Downloading Love: A Content Analysis of Internet Personal Advertisements Placed by College Students

Article excerpt

Thousands of college students use the internet every day to meet people with similar interests. In this study, one hundred internet personal ads placed by college students were analyzed for content. Results showed the majority of ad placers to be white, male, and either at the beginning or end of their college careers. Sizable proportions of ad placers failed to provide any information about such seemingly obvious characteristics as their own gender, ethnicity, and sexual orientation. Implications and the relationship of internet personals to other media are discussed.

By any objective measure, the growth of the internet has been explosive. Internet users themselves are frequently portrayed in advertising and movies as "hackers"--young, hip, and savvy about the world of computers. They are also portrayed as somewhat "geeky", a group of people who are short on acceptable social skills. Indeed, one of the advantages of contact over the internet is that it does not require face to face communication; instead, users can "interface" with each other in "chat rooms" or in other on-line discussion groups.

While many students on college campuses are using the computer labs to prepare papers and finish homework assignments, a great deal of time is also spent in communication with friends via e-mail and recreational surfing of the World Wide Web. This is where on-line personal ad services find their niche (Resnick, 1996). When it comes to finding companionship, the internet has several advantages over print media. First, using the internet makes it easy to meet people with similar interests from around the world. Newspaper personals are usually regional or confined to a single city. Second, internet personals' sites have search engines which look through thousands of ads seeking those which match criteria pre-set by the person searching the ads. For example, a search engine can be programmed to display only ads which are placed by people of a particular race, religious affiliation, age, and gender. When searching newspaper personals, there is no order to the ads and a person might have to search through page after page of ads just to find one that is of interest. Third, communication over the internet is rapid and cheap. This in itself can be highly reinforcing. Finally, people can portray the persona they choose when communicating over the internet while retaining their anonymity through a chosen designation or code name. This can lead to more open expression because people do not need to worry about running into each other again if their on-line relationship does not work out ("Double Click", 1996).

Interest in internet dating is so new that there is no empirical data on the subject. In our literature search, we were at best able to find only anecdotal newspaper accounts of people meeting over the internet and eventually getting married. Controversial talk-radio personality Rush Limbaugh is one such person who met his spouse over a chat-line (Marshall, 1996). Since there is a dearth of research in this area, and since college students are one of the prime demographics using the internet, the purpose of this research was to make a qualitative study of personal advertisements placed on the World Wide Web by college students in order to obtain a demographic profile of the sort of college students who are placing these ads.

The use of personal ads to study a population of interest is not a new idea. Personal ads can be a good source of archival data. For over twenty years now, researchers have been using personal ads to study what people are willing to disclose about themselves and what they are seeking in others. Some of the earliest findings of this research (Cameron, Oskamp, & Sparks, 1977) showed that people tend to make requests that are congruent with their sex-role stereotypes. For example, women are more likely to express interest in the financial security, sensitivity, and sense of humor of a prospective mate while men are more likely to seek an attractive mate with whom they can have sex. …