August 29, 2011

Yenta’s Retired

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Online dating is the biggest thing to happen to human bonding since the virgin birth was invented. Maybe bigger, I’ll have to ask the Beatles. It aims to infuse the rational, scientific objectivity of our world into a previously subjective and messy process. This is the way of the future, but it’s no less irrational or awkward than the present.   This summer, when I moved back home to Boston, nearly everyone I knew was married or seriously dating someone. They would all conspire to have in-law time or snuggle time on the same night, leaving me by myself on the couch, watching the Red Sox. My parents were getting home later than I was. I also learned that the line “I’m in graduate school and actually live in central New York” doesn’t go over that well with all the single ladies. After prodding from some friends — both male and female — I logged on to OkCupid. In choosing my profile pictures, writing my bio and answering questions about myself, I came to believe that how you present yourself online isn’t that different from how you present yourself in the real-world dating environment. Dating is a performance: a staged presentation of an edited and idealized version of yourself for others to consume. You pick out your best outfit, try to choose the right venue, make sure your hair looks good and monitor what you say on the first date so as not to give away any unsavory aspects of your personality. We perform ourselves live, and at the same time we are an audience for someone else’s performance. Dynamically, we shape their performance, and they shape ours. However, in online dating, this performance is static. Instead of our spoken words, outfits or choices of venue, we perform ourselves through sentences and photos we’ve crafted and cropped to represent exactly how we want others to see us. This makes perusing profiles feel much more like shopping than dating. Similar to buying a pair of chinos online, the site suggests other profiles — products — that you might like based on your browsing history. Did you like “MissteriousGal?” How about someone that’s flirtier, or more traditional?  Want someone like “Qt Librarian” but more intellectual, more outgoing?  Yeah, we’ve got that. And if none of those suits your fancy, you can custom-design someone who’s finally good enough for you. You want a curvy Libra who has at least a college degree, is okay with dogs, speaks Danish and likes Thai food?  (Who doesn’t?) What this process seeks to do is use technology to answer a fairly important question: With whom will I bond? Some cultures use parents’ intuition or a village matchmaker. Online dating replaces the subjectivity and emotion of the human bonding process with empirical, quantifiable metrics that predict success. Based on your static profile you are 89 percent compatible with BeccaFlirts9873. Boom, call Yenta and tell her to cancel. It’s a ridiculous proposition. And it has a shockingly high success rate. I went on four first dates, and three of them were amazeballs. The one that was a dud was with a girl in law school, but everyone in law school is miserable anyways, so it doesn’t really count. In each case, the girl and I had plenty to talk about, and each was more interesting, more attractive and funnier than their profiles made them out to be. In all three cases we had a great time and made plans for a second date. The second dates are where things got awkward and the validity of the metrics broke down. On each second date I realized that despite our similar senses of humor and outgoing natures, the performance and formality of dating were unlikely to disappear. With no shared friends, no mutual hobbies or interests beyond the usual (eating out, grabbing a drink, etc.), or no casual run-ins throughout the course of the day, we would never see each other outside of a formal, arranged, prepared-for encounter. We lacked all of the things that you would share if you had met someone at a friend’s party, in class, in a club or pursuing some mutual interest, like LARPing. There were no third dates.Internet dating compatibility is a great predictor of your satisfaction with the product you pick out online. After the novelty of the new toy wears off, though, it’s questionable where things can go in the absence of a real-world connection. But sometimes, the two worlds can converge.  On a Wednesday afternoon in July I got an e-mail from OkCupid. “Ben, new matches for you to check out!” The top of the list was a 25/F/Single living in Cambridge, whose personal description sounded just like this girl who asked me for my number at my friend Sara’s birthday party that Saturday. I clicked the link and went to the site. I had to leave the office I was laughing so hard. I had no clue this girl was online, nor that OkCupid had become sentient and omnipresent. Apparently we were a 94 percent match. It’s based on proprietary algorithms, so it must be true.  So far, it is. For some things in life, there’s the Internet. For everything else, there’s the real world. Is there much of a difference anymore?

Ben Koffel is a grad student in the College of Architecture, Art & Planning. He may be contacted at bkoffel@cornellsun.com. Come Again? appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.

Original Author: Ben K.