Tyler Cowen, one of the sharpest, quirkiest, and most original thinkers I know of, muses on the question. My theory is that for the people that use them, these ads inject a little romance and serendipity into modern urban life, which is otherwise rather routinized and predictable. The idea that that fetching stranger on the subway platform might be one's soulmate provides a moment of pleasant diversion even from the routines of work, leisure, and socialization that dominate our days and can quickly become tedious in the face of our hunger for novel and exciting experience. Placing an ad is akin to buying a lottery ticket - it gives a person a chance to construct an appealing romantic fantasy, at a low cost.
Since I'd guess that most ads go unanswered, the fantasy is also more likely to remain intact, unalloyed by the mitigating complexities of human interaction that inevitably emerge in any real relationship. Furthermore, placing an ad enables people to express romantic interest without fear of failure - if no one answers the ad, it's not because one has been duly considered, judged wanting, and rejected, but merely because fate has declined to accommodate. That seems cold comfort to me - after all, one is still alone at the end of the exercise - but I suppose it at least saves people from beating themselves up for being unable to express their interest in others, in addition to beating themselves up for being alone.
Personally, I left this sort of romantic daydreaming behind a long time ago in favor of a more direct approach - when I felt an attraction, acting on it, no matter how awkward I felt about doing so. I asked out women I knew fairly well, sure, but also a waitress in a coffee shop I frequented, a fellow student to whom I'd never spoken, a woman who showed me an apartment, a girl I met on a train - whoever, however I met them, when I felt a spark. Certainly this approach has brought its fair share of rejection, failure, and romantic disappointment in addition to quite a few interactions that began and then dead-ended before much came of them. I think, however, that these experiences were valuable - from the rejections I learned not to fear rejection, and from the dead ends not to approach any potential relationship with unrealistic expectations. When I've had successes - well, from them I've learned that finding love is a problem that will crack if you take enough swings at it. I met my girlfriend, whom I've now been dating for fifteen months, under circumstances that very well might have turned into a missed connection had I not immediately acted on the spark I felt. The same was true of my previous girlfriend, with whom things ultimately didn't work out romantically but with whom I remain friendly. I think the way to find love is to dive into the water and take your lumps along the way, and that requires being proactive. If all someone wants to do is daydream about finding love, however, letting the moment slip and posting a Missed Connections ad serves perfectly well.
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