against himself. Hardly an important battle, not a Gettysburg or a Marne or an Iwo Jima. More like one insignificant corner patch in the crazy quilt of combat. But it was enough to end the existence of this little city. It's been five years since a human being walked these streets. This is the first day of the sixth year, as man used to measure time. The time? Perhaps a hundred years from now. Or sooner. Or perhaps it's already happened two million years ago. The place? The signposts are in English so that we may read them more easily, but the place is the Twilight Zone...

This has been a love story about two lonely people who found each other in the Twilight Zone."

Step 1: Choose a Site

There are so many dating websites out there that Google refused to give me a definitive answer, or even an estimate, when I asked how many. Whatever the number, it's big.

You need to consider your goals and think this through. What site(s) you end up on will help determine the experience you'll have. We want to stack it in your favor.

There are free and paid sites. Niche sites and free-for-alls. Some sites cater to casual hookups, others to serious long term relationships. All important things to consider. After you have the basics down, you ought to do just that.

For now I'm going to assume you're up for meeting a variety of people. Not 100% fetish-havers or farmers or any other homogeneous group you can conger. I will also assume that you'd like to ease into this a little more slowly than an anonymous romp in the park with someone who "right swiped" you 10 minutes after posting your profile (although if that's your goal, you can skim or skip this guide, join Tinder, and live happily ever after... I don't judge you a bit). Third assumption is that you don't want to pay for something you may hate or suck at doing. At least not until you've got the hang of it.

So, I narrowed the field to three sites. Memberships are free (with unnecessary paid upgrade options, if you feel you must), the clientele is varied, the interfaces uncomplicated, and you can take em to-go with handy mobile apps. All three get have high traffic volume. More users means more variety which can mean better matches.

Here's three to start with:

PlentyofFish

OKCupid

Tinder

Alan Henry gives a pretty accurate description of each here.

Step 2: Curate Your Photos

As far as finding a mate goes, I'd like to believe that my attraction to a person could transcend something as shallow as physical appearance. Alas, biological instincts in place to perpetuate the species are strong and I haven't reached the level of enlightenment necessary to completely overcome them. I'll still meet someone I don't find attractive, but there is a threshold.

So what does that mean to you? It means you need to put the best physical representation of yourself out there.

I've done quite a bit of experimenting with the photo array. It definitely changes in a real way the kind and number of responses you can expect.

Post at least 3-5 photos, one of which should be a head shot, one a head to toe, and one an "action" photo.

All need to be clear and well lit. Smile.

If you have access to Photoshop or GIMP, I give you permission to use it. Brighten the frame, even out your skin tone, iron out a few wrinkles. Erase the stain on your shirt or the spinach stuck in your grill. Whatever. This is undoubtedly a controversial recommendation, but the fact is that we're all used to images being more perfect than the real thing. We expect it even. Just don't misrepresent yourself. If it isn't readily apparent the person in the photo is actually you, it's safe to assume you went overboard editing. I'm not recommending you mislead anyone, just be the best version of yourself.

Don't lead off with a group shot. That is just plain confusing.

The action in your action shot should be one you enjoy. If you hate hiking, don't post a photo of yourself atop a mountain. That will just attract hikers. Nobody needs that.*

I know you love your kids (they're adorable. I promise), but if you must put them on display, limit the instance of them in your photos to one. Same with dogs, friends, exes, family, glasses of booze, props or backgrounds of any kind. Show how well rounded and interesting you are. One photo with your kiddos says "I'm a caring and responsible mother/father". Five photos say "Good luck trying to get a piece of me. I am obsessed with my offspring and will speak of them ad nauseam for the duration of our acquaintance, which will be brief."

If you have a friend with an amateur photography hobby, enlist help. Not only will your pics be better, but you might just flatter the socks off your buddy. Everybody likes to have his talents recognized, appreciated, and enlisted. If your friend is a professional photographer, be prepared to at least offer money/barter for her services. Even if she declines your cake, it shows you don't feel entitled to a valuable service she is invested in and usually paid for.

*For a few months I only interacted with persons whose profiles did not reflect a love of hiking. I live in Portland, OR, so this really limited the number of messages I sent. That said, the quality of interactions I did have skyrocketed. If you adore hiking, don't take that as a personal affront. I'm sure you're a great person and prospective mate. For someone who isn't me.

