Phase 1: The Attention Phase
During the ‘attention phase’, off-line a person (usually the woman) will try to attract a person of the opposite sex by displaying subtle non-verbal signals. With online dating, one does not have an immediate target to display subtle interest in. Instead, the person displays signs of attraction by selecting an attractive photograph to represent themselves. In the main, profiles that do not show a photograph are overlooked (Whitty & Carr, 2006). Moreover, women typically take more time and care selecting an attractive photograph of themselves. Overkill with a photograph, that is, a photograph professionally taken or looking too sexual, is treated skeptically. This might parallel with a woman showing too much interest in the first phase off-line—such a woman might be deemed a little too desperate.
During this attention phase, another unique way online daters might go about attracting others to their profile is via the name they use to represent themselves (what is commonly referred to as a screen name). Some use very flirtatious names (e. g., Imcute or Bubbly), while others select names that reflect their personal identity (e. g., mountainclimber). Others might select a nonflirtatious name (e. g., Jt28 or Smith48). Interestingly, in a recent study by Whitty and Buchanan (2007), it was found that certain screen names are deemed more attractive than others, and that men and women are more motivated to make contact with individuals with different types of screen names. It was found that men more than women are attracted to and motivated to contact screen names which indicate physical attractiveness (e. g., ‘Hottie’ and ‘Greatbody’) and that women more than men are attracted to screen names which demonstrate intelligence (‘Wellread’ or ‘Welleducated’). Overall, less flirtatious names were perceived by the majority of people as less attractive names.
The photograph and the person’s screen name is usually the first bit of information others encounter on the site. If they like what they see, they might move to the next phase or they might (and typically do) seek out more information about the person. Therefore, continuing to hold another’s attention prior to any interaction can be quite an arduous task for an online dater, and arguably they need to be quite skillful at crafting a profile (see Whitty, 2007).
As research has found, online daters tend to give much thought to their profiles. Sometimes a dater will trial a certain profile to see what types of people they attract or if indeed they attract anyone. Whitty (2007, p. 64) presents an extract from an interview where Lynne (named changed for confidentiality) explained what a painstaking task this was for her:
I: O. K., looking at your own profile, how did
you decide what information to include about yourself?
L: After many hours and trial and error, I
changed it a few times… I did want to describe myself in a way that would give a bit of a cross section of me and depending on what sort of results that I got… with each profile I would then sort of go and revise that. Having said that, I have only revised it I think three times.
I: But you feel like you got different responses
accordingly to different profiles?
L: Yeah a little bit.
As Whitty (in press) reports, online daters often make great efforts to construct an attractive profile. In addition to a photo, the types of information daters said were important included their interests and hobbies (53%) and a description of their personality (35%). Furthermore, a number of the people she interviewed stated that it was important to inject humor into their profile (17%), state their occupation (13%), how intelligent they are (12%) and make their profile appear unique and different (12%).
It has been argued that a successful profile is not just a profile that stands out in a crowd by one which also appears ‘real’ or genuine and trustworthy (Whitty, 2007). Whitty (2007) suggests that online daters should ascribe to the BAR (balance between and attractive and real self) approach. Presenting an ideal presentation of the self does not work on online dating sites—as we see in the fourth phase, if people do not live up to their profiles they typically do not earn a second date. Presenting a real profile also means avoiding writing anything that appears too cliched. For example, describing one’s most romantic date as going for a stroll on the beach or sipping wine by log fires are seen by many as either naive, untrustworthy or unoriginal. Ironically, by sounding too romantic, an online dater appears less real or authentic and hence a less appealing candidate. One participant in Whitty’s (2007, pp. 64-65) research aptly described why he/she would avoid such profiles:
T: I tend to stay away from those people with
sort of cliche stuff. I think it appears in a lot of profiles…
I: What would be some of the cliches that you
would be turned off by?
T: With some, on some profiles it has a very
sexual overtone, which puts me off totally. Sometimes it is like a passage of cliches, walks on the beach, romantic evenings, romantic getaways, a bottle of wine, and nice crackling fire. It just doesn’t ring true, it just sounds like a, it doesn’t seem very real.
Phase 2: The Recognition Phase
As with off-line courting, the second phase of online dating requires more flirtation and some recognition. Online dating sites have attempted to mimic this step in the construction of their Web sites. Rather than immediately e-mailing a member of the site that the client finds attractive, instead, online daters are often given the option to virtually flirt. That is, many sites give the option to send a ‘form’ note via the site, often referred to as a ‘wink’ or a ‘kiss’. Akin to flirting off-line, this can appear less intrusive and more subtle than a more detailed e-mail introducing oneself and asking for the person to, in turn, self-disclose to them. Although this is probably an important and necessary step, it is argued later in this chapter that online dating sites’ attempts to incorporate flirtation is still fairly clunky and this could well be a problem that some companies might want to address.