There’s this dating website. A dating website that seems to have taken hold on near about every second person I know. It has been more than a couple of occasions now, where a friend has told me wide eyed and excited that they have a date. “A date!” I cry, “How wonderful! How delightfully and charmingly American! Where did you meet?” the reply, invariably, is delivered in sheepish tone, with shuffling feet and possible irony. “It’s this website… Okcupid… Have you heard of it?” To which I can only offer a knowing nod and wry smile because, yes, I do know it. I have more than dallied with it myself.
Okcupid is one of the most popular dating websites currently available. You take tests, build a profile, and peruse others people pages. The site links you up with people who have answered lifestyle questions in the same way as you, and who have mentioned similar interests. You are granted awards based on your personality in relation to other people, for example, a politics award for being more political than the average user, or a literary award for being more literary. There are various personality based tests that tempt the procrastinator in us all, and flatter the ego. There are lots, and lots, of selfies taken in bedrooms. And there are lots, and lots, of users.
Until a recent encounter, I myself have been floating around on that site for a while now, occasionally chatting to someone, or taking a test when bored. But never really giving it any real time or energy. A very good friend of mine however, has been a pathological Okcupid user. In the last few months, he has been in a relationship with 4 women. They all start with an unusual intensity. The initial emails quickly become instant messaging, then phone conversations at all hours of the day, and then long Skype calls. The women are generally not close enough geographically to visit without a deal of planning, and so the relationship is mostly played out over the internet.
He gets to know their personality through his computer modem, and no face is connected to the voice held close to his ear. Each time he gushes incessantly about how lovely they are, how clever, how pretty, how perfect. Each time, the presence of reality has shredded the seeming perfection that was created online. Yet he has returned again and again to the internet, and to Okcupid, as a means in which to meet people.
Having recently had my own flutter on the Okcupid gambling machine, its pull has become somewhat more understandable to me. The website perpetuates a particular form of delusion we all engage in. Namely, that the qualities we list as being desirable in our potential mates are the things we are actually attracted to. I think to an extent, we all have certain things we tell each ourselves we desire. That we are looking for someone with a certain level of education for example, or for someone who has read this book and likes that movie. On a website such as Okcupid, it is possible to pop such qualities into a search engine, and find a plethora of potential mates just waiting to be messaged. It is these verbalisations of desire that Okcupid works with. Of course, it cannot process the raw qualia of human attraction.
For this reason I think Okcupid and its contemporaries are fundamentally flawed. Human beings are actually not very good at knowing what it is they want. The users of Okcupid may fill out its many questionnaires and tests with a particular notion of themselves and the person they are looking for. But the realities of that user can never really be translated, their desires never truly transferred.
The intangible and unplaceable qualities that draw us to people are not the ones we are necessarily aware of. The smell of someone for example, is a hugely important element when it comes to attraction, and one that largely works on a subconscious level. So while we may believe we were initially drawn to our partner because they had a good haircut and liked Doctor Who other more covert factors, such as smell, are acutely important. There is also that ‘j’ne se quois’, which can lead you to fancying someone who is not conventionally attractive at all. Online, it is easy to dismiss those who do not fit your usual aesthetic type, because there is no way of gauging the potential for chemistry in a virtual environment.
The other main problem I have found with Okcupid relates largely to my friends experiences, and has something of a Lacanian feel. It pertains to Desire vs Reality. Lacan theorised that in the process of desire, melancholy occurred not when desire is frustrated (such as the frustration of one’s ‘l’objet petit a’ existing behind a computer screen) but when desire is forced to interact with reality, and we are faced with the disappointment of the real.
The object continues, but the cause of our desire has withdrawn. Over and over again, my friend was caught up in the creation of an ideal lover. The somewhat painful sweetness of their inaccessibility only heightened the experience, as the object of his adoration was always just quite out of reach. Everything circled around the pulsating interplay of desire and reality, as both parties constructed particular versions of their internet loves. Then when the time came to meet, and the interplay was removed from the realm of the internet, reality destroyed the desire and thus the relationship(s). But the intoxicating intensity of an online love always blotted out the consequential melancholy, and so the cycle continued. The headiness of a frustrated love can be hard to beat.
So I have been left with more than mixed feelings when it comes to the world of internet dating. I understand that it allows people to communicate with others in a way which can be less intimidating, and seemingly more straightforward. You want an earnest brunette who listens to Tunng and works in media? Just type those key words in and find a choice of dream girl/boys with varying match levels and geographical locations.
No stumbling over to someone who looks vaguely interested/interesting in a noisy bar, no straining your alcohol addled mind for an opening line, and no awkward experiences of rejection. If someone doesn’t like you, they’ll just not message back, and there’s nothing lost.
It’s when we move beyond initial contact that problems seem to crop up. Attraction is a slippery character to pin down and can draw you to someone who on paper would seem entirely unsuitable. Vice versa, a person can possess all the physical and mental attributes you think you like, and yet elicit no desire whatsoever. Attraction is not an easy thing to identify without the living breathing, creature of your desire in front of you. We need more than text on a screen and disembodied voices on a phone to successfully work out if we like someone. We need smell, we need body language, we need the presence of facial expressions. It is what we are biologically tuned into, and without it, reality is a ticking time bomb.