Susan was walking down the aisle of a plane departing for San Francisco when something made her pause.
She was boarding a return flight at Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport after taking a spontaneous trip to Paris over the Thanksgiving holiday. The plane was crowded, and the line she was standing in came to a halt as passengers hoisted their luggage into the overhead compartments.
That’s when she saw him — a handsome French man with brown hair who was wearing a cream-colored sweater. He was seated to the left several rows ahead of her, and when she looked over, she realized that he was staring at her, too.
“We were clearly smiling under our masks,” Susan told SFGATE over the phone. (Some of the names in this story have been changed to protect individuals’ anonymity.)
She wanted to say something. She wasn’t sure why she didn’t.
After what seemed like an eternity, the line moved again, and Susan took her seat. During the flight, she noticed the man walk past her to use the restroom about six or seven times, which struck her as odd. Once, she swore he looked over at her again and held her gaze.
“I thought, should I get up and talk to him?” she said. “But I didn’t have the guts to do it.”
Looking out towards the runway at SFO.
When they finally disembarked the plane at SFO, she saw him again in the customs line, but the opportunity was lost — her bags came out quickly and her ride was already waiting.
Days later, Susan couldn’t stop thinking about him. It wasn’t often that she found a man about her age — “I’m a little bit older,” she said — who wasn’t wearing a wedding ring and seemed to share an interest in her as well. And she didn’t want to live with the regret of doing nothing.
So she sat down in front of her computer, pulled up Craigslist’s antiquated Missed Connections forum and typed out an anonymous message to her mystery man.
It was “a one in a million chance,” said Susan. But she had nothing to lose.
When Craigslist introduced its “Missed Connections” platform in 2000, giving users the opportunity to write free personal ad-style entries online rather than flyering them on light poles or coffee shop bulletin boards, it became an instant hit. By 2007, CEO Jim Buckmaster told Reuters he “had heard of several marriages forged through Missed Connections” and that use of the forum had surged in the past three years from 18,000 new posts per month to 75,000.
San Francisco, where the company is still headquartered today, was its largest market.
It also proved to be interesting reading for people who weren’t necessarily looking for the one that got away — in 2005, an estimated 900,000 people visited Missed Connections pages every day, founder Craig Newmark told the Boston Globe.
“People really do value long-shots,” Buckmaster, who came up with the idea for the forum, said in 2011. “The idea of getting a second chance, however small, is very powerful.”
Craig Newmark, the CEO of craigslist.org, talks on his cellphone while on a date with an unidentified woman in a cafe in San Francisco on April 15, 2000. At the time, Newmark was voted ‘one of 10 most eligible Silicon Valley bachelors.’
Take Jared Bibler and Elisa Stead, for instance. The couple crossed paths for just a minute when they sat next to one another on the T train in Boston in the fall of 2003. By the time Bibler departed the train, he worried that he had blown his chance with the tall girl carrying a Trader Joe’s bag who grinned up at him as he left for his stop.
“My heart jumped in my throat, I wanted to run back and pound on the glass, Graduate-style,” read his post on Missed Connections, “Girl on the Green Line ‘D’ train 7 pm tonight – wow!” which was published in the Boston Globe two years later. “How about we rehash this connection over some dinner?”
Little did he know, Stead felt the same way. She checked the forum, planning on writing a post of her own about Bibler, when she found his ad. A year and a half after their initial encounter, Stead moved to Reykjavik, Iceland, to be with Bibler, who at the time was working as a software developer there.
“It was such a short moment and such a slim chance that we both happened to be on the [Missed Connections] board that we feel like some sort of cosmic dating service must have been at work,” Stead told the Globe.
The Craigslist office is seen Mar. 10, 2006, in San Francisco.
Decades later, Susan said she felt compelled to write her own Missed Connections post because of a similar encounter her best friend had when they were both grad students in New York in 2005. Though her friend wasn’t much of a partier, Susan convinced her to take her out for a night on the town.
They went to a club, and Susan’s friend happened to meet an attractive guy there. They hit it off and danced the whole night.
“I lost track of her because they were canoodling or whatever,” Susan said with a laugh.
When they met back up at the end of the night, she couldn’t wait to ask her friend how things went. Apparently, they had a great time, but didn’t exchange numbers — Susan’s friend said she got nervous and darted off before he had a chance to ask.
“I thought it was such a shame because there really seemed to be chemistry there,” Susan said.
