For my day job, I analyze rhetoric. I even wrote a textbook on “critical discourse analysis,” and if you don’t think THAT’s a great topic for chatting up the guys on eHarmony, well . . . you’d be correct.
I signed up more out of curiosity than anything else; it was 50% peer pressure from my girlfriends and 50% academic inquiry. I’m not opposed to meeting someone, but I also wanted to mine the rhetoric so that I could create an “online dating decoder key” for other women (as in, “I’m looking for a woman who is passionate and giving” really just means “I want sex.” Decoder key to be published in an upcoming article).
I immediately ran into the typical crazies and the so-cliched-it’s-boring chauvinists (“I’m looking for a slim and trim woman who keeps a beautiful home.” That’s an actual quote. From 2019), but for the most part, I ran into a bunch of normal-seeming men who wanted to tell me all about themselves and their jobs and their hobbies and their hopes and their dreams and yet never seemed to even wonder about any of these things as they might relate to me. Weird.
At first, I was merely annoyed by this. I mean, it’s a cultural refrain, right? Men like to talk about themselves. But it was nearly ALL of them. I know a lot of men in real life, and yes, there are a few who present in person the ways these guys present online, but it’s certainly not anywhere close to one hundred percent of the men I know.
So I’ve been thinking about this, from an analytical perspective, and I think I’ve got it.
When we encounter someone in real life to whom we are attracted, the connection is sparked by something about them. It could be purely physical appearance, but often it’s something more. It’s a collection of mannerisms, or a display of kindness, or an air of mystery, or a killer sense of humor. Our curiosity is piqued by that one thing, and then we want to know more, so we ask. And so it begins.
When we join an online dating platform, we come at it from an entirely selfish position: I’m lonely, I’m bored, I’m broke, I want this and this and this and this . . .
So, from the get-go, we approach the quest for true love the way we approach shopping on Amazon Prime. We filter, and rank, and “add to cart,” and “save for later,” and comparison shop, and bargain hunt. Basically, we completely commodify our potential dates.
This isn’t any radical observation, of course — you’d have to be an idiot to not recognize the blatant and brutal economy of online dating.
But I do think we should interrogate it more than we do. If I’m choosing between six different alpaca sweaters, I’m only thinking about myself. What else WOULD I think about? The alpacas? The alpacas’ owner? The shearer? The person who spun the fleece into wool? The knitter? No. I don’t care about any of that. I want what I want: an alpaca sweater that offers the best warmth and appearance for the least amount of money and hassle. Duh.
And that works for alpaca sweater-buying, but it doesn’t work for finding human connection.
On the flip side, when we’re creating and tweaking our own profiles, we are equally uninterested in anyone else’s feelings or idiosyncrasies, because we are wholly consumed with branding ourselves. We’re like advertising creatives: we DO care about what other people want and need, but only in terms of how those wants and needs relate to whether they’ll buy what we’re selling. So if I’m selling, say, a diet plan, I’m shallowly concerned about whether my potential clients feel insecure enough about their weight to buy my product. But beyond that, I don’t really care how they feel.
So basically, we’re doing it wrong. We’re all being selfish. We’re attempting to find a relationship that, by definition, must be characterized by selflessness and the ability to be other-person-oriented, but we’re using a modality that encourages competition, self-centeredness, and superficiality. Most of the sites even tell you how to write your profile (Be positive! Put your best foot forward! Have good lighting!). How does anyone cull a meaningful relationship from this?
There is a solution, and I’ve figured out what it is, but I don’t think anyone is interested, because it will take a whole lot of time, a whole lot of writing, and a whole lot of reading. It will also take original and critical thinking. So this may be a thought experiment more than anything else, but for the sake of consideration, and in addition to the foundational “stop being so selfish” guideline I’ve already offered, here are the rules for the online dating site I will invent:
Number one, everyone stop writing vapid bullshit cliches. No more “living life to the fullest” or “appreciating every day of this journey called life.” These are easy to code for, and if you type one on my site, you’re finished.
Also, stop talking about exercise. If we calculated the ratio of exercise-talk to the rest of the profile text and then compared that ratio to time spent in real life, it would appear that most adults who are interested in dating spend approximately 85% of all their waking hours exercising. I’m not buying it.
One picture. ONE. The picture should be clear and feature your face. The face shouldn’t be making a weird pucker or a scary sneer. It *definitely* should not be winking. Just smile and look at the camera. If you have hundreds of photos of yourself finishing marathons, rock climbing, and carrying large dogs, then save all those for an actual date. The picture should also not feature you holding a fish. I’m talking to you, Wisconsin.
Actually write things that have some sort of tangible meaning. For example, if the question asks you to describe your perfect day, don’t say that you “just want to smile and enjoy the ride” — that doesn’t mean anything. Instead, write something real — you want to ride your Vespa through the Iowa cornfields and then sit on your front porch and read David Sedaris; you want to see Hamilton on Broadway even though you’re terrified of New York City; you want to ride a Lime scooter to meet up with friends for pizza and then throw rocks into a lake; you want to shop at Kohl’s — — it really doesn’t matter, just be specific.
Stop telling everyone you are a good listener. That is literally counterproductive.
Read, actually read, the things other people have written. If you see something that catches your attention and you are honestly curious about a person, then you should send them a message. The message must have substance. If you send a message that just says, “Hey,” then you are kicked off the site. Ditto for “Your cute.” In fact, let’s get this homonym thing under control right now. There are eight of them that cause the vast majority of problems: to, too, two; there, their, and they’re; your and you’re. Just learn them. Sheesh.
There are further details I need to work out before this site can go live. I need to write an algorithm that prioritizes men who use the highest number of multi-syllabic words and compound/complex sentence structures yet also filters them for pretentiousness and cheesy platitude usage.
It’s going to take some time. Until then, I’ll just be living life to the fullest.