Love and logic 

How Craigslist's Missed Connections appeals to our best and worst selves

One layer underneath its utilitarian surface — find a car, find a cat, find a dominatrix (at a reasonable hourly rate) — craigslist.org serves as a barometer of sorts for the state of a community. Lately, Colorado Springs' Craigslist site (cosprings.craigslist.org) has been deluged with apartments and houses available for rent while the pickings for jobs are meager; indisputable evidence of the piss-poor economy.

But that, of course, is old news.

Let's instead talk about Craigslist and love. While the rise in popularity of online dating has led to dozens of Web sites, Craigslist manages to stand apart, due to one category — Missed Connections.

Close to a hundred personal ads are posted on Craigslist everyday in Colorado Springs. Of the nine categories, most are straightforward: w4m is for women seeking men ("Looking for a man who is sick of drama"), casual encounters is for no-strings-attached sex ("Looking for an insatiable woman"), strictly platonic is for plain ol' companionship ("Looking for Scrap booking Friends"), etc. The posts cast a wide net, inviting whomever fits the description to reply.

But a Missed Connection, on the other hand, is more Cinderella than cattle call.

Ten to one

On the Missed Connections board, users post to strangers that they encountered, felt intrigued by, and hope to reconnect with. A standard note looks something like this one, taken exactly as posted on July 7: "King Soopers around 6:30 on Monday night. We had a smile together at the checkout. Then another as we walked out to the parking lot. You had on light brown capris and a black top, hair pulled back. Would like to say 'Hi' if your are interested."

The obvious question: What are the odds that this mystery woman will see this ad on Craigslist, recognize that she is the person being described and, perhaps most importantly, want to respond?

C.J. Pascoe, assistant professor of sociology at Colorado College, doesn't know of any research that explains just how terrible those odds are. And maybe, to those who post, it doesn't really matter: "It's for people who believe in fate," Pascoe says.

In the absence of scientific data, and with some distrust of fate, I posted an ad asking people to share their Missed Connections success stories. Over two weeks, I got one reply.

"I found my long-lost pen-pal from Australia last month," wrote my female respondent. "And a few years ago I got in touch with my best friend from 4th grade who moved to Germany and then to the South before we lost touch."

Meanwhile, I had also made a very vague post about exchanging smiles at Walmart, a hot spot for Missed Connections in Colorado Springs. Over the same time frame, that garnered 10 eager responses, such as: "I traded glances with a cute girl at Wal Mart the other day- my pic is attached- was it me? I hope so...."

Other, more discerning, users asked me to send them photos or describe myself in order to confirm I was in fact the same girl they had in mind. That's where our correspondence ended.

Racy and risky

Craigslist, of course, did not invent Missed Connections. The site added the board to the personals section in 2000 when the staff noticed how many newspapers still ran those types of listings in their classified sections. Sometimes the sections were titled "I Saw You." (Props to Craigslist for choosing the less creepy name.)

But today, Craigslist makes it easier to hunt for a little bit of magic than newspaper classifieds ever did. After all, it's free, there's no need for awkward conversation with an advertising rep, and the post goes up instantaneously.

One thing, however, remains very much the same.

"It's a way not to risk as much rejection," says JaNae Stansbery, an instructor of communication at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs who specializes in male-female communication.

Mark Andrew, a photographer based out of Saratoga Springs, N.Y., agrees that fear of rejection is at the heart of the appeal of Missed Connections. Andrew's most recent series is titled de-classified (visible at de-classified.com), a collection of portraits of people who have posted personals in various places. On his Web site, he runs each photo alongside the content of the ad the man, woman or couple posted, and then lets viewers add comments.

Andrew tries to capture the entire spectrum of seekers, from a guy with a dwarf fetish to a young couple interested in group sex. The common trait throughout the collection, as racy as certain postings may be, is a sense of undeniable loneliness.

"We are all afraid to risk it, and [Missed Connections] is a safe place to risk it," Andrew says. "The one common element of all the ads is that all human beings have a real need to connect with other human beings."

'I miss her already'

In 2004, Craig Newmark, the founder of Craigslist, told the Oakland Tribune, "Like everyone else, I really do hope that [Missed Connections] works. I'm a bit of a romantic."

I am, too. And in a way, it's comforting to know that there are still people who have hope in a method that depends so much on serendipity. Romance cannot possibly be completely dead while thoughts like this one (again, taken verbatim from a July 9 post) are still circulating:

"I was sitting in front of tibet imports downtown enjoying the smell of incence and sound of soft sitar music while surfing the web when I glanced up to see a tall beautiful goddess elegantly clad in business pinstripes making her way out of the 5pm rat race. I was left struck by her beauty but think I managed to croak out a soft broken 'hello'. ... I miss her already."

Cue the more cynical side of me, which says users' motivations usually have nothing to do with hope or serendipity, and everything to do with cowardice.

Take this one, for example, posted July 5: "dude your hot, you got tattoos and where on duty today when I came in ... if you see this ... hit me up!" The title of the post included the sought-after person's name and place of employment.

If you already have that much information, could you really consider that a "Missed Connection"? Or is it something more like a missed opportunity? As one local user wrote to me, "All in all, I think it is a board of regret."

This certainly is not exclusive to Colorado Springs, but love here is probably being squelched by our dependence on technology. More often than not, Missed Connections is a crutch, helping us justify our passiveness and fear in the name of fate and storybook romance.

I hope the King Soopers guy finds his mystery woman in capris, but I doubt he will. Next time, maybe he'll just try talking.



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