Remember the days when you would meet someone, go out on a date, and then hope for a call? Until you got to know that person better, the details of their life were somewhat of a mystery.
Nowadays, it's common to see a new face at work, and before there's even a flirtation, you are on the computer, searching Facebook for details on his or her life. His profile says he's single, but he's got his arm around some babe in his photo.
In the past decade, social media has transformed the way singles date and relate. Because of Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and other networking sites, our social lives are accelerated, more plentiful -- and completely public. On the plus side, it's easier than ever before to connect. No unmarried person need ever sit home alone. On the down side, social networking sites can also be disconnecting influences, opening the door to affairs, jealousy and even online stalking.
A 2009 study goes so far as to say that Facebook makes "unique contributions to the experience of jealousy in romantic relationships." Facebook flirtations are often cited in divorce cases, and there was a Facebook page (now defunct) called "I wonder how many relationships Facebook ruins every year" with more than 100,000 "likes."
Still, most singles -- especially women -- can't imagine their lives without it. In a survey of more than 1,500 single women, book publisher Harlequin [pdf] found that 58 percent believe that technology has had a positive impact on their lives. Fifty-two percent check out men on Facebook before a first date, and 67 percent claim to be more comfortable flirting with men via Facebook than at a bar.
It's undeniable that social networking and dating now go hand-in-hand. Here are some smart ways to make the best use of your virtual time -- and some things to avoid.
DO use the private messages feature provided by social networks if you want to connect with someone privately. It's safer and less creepy than flirting publicly.
DON'T publicly post your personal information unless you also have a business you want to promote (e.g., I have a book to sell, so here is a link to my website).
DO share enough to be interesting. If you're going to use social media as a single person, no potential suitor will be interested in that great bagel you had for lunch. That movie you loved last night, though, says a lot more about who you are as a person. However...
DON'T over-share. It's OK to wear your heart on your sleeve in some respects ("It was so great to see my old college roommate tonight!") but not in others ("Holy cow, what a horrible date I had tonight!"). It's a given that someone interested in you will check out your profile; they will shy away if they see you're someone who kisses and tells or is generally indiscreet.
DO be sensitive about what photos you choose to display. If you love that one of you and your ex in a celebratory mood during your Cabo vacation, don't be surprised if a new suitor is made uncomfortable by it. And if you are tagged on someone else's page in a less-than-discreet light, it's best to untag yourself.
DON'T jump to conclusions when you see a suspicious photo on the page of someone you're interested in. It's easy to let your imagination run away, but everyone who has been single for a while has had plenty of dates. More often than not, those photos mean nothing. However, if you're engaged and someone posts a suggestive photo on his or her wall, then feel free to worry.
DO accept friend requests from exes, but at your own peril. How "over" that person are you really? How would it look to someone new who is interested in you?
DON'T keep secrets on a social networking site. They are bound to be discovered. That is, unless you enjoy the idea of a new love interest becoming an amateur sleuth.
DO keep it real. As with online dating, the temptation to lie in a tweet or on your Facebook profile can be huge. Don't do it. The truth will come out eventually, and you'll have some "splainin" to do.
DON'T confuse digital intimacy with true intimacy. Experts warn that because connecting with others is so easy, we can begin thinking that these relationships are more intense, more committed and more complete than they really are. Wait for the magic to happen face-to-face before getting carried away.
DO limit the time you spend on social networks. If you're trolling online for dates, it's easy to become obsessed with checking messages and posting tweets or Facebook updates. Stop. Nothing is less attractive -- in person or online -- than desperation.
DON'T compare yourself to others. Spending excessive amounts of time on social networking can make a single person feel insecure about their own gifts.
DO have a discussion with a new suitor (if you begin to get serious) about how to handle your networking profiles. One of you might want to shout it to the rafters that you found someone fabulous; the other may wish to keep it private.
DON'T change the all-important "relationship status" notification before you are fully convinced that this is something that will last. And when that day comes, praise the day social networking was invented.