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When Dianna Hank first met Noah Zitsman (a.k.a. “Noze”), he was a black bear with red eyes and antennae. She was “Dianna_2ns,” a pink monkey nodding her head to the twangs of an electric guitar in the Phish “room” on Turntable.fm, a music-streaming site that lets users take turns DJ-ing to an audience of animated avatars.

A fan of the band Phish, Hank, a 23 year-old Brooklynite who works at a tech startup, spends hours a day on Turntable while she’s at the office, listening to music and messaging with other Phisheads in a public chatroom.

During one of these online exchanges last fall, Hank and Zitsman, discovered they’d both be at the band’s upcoming gig in Vermont. So why not meet up?

They saw each other briefly at the show, then at another concert in New York the following month and, another month after that, officially started dating. A year later, they’re still together.

“With dating sites, when you message people back and forth, you’re very much crafting the message,” says Hank, who once tried unsuccessfully to find Mr. Right with an online dating service. But on Turntable, “you’re not editing yourself as much…You’re just being you.”

While traditional online dating sites offer the internet equivalent of a speed dating session, social networking sites are the cocktail parties of the web: people, in the course of their meticulous self-representation online, share what they love to do, not who they want to fall in love with; they aren’t under pressure to fall head overheels; and they can bring friends along for the ride.These sites also put users in a position to meet a significant other without having to admit they need dating help. They offer a courtship process more akin to what people hope for offline. That is, finding love the Hollywood way: When least expecting it.

Like Hank, many are signing out of their online dating accounts or looking beyond dating site profiles to try their luck on services better known as data bases for food reviews and music recommendations than soul mates.

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Dianna Hank and Noah Zitsman met on Turntable.fm thanks to their mutual love of the band Phish. Here they are at a Phish concert. (Photo courtesy Dianna Hank)

Take Ashley, a 24 year-old New Yorker, who says she would never dream of joining an online dating site, but carried out her latest courtship through retweets, “follows,” “@ mentions” and even continued onto a crowdfunding website before finally meeting her “Twitter crush” in person.


Or 28-year-old Danielle (a.k.a. “WestVillageDanielle”), who would sooner give up the internet than online date, yet tried for weeks to track down a man on MenuPages who posted a witty review of a terrible Chinese restaurant.

And then there’s Rayco García, 28, and Nuria Sendra, 35, a Spanish couple who met on Instagram following a sticker giveaway for fans of the photo-sharing app. Though the two had “never considered using websites for dating,” García sent a message to Sendra explaining why he deserved the prize. She thought it was “funny” and the two continued their correspondence. Lengthy Facebook messaging sessions and video chats on Apple’s FaceTime turned into García trekking 1,200 miles to visit Sendra in the south of Spain. They’re now moving to Barcelona together.

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Rayco García and Nuria Sendra met on Instagram. (Photo courtesy Nuria Sendra)

“Online dating to me is not online dating anymore. It’s social dating and it’s a social experience,” says Julie Spira, author of The Perils of Cyber-Dating and a professional online dating coach.

The internet has become the second most common way for American couples to meet, just after being introduced by friends, according to a 2012 Stanford University study. But not all couples who find each other online do so through designated dating services and sites like Facebook, Twitter and even LinkedIn are increasingly doing double-duty as both social networks and soul mate networks. Of partners who coupled up before 2000, less than 10 percent said they had met on social networking sites. Five years later, that number had doubled to 21 percent, a University of Oxford paper reported last year.

Meanwhile, though online dating sites have seen their membership grow steadily over the past several years, the share of married couples who met via an online dating service remained unchanged between 2007 and 2010 at 17 percent, according to research commissioned by Match.com.

Of course, the web has been a meat market since its inception, fostering flirtations on message boards, through online games, and even technical support forums for decades. Of 18 “cyberspace couples” profiled in a 1998 study published in Computer-Mediated Communication Magazine, the earliest connection took place in 1991 between two 25-year-olds who met in a chat room. They were later married.

Social media services are also free, boast millions more members and offer a degree of serendipity absent from the love-by-algorithm approach embraced by traditional online dating services. Each dating site boasts its own “scientific” method it claims can pluck a soul mate from the digital ether. OKCupid has a “patent-pending,” “math-based matching system” that computes the likelihood of sparks flying based on a series of questions about everything from kinkiness to cheating. eHarmony, with its “science of compatibility” matchmaking, touts a clinical psychologist founder who claims to have identified the “29 dimensions of compatibility” present in all successful relationships.

