Having spent the better part of the last ten years in love, fresh out of love, lost at sea or, quite frankly, ignoring love, I’ve grown up into a fully functioning adult with a somewhat stunted technological skill set.
Since Facebook took over the world I’ve met just three people online.
The first, an intuitive soul who writes far better than I do, stumbled into my life by accident, unfolding through the pages of the newly fashionable blogs we dutifully kept in place of more constructive things like work and study.
Young and green, we drove hundreds of miles into the Klein Karoo, to a half way point in the middle of South Africa with a family home, a quaint town and snow! It was less about the quest for love and more about the great adventure of spending a weekend with a stranger and his family, and the result was a life-long friendship that neither of us take for granted.
The second, an old soul and colleague of the first, became captivated by the story of two strangers and the power of words, staking her place as some kind of online guardian of romance and language. She’s a wise owl, and years down the line still provides a strangers perspective on a life less ordinary.
The third, artistic and inventive, was a chance discovery in creative circles who became one of my greatest photographic influences; a visual mentor, quietly introducing power and perspective, humility and strength.
There are few situations in life that allow you to lay your bones bare without agenda, and I am changed by the experience.
All three of these people, in their subtle and unassuming ways, have had a profound effect on my life. These meetings took place long before the days of complex internet profiling, and long before I dropped off the radar and lived in the sea. In my frame of reference, these are unique and chance encounters, and I’ve spent the last ten years blissfully stuck in my net-free ways, happy.
Recently though, I have noticed that the subject of online dating crops up more and more frequently. Everyone is swiping left, right and centre, over-thinking, under-analysing, over-stalking and laying their intimate thoughts out for a panel of complete strangers on a daily basis.
I am an avid avoider of internet dating, believing my cultured, interesting and charismatic real-life friends to be the same.
It seems that this is where my technological deformities have let me down.
Internet dating, in my eyes, is wine talk. It’s a conversation divider between those who do it and those who don’t, those who are putting themselves out there, and those who aren’t. With this in mind I have put aside my prejudice against the Internet for one week, as a social experiment.
After a long week at the office the girls came around for a drink. I’ve not had a good circle of girl friends for some years and the laughter, wine and sweet-stuff munchies were a welcome reminder of the importance of having an open heart. There is something irreplaceable about a giggle with the girls, and soon we were onto the topic of Tinder, who follows who, who we have an eye on and which online dating platform is best.
It seems that Plenty of Fish (which, I admit, I had never heard of), is the clear winner. I signed up. Reluctantly. Instantly regretting it.
Worried that someone may actually recognise me, I made a profile without a picture and was immediately viewed by the standard assortment of quality weirdos I was expecting. I discovered tag-lines like “Dope on a Rope,” “Unwrap me for X-Mas” and “The guy above me punches kittens.”
I bolted and tried to cancel it, only to find that I was stuck for twenty-four hours.
The count down began.
I logged straight on to my new and embarrassing profile to cancel it down and spotted someone I recognised, got sidetracked, distracted, curious, downright nosey.
I realised that I’m in fact one of few people who can’t embrace meeting people through a fluorescent shield. I discovered a profile of a cute boy trying to sell himself as the person who rearranges the cheese into alphabetical order at the supermarket, and couldn’t resist.
With a change of heart I did the previously unthinkable and made a new profile, for real this time, with a picture and everything.
Within minutes I had fourteen people ask to meet me. I felt famous, anonymous, spoiled for choice.
A few hours whiled themselves away into an elaborate questionnaire about how I understand sex and how I react to feeling sad, instantly summing me up into an unwaivering and scrutinising, profiled summary of my chemical make-up and sexual prowess.
In short, I was condensed down to a set of generic paragraphs based on my chosen answers.
Interdependent, loving and affectionate, family orientated and generally sound. Tick. I pass.
This insightful revelation into my true spirit has led to two things.
The first, a private message accompanied by some pictures of a lad with a different girl on each arm.
“I saw your advertisement in the “paper” and thought I d be interested in apply for the job you put online to be your friend/boyfriend, I’m reliable, punctual, a team player (“player” not sure if that’s a good thing but I’m trying to be funny) and would love to do lots of overtime with you and get paid for it. (can be paid with lots of attentions and hugs).
Where do I send my CV? LOL”
The second was the result of my clicking the magical Ultra Match button.
It seems, according to the highly advanced, specialist technology that produces the results generated in an emotional-behavioural Ultra Match search, that I am most suited to someone I actually know, in real life.
Irony kills me sometimes.
