By Levi Bridges and Graelyn Brashear
In the middle of the night last Labor Day, Ava Williams was 10 drinks deep and cuddled up on her couch next to a guy she just met at the bar.
Settled in next to her potential paramour, Ava, 30, felt enraptured by that magical first flickering of attraction. The feeling distracted her from the inevitable hangover to come, the logistics of making it to work the next day and the fact that she had just come home with a complete stranger.
It also helped Ava forget about her boyfriend, who was out of town on a business trip.
“He’s a really good, solid dude,” Ava said about her current boyfriend. “But I generally feel not well understood. And I feel like I should be better understood at this point in our relationship.”
Ava said she didn’t cheat on her boyfriend. She just cozied up with the guy from the bar on her couch, had a deep conversation and fell asleep.
Reality kicked in the next morning. Ava showed the man to the door. They did not exchange numbers. Ava barely remembers what he looks like.
Now she wants to find him.
“I have thought about posting an actual printed flyer right in front of the bar,” Ava said, “like you would for a missing cat. Like, ‘Met a guy! Here! Last Week! Here’s a number to call.’”
Instead, she posted on Craigslist’s Missed Connections.
The original online dating
Missed Connections, a strange and sometimes beautiful back eddy of the Internet, has become the de facto place that people all over the country go when they hope to somehow beat the odds and find that random stranger who caught their eye on the subway or supermarket checkout line. Hundreds, maybe thousands of these posts go live every day: I saw you on the bus. We were waiting in line together at the supermarket. You’re beautiful. Let’s meet.
Ironically, the Missed Connections pages have also become an online forum that attracts people who have become fed up with online dating, which has transformed how we meet and fall in love. An estimated 50 million Americans, roughly 15 percent of the adult population of the United States, have tried using a dating site. Online dating now generates $1.8 billion a year.
But not everyone is convinced that swiping right can buy happiness. The people we spoke with as we launched Dear Craig—a new podcast about love and the Internet—said they felt dating apps were killing the magic of meeting people. They longed for that electric experience of a serendipitous meeting at a party, on the train or the back row of English class.
This feeling of missing out on something important by turning to online dating was a big part of why Ava Williams ended up back at her apartment with a guy she picked up at the bar.
Bringing back the magic
For Daniel Quintana, another 30-year-old from San Francisco, that same sense of interpersonal stalemate ended on public transit.
Quintana gave up on online dating last spring after a few years of using a bunch of apps. He felt like dating had infiltrated his unromantic world, mainly because men he went on dates with naturally become Facebook friends. So Quintana went offline completely, deleting all his apps and even deactivating his Facebook account.
Several months passed before Quintana felt a spark for someone again. It happened with a guy he made eye contact with on the L train on his commute home to the Sunset one evening. The two glanced back and forth and smiled the whole ride, but Quintana did not get his number. The experience was so refreshing and fun that he posted a Missed Connection.
He described the process of posting on Craigslist as feeling way more natural than messaging people on dating apps.
“Before I was kind of forcing this inorganic process to happen,” Quintana said, “and I think in some way I was kind of blaming the websites.”
Missed Connections might be the modern antidote to online dating, but there is far more to it than pithy posts describing fleeting attraction. You’ll also find electronic epistles unloading grievances to the universe about an unnamed ex, follow-ups to conversations that started on dating apps and free sexual services.
There is a reason that Missed Connections have maintained a home on the Craigslist website that has remained largely unchanged for a decade and a half. Perusing these posts inspires a mixed sense of both voyeurism and solidarity, a window into how strangers experience that first inkling of attraction for another human being—and the enigmatic possibility of finding love—that most people have felt at some point in their lives.
For people like Ava and Daniel, love in the time of Craigslist has become a sort of battle between remaining patient for the right one to come along and the temptation to search for that person on the Internet in the meantime.
But for many older millenials thinking about settling down, crossing paths with someone in real life still has more appeal.
Ava compared online dating with just naturally hitting it off with someone at the bar as similar to walking through a bookstore.
“It’s the difference between reading the back of a book,” Ava said, “and deciding to read it vs. picking one up off the shelf and just really liking the story without knowing anything about it.”
Ava paused for a moment, reflecting on the experience of meeting someone offline.
“That’s magic,” she said.
Some names in this story have been changed.
Written and produced by Levi Bridges and Graelyn Brashear. Special thanks to Lacy Jane Roberts, Matt Beagle, Gabriel Tolliver, Katherine Rose and Joshua Johnson.
Music: Tres Tristes’ DBronx Tanz, Planta Baja and Ojos Negros.