02/14/2011 12:33 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A Digital Valentine

My TV introduced me to online dating. It was back in the late 90s, before online dating was a multibillion dollar industry, and two couples, who'd never met, were flying cross-country to unite with their respective web 1.0 paramours. The cameras squeezed out every drop of nervous glee, eagerly lapped up by living room voyeurs like myself. The show belonged to the same genre as Hoarders and World's Heaviest Man -- a perverse and alluring crossbreed of sociology and porn.

It was great TV.

And an auspicious beginning, because online dating has never really escaped this kind of curiosity. Of course, looking for love on the Internet is no longer a fringe activity -- these days, one in six newlyweds meet online. But as a fairly recent phenomenon still, there remains an extreme self-consciousness in how dating websites market themselves, and in how people market themselves on them.

eHarmony is a master of the "new sincerity" approach. New sincerity is a backlash against all the hip, ironic detachment that infected the world after the Soviet Union collapsed. It was a desire to restore a lost purity, and eHarmony offers nothing less than squeaky-clean, old-fashioned romance to counteract the promiscuous cynicism and cynical promiscuity of dating in an increasingly disconnected age.

Since the institutions that used to control the dating market -- families, churches, clubs -- have lost their grip, eHarmony stepped in as a new guiding hand, picking your best matches according to their secret recipe for love, and reviving the cozy paternalism of the old dating regime.

Its founder, Dr. Neil Clark Warren (an evangelist for marriage and for God) resuscitated our simple, if oppressive, past (eHarmony weeds out depressives and keeps gays and lesbians on a separate site), and declared marriage more possible and beautiful than ever before. Even the website's theme song, Natalie Cole's "This Will Be (An Everlasting Love)," promises an unending afterlife of casual, goofy touches and soundless laughter. It is new sincerity to the last upbeat bar, and Christianity, of course, is the oldest and sincerest new sincerity there is.

As David Foster Wallace wrote in 1993, the "anti-rebels" of new sincerity (referring in this case to literature) are "willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the parody of gifted ironists..." Certainly, eHarmony has proven rich material for the gifted ironists of YouTube.

On the other side, we have a site like OkCupid, the younger, hipper portal that turns promiscuous cynicism and cynical promiscuity into an art form. OkCupid trailblazed the phenomenon of "social dating" -- injecting standard social network features into the online love search. On the site, you can write journal entries, create quizzes, and send instant messages and digital winks, all in the pursuit of romance/casual sex.

As Amy Lee writes, a whole new crop of start-ups are Facebook-izing the online dating experience. Heartbroker uses friend feedback to make matches and WooMee invites you to live chat. These new sites are catering to a generation already comfortable with socializing online, but more bashful about looking for love there.

Appearing overly sincere is one of the great anxieties of dating today, since digital media has made it so easily avoidable. Blushing cheeks can be hidden behind a composed interface and flirtatious remarks edited to pitch-perfect wit. Emotionally revealing information, like "I want to hang out with you," can be crafted to convey the precise level of nuanced aloofness you desire.

So online dating presents a conundrum: Your intentions (to get a date) are declared unabashedly through the very vehicle we're so used to hiding our intentions behind.

Hyper-conscious is one approach to this predicament. The Facebook dating application AreYouInterested in fact marketed itself under the banner "Online Dating is Stupid." On OkCupid, using the worlds "sorry," "apologize," and "awkward" in your /" target="_hplink">first message ups the likelihood of a reply and the winking salutations of "howdy" and "ahoy" yield better results than the more earnest greetings, "hi," "hey," and "hello."

OkCupid perfected trendy self-reflexivity with its OkTrends blog, where it mines its wealth of data for unexpected truths. While eHarmony speaks of soulmates, OkCupid proves that the question "is God important in your life?" is a much poorer predictor of dating success than "wouldn't it be fun to chuck it all and go live on a sailboat?"

When Flo Rida released the song "Zoosk Girl" (about the dating application Zoosk), it suddenly wasn't lame that you just wasted three hours combing Zoosk profiles. You're a "Zoosk Girl," which is obviously hilarious.

Perusing a dating site with this kind of detachment, it's easy for the parade of faces to lose a little bit of their humanity, especially when you're ignoring and quietly mocking most of the messages you receive. All the messiness of actually meeting potential dates is reduced to a game of quick rewards. How many messages today? How many awkwardly long messages that clearly took a ton of time? Ka-ching! I've still got it. Or at least my slightly hazy and extremely flattering photo from 18 months ago does.

There are benefits, of course, to the "social dating" approach. Many young people are less interested in finding a spouse than the forever adolescence of romantic "play." A site like OkCupid gives users more control, and choice, and creative features, which allow users to express their liquid selves, as opposed to freezing them in the awkward throwback profiles of a place like

But control, choice and creativity don't necessarily make for more happy matches. After a certain point, choice and satisfaction with that choice actually correlate negatively, which is why the old-school tactics of a site like eHarmony have a certain psychological logic.

Exactly what Facebook did to our social lives, "social dating" sites risk doing to dating -- turning other human beings into means to feel more awesome about yourself. Every day, people find meaningful connection through dating sites, but for many others, online dating is entertainment, a quick source of self-esteem, or voyeuristic playtime, with us holding the camera ourselves.