Teresa Dowell-Vest and Michelle Alexander fell in love through a status update.
The Washington, D.C., couple had gazed at photos of each other while commenting on Facebook updates of acquaintances. They added each other as friends. One day, Dowell-Vest, 42, reminisced about her grade-school Trapper Keeper folder.
Alexander pounced, finding a photo online of a similar folder. She posted it to the status update. Dowell-Vest's heart danced.
"And it was all she wrote from there," Alexander said.
They will be married on Saturday.
The digital aisle to marriage is transforming, moving from dating sites to social networks, where couples say encounters are more revealing and, with witty tweets and thoughtful status updates, more like flirting in the analog world. And they're free.
"You can follow someone over time and see consistency in character," said Alexander, a 40-year-old writer. "You can sit back and watch to see if it's someone you want to reach out to."
A recent study titled "First Comes Social Networking, Then Comes Marriage?" found that nearly 21 percent of people who discovered their spouses online and got married between 2005 and 2012 met through social networking sites, representing about the same amount of people who met offline through school.
"What's amazing is that this has basically happened without anyone really noticing," said Jeff Hall, a University of Kansas expert on flirting styles and the author of the study. "I was very surprised."
Many of the marriages in Hall's study had their roots in early social networks such as Myspace and Classmates.com, before Facebook and Twitter's rise. Friending, dating, cohabitating, proposing and finally getting married can take years, so Hall thinks social networking's more recent hold on our daily lives means a big wave of marriages is yet to come.
Analysts say it's still too soon to know whether dating sites such as Match.com or OKCupid should be worried. But such is the seduction of social network love that Laurie Davis, the founder of eFlirt Expert, a consulting company that helps singles write better dating Web site profiles, got married last month in Boston to a man she met on Twitter. Their wedding was decorated with 4,000 little Twitter birds cut out of paper.
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As if they were on a strip of bars in a college town, potential lovers are finding each other on just about every online gathering place. Searching Twitter for the phrase "found my boyfriend on (insert social network)" turns up stories of love found on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and even Bitstrips, a social network where users draw themselves in comic strips.
What fascinates communication researchers is how social networks are able to connect potential lovers who circulate in similar worlds, with similar interests and backgrounds. Facebook and Twitter's algorithms suggest that users add friends of friends or disparate members of organized groups, such as alumni organizations or sports groups.
Laura Olin and James Hupp, both 32, met on Twitter. He's a digital content strategist at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. She works in digital political campaigns. One day several years ago, Hupp tweeted that he was looking for a good D.C. political movie that wasn't All the President's Men.
Olin replied, suggesting The More the Merrier, a comedy from 1943.
He started following her. And they began exchanging tweets. Their online courtship was long and halting; there were no initial sparks. Then their common friends, seeing love in their Twitter streams, encouraged them to get together. Finally, they began dating in March 2013.
Hupp had signed up for OKCupid but never really did anything with it. "It was too direct, like I'm just going to show up here and start dating someone," he said. With Twitter, "it just happens to be another place where you were gathering with other human beings, and so sometimes you meet someone. It's because it was an accident that it worked."
Dating experts and communication researchers say social networks offer clues — shared news links that reveal interests, pictures from daily life, how people interact with friends — that dating profiles don't typically expose. And activity there tends to be more honest.
"Dating profiles are a one-time snapshot of what they want you to think of them," said Alexander, who didn't have any luck on dating sites because she "met crazy people on them — literally crazy people."
And Hall, the University of Kansas researcher, said dating profiles have a way of limiting choices. "It's like relationship shopping: I will have one of those and one of those," he said. "You're looking at very narrow criteria like physical appearance and age. You can diminish your quality of choices. Social networks weren't designed this way. As a consequence, you get to know people in a less contrived way. You get an accurate impression."
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Last year, an illness in Dowell-Vest's family had them spending long hours at a hospital. Alexander impressed her partner's family by packing enough food that nobody would have to leave the hospital room. Dowell-Vest was overwhelmed with love and ready to propose. She enlisted some of their friends to get candles and meet them that night at a park, where she took Alexander for a walk.
Alexander saw the candles approaching but didn't realize what was happening. Then she saw it was their friends.
Dowell-Vest got down on one knee and proposed, a moment captured on YouTube (of course). Alexander accepted. "It was perfect," she said.