I have an idea for a story that features a dating website, so I signed up and created an embellished portrait just to see how the thing works (BTW - I'm not interested in dating - I'm long past that horrible period in life). Ethical? Borderline? I'm not intending to go out with anyone or lead them on. If I get any hits (and who wouldn't want to check me out?), I'll politely let them down (but let them know they were this close to male perfection - sorry ladies, I'm taken). Have any of you done such a thing for research? Thoughts?

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I have to say part of me thinks that was brilliant. Talk about taking fiction to new places. Could this be like an internet version of War of the Worlds? That being said, I think the ethics of such an interactive presence is a little shaky, if there were legitimate friendships created. In my own experiment I really don't intend to communicate too much. IF I do find someone who is interesting (in a purely research way), I'd come out and explain what I was doing and ask if I could interview them...over dinner...candelight...a little Barry White...you know, informal. :)
yeah, I was always fascinated by the whole thing. i know it's not what you were thinking of doing, but your post reminded me of it.
I've "misrepresented" myself for research purposes. I needed information from the FAA and my wife and I posed as feature writers for a magazine. It worked better than saying I was an author. I pretended to be ill eligible for an insurance policy when I was writing my 1st novel. I needed to see how the system worked from the inside. I never used what I learned to shame anyone or expose anyone. I think that's the key.

And as long as you don't break a few hearts, you should be okay. :-)
Ethics. Ethics. The word sounds familiar, but... no, I'm drawin' a blank here.

You've just created an ID. You're not going out and sleeping with random women you meet online telling them your name is Race Savageblood, Professional Gator Tamer. I don't think you've crossed any lines at this point. You're not leading anyone on.

Thing is, if you really want to know how the system works, this is only going to show you so much. Say you put up an ad, and someone does respond to it. Well, then what? You either ignore it, say you're not interested, in which case your research ends there, or you go for it.

And then it's an ethical dilemma.

Or you could just contact some people at the site, or see if you know anyone who knows anyone who's used one and ask them. Not nearly as fun, but you don't run the risk of having your pet bunny cooked in a stew pot.
As long as you can write "no dates were harmed during the writing of this book," I think you'll be fine. In my experience, some eight & nine years ago, most people on dating sites are misrepresenting themselves in some way (they're married, or shorter, heavier, or less endowed than they claim), so I don't think you'd be significantly harming someone who answers your ad.
Oh Please!

Misrepresenting yourself... on a DATING SITE? Have you seen how many of us click "Average" or "A couple extra pounds" Have you never met someone for coffee to discover her photo was from when she was attending college, not teaching at one?

Lying about yourself on a dating site may be unethical, but it's nearly universal.
A friend of mine did it for research. She entered all the info the site asked and put in her character's info. They sent back a long list of things which my friend then used to develop her character further. She still gets offers for her heroine. She didn't even post a picture. Said she was shy. lol
I can't answer about research as I'm not a writer, but I don't think there is anything wrong with you doing it. I actually made my first dating profile just because I had a friend who I know had one and I wanted to find him and kid him about it. Backfired on me, as it turns out that he had a thing for me and knew I was playing and was kind of hurt but that's another topic. Bottom line, it's ethical in my opinion. Anyone who is looking for someone on those sites knows that there is no guarantee. They should also expect that not everything is accurate. I always figure their income is at least one classification down from what it says. I would do it if I needed to research. Use this picture! That'll get some kind of responses!
I hate to be the lone voice of dissent here... but, as a journalist doing this for a story would/could get me fired. Yes, journalists of old used to do things like call up and say they were the coroner, but anymore... it's far, far better to be on the up-and-up.
I guess my gut feeling is instead of getting on dating sites, why don't you interview people who have used the sites? There are scads of them, I'm sure.

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