To its millions of users, OkCupid might seem like the hip younger sibling to online dating sites like eHarmony or Match.com. The free site will welcome you with an illustration of a woman whose feathered bangs and chic boots connote certain keywords—urbane, maybe. Worldly. She's less Michael Bay and more Michael Cera, less Axe body spray and more post-yoga patchouli musk. She looks mellow—like she might just make an exception for you.
And then there are the fun surveys, which one local woman likens to Cosmo quizzes. What's your sign, and how important is astrology to you? Would you rather be normal or weird? Would you date someone who does drugs, and, if so, would you prefer only "soft stuff like marijuana?"
But what if the place you live isn't exactly urbane? Or worldly? What if it's Sonoma County, and the guy you're meeting online is, say, the same guy two of your friends have already dated?
"The pool is just so small," says Louise. (Note: for the sake of the interviewees, all names in this piece have all been changed.)
The Santa Rosa resident describes selecting an age range from 28 to 40 and looking for men within 25 miles. The search turned up eight pages of eligible guys.
"And then I selected just one age, 37, and typed in San Francisco," she says. "There were 50 pages just of 37-year-olds."
"I don't want to date my friends' ex-husbands," says Margot, another Santa Rosa single girl, who says she's gone out with people mainly down in the city and in the East Bay to avoid such awkward situations.
Which can get creepy fast.
"You can 'wink' at people on there," says a third Santa Rosa dweller, Kate. "It's like poking people on Facebook. To have some guy who's dating a friend of mine and supposedly in a committed relationship winking at me on OkCupid just makes me feel like I need to go take a shower."
Local users describe the site in language similar to any encounter filtered through a two-dimensional screen, where user profiles can be edited to reflect a reality that in actuality might not be so real.
"The men that I've connected with, they're all rebounding or heartbroken and just want a quick fix with the woman with the hottest pictures up," says Kate. "It's like a fantasy; they want to fill that loneliness with some kind of attention."
In Louise's experience, this casual atmosphere was a positive at first. She'd recently gotten out of a 19-year relationship herself, and had little experience with dating.
"I basically didn't wait for anyone to approach me," she says. "I'd find five to eight people who looked interesting and write them a quick note. I was just open about it."
But eventually, the then-39-year-old started to notice a bizarre pattern.