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 this week at Meridian Hill Park in Northwest Washington.
With studies showing that one-third of married couples started their relationships online, finding romance via URLs is no longer as novel - and creepy - as it seemed when dating sites launched in the mid-1990s. But now 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 and activist. "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. "The idea that social networking, without anyone researching it, without anyone even paying attention to it, could be this important - 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. The U.S. dating industry, now dominated by online services, is expected to be worth $2.3 billion by 2016, meaning the market could be big enough for many players. And experts caution that there is some research showing that heavy social network use can lead to stress and jealousy in relationships.
But such is the seduction of social network love that Laurie Davis, the founder of eFlirt Expert, a prominent 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. Table names were hashtags such as #tweetheart displayed on iPads. Guests were encouraged to tweet, not put their phones away.
"Our #lovestory began in 140 characters on Twitter with the flick of a retweet," the couple wrote in an online compilation of the tweets.
"Beautiful night," one guest tweeted. "Beautiful #wedding."
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; an app called Tinder, which links people by location; 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.
After they met, Alexander and Dowell-Vest realized they had often been to the same events and parties. "Had she just come over to the bar a little sooner," said Dowell-Vest, a filmmaker and writer.
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 campaigns; most prominently, she was the voice behind President Obama's Twitter account during the 2012 election. 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.
"He is funny in sly, unexpected ways," Olin wrote recently in an online essay about their romance. "He cares about real things; he observes little things about the world that make you want to hug him through the internet. One day on the subway you catch yourself looking at the young men in the train car and wondering if you'd recognize him if, somehow, one of them was him."
Their online courtship was long and halting. They bumped into each other at parties, but there were no initial sparks. At one point, Olin unfollowed him and deleted many of her tweets as she began working on Obama's campaign.
"I didn't know what to do," Hupp said. "I really didn't think there was anything I could do."
One day she followed him again. 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. "It was weird." 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. Some 54 percent of online daters suspect people have misrepresented themselves in profiles, according to a Pew study.
"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."
But there are downsides, too. For starters, social network flirters must be comfortable wooing in public. Alexander and Dowell-Vest's Trapper Keeper posts on Facebook had dozens of comments.
Dowell-Vest: "Yes Michelle!! That dag gone TRAPPER KEEPER!!! What was it about, really??! Why did we ALL want that dag gone TRAPPER KEEPER???!!! "
Alexander: "They were awesome to keep our sticker collection safe. Esp the oil stickers."
Dowell-Vest: "LMAO!!! I can't breathe messin' with you Michelle!! Not the oil stickers!! I can't . . ."
Alexander: "You know you had a sticker collection. the fuzzy ones, the oil ones, the puffy ones. . . . Don't let your oil sticker get punctured. Your entire world collapsed."
Finally, someone else chimed in: "This was just fun to read thanks ladies."
And then there is the research showing the potential drawback of social network use in relationships, particularly just-formed ones. Russell Clayton, a University of Missouri researcher, has published two studies looking at how heavy Facebook and Twitter use in relationships can lead to jealousy.
Why did my girlfriend just add her ex-boyfriend? Why is my husband constantly bragging about his travels? Why did my wife check in at one place when she said she was going somewhere else?
"Individuals who are on Facebook may often be indirectly neglecting their partner, directly neglecting their partner by communication with former partners, and developing Facebook-related jealousy or constant partner monitoring, which may lead to future relationship conflict or separation," according to one study. "High levels of Facebook use may also serve as an indirect temptation for physical and/or emotional cheating."
But Dowell-Vest and Alexander haven't experienced any downsides.
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.