01 May, 2012

Online dating myself.

Spring comes to my neighbourhood like an autopsy. The winter’s harm is stark and grim and clouds hang seasonally, it seems, ugly and dim and always possibly worse. It wears on you, a Toronto winter, when opportunities for introspection and self-searching are naturally high and so too the desire for companionship and naturally created warmth. Someone else to think about and with, cold nights unalone and happy. For a writer in a new city enlaced with cold and unfamiliarity, the solution is obvious and readily available, a genuinely modern convenience: online dating.

So it began last December. I use OKCupid!, seven million active users and counting. It works like a very basic Facebook, standard-form profile questions, uploaded pictures, recommendations for People You Might Like. I mostly browse, ad hoc and random, and send anywhere from zero to ten messages per week. In just over three months I’ve met five women. A sixth broke plans twice. A twenty-year-old girl told me, unsolicited, that I reminded her of Jeremy Irons as Humbert Humbert; her failure to respond to my response feels life defining.

Overall I’m having a good time, meeting interesting people. It’s definitely a numbers game, but getting comfortable with the search for partnership as somehow back-office and matter-of-time-ish is probably good for my long term relationship outlook. People write their own fairy tales.

My search for love aside, the online dating space turns out to be fascinating and complex and just terrifically fraught. An electrical storm of personal insecurity. Thinking about how the interactions play out is both compelling and awful, a real psychic squealer, and extraordinarily involute. You’re left alone to creep other people’s profiles, edit your own, to ruminate and dwell uninhibited. It’s carte blanche to calculate, imagine, target, wile, endear. No first drafts, and no limits for the rabidly self-conscious. The mind literally boggles, and after a while you start to realize things about self-evaluation and language that are illuminating but also kind of sad, the adult version of finding out there’s no Santa Clause.


Think of the way you meet people when you’re not online dating. Often this happens where you and this other person have mutual friends, or if you meet through your job, mutual colleagues. Mutatis mutandis. Even though you don’t know the other person directly, you do know someone - the mutual friend - whom you both like, and this tells you something about the new person. If it’s a party, that they’re (=the new person) worth inviting to the party. This is the way I feel, at least. The point is there’s some sort of quasi-objective, third party verification of this new person’s quality, which TP verification changes your orientation towards this new person. You become more open, patient, willing to entertain.

Does that sound familiar? It’s a bit like the difference between reading a book that’s published versus in manuscript form; the former’s got this extra incentive to push-through the difficult bits, give the book ‘more of a chance’, etc, because the fact of its publication tells you at least some other people think the book’s worth your time. (There’s actually an uptown lit theory term for this - the hyper protected cooperative principle - which let me save you the trouble is the wrong place to go for quality date chat.) But so a book’s cover’s like a friend’s introduction - direct or indirect - which subtle orientational shift is conspicuously absent in the online dating space. My messages issue unmediated by any friend’s assurance or sway, misfires and -cues strike plangent and lame and echo unredeemed. Plus there are about a hundred guys waiting for their chance to get it in one, and this is widely known.

The orientation point cuts both ways, though, because herein lies online dating’s main value ad or prop: it’s the low cost venue for chatting-up potential dates. Public spaces where I’ve tried to do this - bars, parks, art galleries, coffee shops, out for a stroll - are comparatively low-percentage because here people aren’t necessarily looking to be chatted-up. They’re talking to someone, reading, looking around, walking in the opposite direction. I often take my own stock after passing a gorgeous woman on the street and not saying anything. The sort of woman that if you showed your mother a photo and said ‘This is my girlfriend’, she (=your mother) would call you a liar. But what am I supposed to say? We both have things to do, places to be. It’s a futile longing that’s partly caused by having few other venues for meeting a woman like this who’s even possibly open to meeting me. It must be significant that three of the five women I’ve met turned out to live on my street.


Anxiety-wise, the signal feature of online dating is the absence of live or otherwise useful information about the person you’re trying to chat with. Visual cues, a history of shared experience, past reactions observed and noted and sub-consciously parsed. Online dating gives you none of this; you’re flying blind, swinging wildly at a kind of romance piñata. (The profile’s uselessness gets unpacked sub.) How another person interprets your messages is not only completely out of your hands but virtually unpredictable. Imagine throwing your language into the air like confetti, handfuls of meaning - of life - blowing around and maybe, hopefully, caught in some interpretable order. Ordinary conversation works the same way - this may be what’s most edifying about online dating, showing-up this fact about language and social interaction - but we can at least use visual cues and past conversational history to make better predictions about which words to use and what sentences to form.

So it comes as no surprise that humour is the hardest trick to pull-off in a contextless online exchange. Here is an example of my own personal failure in this department. One of the standard-form profile questions on OKCupid! asks for ‘The most personal thing you’re willing to admit online.’ To which I initially wrote: ‘Sometimes I give the finger to blind people.’

