I was fascinated by recent New Yorker article by Nick Paumgarten on Internet dating sites, the ones that often advertise on TV such as the cloying eHarmony. It’s not that I have any intention of trying one. For me, the online dating scene is interesting as an alien society, as alien as New Guinea headhunters who also do things I cannot imagine myself doing.
Matching up of couples was one of the first uses of computers in the mid-1960s, and no wonder. Lives hang in the balance of our mate selections, yet we rely on happenstance. In the past, society, whether family, tribe, church, or village, has always established and enforced protocols that worked for the good of everyone, but the twentieth century smashed it all with easy contraception, women in the workforce, relocation in distant cities, and deferment of marriage. There was no replacement left among the debris, and for the first time it became normal for young people to pair up with strangers they just met in a bar.
The college experience often includes the first real selection process an individual encounters after the self-discovery of high school. Almost ideal, it provides an excess of both supply and demand and an available vetting system of information and authentication. But it only lasts four years. Internet dating is an attempt to extend that process further into adulthood.
Internet dating is a misnomer. You don’t date, but only meet online. It is a search mechanism. And the plus-50 age cohort is the fastest growing segment. There are thousands of dating sites, many owned by the two giants, eHarmony and Match.com. Some sites allow you to browse through profiles and make your selection like cereal on a grocery shelf. Others chose for you, bringing you five boxes of cereal and asking you to return four. Each site has its own gimmick and is trolling for business, showing its best face, just like its customers. Howaboutwe.com only asks that you complete the sentence “How about we . . .” with a suggestion for the first date. “Ride the Staten Island Ferry” is a popular filler.
Most sites simply match up preferences, but the more sophisticated ones attempt to exploit the difference with what you say you want and what you really want based on your previous choices. You may say you are looking for a dependable, tall, blond, non-smoking Christian, yet you constantly select short, pot-smoking, South Asian green-card immigrants. The site will try to find someone with the same dissonance and use their experience for your selections.
The sites collect huge amounts of data and can find all sorts of correlations. “Do you like the taste of beer?” is highly predictive of whether a person is willing to have sex on the first date. (That is, people who answer positively to the first are likely to answer positively to the second, but I suspect answers from men, who generally like both, skew the results.) Matching answers to “Do you like horror movies?” is the best predictor of a long relationship. Republicans have more in common with their own than Democrats do with their own.
One site first categorizes the searcher with a handful of quizzes and droll questions. This is only the hook, however, to get them to continue. A man may learn he is a Poolboy, The Last Man on Earth, or (I love this) a Hornivar (a roaming, sexual, subhuman). The Hornivar may best pair up with a female Genghis Khunt (master of man, goddess of pain). I am not making this up.
The survey questions must be important, but also selective to narrow the search. “Have you ever murdered anyone?” is an important question, but does not narrow the field by much. “Do you like Brussels sprouts?” narrows the field, but is not important.
One of the problems for the sites is how to spread the matches around so one very hot girl does not get them all. In a bar, this is self-correcting. If a man sees a hottie surrounded by ten other guys, he is unlikely to go up and introduce himself. But he can’t determine this online, and as a result, some women are overwhelmed and he gets no reply.
Many people lie on their profile, although why they do is a puzzle. Obviously, they cannot get away with it for long. They will post an old photograph, or even a photograph of someone else. Women generally prefer photos of men looking away from the camera (less intimidating) while men prefer a direct look (full attention).
Many men sign on just for sexual contacts, so all of the sophisticated matching of personalities is irrelevant as long as the right sex organ is in functioning condition. One male user referred to his search as “target practice” to refine his technique. A woman still has to evaluate a man’s intentions just as she would in a bar.
The author describes the experience of an active 76-year-old woman, twice divorced. One man showed up for their first date wearing a woman’s sun hat, slippers, and carrying three purses. “I’ve learned, forget about writing,” she says. “Meet a person as soon as you can. Anyway, the profiles you read, they’re like bathtubs. There’s no variation.”