For many years I naively thought that internet dating was weird. I even wrote about it more recently than I’d like to admit. I just couldn’t shake the thought that it was somehow giving up, that you’re done trying to find someone on your own and instead are trusting our machine overlords to compute the best match for you based on a series of questions and how many photos of yourself you’ve narcissistically uploaded. Part of me thought that it took away from the joy and terror of meeting someone and being completely unaware if you’d be good together or not. Part of me just felt icky about telling my kid that I met his or her dad online.
Perhaps I was just hurt. When I was 18, I took the eHarmony test at work, just for fun. There were about 20 pages of multiple choice questions, quizzing me on everything from my religious beliefs and career goals to insecurities. At the end I was supposed to get an assessment of my personality type and a bunch of matches. What I got was a message saying that my answers were too disparate, and they couldn’t figure out who the hell I should be with.
Fast forward seven years.
“hii. u indian? just curious”
This was the instant message I received from OKCupid user “da-MagicStick.” I do not actually have a need for an OKCupid profile. At least, not now. I think I signed up when it was still TheSpark.com so I could take a test to see what percentage of a slut I was. A few weeks ago I discovered that I still had a profile, so I let my boyfriend fill in my info. Then messages started pouring in.
They shouldn’t have. My prank profile said the first thing people noticed about me was “the lump where my twin used 2 b, the dr said i resorbed her in my moms womb <3 HI MOM <3,” that I spend most of my time thinking about “normal stuff lol heat death of the universe,” and that my favorite book is “twilight: ellipse.” At best I should have gotten messages from some really deep hipsters who got the joke and thought I’d be good for some Girls fantasy play.
Besides one match who refused to write six things he couldn’t live without because "every one knows about Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs,” all of my messages came from guys who were absolutely not in on the joke. In fact, they all came from people who seemed to not read my profile at all. For example, before it was taken down my photo was a drawing my boyfriend had done of me with a tentacle for one arm, a T.Rex hand for the other, and a beard. One guy said I should meet him because “we have a lot in common.” I asked him if he had a tentacle arm too. He didn’t know what I was talking about.
At least on OKCupid you’re not paying for the privilege of having guys who say “everyone should read 50 Shades of Grey in order to get over their sexual repression” ask you how big your tits are. Sites like Match and eHarmony, on the other hand, require a fee for such ridiculousness. Katie [all names have been changed to protect the dating], one online dater, said one guy on Match wrote, “i'm just putting it out there i'm a boob man” in his second message to her. She stopped responding. Later, while out with a co-worker and her sister, she told the story of the weird boob man from Match.com. Her co-worker’s sister immediately knew who she was talking about, as she received the same series of messages from him, verbatim.
Nick Paumgarten theorized on the phenomenon of male spamming in the online dating world in his 2011 New Yorker article:
Good writing on Internet dating sites may be rare because males know that the best way to get laid is to send messages to as many females as possible. To be efficient, they put very little work into each message and therefore pay scant attention to each woman’s profile.
This seemed to be supported by most of the men I spoke to, though they wrote more heartfelt, open messages than those of the “I’m a boob man” type. It can be viewed like applying for a job. You want the same outcome from everyone you apply with (whether it’s sex or marriage or something else), so you send them the same resume and a slightly tweaked cover letter. It just saves time. And most people are use these services because they want to save time.
“I don't work in a field where you meet girls. So I go online,” said online dater Dave. Another, Tim, said, “Between studying and work i barely had time for finding someone who is particularly awesome and single.” Katie says, “I get busy with work and school, so 2 am on my couch is a lot easier to peruse than rushing home, changing, spending money, balancing in heels at a bar.” And the organization of sites like Match.com or OKCupid do promise instant results, whether or not their customers buy into them. Just type in your info, answer a few questions, and we'll deliver ten people you’d probably get along with! Just try finding ten people you like at a bar on a Friday night.
It seems like no dating stereotype is too specific to not come up in the online dating world. That girls are just “searching for the perfect guy and aren't really open to anyone other than that”; that the constant messages from guys make girls feel like “all men were just after one thing”; that women who list themselves as “gay” do not seem to be interested in those who list themselves as “bisexual”; that you have to go on a bunch of horrible dates to get to the good ones; and that pretty girls just wait for guys to contact them. Internet dating: it’s just like real life.
The main allure of online dating is the promise of an even playing field. Everyone is supplied with the same profile, the same questions, the same computers crunching out their odds. Post some photos, write a quick paragraph about yourself, and answer whether or not you think your zodiac sign is important and you will automatically be on someone else’s radar. You don’t have to hope you’re the hottest one in the bar, or that your friends brought some single people along. The relative anonymity makes it feel even more level: you’re free to send a message to whomever you want. They can’t see your sweaty palms or your acne or that you’re breathing heavily because you’re so nervous. All they see is the version of you that you want them to see.
Except it’s not doing that. People are as quick to judge a profile as they are a flesh-and-blood person, either on their photos or their profile or how serious they say they are about their zodiac sign. The pretty girls are posting their photos and expecting the guys to notice them. The guys are doing just that, and everybody else is having a hard time.
The whole point of this was to use numbers to save us. To spare us the embarrassment of having to admit to a total stranger that we have ulterior motives for talking to them. Your mere presence on one of these sites outs you as looking for human connection, whatever it may be. And yet we’ve moved past Internet dating being “the norm” and onto it being indistinguishable from offline dating.
However, as with offline dating, there are the success stories. There was one couple who met online, but actually had mutual friends in real life who were shocked no one thought to introduce them before. There’s another who met on JDate; the first online date for one of them, the last before she swore she’d quit online dating. There are plenty of anecdotes about meeting nice people and finding friendships even if true love wasn’t the outcome. There are great threesomes to be had.
Taking the advice of “respect others, get rid of your stereotypes, and have an open mind about people” would solve a lot of things, but we might as well start with online dating. We can make it an even playing field. We can start looking at profiles instead of pictures, and responding to messages from people we’d otherwise ignore. (Except the boob guy. Ladies, please do not respond to him.) We can forgive people for being too tall or too vegetarian and maybe make a connection. Or we can keep it like the “real world,” where we become trapped by our superficiality and mistake it for standards. But if that’s the case, don’t blame the algorithms.