This isn’t about the indignities I suffered at the hands of my former employers.1 It’s about the insights into the world of online dating and people in general that kept me hooked on the job long after I checked out on being a part of the actual work.
OkCupid is run by elitist math majors. I have no problem with math majors; I’m dating one. I have a huge problem with elitists. I have a huge problem with people who use the phrases “the average person” or “the man on the street” as synonyms for “people dumber than I am.” I’ve always found it interesting how math and engineering majors deride philosophy majors, while philosophy majors dismiss math and science people, all with the same justification: your discipline isn’t hard enough. Ironically, the only people who give equal respect to all branches of the liberal arts and science branches of the educational tree are the people who never pursued any of them.
The point is, they are math majors, they don’t respect you, and they are calculating your sexual and romantic desires. This is not unique to OkCupid; all dating sites pay a bunch of programmers to run statistics on your messaging and activity habits to optimize their algorithms and interfaces to make money. This is the dark truth about internet dating: a lot of people are paid a lot of money to quantify and commodify your need for intimacy.
But this is not the dark truth many people sub-lingually hint at with the comment “There’s just something, I dunno, weird about it” and other vapid dismissals of eDating. The technophobic aversion to online dating usually has something to do with fears of seeming desperate, or the more amorphous fear of The Machine Taking Over Our Lives.2 Online dating is mostly just like bar dating: attractive women are swarmed by creeps, intelligent people people occasionally find each other, charismatic men can get laid whenever they want, the awkward remain awkward, insincerity is punished, and sincerity is hit or miss. The oddest thing about most of these vague critiques of web-based trysts is that they fail to take into account the fact that the people involved still have meet and like each other for anything exciting to happen, so ultimately, you’re still dating the “normal way.” You, as an individual, neither gain nor lose by taking your game online. If you want to say something about dating sites is creepy, use this:
Working as a video editor for an informercial production house taught me that people are systematically categorized in terms of fuckability, and how much profit that fuckability can generate for products that don’t work. This wasn’t new to me, what was new was being one of the people doing the actual math. It was our job, literally, to confuse an audience’s reason with calibrated sexuality, and in an instant, a short lifetime of sensibility and empathy can be replaced by the quest for a firmer, whiter set of tits and an Asian chick who looks like a teenager. OkCupid taught me how to do this en masse. If editing for cleavage to sell Viagra ripoffs is a kind of murder, working at a dating site is a genocide. It’s the steroid enraged king of popularity contests. As dating sites collect data on users, they apply it back to the dating pool, and they hone in on the most attractive tier, advertising them to other users and the world to draw more traffic. This particular form of applied statistical analysis serves to entrench the social image of beauty and the most superficial stratification of biological and cultural lotteries. Like video production, it’s an exploitation of greed and lust, but the method of commodification is the provision of the means for satisfying the public’s desire for intimacy.
The core difference between dating online and offline is the same as the difference between dating in Ellsworth, Maine, and dating in Manhattan: quantity of contact. Quality remains unchanged. Over the years of working for and patronizing dating sites, I’ve heard a number of people say “he/she uses X dating site and brings home all these disgusting men/women/creeps/tramps” which I don’t doubt, but these people would be bringing home the same demographic were they using non-digital means.
A friend of mine dismisses dating sites on the grounds that it’s too obvious that all the people want is sex. In a decade and a half of dating, I’ve been offered a bathroom blow job from a stranger twice in a bar, and only once on the internet.4 People always want sex. For a set of attractive-enough or available-enough people, the internet offers no more or less the opportunity of getting sex than the bar. I would even say that dating sites have a population more inclined toward meaningful, non-sex-based relationship than the average Saturday night crowd at the venue of your choice. Since the inception of online dating, a common, introductory paragraph cry has been “sick of the bar scene.” This is usually a cry from women, who comprise the only gender that’s usually sick of people pestering them for sex. I would never generalize to the point of saying there aren’t members of both genders trolling the web for sex partners,5 but the ratio of them to people looking for a more involved, or at least prolonged, relationship is no different online than offline, and online it falls in favor of the prolonged. Women, and some men, go on dating sites to get a more thorough testing phase before committing to conversation, phone numbers, and bed. Consider that someone using a dating site can use a computer and read, and their writing skills are on display, as is their opinion of themselves. I can’t figure out why people consider a face to face meeting a better indicator of character. It’s a far better way to judge sexual charisma, but it’s a terrible way to judge anyone with even a shred of self-awareness. Anyone who says they are a good judge of character in reference to people they’ve known less than one hundred cumulative hours is as self-delusional as people who say “I’m a people person” with a straight face, which is like saying “I’m a homo-sapien” as if it were an achievement. The speaker is either an idiot or a psychopath. Assuming a barely honest online self-description and a photo shoot, you have a handful of empirical data before you commit to spending time with someone.