I did not receive a single message or response until this part of my profile got changed. The cause and effect’s imperfect but I think a reasonable inference - the point’s made either way - and if you think the fail here’s obvious, verily a no brainer, just compare the lamely expositive ‘I’m irreverent and chronically sarcastic, deeply ironic, caustically funny.’ Does the latter mean anything at all? With jokes the magic’s in the happening, in the space between what’s said and assumed and of course the latter’s just horrifically difficult to gauge for a person you’ve never met. (Stand-up comics at least face their audience; my joke about the blind people works way better in person.) This ends up being ironic as hell, and maybe even sort of tragic because almost every female on OKCupid! - in fact, that I’ve ever met - references humour as mid-to-high level important in their potential mate’s qualities. This one thing that’s almost impossible to reliably communicate and screen online.

For a while I also included a note in my messages, ‘Oh, and my mom says hi’. This turned out to be another fail, notwithstanding my mom is totally ace and cool.


Maybe the sort of meta problem here involves what to put in your profile. Pictures, favourite books and foods, life plan, fun things I like to do. On a Friday night I am most likely [blank]. The difficulty here is hard to see because it’s so obvious: we always already are standing right in the middle of our personality - all the experiences, memories, personal referents and recollections that hang together in the vast ephemeral web of US - which is something that nobody, ever, gets to see, even if they wanted to, and of course vice versa.

Here’s an easy example: my profile picture has me in a bow tie. How do I know what anyone’s going to think about that? I know what I think - irreverent, hipster-y, dapper - but that’s based on reading skads of P.G. Wodehouse and hanging out in New York’s East Village. My experience of bow ties leads me to think about people who wear bow ties in a certain way, but someone with a different experience of bow ties is going to reach a different conclusion. Favourite books are another telling example: other people who like Jonathan Franzen, say, could do so for very different reasons than I do. The whole thing gets even more hideous and ablating when you try and figure not just your own reaction but the profiler’s intended reaction, and whether these line-up or like jive, assuming it’s even possible to keep all this mentally distinct. (E.g., my reading Franzen signals X, but a person who self-identifies as reading Franzen probably wants to signal Y - unless all Frazen readers are just like me.) This is the point where my brow indelibly furrows and my neural fuses start to blow. It’s the language problem writ large and personified, like God’s intentional fallacy.

The point is deeply banal but also deeply true, I think, and suggests something that’s got capital-A Adult significance: the difficulty, maybe impossibility of talking about myself. That this is something that cannot be said, only shown; that what my friends ‘know’ about me are the parts of my personality consistently on display (intentionally or otherwise). An online profile is less an advertisement for myself than a ladder some stranger climbs up and then throws away; they can never know what I know, online they can barely manage to guess. My own profile is hard to write for this same reason: it’s just extremely difficult to extract the personal from my experience of life, to even begin imagining other ways of seeing or reacting to the world. That none of this is especially profound is maybe the best evidence the problem’s out there and operating, lurking far from my mind’s front until something like three weeks of online DEAD AIR sparked a search for exculpation and face-saving.


Let’s close with another illustrative failure: I recently sent a woman the following message: ‘I'm going out on a limb here to call you on a completely irreverent, obscenely ironic profile. Vertiginously aloof, caustic, of all the cynic's mordant pith. It's either comedic genius or pathetically lame and blisteringly unintelligent. Don't let me down.’ Does that come across mean spirited? How about desperate? The profile in question was totally absurd - imagine Anchor Man’s Ron Burgundy in real life, not faking, maybe. Impossible to tell, and maybe that’s the point: comedy that’s unsettling, unnerving, pitch perfect delivery taking total advantage of the venue, in which case my message was perfect. Alternatively, I’ve just asked an overweight lady when she’s expecting.

What we talk about when we’re online dating - as in finally out on dates - turns out to be online dating. It always comes up, the most obvious shared experience. (Although a yawning gulf remains, such as between myself and the girl who said guys regularly send her pictures of their unit?!) These exchanges are always edifying because I get a chance to air some précis of the foregoing and sound not only thoughtful and outside-the-box-ish but also genuinely inquisitive, and get some good feedback or like counter-think. That elusive ‘other’ perspective, the best of which by far was the girl who said, ‘I think you’re thinking about it too much.’ The look on her face as she said this: bemused, estranged, lackluster, emphatically nonplussed, possibly because the way in which she’s right is that there’s nothing else for it. The online dating terms are fixed, and it’s hard to see how excessive - neurotic - attention improves anyone’s chances. (I obviously have no idea whether this is what or all she was thinking. QED.) It’s too difficult to weigh all the inferential variables, and never worry about what you can’t change or otherwise avoid.

Or maybe it’s perfectly fine and good and interesting to think about what’s going on online, how the exchange is working or not, and what the hell does it mean to say anything to a person I’ve never met and know nothing about? Are there limits to the kinds of conversation two such people can have? Is it nonsense to try and converse in a way that exceeds those limits? Maybe it’s OK to think about all this stuff - a lot - so long as when it comes time to actually interact, engage, write something, I’m able to forget not only how much I don’t know but never could and just commit, go for it, see what happens. Pick your favourite cliché. If it’s meant to be, she’ll get my joke about blind people.