Beauty Love Truth: OKCupid
I wrote this to read yesterday at Beauty Love Truth, a neat comedy show that combines improv, music and people speaking beforehand on the topic of beauty, love and/or truth. I chose all three.
When I was a kid, I was terrified of learning how to swim. So eventually, when I reached about fifth grade and still couldn’t even do the dead man’s float, my mom sent me to this really experimental teacher who was all the rage among overbearing moms with really wussy kids. She was this hard-ass tall blonde woman who I remember as being vaguely German, though maybe that’s just hindsight talking. On the first day, she walked me around the pool to the deep end and said, “Tread water for five minutes.” To which I replied, “Fraulein, I hate to correct you seeing as we just met, but I don’t know how to tread water.” To which she replied, “Jump in.”
So I did. I flailed my arms and legs for five minutes, choking down overchlorified water that was even more condensed because I was the only person in the pool. Then, when my time was up, I clawed for the wall and coughed for a solid minute. My instructor didn’t even look at me. “Again.” A hundred years later, our hour was up.
I did this once a week for months.
I still hate swimming to this day. BUT…I know how to tread water.
Now, almost two decades later, I have a friend named Ben who recently closed the business he owned and operated for three years. I can’t really tell you what he did, though I do know it had something to do with computers. And I say this as having nearly completed a computer science degree in college. It was that computer-y.
The point is, I talked to him shortly after he ran out of money, and asked how he was doing. Surprisingly well, he said. He told me his family was worried about his chances in the work force, having left Microsoft to open this company and wasted three years and hundreds of thousands of dollars of investor cash to get it going. But Ben was fine. Because, as he put it, he saw the value of treading water. To him, it meant more than exerting copious amounts of effort just to stay in the same place. It certainly felt like that for a while, he said, but having now suddenly stopped himself from treading water, he realized he’d moved in the water. Miraculously and inexplicably, he’d been swimming the whole time.
This is getting really long. Here’s the thing: Ben had this brilliant idea for a dating site years ago that I’m convinced would be a slam dunk even today. (Don’t steal it.) Everyone on his hypothetical site had a very limited profile that anyone could see—username, age, location, the basics. You’d go into a chat room and talk to other people in your area. If you had something in common with another user, you could IM them directly and talk for a while. After that, if all went well, they could allow you to see their full profile, and then maybe go out IRL.
I think it’s an amazing idea because this was technology being used to heighten what already exists in real life. Say I meet a girl at a party. Maybe it’s at a house; maybe it’s at a bar. I see her, obviously, and talk to her in a group for a few minutes. Maybe make a few witty comments—about Game Of Thrones—and a few minutes later, I notice everyone else has left the conversation, and we are still talking, each refusing to openly acknowledge the fact that our friends bailed. An hour goes by effortlessly. I ask for her number, and leave with a joke about the Barenaked Ladies. She smiles. I get home and check my phone, just to make sure the number went through. I queue up an episode of The Wonder Years. Then I Facebook stalk her.
OKCupid flips that whole process around. For those of you who don’t know, it’s a free dating site that’s popular here in New York— I’ve been a member for a few years now, off-and-on based on my relationship status. It involves looking at profiles and sending messages; so rather than learning things about people piecemeal as time goes on, there’s this sort of information overload that happens before you’ve so much as locked eyes. You know her diet. You know her favorite band. You know she likes to go out, but also can appreciate a night in. You know how she describes herself, how her friends describe her, how tall she is, what body-type she is, what happened that one time she and her roommate went grocery shopping. You also know she’s fun-loving, because they all are. Fun-loving, laid-back, down-to-Earth, and sarcastic—and you’d better be able to dish it out too! Then and only then do you decide whether or not to send them a message, which in this case is essentially a pick-up-line with stalker context.
Also, OKCupid operates on an almost mathematical level. I can tell you this much from experience: I was able to quadruple, maybe quintuple the number of messages I received by changing my religion from “atheist”—which is the truth—to “Judaism but laughing about it”—which is a version of the truth. A friend suggested I flip the order I listed my jobs so that Story Pirates—the awesome arts/education organization I work with—came before “freelance writer,” and suddenly I was less of an unemployable charity case. My roommate told me the day he turned 30, his inbox shut down because he got too many messages. You know what dating needs more of? Games.
I should say that recognizing all of this doesn’t make me any less susceptible to the trappings of OKCupid’s shortcomings. I’d like to think I’m a reasonable guy, that I see through the bullshit. That OKCupid is just another way to meet people, like woodworking classes at the Brooklyn Brainery, or wearing a hilarious novelty T-shirt. But, shamefully, this is the exact series of events that occurs when I get a message from a girl:
I look at her picture in the email. I open the site so I can look at more of her pictures. I read her message and look at her picture again. I glance at her profile for an amount of time equal to how cute she was. I read the message again. I open a separate tab of her pictures. Then I close both windows and either dismiss her entirely, or go back in 24 hours and repeat the process over again, maybe this time actually writing back.
This sounds really mean, and it is. It is! And it doesn’t change much when I’m the one sending the message. I still place way too much emphasis on stupid, arbitrary details, like if they have a weird photo. Or no photo. Or a dog (I’m allergic). Or they’re Jewish and very serious about it. Or even somewhat serious about it. Or they live in Astoria. Or New Jersey. Or they’re a fun-loving, laid-back, down-to-Earth girl who loves sarcasm.
And the craziest thing is that I’m doing this all the time. OKCupid is available to me pretty much whenever I want it, so in theory my evening ritual could become, “Take out contacts; brush teeth; search for love of my life; get a glass of water.” If something is an option, it becomes a mandate. Like when I owned that pair of Israeli Birkenstocks.
There’s this fundamental law in social psychology called the fundamental attribution error—it’s very fundamental—which simply states that we often perceive people’s behavior as having to do with their personality, when in reality it’s FAR more likely due to a situation they’re in. So to put it in OKCupid terms, I don’t think of myself as a terrible or shallow person, but I think because of how the site works, I’m behaving like one. And I bet I’m not the only one. So don’t judge me, even though I’m judging you.
I guess there’s a pretty obvious question hanging around all this, which is, “Why?” After all my misgivings, why even have an account with OKCupid? I guess there’s a pretty obvious answer, too, which is that if I can get past all the extraneous bullshit, past all the email exchanges about minute details of each other’s profiles, past long stretches of inexplicable radio silence or getting stood up on a regular basis, the dates can be fun. Dating in general can be fun—drinking, laughing at shit, making out, drinking more, challenging each other to Mario Kart tournaments, spending way too much time talking about Friday Night Lights, dry humping. Finding someone who makes you forget, even if just for a second, that this is supposed to be hard.
And failing that, OKCupid, just, feels like progress. I wish it didn’t. But I guess I hope, miraculously and inexplicably, it actually is. Because every time I have a passing thought about an ex, or beat myself up for not talking to the cute girl on the subway, or FINALLY going out with a kick ass girl on a kick ass date and being told on the kick ass date that this kick ass girl really wants to date me but just can’t bring herself to date at all even though she admits we’re having a kick ass time and she thinks I’m kick ass too—well, later that night, I find my way back to the OKCupid homepage.
I figure I’ve already fallen in the pool, so I might as well tread water.