This, however, is no guarantee. The following is a common exchange on dating sites:
Subject: Hi there
You seem really nice, and cute. I saw you liked Depeche Mode, I just saw them in concert. Interested in a drink?
Subject: Re: Hi there
Hey, thank you! I’m not really interested, but good luck! :)
Subject: Re: Re: Hi there
well FUCK U U FUCKING STUC UP CUNT I DONT THINK UR THAT HOT ANYWAY WHORE
Yes, it sucks. But at least it only took three emails as opposed to three dates. There is rarely any evidence of this extremely common male behavior before it happens. In online dating, there is forewarning.
You can also get an inkling of a potential date’s date-maturity level by understanding the evolution of the profile. After perusing thousands of profiles while bored at work, I’ve identified three distinct stages of profile design. The following isn’t a strict progression, but profiles will in general proceed along the lines. Some exceptional profiles will skip to the end, some will stagnate in the middle, but the important thing is you should only contact people in the last stage.
The first stage is the joke profile. This encompasses several styles of profile writing, but they are all a joke in some sense or another. The most common form is “I just joined this site as a joke,” also known as “My friends made me do it” or “This is so desperate, I can’t believe I’m here.” These profiles always do badly, unless the composer is an attractive young girl, in which case it doesn’t matter what they write. Newcomers are always shy, and not admitting to what you’re doing, or claiming you’re doing it ironically, is the easiest way to peek over the diving board without jumping. There is a particular class of these profiles made up of girls seeking attention. Guys generally don’t seek attention that won’t theoretically lead to sexual satisfaction; girls do. The attention seeking subclass never moves past this initial stage.
The next most common variation in this stage is the Dadaist profile. Men and women write things like “I enjoy kicking babies” and their favorite things are porn, donkeys, and setting Barbie dolls on fire. These people are not crazy: crazy people write social manifestos in their profiles. Like the “I don’t know how I got here” people, the Dadaist profiles are exploring the site under the cover of irony, by setting up as creepy and non-sensical a front as possible. Isn’t that clever? This is a profile on a dating site and I’m trying to be unappealing and scare people away. Ha ha. Note that after the pictures of playing cards, dead animals, and historical atrocities, there is at least one full body glamor shot.
Finally, there is the “I am a golden god” joke profile. These people have had all the luck the Irish could have hoped for had history been less of a bitch. They’re looking for a queue of ladies and/or gentlemen so they can be sure they’ve vetted the human race so they can choose an ego receptacle for a multi-year tenure without feeling shorted. These profiles are a tiresome list of achievements, judgements, and demands, and often include a pedigree. If you’re like me, ignore these profiles. If you’re like them, make it happen; you’ll be content for multiple years.
The next stage is the self-deprecating stage. It cries, “see through my humility to my beautiful self.” As alarming as this logic sounds, it seems nobody is immune to the temptation to use this method of self-presentation. It’s not a terrible thing, it’s just what the poor unpopular kids did in high school, and it’s a defense mechanism. Since almost everyone in this abstracted social world goes through one of the joke stage styles of profile design, they all feel the rejection the unpopular kids in high school felt, so they got through the self-deprecating stage that people who have been told they should be deprecated go through.
At last, if the user hasn’t given up and is actually interested in getting a date, their profile will become straightforward, honest presentations of themselves. At this point, they may still seem like jokes or self-deprecators, and you may not be able to tell they’ve reached the “this is actually me” stage. As a rule of thumb, if the profile is more than a year old and the person behind it is a reasonably regular visitor, this is as much insight as you’re going to get.
So say you’ve found an honest looking profile depicting an attractive and seemingly not crazy person. You write, and don’t get a reply. You write to someone else. No reply. You conclude all profiles are fake.
Don’t feel bad: your questionable statistical analysis of the data is not uncommon. The truth is, less than five percent of profiles are scams or cam whores.6 The rest are legitimate, at least at OkCupid, which has more advanced methods of getting rid of fake profiles every day. Fake accounts are an onslaught nobody can stop, but most dating sites are making genuine efforts to keep it under control, and OkCupid tries harder than most because they don’t advertise and rely on word of mouth and popular press. If you have a brilliant idea about how to stop people from creating fake profiles, rest assured: it’s either been tried, or is currently in place.7
However, many men just starting out online feel like everybody’s fake for two reasons. First, they write a bunch of emails that consist of “hey cutie” and expect a response. Hint: if it doesn’t work in a bar, it won’t work on a dating site. In fact, having an opener that will lead to a conversation online is significantly harder than in person. People rarely dismiss you out of hand in person. Online, it happens all the time, partly because girls would rather not have “U FUCKIN WHORE” screamed at them when they reject someone, which is much less likely to happen in public than through email. If you are consistently getting no replies, I suggest going to a bar and getting some feedback regarding your game.