Step 3: Reveal What a Photo Cannot

I find the best way to start a profile is by opening up your text editor and just start writing. About anything. Once you get some momentum, your thoughts will better form and flow. One thing leads to another. Then you can edit it down and paste it into your profile. Don't stress over perfection. The beauty of this is you can add/omit/adjust at any time. In fact, I recommend you do revisit your page frequently. The added benefit of spending time pondering and writing of your makeup, likes/dislikes, and goals is that a little self discovery is inevitable. Even if you don't go through with meeting a single person, you might just find this exercise in self examination is well worth the effort as a stand alone project.

Try to hit on at least a few or more aspects of your life. You are a variety store, not a specialty boutique. Unless you're an obsessive hiker with no other interests or notable personality traits (heh... sorry again hikers), represent a little depth. You don't have to reveal everything, just show there is plenty to be revealed.

Describing yourself can be challenging. Especially daunting if you aren't comfortable with self promotion. There is a fine line between coming across as a person worth getting to know and an arrogant !@#$. One way to make sure you sound like the former instead of the latter is with a little humor (I employ the self deprecating variety).

For maximum response, your written profile should include a lot of info without being too verbose. It’s no secret that people’s attention spans are shrinking, and shrinking fast. According to recent studies the average person’s attention span is now only 7-8 seconds long. That means you have roughly eight seconds to grab someone's attention and engage them enough to get your message across. I've played with this enough to know it to be true. Concise profile=max interest. Having said that, whether you write to that standard depends on who you want to hear from. I've oft decided to maintain a Tolstoy length missive because I love to write and my writing style is purposefully not concise (duh, right?! I can't believe you've made it this far). Being just like every human ever, I like to be appreciated. The quickest way onto my dating roster and into my heart is by reading what I write, loving what you read, and telling me so. If you can't stand to read my profile, you aren't going to like me either.

I shouldn't have to say this, but please care enough to adhere to some measure of spelling and grammar. I'm not perfect all the time either, but I promise you will be eventually judged (probably by me) for every typo. Run your spell check. If you haven't figured out the difference between their, there, and they're, I recommend you abort this whole mission. Go learn the difference. Practice it. Come back when you have the hang of it and are fit for human consumption. Total inattention to details like spelling and grammar reveals to your intelligent reader all kinds of nasty related traits you might possess. Shape up or get used to the idea of keeping only the company of slack jawed yokels.

Just like with the photos, enlist help. If you are a hopeless writer with a friend who isn't, beg for assistance. If you know no such person or are too embarrassed collaborate, strangers are at the ready to bail you out. Fiverr.com offers the service for 5 bones. Heck, I'll help you (provided you butter me up and tell me how much you enjoy my writing). Really. Try me.

OKCupid (my personal favorite of the bunch) has a section of multiple choice questions for you to answer and assign importance to. Do it. The site uses an algorithm to calculate match percentages, based on data generated by user activity and answered questions. They've gotten some press questioning the accuracy of the algorithm, but it seems to me to be a fairly good indicator of (at least imagined) compatibility. Even if it's not a great matcher, answering the questions puts your deal breakers out there and supplements your written profile in a meaningful way. Answer as few or many as you want. I think it's fun to boot, as is possibly evident by the 1.2 million questions I've answered so far.

Note: even if you fail miserably in the written portion on POF and OKCupid, there's always Tinder. At press time, the app gives zero weight to anything besides a fetching primary photo.

Step 4: People Shop and Message

Okay, enough stressing about your own profile. It's time now to turn that critical eye on complete strangers.

Check out your recommended matches. Free users have options to filter matches based on age, location, height, and status. Look at photos, read profiles. Drool, gag, laugh, roll your eyes, cock your head. Online dating elicits all of these reactions and more.

All three of these apps have a quick match. Swipe left for no thank you, right for yes please. Tinder, the quickest and dirtiest of the apps is swipe-centric. The whole idea of rejecting someone based on a one second impression is dehumanizing and wrong on all kinds of levels. But hate the game, not the player, right? Besides, it's not like users are notified each time they're turned down because their faces aren't symmetrical enough (or whatever other bs criteria swipers are judging them on). That would be cruel. This manner of people shopping seems pretty warped, but can also be pretty entertaining. Count all the duck-facing women or shirtless, flexing men. Bathroom selfies seem to be prevalent and equally weird from both sexes. I have an obligatory bathroom selfie in my profile. Because I find that stuff amusing, that's why.

When you find something you like, star it as a favorite. Other users can see when they've been starred and have some incentive to come check you out (virtually speaking, of course). Don't feel too much pressure straight away to start firing off messages, unless you're so moved. You could even include a line in your bio encouraging people to send you messages since you're a new user, trying to get the hang of things. Put out that fresh meat smell so they know you aren't a crusty, jaded old user.

