Asking for a Friend: I Can’t Plug In to Online Dating

Dear Olive,

Why does internet dating suck?

-Online and Unattached

Dear Unattached,

Internet dating sucks for the same reasons doing anything on the internet sucks: it flattens the many dimensions of sensation and experience down to maybe one-and-a-half; it saps the woo-woo ether out of communicating; and in its most polished, most prevalent forms, it turns life into commerce.

The internet has its fervent admirers and its skilled navigators, its archivists and its adventurers — and I’m none of these. I’ve ordered toner cartridges from Amazon with the worst of them, and I’ve felt guilty with the best. I shared my teenage insights on Xanga (scrubbed now, thanks be to all the gods) and cycled through a carousel of flattering profile photos on most of the dating sites you don’t have to pay for (and one you do, with the same outcome). And I agree with you: internet dating does suck. I’ve pretty much never been excited about going on a blind date arranged online — even after promising conversation balloons full of goofy jokes and winky faces, and even though I’ve met charming strangers through the internet and become friends with a couple of them. At the end of the day, messaging strangers on the internet has all the awkwardness of first dates, all the tedium of writing emails, and all the inconvenience of scheduling appointments, without any of the sixth-sense antenna-waving of talking to someone you might like in person.

It’s frustrating, because online dating sounds like it should be more fun. There’s a veritable phone book — with pictures! — of people you can vet for common interests and mutual friends before even saying hello. There’s no need to smile politely or buy drinks just to make conversation, or to wonder if anybody else is looking for the same thing you are. Prune away the anxious uncertainty and let romance blossom, right?

But it turns out that cutting out all that negative whatever — the stuff responsible for 80% of ’90s sitcom dialogue — makes the rest sort of boring, like reading a Wikipedia summary of a Seinfeld episode instead of watching it unfold in an excruciatingly uncomfortable half-hour punctuated by commercials and a funky bass riff. Timing actually does matter. Sifting through a crowd of people to find the one with whom you can imagine happily sharing spaghetti is more fun than projecting the same what-ifs about personality and pasta preferences onto online strangers.

The other part, one that’s easy to forget when mood lighting and twinkly date music seep out of screens into a collective subconscious, is that dating without the internet can kind of suck, too. People unfold out of flattering first impressions into three dimensions of arrogance or limited imagination or saying “bro” a lot. People try so hard to wow you that they forget to listen, or you try so hard that you fake laugh at all their jokes. It’s a skill to act like yourself under pressure, and most of us are not that good at it. The best part of watching Seinfeld’s billion dates was generally when they were over.

The problem, of course, is that sometimes it doesn’t suck. Like the lab rats who can’t help pushing a button that spits out treats at random, the promise of a maybe is enough to keep slogging through the definitely nots. Hope is hardy. Bad dates make for good stories. And the real thing, when it reveals itself, is spectacular. Desire opens the door, and OKCupid slips through it.

It feels like we’ve got a better handle on the unpredictable when it happens in the frame of a screen. There aren’t charming laughs or insightful comments forcing you to wonder if your “type” is a little too narrow. There’s nothing nudging your expectations out of the driver’s seat. You get to decide parameters ahead of time and ignore anybody outside of them — a luxury you don’t often get in person, but which also leaves you untroubled by any truth you don’t design. It keeps you insulated from dissonance, yes — but also from delight. You don’t get to be surprised when you’re in charge of everything.

That, I think, is the key to why online dating mostly disappoints: everybody does too good a job of marketing themselves online. Skimming a profile tells you most of what you need to know about a stranger without giving you any of the vibes that tell you whether the two of you might have a shot despite their terrible taste in television. The details that might otherwise be footnotes in the story of how you fell in love despite your differences become the chapter headings. Their generosity, ambition, nose for adventure — that gets boiled down to selfies at Macchu Picchu or trite references to “working hard, playing hard.” All of it becomes flat and cerebral, and romance wilts like a cut wildflower.

Because it’s not just your dates whose outlines become clearer than their contents; it’s you, too. In person, you might hide your jealous streak or hold in your dirty jokes, but you can’t help but be yourself: what you laugh at, what you do when you spill a drink, how long you hold someone’s gaze when you smile. Online, your layers get melted into a veneer someone might want to click on. It’s harder to expand again once you’ve shrunk.

Still, it’s not impossible. I know one Tinder couple getting married this summer and another who recently adopted a dog and a Subaru together — and that’s aside from the many of us who’ve found a good time or at least a good story in an internet stranger. The internet is just another medium, not a whole new reality. The people in it, you included, are as complex and messy and full of possibility as the people outside of it. We all suck sometimes. We’ll continue to disappoint each other, and we’ll reach out again anyway, and if we’re lucky, we’ll still get to be surprised.

Love,
Olive

For a little unprofessional advice in these uncertain times, send your questions to our anonymous portal. We want it all, from the epistemological to the inane. We’ll dig deep to find some answers in the next installment of BLARB’s advice column, Asking for a Friend.

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