Online dating is a bit like steak tartare these days – love it or hate it, it’s on the menu. For some it’s the main dish, for others, something they return to in times of famine. And then there are those like me, who view it as a once off taste test, just to say we’ve had the experience. Most people I know have tried it at least once, with varying degrees of success. The spectrum ranges from dating horror stories, to happy couples who are still a bit loath to admit they met this way, to the proselytizing extremists, who insist it is the way, the truth and the life.
I’ve always been a bit skeptical about the virtual approach to meeting a mate. It’s partly the taboo and stereotype that only losers and freaks who can’t cut it in real life encounters need to resort to web interactions but it’s also due to my belief that the intangible essence of someone can only be represented in real life. My initial attraction to someone is often sparked by the way they move or speak or carry themselves in a room. ‘Strong presence’ or ‘twinkle in eye’ are not things that can be conveyed in an online resume. While an online profile can be a good initial screening process, people come to life in motion, not on paper and I’d rather not go about looking for love in the same way I’d conduct job interviews. Having had a few profiles set up for me in the past, I was curious about the experience but had never followed through with the recruitment process. Now I found myself in a bit of a dry spell and was prompted by this e mail from a male friend:
Have you ever done on-line dating? You HAVE to let me set you up a profile. I will do everything, pick your photos, write the ad, etc. but I am SUPER curious to see the messages you get. So we will do it for research.
His theory was that there are loads of great guys (notably his friends) on these websites but not as many great girls because the type of skepticism I felt coupled with a general technology bias. He wanted to see if we could establish a repeatable filtering mechanism to help fine females like myself flush out the weirdos. He was going to self style my profile and be my personal spam guard. I couldn’t refuse. Although, I was hoping the experiment would be wrapped up quickly and we would resort to lining up all his eligible friends in his apartment for me to select from. With the enthusiasm of a Southern cheerleader, he invented my OKCupid user name (BikesCream – because I like bikes and guys like images that conjure up licking) and selecting my ‘fittest’ pics from Facebook. For the requisite blurb he threw in a few hooks about me having an accent, being sporty and enjoying gardening. Nothing too crazy. I let me pick the response to the question about the six things I could never do without. A tough question when you are up against the 1 million plus other females active on the site also trying to strike that balance between low maintenance and cool. I settled with original things like family, dancing and the beach. As an aside, OKCupid, having been founded by maths nerds, has done some very amusing analysis on millions of users to interpret how responses to such banal questions and other demographic factors impact your desirability or what you can infer from them. One such insight points to the sad reality that as I approach the undesirable age of 30, my answers to silly questions like the six things I can’t live without start to matter way more than when I was in my internet dating prime at age 21. Men have until age 36 to reach prime eligibility, which practically speaking means it’s a real hen fight for those of us women willing to brave the the online scene.
As it turned out, I had no shortage of responses from men in their prime. And my friend was right, there is a HUGE need for an additional human filter. Here are some of the more quality responses I received :
ron1000: I would be happy to get to know you better 🙂
SecoNY: So You really look adorable.Also you’re seem like you have a great fashion sense.Are u a personal stylist ? 🙂
baconplayboy: Your hair is fuc*ing adorable! when are you going to ask me out?!!!?
frenchkiss: salut, ca va?
john646: looking for someone to spoil, interested?
smitten24: this may be a bit premature but i think i love you
JD101:We all scream for Bike Scream i guess. Oh my you are lovely, I just had to say hello.
And just when I was losing hope, I got this winning message:
fireworks85: You are adorable, so adorable in fact that I’ve decided im going to adopt you as my new little sister. Don’t worry, we’ll spend all our time together climbing trees and drinking kool-aid. Actually you seem like a pretty cool person, I’d love to get together sometime and let you cook for me haha. Wait! You’re not crazy are you?
With this prize sample reflecting the general calibre of communications and my human filter having rapidly lost interest, I decided to adopt a more proactive strategy. I was determined to meet one of these freaks face to face. So I did some trawling of my own and sent out some messages to hot, sporty, sensitive types over 36 (to increase my chances as they get more desperate) and some under 36 (because they’re in their prime after all).
It didn’t take long for me to strike up a normal conversation with a seemingly normal person with a normal name like John. He liked mangos and whiskey so at least I knew we had things in common. He also had lots of pics of him in exotic global locations with small children and animals, which was his way of saying he’d traveled a lot and was sensitive. So at least if we had nothing else to talk about we could exchange backpacking stories, which, let’s face it, are never very interesting unless you were there but can be good gap fillers in awkward date situations. John agreed to meet in person on a ubiquitous night of the week at a ubiquitous bar. And its a good thing I’d read the OKCupid blog, because he was a classic case of ‘I look nothing like my pics anymore’:
“Here’s a recent pic.”
REALITY: The more attractive the picture, the more likely it is to be out-of-date.
In John’s case he had turned grey and picked up a few pounds since being stuck out in the jungles of Cambodia, surviving off Tom Yum soup. Nevertheless, he was pleasant enough company and we managed to turn drinks into dinner. We talked about how he could turn his experience teaching English into a real world job and some of the good ideas he had for starting his own business, like supplying color coded cardboard boxes to large businesses or families during a move. Apparently old boxes from the bodega and a magic marker just won’t do the trick when you have lots and lots of stuff.
As I sat through this and some other nascent start-up ideas I pictured a future of dates where I’d be picking up the check for my rotisserie chicken and pinpointing holes in his latest hair-brain scheme. I was bored and I wanted to go home. Because it hadn’t been a horror story date, I thought I’d see it through properly and let him walk me home and kiss me. It was a decent text book kiss but nothing to make a foot pop or a heart skip a beat. I thanked him for a good night and reiterated that I would be traveling for two weeks and would be in touch on my return. And herein lies the lesson that I heavily advocate to anyone trying out online dating. As soon as you meet up with the person start talking about how busy you’ve been preparing for a trip. If you say you’re gone for a week or more its long enough for them not to bother you until you return. That way, if it goes well and you’re interested you can contact them when you fake return but if you never want to see them again, you can just cut ties. It’s unlikely that they’ll plague you if they don’t hear from you after your fake return date.
In my case I was really going away for two weeks and was relieved not to have to broach the question of doing another drink, dinner, doorstep combo anytime soon.
I wonder if John was equally disappointed with real life me or the online experience in general. When I logged back in to look at my messages recently, I saw there is now just an avatar where his face used to be. The same goes for a number of other weirdos who had sent me messages. I’m curious to know how many of these deactivated profiles met someone via the site and have no need to search anymore and how many just grew fatigued by all that ubiquitous drink buying and travel storytelling.
I’ve deactivated my profile because I don’t believe it’s the most effective way for a fussy person like me to meet someone. I never did get my friend to line up his connections in a room for me but I’m convinced that if I did, there would be at least one in ten that I could date. I have more confidence in filtering by association than any algorithms the OKCupid nerds can come up with. The good news is that when the one in ten doesn’t work out and my pool of associates has been exhausted, as it inevitably becomes from time to time, I can always reactivate my profile. Next time I’ll know how to navigate the system.