When you do send messages, be nice. Mention something specific from their profiles that moved you to connect. His blue eyes, her love of professional wrestling. You don't have to recap their whole persona back to them. Specifics just assure the person on the other end you aren't mass-messaging users, desperately hoping for a response. Instead, you took the time to find out a bit about them, and the care to send a polite, grammatically correct note. Aside from thoughtfulness, humor is your fiercest weapon. When I've sent a genuinely funny message out, I enjoy a nearly 100% return message rate. They don't always result in dates or even subsequent communication, but people appreciate a laugh. If all your attempts at humor are met by singing crickets, you should consider reverting to the polite thoughtful approach. Maybe less reward potential, but a lot harder to screw it up.

You are not under any obligation to answer all messages you receive. Unless the message is lewd or appears to have been written by a toddler, I'll usually at least fire back with a thank you or something short of its ilk. It's not necessary, but I think it's a nice gesture if someone went to the trouble. If you get an offensive message, just block the sender and forget it. I've only once had occasion to do so. It happens, but I think you'll find most people kind and decent. And as you are under no message reply obligation, neither are the recipients of your messages. Don't get your feelings hurt if who you perceive to be perfect match is too tired, busy, or shy to respond. There's even that possibility she just isn't interested. Wait. Nah... that's not the case. You're a catch. Really.

Step 5: Meet Up, Adjust, Repeat

You found somebody you dig. You've exchanged several messages, maybe spoke on the phone, and decided to meet. Now what? Meet up. C'mon, do you need me to tell you everything? Would you like me to come along and hold your hand on the date, too? Heh. That would actually be pretty funny... maybe we should consider doing that. Just a thought.

I've heard it recommended your first meeting be on neutral ground. Somewhere public like a coffee shop or busy park. Makes sense. Having said that, I'm going to let you figure this one out by yourself. Whatever your feeling is, go with it. Don't exit your personal safety comfort zone on anyone's say so. I personally have thrown caution to the wind many times. If people were all as nasty as the "stranger danger" hyper-cautious crowd would have us believe, I'd have been dead a score ago. It just so happens that I would rather be murdered on a first date than spend my life worrying about getting murdered on a first date. Doesn't make me smart or unlikely to be murdered. It's just how I roll.

Whether you decide on coffee, dinner, or a trip to Cuba, the most important thing to do on your first date is relax. Have fun. Be yourself. Yeah, it's cliché, but how do you suppose it got that way? That's right, because it's good advice, proven true by countless people, countless times. So take it. Smile a lot. If you are full of nerves, confess early to your date. Chances are he's just as on edge as you are. If he's not, it will at least offer a reasonable explanation for some of the weird twitching and blushing you're doing. Whatever my level of anxiety, I have adopted texting on my way to every first date to say I'm nervous and request we treat it as a third date instead of a first. Works like a charm every time.

Another important thing to do is try and mitigate your expectations. Not every first date leads to a second. Not every meeting will be fun, or even tolerable, for that matter. If one date is a flop, don't lose heart.* People meet, fall in love, and couple in meaningful (sometimes permanent) ways through this process all the time, just not every time. The more you adjust and experiment with the way you operate and connect with people you meet through an online matchmaker, the more you'll be able to control and enjoy your experience. But in control or in chaos, you never know for sure when it'll be your turn to hit the love lottery. That anticipation only adds to the fun.

*Case in point (long story warning in effect):

I really connected with someone online. His pictures revealed beautiful blue eyes and a shy smile that made my knees weak. Our communication, which had been frequent for a few weeks, was a laugh riot. He asked me to dinner, and suggested I come to his place for a home cooked meal. I had no qualms about doing just that. He lived pretty far out, but it was a nice drive in beautiful country, so I didn't mind a bit. He asked me to text when I arrived, so when I pulled into the driveway of the lovely little house, I complied and he appeared.

Donning a scroungy t-shirt and sweat pants, he immediately approached and pulled me into a bear hug. When he stepped back, he grinned widely to reveal what I remember now as four teeth. I'm exaggerating... surely there were a dozen. Whatever the case, that really explained the shy smile in his profile pics. No worries. I don't want to run screaming, causing him to feel worse about his appearance than he likely already does. I'm surprised, but I'm considerate and can deal. At least through dinner. I'm sure of it.