But a couple of days later, Susan’s friend told her a few people in her cohort approached her after class to tell her they had seen a post on Missed Connections, and they suspected it was about her.
Susan said her friend looked for the post later that night, and it described their encounter to a T, naming the club they were at and some of the songs they danced to. It also included her first name and a description of her appearance. At the end of the post, he asked for her number.
Susan’s friend agreed to go out with him, though their romance only lasted for a few dates before she decided he wasn’t her type.
“We still talk about it years later,” said Susan. “It was a crazy, shocking, surprising story about [a Missed Connection] that worked out, and it gave me faith in this process, that there might actually be a chance of meeting somebody.”
A recent post in the San Francisco Bay Area section of Craigslist’s Missed Connections.
In the current era of online dating apps like Hinge, Bumble, Grindr and Tinder, the art of Craigslist’s Missed Connections seems to have fallen to the wayside. There’s still dozens of posts made every day in the San Francisco Bay Area section, but the long, flowery descriptions of meet-ups that made morbidly curious people like me check the website on a regular basis in high school are all but obsolete. (That’s not to say that succinct posts aren’t effective. To this day, “You were the solar system at Chipotle” and “electric gaze at Target” are among a couple of my favorite recent posts.)
The truth is it’s easier than ever to do a little detective work and find people on social media. And in the years since the heyday of Missed Connections, there’s been a loss of innocence. Craigslist itself has been subject to plenty of controversy, from scams to catfishing and more.
Famously, a 2001 post in the San Francisco section of Missed Connections described a “Gorgeous Guy @ 4th and Market at the MUNI/Amtrak Bus Stop” and included a photo of a man in a crisp blue shirt. The post went viral and garnered a slew of follow-up ads. People staked out Muni stops in search of the man, who turned out to be Dan Baca, a 29-year-old computer network engineer. Baca was interviewed by multiple national outlets, including CNN and USA Today before David Cassel, then a writer for the San Francisco Bay Guardian, traced most of the follow-up messages back to the same IP address — which belonged to Baca. He admitted to making the whole thing up, telling CNN he was “just playing around.”
Dan Baca, a subject of discussion on Craigslist, stands in the middle of Market Street on June 14, 2001, in downtown San Francisco where he said he was first spotted by admirers.
But people found far more sinister ways to use the site. In 2009, Philip Markoff, known as “the Craigslist killer,” was accused of three armed robberies and first-degree murder after seeking out his victims in Craigslist’s Personals section. He died by suicide in his Boston jail cell while he was awaiting trial.
Craigslist permanently shut down the section in 2018, days after the passage of the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) and the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA), which intended to hold platforms accountable if they were found to be facilitating sex work or prostitution. Supporters hailed the bill package as a victory for victims of sex trafficking but critics said it ignored the ways the internet makes consensual sex work safer and described it as an “overly-broad attack on online speech,” as one Mashable article noted.
“Any tool or service can be misused,” Craigslist said in a statement at the time. “We can’t take such risk without jeopardizing all our other services, so we are regretfully taking craigslist personals offline. Hopefully we can bring them back some day.”
“To the millions of spouses, partners, and couples who met through craigslist, we wish you every happiness!” the site added.
In the end, people who previously used the Personals section moved over to Missed Connections, though many of the posts are flagged for removal by the site. With its unchanged, minimal layout and Times New Roman font, Missed Connections feels like a memento of a meet-cute era that only exists in romantic comedies. But some Bay Area romantics are still holding out hope.
Pat, a 30-year-old warehouse worker living in Santa Cruz, posted to the platform last November after going on a hike with his sister at the Forest of Nisene Marks State Park. When they reached Maple Falls a couple of hours later, he saw a woman there, gazing at the water as it cascaded into the pool below. She was petite and wore a hat over her dark hair, and when she noticed him, she asked if he and his sister wanted her to take a photo of them.
A natural water channel running through The Forest of Nisene Marks State Park, near Santa Cruz, California.
Pat declined, but offered to take a photo of her instead. They laughed and joked for a while, and eventually, she said goodbye and made her way back to the beginning of the hike.
“I’d never posted to Missed Connections before, and to be honest, I wasn’t even sure it still existed,” he told SFGATE in an email. “It was a short interaction, but I genuinely had a great time with her and thought she was cute. I also didn’t know enough about her to look her up on Instagram or anything like that. It was a major shot in the dark.”
