Why Does Internet Dating Often Fail?
Internet dating is easy. Since life is usually hard, this should give one pause. One can set up as many dates as one desires. One needn’t speak words to a live person who may reject her. Anyone with a computer can do it — even a robot, who could use some Wordsworth to pinch one’s virtual cheeks, and he or she would not know the difference. A man can even open an account as a woman in order to toy with other men (cases like this have been well-documented). It’s a free for all, and you can follow any fetish you choose to indulge in — searching by height, body type, ethnicity, income, astrological sign, or whether they want children. In searching, we are allowed to play God, taking our pick out of thousands of people. If internet dating is defined by anything, it is the endless searching for someone more beautiful, more happy, more free — someone better suited to our fantasy.
The ballad of my travails to net the right Nancy started off with height searches. Being 6’5”, I often only looked at women 5’10” or above to bridge the difference. The pool shrank, but I was pleased — I didn’t want to look at wildcards. This whittling is easy enough, as in the same way one surveys a room at a party before passing most in favor of one or two. The women I met were tall — no one lied (a tall woman told me her Amazonian peers often listed themselves as one or two inches below their vertical reality in order to not scare off eager, though physically discriminating fish), but had they read my profile? The women I went out with had obviously responded to my height, but had any noticed I sought one who gravitated toward the written word?
Soon, I decided height was irrelevant to my real desire — connection with someone who shared an interest in some of the masterful writers and artists I’d smeared myself in. Using the keyword function, I searched for people who’d also named Wallace Stevens, Robert Bresson, and Andrei Tarkovsky in their profiles. I soon found those who had a liking for them had none for me — nor I for the one Derrida champion I did meet in person. This European woman was well-versed in art cinema, Samuel Beckett, and Nietzsche, but she quickly proceeded to get drunk, excuse herself to bum cigarettes, and, later, refuse to talk about her family — a fire-engine red warning sign, complete with blaring siren.
Quickly though, one finds that internet dating has little to do with the written portion of the profiles and almost everything to do with the pictures. Picking through photos is akin to seeing people in public and surmising. Though internet dating is a more voyeuristic form of people watching (some sites let you see who is viewing you — a function eerily minus the danger of being twinned in their eyes during an awkward glance), the main byproduct is fantasy.
The process of looking for someone goes through many drafts of fantasy. Because we live in a voyeuristic society, and because we can ogle hundreds of photos without relying on deeper meanings below the skin (like Petrarch or Shakespeare sonneting all over the surface of a lady) — we are deceived by the vagaries of photography: blurred faces, adjusted eye color, and muscled limbs that may have been captured ten hours or ten years before. Internet dating is best at making one stumble over the allure of what has been staged. People show what they want you to see (if you can see it at all), while hiding the blemishes: age, income, Asperger’s, and marital status. If they don’t want to you to know they have a child or a doctorate — then you don’t. They brew fantasy, adding fuel to our zeitgeist of secrets. Yet we continually splay ourselves out over assorted media sites, which can turn internet dating into internet stalking, as many sites will let you see the last time a person logged in. If there is a trail of yourself leaking pixels and people want to piece together the puzzle of you, they will find a way — filling in their fantasy where they are safely hidden.
People will always be mysterious to each other. How many times have we heard someone express surprise after a certain person committed some untoward act, like murder, adultery, theft, or the like? We grope in the dark, but is internet dating stacking the deck in favor of more obfuscation? With more information comes the greater chance of misunderstanding. With more details come more expectations. When we broadcast a profile for thousands of people to see, we hatch thousands of different interpretations of what we may be like in person (and in bed). As opposed to the personals of the 1950s to the 1990s, today’s “beat it down to the morgue” questions on how we might act in one situation or another breed a sort of hypothetical antithesis to the magic of falling in love — the situation needs to present itself for us to truly know how someone will act. In the all-mooning world of internet dating, we ironically discount each other for answers given under duress of filling out the profile expediently, as many just want to get it activated, see some skin, and people their futures with possibility.
Why does internet dating mostly fail? Because you don’t get to smell the person you are cyberspatially approaching? Or does it go awry because of us — whom we seek? In desperately seeking, do we delight in those who look one way but act another? By all of our messages sent and received, do we ever get the message? If internet dating teaches us anything, it’s that we might want to search ourselves before searching for another.
I’ve often heard people say they are going to “try” internet dating. When you internet date you also “try” people. But not all the people in the field think they are there for tryouts. The ground changes with whomever you consent to see. Because people can’t smell or see who they are going out with first, many dates collapse within minutes and, incredibly, in some cases, within seconds. One woman, who pursued me with a myriad of questions on the instant messaging feature, dropped her smile in the twelve paces it took her to get from the subway stairs to me. I was leaning on a light pole, unprepared to receive the tide of her darkened being and unable to process the cause of her chagrin. Was it my hair, my arms — my hairy arms? The more I pushed to find someone, the more I only found those touchy, bitter, and wounded — incapable of the sumptuous warmth one demonstrates to a person one has some feeling for. In my regard for people’s time and their self-worth, I willingly frustrated my own as I worked against fate to sew myself into the union every site promised.
I abused internet dating until I removed myself and waited out the winter months. When the crocuses bloomed and robins alighted, and something in my clock yearned for communion, I limited the number of messages I would send to a lucky seven. And luck did reign — for I met a kind, stunning, warm woman. A success, but at the cost of winnowing through the mire of my and others’ dysfunctional posturing to appease a yearning born of panic. Now, happily married, I count that success all the sweeter.
Greg Gerke’s fiction has appeared in Tin House, The Kenyon Review Online, and Mississippi Review. A short story book, My Brooklyn Writer Friend, is forthcoming from Queens Ferry Press in September.