Monday, November 16, 2015

Online dating and the confirmation of bachelorhood

Recently I decided, for the first time ever, to try online dating. And to quit it, too.

As someone who has rarely struggled to get dates (and is OK with being single), I figured online dating would be a fun way to jump-start what had been a socially stagnant couple of years in a new city. Besides, some of the greatest women ever to walk into my life did so over the Internet. So, why the hell not?

Here’s why the hell not.

Online dating is monumentally stupid.

I'm sure most of you could have told me that. The Internet did. So did my mom. They doled out the hard truth about such a pursuit that I could have have figured out too, had I given it three seconds of thought. But instead, I spent that three seconds thinking, “Gee willikers, my wit and personality are absolutely going to shine through online dating just like they do face-to-face!”


I learned very quickly that successful online dating requires everything that I hate about everything.

I’m not going to fling your typical dudebro complaints. I’m fine with women being picky in a saturated male market. That’s their right, and they have every reason to suspect every guy is a creep (because most of them are). They don’t owe me, or anyone else, anything. Anyway, I’m super-picky myself. No, what sucks about online dating is how much it resembles other aspects of life that suck.

It’s like joining a fraternity, if there was no guarantee you’d ever interact with any of the other members. Not every dating site has a subscription fee, but the one I use does. It’s named after an implement you can use to torch $100 and get about the same result. I didn’t join a fraternity in college because, among other reasons, I didn’t see the point of joining an expensive organization to meet people I could encounter for free just by living daily life. That outlook served me well for the 17 years I remembered to adhere to it.

It’s like flying first-class. Or buying power-ups for a video game. Or any other thing where spending more money proportionally makes you a better person. “Click here to really get exposure!” ”Guarantee she sees your email." Wha?

My site just made free the ability to see whether someone I’d messaged had read it. I got an email about it and everything. It was as heartwarming as those “jeans days” some schools now have as a reward. Which is to say, facepalm.

Scammers abound. Whoa, ghfghfhfylivbev1993, who is 26 and lives in Arlington, Virginia, and is looking for a man ages 18-85 within 5,000 miles, and whose profile pic I’m pretty sure I’ve seen on a billboard, has winked at me? SUH-WOON! I can’t wait until she comes back from Latvia (after I help pitch in for the trip, natch)!

It conjures all the pleasure of a job hunt when you have no idea what you want to do or where you want to live and the economy is terrible. In other words, it’s a numbers game, and you’ve got to see what sticks. You scan hundreds of prospects, whittle it down to several dozen, send out genuine and thoughtful queries to some of the more promising leads and hope that one or two bite, and hope further that one of those is worth your time and friendship. That isn't exactly inspiring at a place where people are theoretically looking to mingle. It’s a ton of effort to maybe bat .010 on acknowledgment of existence, which for me is way worse than the recent real-life slump that compelled me to try this in the first place. It makes you wonder what you’re doing wrong. Well, for starters:

You can’t make an enticing profile. It is physically impossible to write a dating profile that’s any good. No one’s ever done it. You can’t. Granted, that doesn’t matter much if your face is sufficiently droolable. But if you’re looking to sell yourself through words no matter what you look like, you’ve got a Himalayan-grade uphill climb. Every single thing you could possibly write is a cliché — even if you’re the first one ever to express it.

Case in point: my profile. I’ve been blogging for 11 years and writing for at least 30, and I’ve ghostwritten dating profiles for other people. But I can’t pull it off for myself. Even saying, “I’m not one to do this, it’s ridiculous and I don’t think you can force a meaningful connection, but why not try?” makes you sound like half the database. I changed my bio several times in a short span, always trying to heighten my voice and set myself apart. Still, combined with my gooberish pic, my profile might as well list my likes as “milk, mayonnaise and white bread,” alongside loving the outdoors and laughing, of course. (It doesn’t help that a 35-year-old man who stands 5’7” is your short-story archetype for shady guy.)

When you fill out your profile, there are lots and lots and lots of things to check. Under the “sports” field, one of my checks was volleyball, because I enjoy a good pickup game. Only thing is, I haven’t played in probably a decade. I checked it mostly to say, “Hey, I’m up for volleyball if that’s going on.” This is true of the vast majority of things I checked. And yet, I’ve gotten numerous potential matches where what we had in common was, “You both like volleyball!” Or, “Like you, she doesn’t smoke!” Or, “You both like movies!” You know, deep stuff.

Why not, “You’re both single and theoretically open to whatever future fails online dating sends your way?” Hey, honesty! Everyone prizes honesty, along with a sense of humor, long hikes on the beach and saying no to games.

It’s difficult, if not impossible, to set yourself apart on a dating site precisely because you’re working with only the broadest and least-insightful traits. (If nothing else, there should be a priority scale on these traits so they all don’t seem equally paramount.) But still, you have to put them, because while checking them might not say much about you, not doing so very well could.

Like many games on The Price Is Right, it’s about guessing higher or lower than what’s in front of you. Even with the most detailed and honest profiles, you’re not getting the whole gist of a person. For better or for worse. Finding a compatible person is about reading between the lines of their profile. Do they seem educated? What do their likes and dislikes say about their past? What biases of mine am I heaping upon them? Should I be worried that there are no photos of their teeth? That kind of thing.

Rather than expand your horizons, online dating shrinks them. When I was 15, I decided that 1) blondes did nothing for me, and 2) I could never date anyone from my rival high school. About a month after I insisted that, I started dating a blonde from my rival high school, and she wound up being my favorite high school relationship. Sometimes you just click with someone, and when you do, none of your preconceived notions (or stated preferences) matter. That’s exactly how it should be, and exactly how online dating isn’t.

In taking the online-dating plunge, what I conveniently forgot was that, up until this point, I have liked people — and they me — because of what’s seen and heard and read. Even when I made a match online, it was through Blogger or Facebook, which is closer to happenstance meetings in the real world, where like attracts like as we careen around being ourselves. Those sites serve purposes other than attracting a date, which makes them better for attracting a date than online dating. You can read this blog and know what I think about things. You can get a sense of my writing style, my personality and my outlook. But saying “I’m a writer” on a dating site is about as enlightening as knowing one likes things that are great. (Come to think of it, my LinkedIn page has links to samples of my favorite works and a better pic, which technically makes it sexier than my online-dating profile.)

Online dating is never fully organic. I'm a heat-seeking missile for deal-breakers on someone's profile, but who's to say I wouldn't like them if I met them, cold, in person? In real life, you can meet someone and see what you have in common before what you don’t (or at least not let the differences divide you). Online, you’re filtering them out before you give them a chance. Could I meet a girl at a party, fall for her as she falls for me, and find out only later that she owns a pit bull mix and/or a firearm? Would the woman who insists on a 6-foot-tall man and a minimum income of $50,000 not at least have a glimmer of a feeling as I make her laugh?

I doubt I'd be attracted to 85 percent of the women I've dated if my first exposure to them had been a dating profile. And probably 95 percent of them would feel the same way about me.

If social media and blogs represent the deep end of the Internet pool, online dating is the zero-inch-depth side where toddlers get to splash a bit at minimal risk of dampening their ankles. It’s often said you can’t force a meaningful relationship, but that’s what online dating tries to do — over a shared love for oxygen, basically. It’s the 21st-century equivalent of that well-intentioned person who knows someone who’d be perfect for you solely because you’re both totally single, you guys. It could work out. It would be cool if it did. But more than likely, it won’t.

That’s a shame, because I still feel that online dating could be a terrific experience for more people. If it was, you know, something else.

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