Online dating leaves Luddite lovers behind
What do a Rutland-based lesbian forester, a boy-toy-seeking dude in Essex Junction and an eloquent Topsham technophobe have in common? They've been looking for love, or sex, the old-fashioned way, in the "unplugged" section of the Seven Days personals.
While the rest of the world has learned to use the "search" button to find the perfect mate online, a few holdouts in the wannabe e-state are still waiting by the phone. Before we cut the cord - next week - we decided to find out who they are and why they're resisting the electronic evolution of modern dating.
When Kathleen Donna first started placing personal ads in Seven Days, in 1995, the matchmaking method was epistolary. Date-seekers filled out a form clipped from the paper and mailed it in. Interested parties responded by sending old-fashioned, sealed letters to "advertisers" via the paper. For a $5 fee, Seven Days would receive and forward each missive to the person for whom it was intended, identified by a "box number."
"It was very sweet," notes 56-year-old Donna, who describes herself as "soft butch, nice-looking, slim, confident, independent, energetic and professional." Seven Days is the only place she's ever advertised for love. "You can tell a lot about how a person writes a letter to you, their handwriting . . ." she explains. "That part seemed intimate - getting a letter from someone."
But the old system was labor-intensive, for both the letter writer and the newspaper. And telephone technology was exploding. Soon after Donna discovered the paper, Seven Days instituted voice-message personals. Love-seekers still placed free ads in the paper, and added an audio element by recording a voice greeting. Interested parties paid to listen and leave a message for the advertiser. It was a telephonic hook-up with the aid of 900-number technology. Anyone with a touch-tone phone and a credit card could get in the game.
Donna made the switch to the new system, but she never liked it. "I hate leaving messages, for starters," she says. "I was always convinced my voice sounded terrible on those things." And responding was costly. "If the other person leaves a long spiel, you want to hear all of it. That got pretty expensive." From the voice-personals era, she scored one good relationship. "She lived three hours away, but it was worth it," Donna recalls with a chuckle.
In the meantime, dating went digital. The computer replaced the telephone as lovers' go-between of choice. Industry leaders Match.com and Yahoo got into the biz. As of last December, Yahoo was the number-one Internet personals website in the country with 4 million subscribers, according to the Center for Media Research. Total Web users in the U.S: 152,350,000.
Seven Days switched to local online personals almost a year ago [see Seven Days personals ], but maintained the voice-personal system alongside the new one for those dial-up, off-the-grid or never-adopter readers. Predictably, the number of users has dwindled to a handful. You didn't need email to read the writing on the wall. After this week's issue, the remaining "unplugged" advertisers have a choice: Find an Internet connection at the local library, or a real one at the nearest bar.
What prevents people from plugging in along with the 20 million other Americans using online personals, more than 1000 of whom are doing it locally through sevendaysvt.com?
"Habit," says Michael Luna, a 36-year-old man currently seeking "guys who bottom or are curious about it." For five years, Luna has placed an annual "unplugged" personal ad. In the course of its run - about six weeks - he typically gets about 15 responses, half of which turn into "dates." He clarifies, "It was usually hooking up with people - basically sex." The ads also generated three full-fledged relationships.
In all that time, Luna never responded to anyone else's personal. "I guess I didn't want to give my credit-card information over the phone," he suggests. And besides, "I like people calling me."
Luna says he'll probably check out the Seven Days personals online. He didn't have a laptop for several years, but now he's fully equipped. He's already placed an ad on manhunt.com, a national hook-up site for gay men. But from Seven Days, he gets a different breed - "more married and bi guys . . . I guess they don't want to go online because they don't want their wives to find out. It's more discreet this way."
Denny's is the venue of choice for "Molly," a fiftysomething Shelburne woman who did not want her real name used because she's "kind of dating" someone. "It's well lit," she says of the chain restaurant, and then launches into a stand-up-worthy account of her nine-month quest to find "a decent guy." She describes one memorable strikeout: "What teeth he had left you could grab and wiggle."
Although she doesn't have anything in the unplugged section currently, Molly claims her listings would "pull 20 men . . . You should have seen the ad I ran: tall, blonde, nice figure, educated. I am all of those things," she says. But "I didn't say I'm good-looking."
What goes around comes around. Molly's main complaint about her personals experience is that the men who responded didn't meet the criteria she spelled out in the ads. "They can't read. It says no tattoos . . . no drinkers. I don't want a drinker; I can go to a bar to get that. I asked for clean-shaven, and I got a guy who shows up looking like Ulysses S. Grant."
What's stopping Molly from trolling the World Wide Web for toothsome, well-coiffed guys? She doesn't have a computer. "I'm willing to learn," she says. In fact, she's taking a class at the local library. When she gets up to speed, she plans to explore the online personals from there. "I heard about that Yahoo one," she says. "I suppose they lie on there, too."
Donna is roughly the same age as Molly, but the forester lesbian has made more plug-in progress. She's tried Yahoo and Match.com, but got discouraged when replies came from as far away as California. Grudgingly, she put an ad on the Seven Days website, but notes that not too many older lesbians are using it. She reckons, "It's more for the young people."
Her demographic analysis is based on the experience of having a thirtysomething houseguest for three months who "was into all that stuff: She was on Myspace, text messaging. It blew my mind how you could spend hours doing that thing. It's not my way of meeting people."
That doesn't explain a 32-year-old man looking for cute, young boy toys using the "unplugged" category. "Ron" from Essex Junction has never had a computer, although he plans to "pick one up in a month or so." His not-so-old-fashioned ad in last week's paper generated five responses. "I called one back, and he happens to be 21. I guess we're going to hook up tonight."
Nick Zandstra, 36, has no intention of getting a computer, even though his own mother - once an avid letter writer - is trying to change his mind. "My decision is about how I think computers are affecting our society as a whole," says the self-employed sawmill operator from Topsham. Online personals are part of that. "I have an old-fashioned view of what it means to be close." (see Zandstra's letter  to Seven Days complaining about the switch to the online system).
He references a recent discussion about technology with an ex-girlfriend - Zandstra says he's on good terms with all of them, including the one he met through Seven Days. "It started with me trying to articulate my feelings about computers, and wandered to whether or not I'm prejudging communication with a computer as being a bad thing."
"People are adamant that I should get on," Zandstra says, but that's only caused him to dig in his heels. He adds, tantalizingly, "I'm talking to you on a rotary phone right now." To access his voice messages on personal ads, "I have a plug-in push-button phone," he says.
Being a Luddite these days requires constant vigilance. "My stand is futile," Zandstra concedes. "But I like to bring up the points; I think they're worth discussing . . . I can better observe the phenomenon by not being in the phenomenon. Just like with a relationship, it's always easier to critique your friends'."
I'm now single again and decided to place another ad. Much to my dismay, I find I am now relegated to the personals Gulag, which you are calling "Unplugged!" A hip name and an exclamation point don't hide the obvious fact that you've segregated those 10-15 people to the back of the relationship/hook-up bus. Just mix us in. The readers can figure out we don't want to use or don't have a computer.
Seven Days is happy to assist any "unplugged" customers interested in learning how to navigate our online personals system - in the office or over the phone. Call 864-5684 and ask for Glen.