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In the digital age, do blind dates still exist?

Published Feb. 2, 2017

Troy Coker called it a "legitimate, classic blind date."

A friend recommended the two meet. She was "cute." They'd hit it off. He didn't have to make a knee-jerk judgment based on a few photos in a dating app. No, this was traditional.

But was it?

Coker, 30 and from Fort Pierce, wasn't really going in blind.

"Without a shadow of a doubt," he determined, "I'm going to find this person on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram." Within minutes, he knew how long she had lived in the area, her job and where she had gone to school. Soon he'd get a friend request and the two would chat through messages — all before their actual date.

It seems as though most modern romance-seekers are well-versed online detectives. Colloquially it's called "creeping." And man, do a lot of single people creep hard. Even meeting people "the old-fashioned way" (like, in person) is often followed by a Google binge.

The term "blind date" itself is in flux. Is it a pure blind date or, like, a Tinder blind date?

Is a real blind date even a thing anymore?

• • •

Do you like pina coladas? You know the song. The year was 1979, and Rupert Holmes' would-be lovers were busy trading letters in the "personal columns," oblivious that they were married to each other. Without so much as a first name or photo, they thought nothing of showing up at "a bar called O'Malley's" to plan their escape. Ah, baby boomers.

They came of age in the sexual revolution, the dawn of modern dating. Sex outside of marriage was more acceptable, and the birth control pill allowed women to indulge without risking pregnancy. So much freedom and possibility!

Millennials aren't as quick to hit the dunes of the cape. They have fewer sexual partners than baby boomers did in their youth. They marry later, put off living together, date longer. And they're using every tool at their disposal to screen potential partners, wanting to know what they're getting into before it's had a chance to be anything.

That's all according to Jean Twenge, a San Diego State University professor and author of Generation Me. Though some might broad-brush Tinder-obsessing millennials as the Hookup Generation, she said, they'd be wrong.

They're more like the Look-Up Generation.

• • •

There are those who swear they can track down someone with just a first name, hometown and occupation. The next step is screening photos and posts for red flags and interests.

First dates are often a back-and-forth battle as both parties try not to reveal just how much they know. Play it cool, like you didn't scroll through every post made since 2012. Ask questions you know the answer to; act surprised.

But in reality, almost everyone is doing it, so maybe it's starting to lose its stigma. "I don't feel it's weird or creepy," said Coker. "Hey, you put this out there to the public. … The fact I have access to it shouldn't be a surprise."

The single dad said that if a woman asks about his daughter before he has a chance to mention her, it wouldn't be off-putting. The toddler is in his profile photo.

Chelsea Winter, 25, was a regular user of an app called Whisper after a move from Florida to Colorado two years ago. She saw a post from a woman around her age who was also new in town. They started messaging and wound up meeting the next day — but only after they had extensively cyberstalked each other.

The two are now engaged and living together in Ocala.

Chelsea's fiancee, Kerry Winter, (the two decided to share a last name even before their wedding), later admitted she developed more of a crush while scrolling through Chelsea's Facebook photo albums and finding one from a college art project emulating the self-portrait work of artist Cindy Sherman.

"She immediately knew who (Sherman) was," Chelsea said. "Funny how we clicked on something from a cyberstalk. … Even though we were so close, we would have been so far away from each other without technology. I doubt our paths would have ever really crossed."

Before she met Kerry, Chelsea connected with men and women online. (She said the only real difference is men are far more likely to send unprompted photos of their nether regions.) Creeping helped her weed out a creep who had more than one Facebook account — one he used on dating profiles and another covered in photos with his long-term girlfriend.

"Well, bro," Chelsea said, "I'm not into that."

• • •

There is still a case to be made for going in blind.

Online screening can close you off to people based on characteristics that might not matter in the end. "I want to date someone who is a Democrat, Catholic and went to college," Twenge, the generation researcher, said hypothetically. "You can do that … but you're not going to meet the guy who is libertarian, Episcopalian and didn't quite finish college you might fall in love with."

Nancy Wall, a Tampa Bay matchmaker, warns against relying on social media scraps. In the dating space she creates for her clients, she gives clients only a first name and an occupation for their date. Her savvy clients may be able to track down the doctor in New Port Richey named Tom, but she advises against it.

"We want to really help our clients understand the big picture," she said. "It's not just these tidbits."

Keleigh Knable, 29, and Cassia Lewis, 30, met on a blind date nearly a decade ago — an actual blind date, set up by friends from work in Gainesville. Both were miserable on the group outing. Knable had yet to turn 21, and Lewis was the designated driver.

After Lewis dropped off his drunk friends, the two decided to try to salvage the night with a trip to the only place open, Taco Bell. Lewis asked his date if she wanted to eat at his place or hers. They munched on tacos and talked until at least 6 a.m.

Knable admits that if she had seen his social media profile, she might have been more excited about the date she went into dreading. "He's really attractive," she said.

But she's not sure what about him she would have pieced together, certainly not a true picture. Lewis' page probably wouldn't have had much on it. To this day, he still isn't much of a Facebook user. But he laughed: "She was the third blind date of that year. One got sushi, the other got Outback. She got Taco Bell, and now she's my wife."

They're glad they went in knowing nothing. They can't argue with the results.

Contact Sara DiNatale at sdinatale@tampabay.com. Follow @sara_dinatale.

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