While Craigslist may have been more popular in the early aughts, some people still think it’s worth giving it a shot.
Cathy, an engineering consultant in her 50s who lives in San Francisco, said she’d previously had some luck with the site and decided it wouldn’t hurt to try it again after she had a brief flirtation with a man she met in the checkout line at Target last month.
In the past, she said she used Craigslist to find multiple housemates and buy and sell cars. About 15 years ago, she went out with a man she met in the Personals section who was offering up an extra ticket for a Ralph Nader documentary screening at the Roxie Theater in the Mission. They tried dating “for a hot minute,” she said, and though it didn’t work out, he remains one of her “dearest friends to this day.”
The checkout line at Target.
At the Target checkout, Cathy struck up an amicable conversation with the cashier, who asked what her plans were for the rest of the day. Upon sharing that she was going to drop her son off at home and meet up with a friend to drink “hot, boozy beverages,” the man behind her joined in and they exchanged some banter. She didn’t know what it was about him that she found so intriguing, but said his eye contact and enthusiasm made her feel “a spark.”
“I would have loved to explore it more,” she told SFGATE in an email. “I thought about driving past him as he was getting into the car with his son and giving him my business card but I didn’t have quite enough courage.”
The pandemic has made dating more challenging than ever, but it’s also caused people to meet in unexpected places.
Scott, a professional pilot from the North Bay in his late 40s, said he woke up and checked his calendar last month and realized it had been a year since his own Missed Connection — one that he was so devoted to finding that he had posted to the forum about four or five times in the past year in hopes of receiving a response.
So he tried posting again.
In January 2021, he was waiting in line for a COVID test in the Mission when he noticed the woman standing behind him. She was wearing baggy clothing and her wavy hair was up in a bun, but there was something about the way she carried herself that struck him.
People wait in line for COVID-19 testing at a testing site.
“The way she was talking to people in line … she had this confidence about her,” Scott told SFGATE over the phone. “And when I looked at her, she turned to me at the exact same moment and smiled. Up until that point, I had no idea that she had noticed me as well.”
Describing himself as more of an introvert, Scott explained situations like that didn’t happen to him often.
“It was a shock to me,” he said. “I realize I could have just said something to her. For some people, that comes very naturally. But put them in a cockpit and they’d be absolutely terrified. We all have our strengths and weaknesses.”
When he was done with his test, he tried to look for her but it was too late. She was gone. Noting that he doesn’t use Twitter or Instagram and checks his Facebook account very rarely, Scott said Craigslist seemed like his best bet.
“Realistically, do I expect to find this woman every time I post? No. But boy, that’d be like winning the lottery,” he said with a sigh. “I just keep trying to tell myself those experiences are out there for me. Maybe I’ll gather up the courage in the future. Hope springs eternal, right?”
Ultimately, none of the people I spoke with received a response from their Missed Connection, but they said it was the catharsis of being able to take some form of action that mattered.
“A missed connection is by definition a frustration, a ‘what if,’ and even though posting in Missed Connections is extremely unlikely to lead to a resolution, it is better than doing nothing,” Cathy said. “Especially right now, when life feels like one giant missed opportunity. Even though it’s plague times and I don’t get to meet folks much now because of social distancing, I still can connect and feel a spark if given the opportunity.”
Susan said she received “a flood of responses” to her own post. Some included unsolicited graphic pictures, which were rather disturbing, but other people sent her a few encouraging emails.
“Things like, ‘I’m rooting for you’ and ‘I hope he messages you,’ which I thought was really cute and sweet,” she said. “Then one person said, ‘I’m sorry I’m not him, but I’d like to meet you.’ For the most part, it made me feel good, even if I never linked up with him. I’ll always wonder what could have been, but it was worth a shot.”
And Pat said that his first post on Missed Connections turned into an important learning experience.
“Whether this could have blossomed into a friendship, or something more, I replay it in my head like I should have done things a little differently at that waterfall spot,” he said. “It makes me reflect on how I should be more bold with the people I meet, because I may miss out on some great interactions with people.”
Amanda Bartlett is a culture reporter for SFGATE. Prior to joining the newsroom in 2019, she worked for the Roxie Theater, Noise Pop and Frameline Film Festival. She lives in San Francisco with her rabbit, Cheeto. Send her an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Susan was walking down the aisle of a plane departing for San Francisco when something made her pause.