Why I deleted my dating apps. All six of them.*
At the peak of my online dating career, I thought I had beat the system. I wasn’t using Tinder anymore. I was hooked on more offbeat apps like OkCupid, and had even tried my hand at the virtual Jewish dating scene. I was knee-deep in impassioned conversations about pop culture, and love, and mutual hatred for peanut butter with girls whose profiles sported bios like “I wrote 30 books once” and “rad dad, hip teacher.” They were perfect.
But the system wasn’t. Match by match, I learned that the online dating world was designed to change the way you talk, present yourself, and interact with people you meet on the social internet.
I figured that out after three years on Tinder, by which point I had long discovered my only high-yield opener: “it’s your last day on earth quick what kind of bagel do you get?” Dating apps gave rise to entirely new rules of syntax and grammar: uppercase letters are too intimidating; commas are pretentious; more than one sentence verges on verbal diarrhea. Modern romance needed to be packaged into one bright blue strip of text with just enough white letters, quirkiness, and region-specific humor to not scare off the girl on the other end of the exchange, and to make up for the lack of abs and dogs in my profile. If I was to meet the app’s branded goal for its users to “Live the #SwipeLife,” then I had to adapt to its vernacular.
The stupid pick-up line got results, and provided me with enough information about my prospective love interests to build a character profile not unlike a BuzzFeed personality quiz:
“Rainbow bagel with cream cheese simple but fun”
Analysis: She’s quirky and a bit eccentric, self-critical, scratching the surface of funny. (Congratulations! Your Harry Potter character is…)
“Sea salt bagel w New York levels of cream cheese”
Analysis: She’s a goddamn New Yorker, and proud of it.
“Cinnamon crunch. I know it’s super basic but I’m a cinnamon fiend so it’s forgiven”
Analysis: She’s a cinnamon fiend.
With the exception of a select few, most of these early exchanges, like the short-lived conversations that followed, left me with a largely dissatisfied aftertaste, even when early prospects were looking good. Childish Gambino nailed the feeling in one of 2016’s precious few highlights, his absolute smash “Redbone”: “I wake up feeling like you won’t play right/I used to know, but now that shit don’t feel right.”
So, I quit Tinder. (Oh, there’s no high horse here: I was back on the app in a matter of weeks.)
In the interim, OkCupid did the work for me by offering its users endless multiple-choice questions on myriad topics ranging from political orientation to sexual preferences, and then algorithmically (ask me how this works) tracking down one’s ideal matches (within a set radius.)
Catherine. 24. Pictured with Jeff Goldblum (hook, line, and sinker.) Bisexual, thin, white, doesn’t smoke cigarettes, drinks sometimes, looking for people for short & long term dating and new friends. 91% match.
Natalie. 21. Heteroflexible, speaks Russian, omnivore. Likes spoken word poetry and The Velvet Underground. 85%.
Emily. 24. Hoping for a Fiona Apple, Maggie Rogers, and Claire collab album. 94%.
Catherine just finished binge-watching Bojack Horseman. Emily’s profile informs me that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is her “forever baby.” Natalie is writing “2–4 screen plays.”
If Tinder provided little information for my virtual vulture self to scavenge, then OkCupid offered more than I bargained for. Everything was laid out for me on a digital table: answers to all the possible questions I could ask on a first date, as well as questions I would probably reserve for the imagination (If I were sent to jail, I’d be arrested for/ “Subtle eco terrorism.”) How do you start a conversation with someone if you can easily predict their response? How many of these questions are you actually supposed to answer? What if someone I know, but don’t want to match with, sees my responses for the “sex” category? And what the f*ck is eco terrorism?
I was never particularly good at curating my self-presentation, a requirement of any online avatar from the gaming world to the tightrope that is one’s Instagram bio (mine currently reads “cat dad” — short and sweet.) My Tinder profile was also straightforward: Can do a spot-on John Mulaney impression (try me), American living in London (for the year), ask me about my 20 lb. cat (conversation starter!), artist & filmmaker, ex-archaeologist, educator, dad joke enthusiast (tries to wow the ladies with his many strange hobbies!)
My best friend was more adept at navigating the underworld of Tinder’s matchmaking algorithms to craft an ideal virtual profile. At the risk of being caught and exposed by our openly gay classmates on Tinder, we set our preferences to “men” so as to match with each other, and poke holes at one another’s profiles. It worked, but in retrospect, we could have just stuck with screenshots.
Blake and I exchanged our usual pleasantries — Me: “hey sexy” / Him: “hey babe.”
I then swiped through a gallery of pictures featuring someone I recognized in the physiognomic sense, but whose virtual self was mostly a stranger. The first photograph has him seated at a college radio station, absorbed in some unnamed tune, with all the accoutrements of an actual DJ: the large, black headphones, illuminated mixing board, and shelves of CDs stacked this way and that. He would have fooled even me, had there not been a caption, originally typed out in Snapchat, which exposed him as a “fake DJ.” At least he was honest. In the subsequent pictures, he’s seen wearing his would-be-girlfriend’s (who he did not meet on Tinder) Martha’s Vineyard tanktop and skeleton pajama bottoms; a self-aware dog-eared selfie from 2015 captioned “When ur basic”; a selfie taken in a hall of mirrors; his dog; and to wrap up this hormonal cornucopia: a picture with his arm wrapped around a skeleton, giving a big thumbs up, and flashing the smile of a man homeschooled since the fifth grade.
