It was when the first woman with whom I had exchanged messages invited me to give her a call that I suddenly realized just how screwy and contrived online dating really is. She and I had “met” on a dating site whose name rhymes with “No way, stupid!” Participants are invited to answer a seemingly endless list of questions, many of them deeply personal, from which an algorithm derives your compatibility score with everyone else on the site. As I was dialing this particular woman, who lives in Cambridge, I realized that I knew an awful lot about her preferences in bed. What I didn’t know was her name.
I had a whopping pile of information about this complete stranger, in fact, including details about her romantic history, religious convictions, and political beliefs, as well as a photo of uncertain vintage. I knew the sorts of things that in a previous century — say, the 20th — would have been revealed gradually, naturally, in the context of conversations that took place as two people spent time together and a relationship took hold and deepened.
In those days, you met someone in the real world, perhaps at an activity that both of you enjoy. Once someone caught your fancy, the first order of business was to figure out whether he or she was unattached. Today, by contrast, you encounter scads of folks on a website where the only thing you know about them is that they’re unattached (and you can’t always be sure of that). You sit alone at the computer sifting clues to calculate the odds that you and one of these people would get along in real life, excluding those who you assume wouldn’t be suitable — with no opportunity for one of them to prove you wrong.
So, yes, there’s something unnatural and unseemly about playing Click for Love, trawling for kindred spirits in a virtual sea of singles. But let’s be careful not to romanticize romance in the days before we did this. Back then, I went on plenty of blind dates during which my thoughts kept turning to the well-meaning mutual friend who had set us up: “What could she have been thinking? The only thing this woman and I have in common is that we’re both vertebrates.” The process of looking for romance has always consisted of casting a net and pulling it in, casting and pulling. When you use a website, you’re just able to do that a lot more efficiently — or at least cover more of the ocean so you pull in that many more tuna and catfish and grouper and shark. And seaweed and sandals and beer cans.
I have learned a lot, though. One of the rewards of connecting with women online is hearing them complain about men who are not me. Apparently a disproportionate number of male photos are selfies — sometimes shirtless — taken in bathrooms. Or wearing sunglasses or posed next to their cars or brandishing large dead fish. Some men, I’m led to understand, lack the gift of gab when they send a message to someone who has caught their eye. One woman comments dryly that a typical message consists, in its entirety, of “Hi, their!”
How women present themselves is a topic about which I can speak more knowledgeably. First, it would appear that, upon reaching a certain age, women in the Boston area are required to sign up for yoga. They may not want to, but it’s the law. Many grown women for some reason also make a point of referring to themselves as “girls,” sometimes even working this word into their user names. By a remarkable coincidence, what people notice first about each and every one is her distinctive smile and eyes. Accompanying photos occasionally include kids and pets and sometimes are taken in (and of) exotic lands, the point apparently being to make the rest of us depressed about the repetitive, prosaic, embarrassingly local lives we — and apparently only we — are leading.
Most of all, it seems that every woman, regardless of age, despises the indoors. I say this because, according to their profiles, every spare moment is devoted to running, skiing, hiking, climbing, rafting, unicycling, spelunking, parachuting into triathlons, and engaging in a variety of other calorie-burning gerunds. How they simultaneously manage to keep up with all those Netflix shows they admit to loving presents a real puzzle. Perhaps they watch on their phones while they’re running, skiing, and hiking.
What makes online dating so frustrating isn’t the exaggeration, it’s that you’re participating in a depressing hierarchy of desirability — a daisy chain of quiet rejection. You spend part of your time trying to recover from, and make sense of, all these potentially lovely people who won’t give you the time of day, then the rest flicking off people in whom you have no interest.
It’s a distasteful process. In theory, though, it should at least be less uncomfortably urgent for those of us of a certain age: somewhere between the first biological clock (gotta reproduce!) and the second (don’t wanna die alone!). We have the luxury of being less goal-oriented, the same way we’ve learned to be about sex. We can treat the process itself — the search, the exchange of messages, the one-off dinners — as intellectually intriguing, diverting, amusing, and perhaps even a path toward self-knowledge. It’s not a waste of time even when it doesn’t lead anywhere.
Or so we keep telling ourselves.
Alfie Kohn (alfiekohn.org) is the author of 14 books about human behavior and education, including “The Myth of the Spoiled Child,” due for release in paperback this spring. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
BY THE NUMBERS
> 17.5% — Likelihood a woman will get a response to an online dating message she sends a man her own age
> 4% — Likelihood a man will get a response