But social psychology professors say what passes as “science” is really just marketing jargon. In a journal article published earlier this year, researchers likened dating sites like Match.com to “supermarkets of love.” The report cautioned that matchmaking sites, with their seemingly endless array of potential mates, could pressure singles into a shopping mentality that divides their attention, distracting them from true matches. The trouble with love algorithms, the researchers suggest, is their reliance on personality attributes that are far from the most important predictors of a relationship’s success. The qualities that do matter, such as a person’s way of coping with stressful situations, are all but impossible to measure online. The report concludes that searching for love on matchmaking sites is no more effective than trying to pick up strangers at a bar — or on Twitter.

“To date, there is no compelling evidence that any online dating matching algorithm actually works,” Northwestern University associate professor Eli Finkel, the lead author of the study, told the Association for Psychological Science in February. “For years, the online dating industry has ignored actual relationship science in favor of unsubstantiated claims and buzzwords, like ‘matching algorithms,’ that merely sound scientific.”

To be sure, social dating has its own shortcomings. Unlike Chemistry.com or OKCupid, social media sites don’t offer a pool of singles all looking for love.

Figuring out if an Instagram user is in a relationship or looking for one is often a matter of pure guesswork. And though Twitter or Turntable might offer a more organic way to break the ice, it can be uncomfortable approaching someone for a date on a site he or she is not necessarily using for that purpose. Social dating also risks mixing business with pleasure: confining flirtations to a site designed specifically for flings avoids the awkwardness that can result from having a client stumble across a winky-face emoticon sent to a Twitter crush.

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Laurie Davis and her fiancé met on Twitter. (Photo courtesy Laurie Davis)

And yet, the popularity of social dating implies that real connections can be brokered, at least at the start, virtually.

Though Facebook stalking is nothing new, the skyrocketing popularity of niche social networking sites is fueling the rise of social dating by bringing people together over a shared interest, rather than a shared desire to date. Sites such as Instagram, which grew 17,319 percent between July 2011 and 2012, offer a place to digitally rub shoulders with like-minded strangers and, in the course of discovering a mutual love for Roaring Twenties nostalgia, find Mr. or Mrs. Right.

“As our lives are spent more online, we date more online, too,” says Laurie Davis, the founder of online dating consultancy eFlirt Expert who met her her fiancé, also a dating guru, on Twitter. She notes she has many clients who are dating online, but choosing to forgo dating sites in favor of Facebook, Twitter and the like. “We live a lot of our social lives on Facebook, Twitter and sites like that, so since dating is inherently a part of our social life — it only seems natural to find love that way as well.”

Yelp, A Love Story

Four months after Rachel Grier, 38, was engaged to be married, she walked in on her fiancé with another woman.
Devastated, Grier “went into daredevil mode.” She went sky diving, took pole-dancing lessons, and terrified herself on roller coasters at places she discovered and reviewed on Yelp, a customer-review website.

Grier, who lives in Emeryville, California, also took the plunge and subscribed to online dating sites Match.com and Chemistry.com ($41.99 and $39.99 for a one-month membership, respectively). But a series of awkward dates quickly soured her on the prospects of finding love through web. Too often, people were not who they seemed in their profiles and expressed more interest in “for tonight” than forever.

“On Match and Chemistry, the majority of men do not necessarily want a relationship. What they want, I’m sorry to say, is a ‘booty call,’” says Grier, using a euphemism for casual sex. “I gave it up and thought I’d do it the old fashioned way. Back on Yelp, Grier’s distinctive and prolific reviews earned her “Elite” status on the review-sharing site and — along with an eye-catching profile picture of her in a strappy black top — lots of male attention.

Grier says she’d receive “three or four flirtatious messages every other day” from men on Yelp hoping for more than a restaurant recommendation. And she soon discovered that while on Chemistry.com and Match.com she knew only what the men would reveal in their profiles, on Yelp, she could see what they did in their spare time, how well-spoken they were in their reviews and, thanks to the public nature of Yelp’s “compliments” system, anyone else they might be flirting with at the same time.

