When I first signed up for OKCupid in 2014 I was the jittery kind of nervous people get before a big performance or presentation. In my mind, i was presenting myself to the online world: real things about me, my life, and my beliefs. Most of all, I was letting the world in on what felt like the greatest secret: that I was alone and wanting. But I would be there, online, with other people who were alone and wanting.
Cynicism around online dating seems to have only come into being with the advent of Tinder, which compressed and depersonalized the dating experience to an incredible degree. But it was long overdue. Before Tinder, the main emotions around online dating were either embarrassment about the whole affair or, strangely, utopian optimism about it. In the one in a million game of soul mates, it was believed a search engine could save us all. Input your types, your needs and your dealbreakers, and the algorithms would find the one person capable of dealing with your shit.
This was the online shopping vision of online dating and it was only half true. What we didn’t know back then was that while it would be easy to find a person you liked, the hard part was that they had to like you too. And the format didn’t help. Before the internet, a decent first date was enough incentive to see what a second date would hold. But with literally thousands of potential options at your fingertips, why settle for less than your ideal? OKCupid’s search engine made it feel like your true match was always around the corner. Tinder made it feel like matches were just spare change in your pocket. It’s not that settling for less was good; but our idealism about these platforms greatly inflated what was just over the horizon. Mostly it was just more horizon.
The nervousness I had in 2014 has given away to a kind of numbness in 2018. When you understand that this avenue is a lottery, and that the only way to get anywhere is to get as many tickets as possible, new matches don’t really light up your brain. First dates don’t have high stakes. Mostly you want to get to meet people and see if any chemistry reveals itself.
But even getting to the first date is a kind of labor. It reminds me a lot of the times I was looking for jobs: every day, looking up applications, reading about openings, and crafting custom cover letters in hopes of getting an interview. Repeat this enough times and you’ll take a purely mechanical view of the process too.
Yet for all my cynicism and waning enthusiasm for this dating mode, it’s the most successful route I’ve ever used. More than a hundred first dates, sure, but also two meaningful, valuable relationships have come out of this. I can’t even begin to picture myself using the old ways anymore. I don’t know how to bother strangers at the bar anymore.
In this way I’m trapped in the new normal. Sometimes I’ll get on a string of particularly unenthused first dates, or be let down by a person I found genuinely intriguing and compatible. It will be a punch to the chest. And then I’ll press on.
One of the skills you have to develop in the world of online dating is getting good at putting yourself through the emotional wringer. You must accept that this is just how it works. You get your hopes up, feel like that was your chance at something real, wish you were a person other people liked, and then pick yourself up to try again. And it will happen over and over; everyone will feel like your best chance, until your next best chance. There is no shortage of hope, and no shortage of heartbreak.
Is this good for us? We haven’t lived with these apps long enough to know. I think of a tree, growing crooked and misshapen, as it stretches toward some strange angle of sunlight. In what ways are we changing? There are nights, walking back to my car from a first date for the 3rd time in a week, that I feel like we’re only taking damage, that we’re only causing pain.