Before my morning coffee I am inundated with messages, people who want to meet me, favourite notifications and the list of usual suspects who have viewed my freshly coated profile.
The paparazzi should at least be notified of this.
It’s been just twelve hours since the start of a serious attempt at catching a mate, and I am generating interest at a rate of one new potential match every eight minutes. The prospects present themselves as a list of suitors with a yes, no or maybe button, and in an instant I am responsible for their hopes and dreams of finding true love.
They say children are cruel.
I come from a country where passing judgement is considered against the constitution. It is the ultimate sin to differentiate race, economic background and social status. All people are equal and, despite some being far more equal than others, by and large I have been conditioned throughout my life to be open and accepting.
Internet dating is a licence to judge, and as much as it goes against my somewhat prudish standards that defy judgement, it’s fun to be picky. I am, after all, sort of anonymous.
This mornings hodge-podge of hopefuls is a mixed bag, and as I assign a maybe to just about everyone on the list three people catch my eye.
The first, a man with a puppy. A man with a puppy is a guaranteed heart-throb. He’s cute, he cooks, he’s about the right age, wants kids, and of course, has a puppy. Brilliant! Unfortunately though, he’s a Scorpio, and I can’t be dating one of those. He gets a no through no fault of his own.
The second comes with the tag line “Lets run away (must bring own gin).” Sounds like a laugh, attractive, creative, lives down the road and loves all the right things. He describes himself as a superhero, an evil genius out for world domination. He raises money for cancer research through running marathons. I must admit, I’m intrigued as far as the bottom line, which references Zombies and Aliens. Game over.
The third is discovered through scrolling the pictures of those who would like to meet me. These seem to also appear in a separate section of pictures without the instant judgement buttons, and somewhere in the middle is a surreal illustration of a tall, dark and handsome match surrounded by birds and dice. It’s quirky. I’m a complete sucker for the arty-types and this has all the makings of just the sort of charm I look for.
I open his profile. “Dope on a Rope.”
It’s 09:31 and I’m exhausted.
By nightfall I finally understand why people of the technology generation are glued to their phones. There is something addictive about feeling noticed, about being part of something that everyone is doing.
The human condition is to fear missing out, to worry about being on the wrong side of the glass door of society.
I’ve been at home all day, pottering around, playing piano, writing this story and generally zoning out, periodically checking to see if there are new views, new messages, new people looking at my window display of generic qualities.
It’s surprisingly self-gratifying when someone spares a second thought.
The same five people keep cropping up in my Ultra Match list including the person I know in real life, and my neighbour, who I regularly walk to work with without words.
Both are profiles I would never open, not out of worry that what lies behind the screen may result in a no, or at worst, a maybe, but because I recognise that defining a person by a generic paragraph creates a box that’s hard to ignore.
The interest ratio is mildly warped. In just forty-eight hours I have over a hundred shows of interest, of which I have assigned a no or a maybe fairly non-consequentially to ninety-eight or so of them.
In the wee hours, whilst flicking through my matches, I noticed an image of someone I was instantly attracted to. Gorgeous, with just the right amount of stubble and a cloud of kindness in his demeanour, I was compelled to have a look and actually liked what I found. Several pictures, all great, including one that had even more of an impact than the first.
It is a selfie, taken in a hotel mirror somewhere in the states, recognisable by the signature twin set-up of two double beds. At face value, there is nothing out of synch with this, except for the realisation that I had seen it yesterday and promptly assigned it a no.
With a simple change of image someone I had previously perceived as arrogant became someone I was genuinely attracted to. I clicked the show of interest button, as he had on mine, and became excited by the idea that there may be some value in all this fuss after all . My profile was viewed again, and we were both online, but being so quick to judge yesterday seems to have led the algorithm to believe that we are not a mutual match, and that was the last I heard from him.
This has led to a waterfall of questions about why I appeared interesting on the surface yesterday, and not today. I too am at the hands of the yes, no and maybe game and, whilst it’s fun to judge, it’s not so great to be judged. What is it about me that made me attractive yesterday, but not today?
I have also made some progress in the private messages. Despite there being a number of shallow compliments and tacky flirtations, one stands out from the array of oddballs and dingbats who have tried to connect.
“You have a wonderful profile pic – is that an emu? Where was it taken?”
For the first time someone has contacted me without a show display, which is refreshing. His profile shows him walking with lions in Zimbabwe, a rehabilitation program I recognise having looked into it myself several years ago. New in town, seemingly genuine and reasonably attractive, we could in all fairness both benefit from widening our social circles and meeting up.
I have not replied to this, not because I don’t see potential, but because I do, as friendship.