Like online dating sites, these niche sites have built in filtration systems. Only instead of relying on people to self-report as non-smokers or gym-rats, review sites offer up the matter of a user’s life for the public to sift through. Are they adventurous eaters? Awful spellers? Sports obsessed? A look through Yelp reviews — or even 140 character tweets – can yield incriminating evidence.

Grier recalls being intrigued by an attractive man in Los Angeles who had messaged her via the site. Then she read his reviews.
“I started thinking to myself, ‘Oh my God, I don’t know if he’s an airhead or what, but he’s not totally smart,” Grier recalls. “You can tell a lot about a person’s intelligence level based on what they write.”

More than a few of the notes Grier exchanged through Yelp’s private messaging service turned into longer correspondences, and there were three men she actually met in person, though not before weeks of extensive back-and-forths online and on the phone. Grier says she had to have each man’s email address, cell phone number, full name and workplace before agreeing to get together offline (a vetting process through which she discovered one Yelp suitor was, in fact, married). Of course online daters aren’t known for their honesty, either: In a survey of online dating profiles, researchers from Cornell University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison found 80 percent contained at least one fiction.

Yelp, for its part, acknowledges that many Yelpers have used the site for romance, but maintains that it is in no way designed for dating and that matchmaking is not something it’s built features to help foster.

Though Yelp might be an unorthodox way to meet, traditional dating rules still apply.

“My rule is, if I text you and you don’t get to me within a few hours, then you’re too busy to have time for me,” explains Grier.

“Also, for me to be comfortable meeting with you, I have to talk to you at night because if you can’t talk to me at night, then there’s something you’re hiding.”

About a year after joining Yelp, in April of this year, Grier opened her Yelp inbox to find a note from a 31 year-old in Livermore, California congratulating her on having her post highlighted as “Review of the Day.” Grier “thought he was cute,” and they started messaging. A month later, they met at a get-together hosted by Yelp for its Elite members.

“I guess you could say it was love at first sight,” says Grier, who adds that four months later they are a couple and “totally happy together.”

Grier argues she’d probably still be single if she’d been limited to a pool of men that satisfied a checklist of attributes or had relied on sites’ “sophisticated” matchmaking algorithms — the same ones debunked by the Northwestern University study, which suggests Grier’s now-boyfriend might have been booted in favor of someone only superficially compatible. “I never ever would have been paired up with him on Match or Chemistry because we’re total opposites,” says Grier. Her boyfriend is seven years younger, lives two hours away and is a laid-back vegan. She she works out twice a day and is a self-described “carnivore.”

“Online Lust”

The anonymity and unfamiliar social circles that make social networking sites an attractive place to date can just as easily be milked to find one night stands as they can to find “The One.” Some of the pitfalls of traditional online dating sites, like the “booty call” mentality that irked Grier, still exist for social daters.

Though many couples claim to have found true love through Instagram’s photo sharing app, Adam, a public relations professional in Manchester, UK created a shadow Instagram account without any personally identifying information for one simple purpose: sex.

For Adam, Instagram is “more of an online lust thing than a dating service.”

“I’m not trying to meet friends on Instagram, I’m mainly trying to get laid, if it did lead to that,” explains Adam, who asked to
be identified by his first name only. “It’s sort of the darker side of Instagram, one that is completely grounded in physical
attraction and lust.”

In the hopes of making his profile easier for women to find, Adam includes hashtags such as “single,” “horny,” “sex,” and “stud” in the photos he uploads of him, say, mugging for the camera. He also uses a pseudonym and says if his real-life friends ever found it, it’d be “game over” for his reputation.

If all goes according to plan, a local lady will come across his picture, like what she sees, and use the username he’s provided in his Instagram profile to chat him on Kik, a private messaging app sometimes used for sex-chats, or “KikSex.” She will perhaps send him a photo and maybe agree to meet.

Adam in turn tries to find women nearby by searching photos tagged with a specific location, such as “Manchester,” or, if that fails, he’ll try a Briticism such as “arse” that’s more likely than “ass” to turn up someone who, if not nearby, is at least in the UK.
On any site with a sizable following, the sex eventually materializes. Savvy socialdaters, who know this, can use clues from around the web to vet someonebefore they meet and avoid an Adam – unless that’s the kind of romance they’re after.

Grier, for example, discovered one Yelper was married by searching the web for the work email address he gave her.

