I recently finished reading a book that claims to explain "what technology does to meeting and mating" - Dan Slater's Love In the Time of Algorithms. The short answer is: it turns people (women and men) into the worst masculine stereotypes of "shopping and fucking"-style cruisers, to borrow from Mark Ravenhill's famous play's title. Maybe this is because all the major sites were founded by, and obsessively managed, sold and bought by, men. There was one female CEO in the biz that I know of: Mandy Ginsberg, of Match in the U.S., who has now moved over to Tutors.com.
What's fascinating and grotesque about Slater's picture of the multi-millions of "users" or "customers" -- webizens all seeking "more connections" with "better people" -- is just how tangled up (others might called it wired up, or linked up) people are in their media streams. They are online daters, many of them, but his point is that mostly, they're just online. A lot. In the America that Slater presents as the place living out the space-time bends in the "time" of algorithms, the following sentence obviously makes sense *on a wide scale*:
"Today's togetherness is often instantaneous, and then constant. You begin dating someone you met online, or off, and in a matter of days you are Facebook friends who also follow each other's Twitter feed and show up on each other's Tumblr dash and chat throughout the day via IM and text. By midday you've opened ten tabs on your browser, and on five of them the avatar of your paramour is blinking and winking and typing and poking and accepting and liking and smiling and frowning and inviting." (Slater 2013, p. 178)
Umm, who are these people? This is a genuine question. What do they think about their MO (modus operandus), their tech-mediated perception of experience, others and sex, their inability to concentrate without a phone in their hand? Do they remember a time when reading meant reading, and watching a movie meant doing just that, sans app, and when working involved working without ten tabs and a million banalities of multi-media banter to distract? Tasks or occupations done without the ticklish whisper of the pulsating "network"? Perhaps not -- perhaps the "time" of algorithms Slater describes is really the time of teenagers, born too late to have experienced offline being, and with too many tools at their disposal in which to channel all the restless dissatisfaction and questing insecurity of the teenage and 20-something years.
Ok, so this is not just a tech-bashing, remember-the-golden-days-pre-web post. At least, not yet. It's an exploratory one, which briefly recounts my impressions of this algorithmic life that seems to define so many people's relationships and quest for love.
Because while reading Slater's well-researched, relentless slurry of web stats, zeitgeisty tech-phrases, business-of-love models and bland company names, I felt that I had missed some major aspect of my contemporaries' experience.
I have given quite a lot of attention to digital life -- aside from my own too-frequent Facebook, email and gratuitous weather forecast checks -- I have written an MPhil thesis on women's experience of online dating, complete with two "research" accounts of my own. I've also downloaded Blendr and in the past, used JDate and Guardian Soulmates for real(ish) short periods.
Each brush with an online dating site, whether for real or for research, felt like a brush with a comb vigorously teasing my hair the wrong way. Nails on a chalkboard. Every last thing about it either repelled me or felt impossible. I cannot, cannot, cannot make myself write the kind of profile that gets the sort of guys people like me want to be in touch. I cannot in good faith genuinely describe myself in more than two lines, utterly suffused with the ridiculousness, the paradoxical nature of trying to describe YOURSELF for a dating site. Would you trust a lonely fridge or washing machine or to describe itself? You would not. You would trust it once you'd read about in Which? or Consumer Reports, or seen it. Or heard about its virtues or faults by either first-hand context or through word of mouth. That point aside -- I mean, clearly people do find text profiles useful (women for men usually) -- I personally could never surmount the embarrassment and clear impossibility of summing myself up in the way you're supposed to sum yourself up for a dating site. You are not supposed to say the same old things -- instead, dazzle with a good joke or anecdote to get people interested. Argh! I can't do it! So instead I say a few terse lines that try to be friendly but are indeed probably a bit superior -- they do not tell funny anecdotes (I don't want the kinds of people who get in touch with me reading personal anecdotes!) The result has always been pitiful, and I mean pitiful, men getting in touch.
Yet everyone else seems to be wading around merrily, riding waves high and low, through the soggy seas of diginetweblove.
So I decided to have another go at a research account (I am not looking to actually meet someone). This time, I went for OkCupid -- some cool people I know, or interviewed for my thesis, did OkCupid and had a nice time. A nice time by the numbers, perhaps; nice dates with nice men who enjoyed scrabble and pub quizzes, or indie concerts and good flat whites on Sundays and so on. None seemed memorable, all fading away into the bulbous glob of people-you-meet-online, or is it the profiles-you-meet-online.
Since logging back on, my phobia and disbelief at how bad online dating sites are (for me!) has soared.
In the first place, the tone of the sites are all reprehensible. Condescending, e.g. "This is fun! But not that many people like you so maybe you could try harder, engage more with our site, help our profit model along!" Also seriously bossy and manipulative: even the inbox page of OkCupid tells me, insultingly, that I could "Join A-list" (or is that a command? Perhaps a threat?). It tells me also to "Complete my profile" and to "Answer 25 match questions." It's also completely incomprehensible, entrenching my suspicion that all those people riding the digital waves know something I don't. For instance: below the menu with "Browse matches," "Messages," "Visitors" and "Quick Match," there is a box headed thus: "You might like: Answer the questions to unlock" followed by a picture of a random hairy student, a box that says Answer 50 and a box that says Answer 75.
OkCupid tells you if you look good in the picture you post. Fuck off, I say. It tells you all the things you can do to attract better people. I did them: I answered several of their questions, though avoided the numerous deeply sex-obsessed ones that in reality won't help match anyone (do you really want to date someone for whom taking it up the butt is a must?). Match and Guardian were even worse, in their own ways. My research account on Match led to daily inundations to the email address I'd set up precisely for this purpose, yelling at me about people who'd winked, checked out my profile, "liked" me, or even -- hello, hello stop the press -- got in touch. All messages concluded with pushy exclamation marks. I reliably felt queasy every time I looked at this inbox.
Here's who has got in touch with me on OkCupid since Thursday.
Awesome catch 1*: "Hi how ru today?" Abdela's profile says: "I am going to get my diploma, I have just not decided where I am going to go or waht I are going to study." And! "I know how to have the best time but I occasionally enjoy staying in!" He is also a devout Muslim. I may not be so appropriate, given "atheist" written firmly in my "beliefs" column.
Awesome catch 2: "Hey:) Ur curls nicer than mine x"
Awesome catch 3: "Hiya, Lovely profile and I must say you look adorable. Get in touch if I appeal to you as well. Cheers, Veer." Veer, "originally from Dubai" looks contemplatively out from under a baseball cap, eyebrows sculpted, in The Thinker pose. "I seem to have ended up single and having no mates around now which I'm clearly not cool enough for but I won't worry about that for now."
Awesome catch 4: "Hey, I'm looking for new friends too"
Awesome catch 5: "Before you click off cause I don't have a pic, it's because I'm having problems uploading them to this site...[goes on for four lines about technical problems]...I have a pic on kik though, so do you have kik so we can talk there, your stunning btw xx i'm 19 btw xx
[note: two days later, still no pic]
Awesome catch 6: "Hey there, sorry for being so direct but I would like nothing more than to take you on a nice date, and then if you are up for it, take you home and go down on you"...
All of the people who have messaged me are "0 % matches".
So much for algorithms.
So much for profiles.
So much for new social horizons.
It's a good thing I'm not on a quest IRL (in real life) for Internet-mediated buddies or partners. A good thing for me. Other people might think otherwise -- and I hope they find what they want, I really do. Because to my eyes, it's a goddamn mess out there.
* Screen names have been changed