His bio consisted of painstakingly humor-coated, attention-grabbing, self-deprecation, bringing to mind another quotable line from “Redbone”: “It made me put away my pride/So long.”
Blake has been my best friend since 2004. The ties that bond us were cemented in our elementary school cafeteria, where we surpassed the (as-yet-unofficial) allotted number of juice cartons per student, and made little families by poking holes to signify eyes and mouths. They had to change district policy because of a couple of nine-year-olds.
Contrary to whatever I might say to his face, the man is funny. But what I saw on his Tinder profile was a different kind of funny. It was calculated. It was clever. Blake was engaging with a specific language, humor, and visual vocabulary native to other online daters. The app’s slogan boasts that “Tinder is how people meet. It’s like real life, but better.” But is it? Would his self-deprecation have gotten the same sort of results (there were results) in-person? Would he have brought up his fictional career as a disc jockey on a first date?
“I never took the apps as a serious way to meet people, so my profile was not made to reflect who I am on a personal level,” he tells me in a recent phone call. His voice changes to a familiar tone. I sense there might be a punchline coming. “Everyone is a joke. If you take yourself seriously, you’re an asshole. Know your place: your place is nothing and nowhere.”
People tell him that he’s funny. So he tries to be funny. From what he heard, girls like tall guys who have dogs and crack jokes about their self-esteem, “so I put that I’m tall, and have a dog in my bio, and a joke that I found on Twitter.”
That Tinder is the object of jokes is no secret. But it’s also a self-aware platform for them. I recently matched with a former high school classmate, whose bio pokes fun at the app’s reputation as a cesspool for hookup culture. She is, as I discovered three-and-a-half years post-grad, “mostly wholesome, occasionally hoesome.” Another match jokes about selling pictures of her feet to pay off her college tuition, following up with a“hahah jk….unless👀.” A match from London writes that her “ideal man is a piece of chorizo” — raising my hopes— only to disappoint them with the second qualification that he must be someone “who will join me @ the gym.” Sarah is a “Study abroad bitch” who wants you to guess her major (it’s theatre), and Anna likes to spell her name backwards.
As a straight white man in America, I have much less to fear from meeting a match in the real world than they do. Dating on the internet instinctively puts users, especially women and the LGBTQ+ community, on guard, and enables them to unmatch, block, or report anyone at anytime. Going out with someone from a dating app thus warrants a particular set of survival skills, as well as enough interest in the match to put one’s screen down, get in the car, drive to a local coffee shop, and pretend to be interested in their major or favorite holiday latte flavors for an hour or two (art history; pumpkin spice). Sometimes, the conversation goes further.
Laurie and I breezed through the 2019 Whitney Biennial — oblivious, then, to the controversy that was about to erupt around Warren Kanders — then walked the forty blocks back to her apartment. We parted on a sweaty hug. Martha and I talked about her role in the new Little Women film, while taking in a setting July sun in Washington Square Park. We were both interns in the art world that summer, and parted on a hug as well. Catherine and I FaceTimed on and off for a few months, resulting in a spontaneously planned trip which would have had me fly out to California for a week to stay with her family. It fell apart two weeks before my set departure. I never got the money back. Ingrid and I staged a photoshoot, and were liplocked by the end of it. She later had me drop off a prop at her house after informing me that she was no longer interested. I had my friend do it, while my former date sat in a car across the street, watching the scene unfold. I took Annabelle to a London speakeasy, where I spent twelve dollars on a hot dog and tried to impress her with my new Polaroid camera, for which I accidentally purchased film stamped with Taylor Swift’s autograph. There was no second date.
In my final year of undergrad, I spent ten months re-enacting family photographs, disguising myself in countless permutations of wigs, masks, and prosthetics. Yet somehow, I never felt any such pressure to perform as I had on these dates. My knack for situational comedy abandoned me. My sense jumped ship. My understanding of how much a hot dog was worth vanished altogether.
I deleted my dating apps, for good, a month ago (“for good” being more of a goal than an expectation.) I took a deep breath. It felt awesome, in the pure, 16th century sense of the word, unadulterated by American vernacular.
I was suddenly transported to my years of making juice box families with Blake in the northeastern suburbs of New Jersey. The prepubescent joy of having a crush on someone — terrifying then as it is cringeworthy in reminiscence — reminded me of what was missing from the world of internet dating: that snowballing momentum, the subconscious Freudian sexual tension that enters consciousness when one matures enough to ask out a romantic interest (for me, my first time was the summer of 2010 via text on my LG EnV2 in maroon, the hottest phone of the day, which can be purchased today on eBay for $12.99. I was rejected.) I’m going back to doing things the old fashioned way, I tell myself. Time will tell.
For this, and all the rest, I blame my limbic system. OkCupid’s slogan got it right: “dating deserves better.”