Strong Silent Types: Evil Robots and Their Way with Words

It's not Ok, Cupid

My friend shows me his online dating profile. I then - probably egotistically - offer him some advice on how to maximise its potential. The same advice was given to me by other friends, in fact, and I edited my profile accordingly.

"That's funny," I say, smiling at something he's written. "But you should take it out." I explain that it's only really funny because I know him. For strangers, who might not "get" his sense of humour, I explain that the line could seem odd, even off-putting. The joke isn't at all controversial in terms of its content, it's just delivered in a deadpan way. The potential for misinterpretation, I argue, is too great. He dutifully removes the joke which, I decide later, was one of the most interesting bits about his profile in the first place.

Perhaps I provided bad advice, but going on my own experiences and the slight uptick in messages my friend reports following his profile revamp, I think it's safe to assume there's some truth in what I said.

A similar experience is also reported by Emily Witt, who wrote a wonderful account of her online dating experiences for the London Review of Books last year. She describes the process of retreat after implanting a witty and pertinent, yet subtle, reference to American author Joan Didion in her OkCupid profile:

"The Didion bit sounded unpleasant, so I replaced it with a more optimistic statement, about internet dating restoring the city's possibilities to a life that had become stagnant between work, subway and apartment. Then that sounded depressing, so I finally wrote: 'I like watching nature documentaries and eating pastries.' From then on I was flooded with suggestions of YouTube videos of endangered species and recommendations for pain au chocolat."

Witt goes on to catalogue the parade of hopeless men and awkward encounters which defined her experience of online dating. But more than these meetings and interactions, it was online dating's impact on her clarity of mind which disturbed her most. She goes so far as to say, "Internet dating destroyed my sense of myself as someone I both know and understand and can also put into words."

Thinking about my profile and my friend's profile, and how we have engineered them to be as mundane yet representative of our personalities as possible, I begin to feel that we - and millions like us - are losing a depressing battle of reductionism.

"We - and millions like us - are losing a depressing battle of reductionism"

What irritates so much about online dating is the crudeness of interface and process. These elevate the old problems associated with traditional lonely hearts classifieds and video dating to new heights. I've started message chains with prospective dates on several occasions only for this to peter out following one of my messages. Whether or not I'm right, I end up over-analysing what I've said and concluding that it was somehow too "out there". Yes. It must not have been saturated in enough cliché or brimming with enough signifiers which reiterate again and again, "I'm normal!!" The girl in question can only have viewed whatever attempt I made at sounding interesting as tragically self-satisfied, disconcerting or just plain weird.

So I go back to square one: the ultra low risk, incredibly boring version of myself which turns out, disappointingly, to be the most successful (in my extensive if unscientific personal experiment) to provoke an initial response: I say hello. Usually a smiley face emoticon will follow. Then, two or three sentences pointing out similarities in our list of favourite musicians or films. And finally a question of some kind. I didn't just come up with this myself. A female friend of mine explained that this was how it's done.

Indeed, I've had plenty of these formulaic missives myself and, as hypocritical as I may now sound, have more often replied to those than the overly tentative one-liners or worryingly lengthy pleas for attention which sometimes float into my inbox. Those people are clearly insane. Not me, though. Two sentences and a question. Perfect date material.

It may all be a farce, but isn't all this emphasis on posturing just a rouse in the first place? Couldn't I just research what qualities most women, statistically speaking, find attractive in men and make a profile which is calculated to broadcast the archetypal dating identity? The advice always seems to go, "just be yourself!" But in online dating, that mantra is suddenly worthless. The profile, interactions and message threads are just bait: things which are intended to reassure your prospective partner that you're worth allotting a smidgen of their curiosity.

One is always guilty until proven innocent when trying to impress someone else for the first time. However, the procedure here is so tiresome, so seemingly unaccommodating of individuality or creativity that the challenge is rendered utterly depressing when it should be enthralling. It bleeds all the adrenalin out of first contact.

"The procedure here is so unaccommodating of individuality ... It bleeds all the adrenalin out of first contact."

So even if I did assemble an online profile which bore little or no relevance to my personality, but which was strategically composed to attract the highest number of page views and messages from single women, I'd suddenly feel extremely uninterested in meeting any of them. By contacting me, they would simply have confirmed their adherence to statistical norms. However much of a universal truth that may be, it's a prospect which contains no hint of fantasy. And from the bottom of my soul I feel justified in saying that's just not interesting to me.

Whitney Erin Boesel, writing for The New Inquiry, provides a survey of online dating which is more original in its thesis than most. She argues, "Online dating is trying to compensate for the fact that dating, whether online or conventional, is often kind of a drag," and notes that self-presentation and identity construction have always been part of the strangeness of getting to know strangers.

However, Boesel takes this natural logic - with which I quite agree - a step further than many by adding, "Online dating doesn't intensify the weirdness of conventional dating; it merely makes the weirdness of all dating more glaringly apparent." She cleverly points out that commentators who critique online dating frequently fall into the trap of idealising "pre-digital" encounters and simply reinforce meaningless clichés.

But the "glaringly apparent" bit of Boesel's comment remains one reason, for me at least, why online dating is a particularly disappointing experience. I would have liked Boesel to engage more directly the features of online dating interfaces which contribute to what she describes as "weirdness" or, elsewhere in her piece, an inappropriate level of "efficiency" - which ultimately, even as a self-proclaimed lonely heart, feels dissonant.

