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Sunday, November 28, 2021

‘Missed connections’ ads create hope, disappointment

It was fate.

It had to be, right?

She missed him by five days on Match.com, and they were 100 percent compatible. He sounded intelligent, educated like her.

“He was so cute,” she said, “and seemed like a really good person.”

Emily Harwood, 25, is a University of North Florida grad with a degree in psychology. She lives in Jacksonville and works as a stock broker. Her eyes are sharp hazel. She plays paintball. She’s changed her hair from red to black to blond. One day she wants to marry an extraordinary man and have cute, educated, compassionate children.

She’s not the type you’d expect to leave a Craigslist ad. Those are for the lonely. The desperate. Sad people with missing teeth who live in trailers and eat SpaghettiOs out of the can.

He stayed in the back of her mind, and three months later, totally unprepared, she saw him.

Craigslist missed connections ads are second chances in the digital age. You see someone attractive, your heart flutters, but you don’t have the gall. Later, when you’re alone, you use the same site some use to give away sofas. You take comfort in the sweet anonymity of the computer screen.

The real, longing messages follow a pattern. First, there’s the acknowledgment that this might not work, that it’s a shot in the dark. Next, how the person was noticed, and you felt something immediately. And then the actual moment, the connection, be it casual conversation or eye contact, held just a little too long. The ads end by asking for some detail about the encounter, just to be sure.

Emily’s was simple:

“At the Gas Station before the USF/Gator game Saturday - w4m - 28 (gas station in Clearwater area)

“I know this is a long shot, I’ve never tried this, but I saw you at the gas station on Saturday afternoon, you were wearing a Gator jersey and talking to the store clerk, and you have a blue car — I think. You are tall, probably 6’0-6’2? and very attractive ... I was the blonde with my pregnant friend. I can’t stop thinking about it.”

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The ads were created in 2000. Craigslist employees noticed “I saw you” messages popping up in the personals section and chose the name of the category as a transportation metaphor.

The idea is not new, but it can be prohibitively difficult to leave these messages for the intended recipient in a large city without technological help.

Missed connections are a natural progression of social networking, said David Carlson, a professor of new media journalism at UF.

“It’s just another arrow in Cupid’s quiver,” he said.

According to the Chicago Tribune, so many people in Chicago post about encounters at train stops that Craigslist did a study on which was the most used. (It was Belmont.) New York City actress Melissa Center was inspired by the ads and started acting them out on YouTube in a series called Missed Connections Live. Children’s book artist Sophie Blackall creates images of the ads on her blog.

According to Gambit, the most popular place to have a missed connection in New Orleans is the Whole Foods produce aisle. The New York Times has published verbatim romantic poems found on the site in an article appropriately titled “Poetic Connections.”

This is good for a site that just last month shut down another popular corner of its business: “Adult Services.” The company was pressured by state attorneys general and other groups, who accused the site of displaying ads that were fronts for prostitution.

All kinds of yearnings still find their way onto the site, and yes, into the missed connections. Lonely housewives search for lusty liaisons, a man gets midget porn left in his mailbox, another waits in a bathroom stall for a “great time,” but his intended never shows up.

Emily’s ad, like most, stems from a crisis of confidence.

That particular Saturday morning, Emily was dragging. She was in Tampa for the weekend with her pregnant friend, Stephanie, who could go into labor “at a minute’s notice.”

They napped, watched TV, hit Babies “R” Us.

Stephanie, not being familiar with the area, pulled into a random gas station. Emily, in a strapless blue shirt with a heart on the front, needed coffee.

She walked into the store, and her jaw dropped. It was him. The one from from Match.com. Mr. 100 Percent Compatible. He was just a few feet in front of her wearing basketball shorts and a sleeveless Gators shirt. He looked fit in person. Attractive.

They made eye contact and held it through a blink. She thought he recognized her. She felt it, whatever it was. Her heart hopped, and with her jaw still open, she ran to the coffee counter and hid. She called Stephanie over with her hands and vigorously started pointing and mouthing the words, “I know him!”

He was at the register laughing with the clerk. She waited. He went and sat in his car. One hundred thoughts for every step. Should she talk to him? Could she? Would she sound like a fool? Would he laugh? While the clerk talked to Stephanie about her pregnancy, Emily was a civil war.

She decided, in her panic, that talking to him would be a clear signal to him that she was insane.

She looked at him when she walked by. He looked back. She and Stephanie got in the car and drove by him, another look. He followed them out, but they turned left, and he was gone. 

All weekend she wrestled with it. What are the chances? There’s only one sure way to test fate in the Internet age —  missed connections.

She had a friend who tried it and it worked; they had gone out twice, only twice, but still.

Emily’s ad was up by Monday night. “A final resort,” she told herself.

She’s still waiting.

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