The second reason guys get the feeling that all the girls are fake is that they persistently write to profiles containing nothing but a few pictures of a girl in her underwear, and a paragraph about liking sex and boys who play video games. This is a simple failure of logic on the part of the boys attempting correspondence. It is true that most girls wear underwear, and it is is true that most boys play video games, so it is quite likely that that there are girls who wear underwear who like boys who play video games. It does not follow that there is a horde of girls posting half-naked pictures pictures of themselves on the internet whose primary requirement for a mate is a penchant for World of Warcraft. This comes back to the basic lesson of the internet: the representation of the thing does not denote its physical existence. You should know that, and I have no sympathy for your disappointment if you don’t.
At this point, you’ve probably noticed the widening gap between using a dating site as a female versus using it as a male. It’s no different from the usual divide, however. Men should expect disappointment, women should expect harassment. Men spend their whole lives throwing themselves at women. The messages from men to women outnumber the competition five to one. Men are also more likely to send unsolicited pictures of their genitals. I’m assuming that somewhere, somewhen, a woman has sent an unwanted picture of her genitals to a man, which saves me the trouble of dividing over zero, so I can say the ratio is about a billion to one. Attractive women can barely read their mail, if they bother at all, as the torrent is intense, immediate, and mostly consists of the above-mentioned “hey cutie” emails, with a not insignificant smattering of “ur prtty.”
One story should illustrate why this happens. Early during my employment, we deleted a man who had sent three hundred messages in one day, all of which were the same graphic description of him masturbating to the recipient’s pictures. Two hundred and ninety of the women ignored him, nine told him to fuck off in so many words, and one wrote back, “Well sir, you certainly know how to turn a girl on. Kudos!! I look forward to more.”
Dating is a numbers game. The bigger your numbers, the better the odds, and no matter who you are, you will eventually run across someone who wants you, and especially you, regardless of your height (if you’re a man) or weight (woman) or how inscrutably awful your game is (idiots, assholes, psychos). Volume is the strength of all things interwebby. This strength carries the same risks as anything else provided in abundance, namely saturation and addiction. In rare moments of self-control, I’ve deleted online dating account, for the same reason I’ve cut back drinking and hitting on people in bars; eventually, it feels like grazing, or to use a metaphor further up the food chain, going to a cattle market. But I reject completely the notion that the internet had anything to do with this depersonalization of intimacy. It comes from sleeping with too many people, and just because the internet offers other forms of depersonalization doesn’t mean its the internet’s fault that you can’t remember all the names of all the people you have to call after a shitty day at Planned Parenthood.
Dating sites are to dating as any other information technology is to the the aspect of life it’s meant to enhance: they increase efficiency.8 People confuse their dreams of eternal romance with step one, which is meeting available mates. This is largely because people often secretly believe in love at first sight, fate, perfect couples, and all that other bullshit.9 Dating sites make meeting other single people more efficient. They serve no other purpose, whether or not they think or claim to.
The vague claims they make are best ignored. eHarmony, aside from being evil, is a personality matching machine for producing heterosexual Christian marriages.10 If you’re not heterosexual or Christian, do you want to take a love test for those who are? My eHarmony account has recommended fifteen 30 year-old single mothers, all of whom smoke and live in Pennsylvanian suburbs. This is clearly not the algorithm for me. OkCupid seems to do better with its user generated compatibility, but has a tragic flaw: do you really want someone who’s just like you? Do you even want someone who’s everything you say you want? I guarantee you don’t. I’m deeply infatuated with myself, but I imagine dating me is a trial and I would never risk it, and I tend not to like people who like the things I do, or even those who ostensibly share my views. I want new things in my life, not backup copies. No, for the most part we’re still in regular old, non-algorithmic territory.
There is one, small advantage of a dating site over normal dating. The people who are most afraid of appearing desperate tend to be the ones who are desperate, and the people who dismiss everybody who isn’t getting laid whenever they want as desperate are vapid. Neither of these types of people join dating websites, so you can instantly cut out a vast swath of annoying personalities.
1 Apart from a few cheap shots
2 There is a machine doing that, but it’s Facebook.
3 …than your poorly masked fear of your hometown high school friends finding your profile and calling you up to laugh at you.
4 I turned down all three, for safety reasons.
5 And I see nothing wrong with this.
6 If you don’t know, “cam whore” is a highly technical term for a forty year-old man running online striptease sites, who create fake profiles with pictures of their models to entice subscribers.
7 If it’s neither of these, your idea is probably just stupid, so keep it to yourself.
8 Ideally, that is. I’ve never seen a code base that wasn’t a map of pain with an X over a beast whose primary purpose is to consume man hours and hair pigment. Sometimes I think the future is here, sometimes I think it will never come.
9 They must also believe in retroactive destiny caveats, because if you believe there really is one perfect mate out there, you should be scouring every dating site in the world to find them, so there must be a mechanism that undoes fate if you happen to meet said person online.
10 “Atheist” isn’t even an option, the closest you can get is “Non-religious and non-spiritual.”