And before Hank and Zitsman first met in person, their relationship progressed through the exchange of increasingly intimate bits of digital information. First, Hank and Zitsman swapped email addresses — though not to their primary accounts. Next came cellphone numbers, and, finally, Facebook friend requests.

As Hank’s experience illustrates, Facebook profiles — the virtual ID cards of the internet that tie offline identities to online ones — have given social dating a boost by making it more feasible to vet strangers online. With its emphasis on real names and real-world friendships, Facebook has reduced anonymity online and created virtual “IDs” that people can use to scope out an attractive Yelper or Instagrammer before ever meeting face-to-face.

Sure it’s easy enough to fake a Facebook profile, or remove “chainsaws” from one’s list of interests, but the social network has nonetheless been used as an imperfect-but-important safeguard against nefarious Lotharios. A 2012 report from the Pew Research Center found Facebook users actually exhibit “higher levels of social trust.”

“People give out their email addresses because it feels safer than giving out your Facebook profile, which has your real name and whole identity,” says Hank. She notes she first “wanted to be friends” with Zitsman “to see his pictures, and make sure he didn’t seem like a crazy person, or that it wasn’t an account made yesterday by a fifty year-old murderer who was going to kidnap me.”

A Sea Of “Wingmen”

The different rules of decorum that exist for different social media services make some more conducive to social dating than others. While messaging strangers is frowned upon on Facebook, on Twitter, where public sharing is the norm, making new friends is encouraged. See someone talking about your favorite sports team? Jump right in and say something. Which is precisely what Damien Basile did.

Basile, a 32 year-old digital strategy expert for a boutique consulting company, didn’t know Christina Coster, 31, when he first tweeted at her three years ago. He had been searching for other Twitter users to follow and Coster, a freelance event planner and health care professional, caught his eye because her Twitter profile picture, though tinier than a postage stamp, was “cute.”

Call it love at first site.

“Facebook is really only close friends and family…You’re not going to send someone a friend request on Facebook if you don’t know them or haven’t interacted with them,” says Basile, who broke the ice with Coster by sending a public tweet that included her username. “On Twitter, I’d allow anybody to follow me and I interact with a lot of people I don’t know.”

“It’s more for strangers interested in the same topics as you,” Basile adds. Coster and Basile’s courtship spanned several social media services. Public tweets directed at one another turned into privately “direct messaging” on
Twitter, then chatting on AOL Instant Messenger. They eventually met in person thanks to a mutual friend’s Foursquare check-in. Three years later, they’re still going steady.

Though Basile once joined the personals section of online sex and culture magazine Nerve.com in the “far past,” he soon tired of traditional online dating sites, which he calls “so formulaic” with their “plug this in, make a statement about this” approach.
Twitter, and communities like it, can serve as a sea of “wingmen” who can help singles meet the friends of their online friends, notes Coster.

“Twitter for me was like having another group of friends who could set me up with people,” says Coster. “I would look at Twitter and social media in general as a new group of friends to introduce you to their friends. People say a great way to meet people is through their friends…That holds true online or offline.”

Best of all, because Coster and Basile both use Twitter for work, neither of them had to go anywhere, fill out anything, carve out time to exchange flirty messages, or pay a cent to meet.

Not only do singles benefit from the convenience of searching for love through social networks, but they’re spared the emotional baggage associated with taking the plunge to join an OKCupid or Chemistry.com for a love-life intervention.

Some old-school dating sites are actually trying to ape social media’s accidental success in the field.

Basile’s old haunt reflects the sea change in online dating with a design that borrows more from Twitter than eHarmony: Nerve.com has reinvented Nerve Dating to take a cue from the Foursquares and Facebooks of the world and has supplemented the traditional checklists, algorithms and profiles with brief user status updates a la Facebook meant to serve as icebreakers.

“Social media sites do a better job of approximating the natural human experience than dating sites in their old form,” says Nerve chief executive Sean Mills. “Social media had a huge influence on us in figuring out that the idea of sharing actively would
work in a space designed for meeting new people.”

For their part, it’s unlikely social media sites will do much to encourage matchmaking on their sites.

“It’s going to start to offend other people…You do get typecast into a certain category — Pinterest is for women, this one’s for that, this one is for casual sex — and I don’t know that you can be all things to everyone on any single social networking site,” says Spira, the online dating expert.

But that doesn’t matter. There are plenty of places to find love online.

This story originally appeared in Huffington, in the iTunes App store.