In addition, the sometimes instinctive reactions against online dating which Boesel is keen to expose as fallacies have an uncommon resonance. They're difficult to rationalise away. Mary Fitzgerald, writing for the UK's Prospect magazine, quotes a novelist friend of hers who told her that online dating had only resulted in disappointingly predictable interactions with new people: "It made me so sad to think that all the people you see on the street and the tube every day, who you hope might potentially be interesting, are actually just as boring as you fear."

"I've sat on the train and wondered if the girl opposite me might be the most fantastic person on the planet"

It's a woolly thing to say that human interaction is best when it is driven by spontaneity and desire so therefore online dating algorithms are bound to result in a disconcerting evaporation of possibility and whim. But then again, I've felt that exact emotion. I've sat on the train and thought a girl looked back at me when I glanced her way and wondered, for however brief a moment, if she could be the most fantastic person on the planet. And equally, I've had good feelings about online dates until we've met in person, when those unreasonable expectations get almost instantly reduced to a numbing sense of indifference.

I used the word "unreasonable" there quite intentionally. Because of course all these buoyant thoughts about complete strangers are totally indefensible and grounded in misconceptions about the world. You can't sit and look at people across the street and be commended for thinking they might be your soul mate. That's kind of the definition of a sociopath. But we do this. We wonder. OkCupid and other sites, with their "match potential" scores, don't really want us to wonder. Again, as Whitney Erin Boesel comments, they make the cold reality, "glaringly apparent." And it sort of sucks.

A separate friend to the one I mentioned above, indeed a friend who is a seasoned online dater, told me that he was enjoying chatting to a girl recently. The conversation was interesting but he wasn't sure where it was going, or whether he should ask that they meet in person. A moment of inspiration struck him and he offered to give her his real name, so she could Facebook stalk him. What better way to cut the crap and hopefully provoke a face-to-face meeting? Her response only seems to confirm my suspicion that online dating produces (here for both parties) a strong sense of uncertainty over whether to actually commit to engaging with another person. To his offer of a Facebook stalk she replied, "No. Not yet."

We essayists who attempt to un-riddle the awkwardness of online dating often proclaim that the medium simply "reinforces loneliness." Mary Fitzgerald and Emily Witt both do. But perhaps we fail to complete that thought. Leah Reich, in a slightly different - and moving - piece, comments:

"There is nothing so worthy of an eye roll as someone using technology to be sincere, and yet on any given Saturday night there we are, a nation of us, checking in and tweeting our hearts out in hopes that someone will know where we are, and respond. It's not technology that's making us lonely. Most often, we just are lonely."

It's taboo to be sincere. It's taboo to admit that our stalking, tweeting, or socialising are anything other than "ironic" or non-real. We aren't allowed to acknowledge that we really need them. Furthermore, because friends tend to react with scorn when one does so, it has always been taboo to admit to loneliness. Online dating has not solved this problem of non-communication. Rather, it has created a paradox which exposes it.

You could say that online dating reinforces loneliness, or that it destroys one's sense of self-knowing. But what is really significant about those things to me is that they are the direct products of non-communication. Online dating promises to relieve us of solitude, but it is deplorably repressive in implying that this can only be achieved through a) our ultra-strict adherence to social norms and b) our silence.

"Online dating is deplorably repressive in implying that happiness can only be achieved through ultra-strict adherence to social norms"

Indeed, online dating demands that we surrender precisely nothing to the medium. The procedure of selecting and attempting to engage a prospective partner in conversation is made as tedious and, worse, as insincere a process as it possibly could be. Everything is simply calculated and tweaked to elicit or evaluate the possibility of a person-to-person meeting - a fact which, in case you missed it, demands that we online daters implicitly deny that the digital components of this interaction are at all meaningful. Instead they are merely preliminary, non-real, disposable, untrue.

When I first signed up to OkCupid I joked that I was "Ok-curious". My curiosity has dwindled at an alarming rate. As I hint above, I find myself defaulting to nonsensical fantasies about non-digital dating. But the fact is that hesitancy over communication, a kind of wilful ignorance of the adage, "nothing ventured, nothing gained," is something that we are enacting collectively as a culture in all areas of life, not just digital spaces.

My generation has turned to online dating for many reasons, but one of these is surely a growing stigma around the prospect of talking to strangers face-to-face for the first time. We want to research them first. We have decided that there must be some kind of quality control, some vetting mechanism we can apply to those strangers before we approach them face-to-face. We unreasonably prioritise an experience that is dating, but not dating.

This is the realisation of a joke which I vaguely remember appeared in an old episode of Friends. One of the characters expresses doubts over whether she ought to start seeing a guy. And it's Chandler, I think, who quips that perhaps she should meet him for drinks a few times before they go on a date.

We're all trying to live the fantasy of that joke. But the thing is, it isn't very funny any more.


Photo: "kiss" by Bert Werk reproduced under a Creative Commons (CC) License.

Photo: "Kraftwerk: 'The Model' 45, 1978" by ocad123 reproduced under a Creative Commons (CC) License.

Photo: "Lover's Sunset: A Walk to Remember" by Alex Rebosa reproduced under a Creative Commons (CC) license.

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