When Adam* first messaged me on OkCupid, I’d just gotten into a relationship and was about to leave the site. “But we could still hang out as friends,” I typed. We met up twice to play Scrabble and discuss both our nascent OkCupid romances. Three years later, he met my boyfriend at my birthday party.
When I met Kyle* off OkCupid after that relationship ended, I found him intelligent, warm, and pleasantly nerdy but not quite my type. When I IMed “could we just be friends?”, he happily agreed. I attended his school’s New Years party as his platonic plus-one, and he and his friends watched The Bachelorette with me on Mondays.
Looking through Dave’s* profile photos, I wasn't attracted to him, but after reading that he studied and blogged about gender in pop music, I had an immediate friend-crush. I posed the same question I had to Kyle and Adam, and he also embraced the arrangement, accompanying me to view feminist art and discuss pop culture.
And Pavan*, a coworker, struck up an OkCupid conversation when he found my profile, which we took to Facebook Messenger and then to the office. Knowing my interest wasn’t romantic, he became my best work buddy, IMing through the company’s Hipchat account and helping me unwind with post-work walks.
To this day, I still IM with Adam, go out for Indian food with Kyle when I’m in town, and text with Pavan about our love and work lives, though I don’t live near them anymore. Dave, who still lives near me, let me sleep on his couch when I was temporarily apartment-less and attended my birthday party this year, where I introduced him as “one of my OkCupid friends.”
Those who only employ online dating only for its most obvious purpose aren’t utilizing its full potential. If I’d only used OkCupid for dating, I would have missed out on some of my most meaningful friendships. The same factors that go into OkCupid’s matching formula, with the exception of the sex survey questions, can also predict whether two people will be friends, so why not use them to find more compatible companions than we would at random?
Statistically, it’s unlikely that any two people, even those matched by data scientists’ algorithms, will be a romantic fit. When we go into our first OkCupid meetings expecting them to work out as dates, we’re setting ourselves up for disappointment.
Forming friendships is far more likely because our standards aren’t as high for friends as for significant others. A potential boyfriend may mind my messiness, but to a friend, it’s irrelevant. Strong political disagreements may be a deal-breaker for a romance but a mere inconvenience for a friendship. And when that elusive factor known as chemistry doesn’t eliminate suitors, far more are left standing in our lives.
My OkCupid friendships taught me to use first meetings to figure out not whether I could date someone but whether they could fit into my life in any capacity. Online dating consultant, speaker, and matchmaker Steve Dean — who, to prove my point about online dating functioning for more than dating, I met on OkCupid — shares my approach. “I treat all dates as friendship-making opportunities, and I create an environment where my date and I can become each other's best possible advocates for one another's future success,” he tells Bustle.
Dean recommends describing this “friendship-first” approach on your profile so your dates know what to expect and inviting them to fun activities to divert attention from sex and romance. Even if something does become romantic, he points out in a Medium post, it will evolve organically rather than simply because you met on a dating site.
While I’ve long shared Dean's goal of making friends off dating sites, he brought up another point I’d never considered: Our online-dating matches can also serve as matchmakers. He explained:
"At no point do I assume that I am the person they need, because probabilistically, I'm not, but it's far more likely that someone I know (or may soon meet) could be their ideal fit. When we approach things this way, it paves the way for genuine, empathetic conversation and loads of future referrals. My dates routinely refer me to new people whom they think I'd enjoy meeting, and I do the same for them. The result of this approach is that I no longer have bad dates. If we turn out to be romantically incompatible, we acknowledge it with a smile and keep on talking about how we can expand our friendship and help one another achieve what we most want."
When we lift unnecessary barriers to who we invite for a second cup of coffee, a whole world of friendships, professional connections, and matchmakers opens up. Sure, it’s a bit awkward introducing friends from dating sites at parties, but it becomes normal very quickly, and it's not even uncommon. In fact, the most popular reason for going on dating sites — even more popular than finding a long-term relationship — is to meet people with similar hobbies and interests.
You know what else? My OkCupid friends have stayed in my life longer than all my OkCupid boyfriends, and not a single one of them has ever broken my heart.
*Names have been changed.
Want more of Bustle's Sex and Relationships coverage? Check out our new podcast, I Want It That Way, which delves into the difficult and downright dirty parts of a relationship, and find more on our Soundcloud page.
Images: Suzannah Weiss/Bustle; Giphy(4)