Next, we walk toward the house, but instead of going to the front door, we veer around the house, down a short muddy path. To the basement. At his mom's house. His son is there. The 12 year old alternates between playing Xbox and staring at me. His dog is a doberman-pitbull mix. Gorgeous dog. He is HUGE and finds my leg irresistible. When a 140 lb dog decides he's going to get with your leg, there is little recourse to be had. My date excuses himself to the bathroom. While away, his son asks when I'm going to marry his dad and be his mom. When I stammer a non-response, he rolls his eyes, turns back to his video game, and announces loudly that his father is "such a giant loser".

I quickly hatch a plan to exit, but before I can execute it, his mother appears in the doorway. Tv trays under one arm, she is balancing a few plates with the opposite hand. My date is close behind her. I politely introduce myself, thank her, and apologize profusely for her trouble. The tenet I live by is "work hard and be nice to people". At this point I have clearly established there are no limits in my ability to be fully committed to this rule, even at my own peril. I make a mental note to revisit that thought, should I make it out of here in one piece. After Mom disappears up the stairs, my date again vanishes. I back away from the dog, say goodbye to the boy, and flee from the basement occupied by the worst date ever. In the history of dates. Everywhere. Ever.

As I reach my car, my date bounds around the house and blocks my path. He asks why I have to go so soon, tells me he loves me, and wonders if I smoke and if so, have a cigarette he could bum. I nearly run him over in my hasty exit, waving out the window and yelling.

"Thanks so much! Great to meet you!"

As horrible of a meet up that was, I didn't ditch my crazy dating adventure. It's a good thing I didn't. The very next day I went on another first date with someone absolutely wonderful. So wonderful that today I live in a tiny house on that date's property. He's now a great friend and I love the crap out of him, but I wouldn't have him in my world if I'd have given up when my expectations weren't met the day before we did. The bonus is the bad date ended (mercifully) early, but I have that story to tell forever. Totally worth it.

Step 6: Epilogue

I've been a member of OKC and POF off and on for about three years now. I am single. I am also a pretty good date finder and haver.

I've been on dozens of first dates, and many seconds, thirds, and beyonds. I've had no romantic relationship lasting more than about six consecutive months, but that's a-okay with this girl. I decided at some point during my online dating tenure that a lengthy relationship isn't necessarily something I require to be happy. If not for all the self discovery happening in the dating pool when a person is going at it in earnest, I may have never reached and been satisfied by that conclusion. People change, and sometimes quickly. I don't know what my status future looks like. Maybe tomorrow I'll go on the last first date of my life. I haven't ruled it out. It could happen.

It began as an experiment way outside my comfort zone, but I settled down, settled in, and hung on for dear life. It's been quite an adventure. I haven't found a husband, but I have:

  • met someone after swapping a single message
  • never met someone after swapping hundreds of messages
  • driven an interstate loop by myself, taking the long way, logging in at every stop to find the next night's meet up - I never had to dine alone
  • called someone by the wrong name - repeatedly
  • kissed a Trump supporter, before he sprung that little tidbit on me
  • picked a first date up at the airport
  • dropped a first date off at the airport
  • imbibed too much
  • cried on a first date
  • laughed on a last date
  • gone for a ride in a Freightliner... and a ferry... and a train
  • made mistakes
  • made pizza
  • made lasting friendships
  • had my leg humped by a giant, gorgeous dog
  • watched the planes take off and land until dawn
  • fallen in love with a competitive Scrabble player
  • broken up with a hiker (you knew that was coming)
  • been paid more than once for gigs doing something I mentioned in my profile (from writing and sign painting to house painting and building)
  • talked for hours
  • ended a date cordially after 20 minutes
  • had an impromptu Cards Against Humanity party notified and assembled within an hour after I complained I had never played and wanted to - on a first date, with 10 of my date's friends
  • raced go carts
  • given and received a boatload of exceptional hugs, one of which was on a boat

////UPDATE////

I reconnected with a man I used to work with and we hit it off! He's PERFECT, and I am no longer single (sorry boys). After we hooked up, he showed me his profile on POF and lamented he never had any luck with online dating. I can tell you that it absolutely had nothing to do with luck. His profile was terrible. Poorly lit photo, excruciating "about" section (basically, "Hey ladies. I'm super uninteresting and have no personality. If you share these traits, let's get coffee." Had I seen him on POF, I wouldn't have clicked. I wouldn't have responded to a message. I would've likely yawned or chuckled a "good luck, buddy" at the screen before moving on. His sucky dating profile kept him from getting swooped up by some other gal, so yay for me! But don't you be like that.

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