Part of internet profiling is to define what you are online to find. I am not the kind of person who dates for the sake of dating and as such, have listed that I look for long-term relationships. He has selected the same, causing a computerised match.
Should we meet, we would no doubt get along. I have lived in this city for long enough to acknowledge that most people here are nice. The issue is that we would meet having already established that we are looking for love, thus defining the meeting as a date and automatically writing an underlying crush script before it has time to evolve.
It seems backwards, but had we both listed that we are just looking to meet people, a walk and a coffee may just have turned out to be the right thing.
Emotions are running high. Be it famous, embarrassed, dizzy-hearted, intimidated, bold or unworthy, I am surprised to find that the last few days have dished up the full spectrum of crush thoughts.
Feeling good enough is a spinning wheel, intensified by a lack of body language. It’s hard enough to know if my crush in real life likes me back, hanging on the end of a message box is a mental asylum.
It is one thing to recognise how easily I could love you, quite another to know if you want me to.
People are starting to look familiar. I’m pretty sure that the electrician fixing the lights in the office is in my entourage of people who would like to meet me. The shared giggle in the kitchen at lunch was far more satisfying than any flirty message would have been.
Revelations do happen.
Perhaps online dating does have it’s place. I haven’t by any means been washed away by the river of endless prosperity, but I have noticed how many people are out there, and how natural it is to want to feel loved.
Alone, lonely or not, it is easy to assume that other people go home to some kind of warmth. In a world where everyone else seems to have their lives in order, being online is like stepping into a circus where all’s an act and elephants remember to dance.
Watching the lives of others shines light to our own, and for the first time in a long while I am noticing the strangers smiling around me.
It’s oddly mezmorising scrolling through hundreds of pictures, vacantly selecting a no or a maybe to flick to the next. It reminds me of roundabouts in deserted playgrounds, drawing me in without company.
Rather than spilling out hundreds of good-looking, single men, the faces are blurring into one, to the extent that I barely recognise my neighbour, or the person I actually know, and before long the world of internet dating is spinning itself into oblivion.
Ten years ago, on a bohemian whim, I quit my maths job, produced a portfolio and registered for an undergraduate degree in fine art. Application involved drawing a view from a window, producing several sketches of chairs with personalities, choosing two further submissions in any medium and sitting through an interview.
Operatic, paranoid and excited chairs were all well received, however, the two photorealistic pastel drawings produced for the free choice works were not. The instant reaction was that I had drawn them from a photo and I was told that I would be invited to the art school to learn to observe without pictures.
My lecturer said something to me then that has stuck with me throughout my adult life. “Energy will always override imperfection,” he said. “Life cannot be two-dimensional.”
The week draws to an end with the realisation that rushing to close the shutters on the online world is harder than anticipated. It has been enlightening, this glimpse into the secret judgements of society and the self.
As I sip tea from my window my neighbour is just leaving to walk his Scottish Terrier, Molly. I wonder if he has recognised me, or if I have faded away with all the other people we pass daily, going about our business of checking phones, maintaining a hurry and appearing casually intact.
I wonder too what passed through the mind of the person I know as he viewed my profile, if the lion king was offended that I never replied, and if “Dope on a Rope” has rolled his lucky throw.
It is not to say that internet dating is not for everyone. Many of my friends have found love in this way, some now happily married, others not so, and for those who have found their happiness life is all the softer for it.
It’s not for me. If a person introduced themselves to me in the real world as any sort of tag line I would run, fast.
Where is the joy in knowing a persons favourite food before a first date, in being privy to their reading habits, their ways to relax, their intimate impressions of themselves? To me, these kinds of secrets are the foundations of forming trust and closeness, there to be discovered when the moments present themselves naturally.
Love, scientific and formulaic as society asks it to be, can’t be taught through personality profiling and choosing the correct customisable and pre-designed questions aimed at acquiring the perfect match.
Love is learned.
It’s the messy break-ups that teach as how to love, the doors that refuse to close, the miles apart and quite simply knowing when to walk away when all evidence points to the contrary.
For all my interdependent, family orientated, loving and affectionate general soundness, my seams are stitched with words. There is no substitute for the ink in my beating heart and I stand by my original view that online dating compromises the human ability to connect.
Perhaps I am old-fashioned, but love is organic. It roots down, entwining itself into the old-knuckled, wise hands of the people we long to be.
There is little sweeter than to fall in love slowly, for love’s sake, consumed by the stolen glances, the intrigue, the awkward moments and the undoubted emotional ties that hold us together when all seems lost, and all at once, found.