Things I’ve Learned from Online Dating, Vol. 1

To cut the preamble: for about seven or eight months last year, I was active on OkCupid.  It’s a strange and brave new world, this internet thing, and after several abortive internet first dates over the last year, as well as one much more enjoyable and longer-lasting yet ultimately equally abortive traditional relationship (that I’m still making a distinction here may be telling, but so far my friends and alma mater have much better taste in women than any algorithm), I’m wrestling with whether it’s time to get back on that, uh, e-horse.

I started this list of learnings last year, before I met a pretty girl at a football-viewing party (like, a real party, with food and people and everything), and before she made me walk away from her in the middle of the night a couple of months ago.  But with every ending comes a new beginning, or however that not-really-consoling-at-all aphorism goes, and so in weighing the benefits of app-based dating — it’s mobile! social! local! 3D printed! — the list has surfaced from the mire of my many half-made blog drafts, to be presented here as evidence in the case of The People v. Winger.

Some lessons the proverbial fish in that deep blue online sea taught me:

  • You are not allowed to both describe yourself as “shy” and have a username with more than two consecutive x’s in it.
  • Don’t capitalize the G and S in “grad school” unless you go to a college named after William S. Grad.
  • I also think of my self [sic] as diligent, meticulous, and detail-oriented.
  • I will never remember what Meyers-Briggs type I am, or what your Meyers-Briggs type means.
  • Do not lead with “hey u want 2 cyber”.
  • What was your Meyers-Briggs type again?
  • “The basic currency of the Internet is human ignorance, and, frankly, [the OKC] database holds a strong cash position.”

But the most obvious thing I learned wasn’t about any of these girls.  Or women in general.  It was about me.  Chiefly:

  • I am an enormous, colossal, unforgivable asshole.

From ignoring people’s messages to criticizing their minor grammar mistakes to losing all interest because of a single unflattering photo, the sort-of anonymity of OkCupid (that’s-not-my-name, that-is-my-picture) both enabled me to embrace all sorts of misanthropic aspects of my personality and to feel terrible about it at the same time.  Would I really ignore a boring girl trying to talk to me at a cocktail party?  Would I really judge anyone for mixing up “less” and “fewer” when telling me a story?  Am I really so shallow that lighting determines how much I want to talk to you?

The answer to all of these questions, it would seem, is yes.  At least, yes when I know I’ll never see these people again (or in the first place).  Yes when there’s no social pressure to do the opposite.  Yes when I don’t have to hide behind cerebral concepts like “society” or “decency”.

It’s not how I like to see myself, to say the least.  But a general malaise of cynical misanthropy I can live with — I can at least assume that I’d feel the same way, that I’d be as judgmental about favorite television shows and Oxford comma use,  if I was trying to find male friends online.

But I wasn’t.  I was looking, at one level or another, for female companionship.  What got me to stop using OkCupid wasn’t a real-life girl with a smile like moonlight.  It was a night, a few weeks earlier, when I just kept scrolling.

OkCupid uses infinite scrolling instead of pagination (or at least did last year; I haven’t logged back on to check), presenting a never-ending parade of nubile would-be dates that waltzes up the screen as you scroll further and further down.  And so one night, as I was scrolling through potential matches, I didn’t stop.  Without realizing, I must have scanned a hundred — two hundred — profiles.  You don’t get much information to go on without actually clicking on a profile: a username, a thumbnail headshot, an age, a compatibility percentage.  And that was enough for me to categorically reject every single person that crossed my digital descent.

When I realized how long I had just spent browsing, how many people I had reduced to nothing more than a 100 pixel wide picture and a fake name, I was disgusted.  It’s not that I had expected to find true love in the pool of a couple hundred random people on the internet that night, but rather that I took these girls and ignored them, cast them aside, based on a photo.  A photo!  That’s the textbook definition of objectification, and I — me — I had done this.  Not some frat star I went to high school with, not some red state politician, not some third world country’s dictator, but me.  I disregarded more girls than I could count because of how they looked, without even registering that I was doing it.

I am not here to argue that online dating is bad, in any sense of the word.  (I’m not sure which statistic to believe, but somewhere between 20 and 35% of marriages now start online — which, regardless of the exact number in that range, is staggering and beautiful in equal measures.)  But the ease of access to the most superficial parts of a person, to pictures and percentages and profile names instead of smile lines and nervous tics and laughter, to headshots instead of a head’s thoughts, eventually brought out something in me that I hated.  It was, no doubt, amplified by parts of my personality — I can be meticulous, addictive, obsessive — and so maybe the biggest thing I learned from data dating was that I need to be careful about high volume online romance.  Or high volume online anything, really, if the hours I’ve logged in Diablo say something about the rest of my personality.

And I realize that the same exact thing was happening to my own profile in the hands of who-knows-how-many girls on the other side of my monitor.  I do not pretend that my charms are universally irresistible.  To untold droves (droves!) of women, I will forever be “that dude with the vampire teeth and the goofy hair and the username that sounded like it could be a critically acclaimed children’s board game”.  I’m sure I was thoroughly uninteresting to the majority of people OkCupid pleadingly shoved my profile towards — take him! take him! please! have pity! — in the same way I was thoroughly uninterested in the majority of people presented to me.

But that doesn’t change how I felt about being so disinterested, how I felt about not caring to get to know anyone whose picture couldn’t land them a modeling contract.  With no information beyond a brief blurb about “what you’re doing with your life” and “six things you can’t live without”, looks won out.  They always did.  Which left me wondering if that’s what I actually cared about, if this yen I claim to have for a sense of humor or a deep intellectual conversation or a mastery of English grammar is really just monkey-brain nonsense trying to beat my brainstem into submission.

I know this is a trying time to fire off half-formed thoughts on sexism in a blog post that had its genesis as a rant about internet grammar.  My thoughts are with Isla Vista.  But I suppose that this is the time, more than any other time, to confront what lurks within me: that brainstem can be a sexist pig.  Which means I can be a sexist pig.  Not all the time, granted.  Not even anywhere close to some of the time.  But enough of the time.  Too much of the time.

I fall into so many traps guys my age are prone to — and not just the Tinderized romance of reducing girls on the internet to the sum of their headshots.  I’ll laugh at misogynistic jokes.  I’ll toss around words like “pussy” and “slut” without a second thought to the loaded gender bias behind them.  And, maybe most damning of all, I’ll be quick to agree that my ex-girlfriends are all “crazy”.

These are all huge topics, each worthy of a much larger discussion.  Where is the line between comedy and controversy?  Should we categorically declare certain words taboo?  How do people project their insecurities onto others?  I don’t know any of the answers, obviously.  All I can say is consider this post an admission of guilt, and a pledge to do better.  Because #YesAllWomen deserve better.  From me.  From us.  From everyone.



  1. Love the point you made at the end of your blog. Try not to be so hard on yourself; most relationships start because of physical attraction. A woman you find unattractive could look gorgeous to the next suitor. If your experience has caused you to look into yourself and recognize things that you don’t like, wanting to and actually changing those things is a valuable exercise in life. On a side note, you might want to start referring to your potential dates as women, not girls. It’s another way to show respect.

    1. But if I stop calling them girls, I have to admit to myself that I’m in my mid-twenties. There’s only so much introspection a man can take.

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