Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The Other And the Internet: Interpersonal Artifice and the Art of Online Dating

In late November of 2013 I embarked on an experiment of sorts. It was the night before Thanksgiving and I, not having the necessary time off or the energy to make it home to Vermont, had the night to myself. I was in the living room of my Queens apartment and partaking in an amount of red wine which I will scientifically quantify as "a shitload".  I was on my computer watching Dexter when I had the sudden and poorly informed idea to sign up for the dating site OK Cupid. I had been contemplating doing something of the sort for some time because I had been single for around 4 months and was feeling like I really wasn't equipped with the necessary skills to enter the dating pool. Note that I did not say RE-enter here. That is because my previous relationship lasted for 6 years and began when I was 19 and living in a dorm. I cannot define anything I did prior to that point as "dating". I had been hesitant to do online dating because….ew, right? But I knew several people for whom it had worked well and after all I found all of my apartments on craigslist so I really didn't have much logic on my side as to why I hadn't taken the leap.

So, my confidence bolstered by wine and ignorance, I set up my account. It was easy, and I started getting messages right away. A self described "political junkie". A self described "film junkie". A lot of actor/bartenders or men who simply referred to themselves as "artists" without any further explanation. These were among my original pool of potential suitors. It is a strange thing to sit in a room and sort through disembodied faces, trying to decide which of them you might like to spend time with in person based on only what they choose to tell you about themselves. I had to keep reminding myself that these are real people. They are probably more complex than what I am seeing on the page. BE NICE.

It's hard enough as it is to fully appreciate another person's consciousness and harder still to do so for a romantic prospect. The problem is that we are wired to resolve our loneliness, so when we meet someone who might meet our criteria as a suitable mate, it is easy to reduce them to the parts that we want to see, or furthermore to what we want to be true about them. Truly knowing someone is not as easy as gazing into their eyes or sharing a tender embrace.

Even when someone is saying exactly what you want to hear, you have to to remember that they continue to exist and think and question in between your conversations just as authentically as you do. It is also possible that they do exactly what they are doing with you with someone else regardless of how sincere they might seem. These things happen. That's why it is so profoundly unsettling to engage in the act of making contact with another person on a meaningful level. Your expectations can be so easily and so irreconcilably violated that it can make you never want to try again. But you have to if you ever intend to find someone. You have to keep trying if you don't want your heart to shrivel up into a nasty, bitter pit.

The act of dating is so commodified in American culture that spending an evening with a perfect stranger, doing your best to get to know them, and then never seeing them again is considered not only normal, but an expected part of life, meaning that if you HAVEN'T done it you are missing out on vital information about the human experience. I have a lot of concerns about the entire scenario and I would ideally prefer to be friends with someone for at least 3 months and THEN see if we want to date, but this just doesn't seem to be a feasible approach unless you're in college. Then again I tend to make friends very slowly so maybe people do indeed do that and my real problem is that I don't have enough friends. Entirely possible.

So ONLINE dating, then, is both exactly what I needed to do in order to avoid developing a stagnant heart and exactly what I really didn't want to be doing because it was so essentially unappealing to me. In another post I'll regale you with the tales of horror, boredom, and disappointment, but for now it is suffice to say that I was  right to be tentative. In every day life people are already creating artifice around them in order to dictate how others respond to them, and online dating requires buying into someone else's artifice at least a little bit before you've had the opportunity to have a natural reaction to them. You agree to quasi-romantic terms before even meeting, so even if they end up being a person who you would never be drawn to under usual circumstances, you've already agreed to it and already let your mind accept any and all potential outcomes. So you have no one to blame but yourself when shit gets weird. For the foreseeable future I think I'll stick to only hacking through the nonsense we serve each other in real life and spare myself the additional layer of online absurdities. I tried. To say I failed would be remiss because I gained a lot of valuable experience, but I don't think my heart can handle the metaphysical implications of dating in the digital age unless I take some time to see how I fare on my own.

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