Let's Fall In Love (Or Hook-Up, Or Pillow-Fight, Or... Whatever) Online
Like thousands of people around the country this month, my friend Gina re-activated her dating site profile this January.
“New year, new start!” she said, excitedly, puffing on a cigarette as we cruised the PCH with the top down, the cool winter breeze blowing through our hair. “I'm doing this new thing, too, called 'sober dating.'”
“Not drinking on dates?” I asked.
“No, no,” she corrected me quickly. “Slow, cold-headed dating. It's called sober because you don't get drunk on the person, you just go and spend a few hours together, then you go home. It's about pacing yourself, not getting all caught up.”
“Why wouldn't you want to get caught up?” I asked. “Isn't that the best part?”
“Because they might not be that into you,” she replied.
“Oh, but why would you go out with them to begin with if they weren't?”
Gina looked at me like I was crazy. And without context, I can't say I blame her.
My friend Geoff Brown, who heads Los Angele's Social Media Club calls my online dating style “The Long Tail Pick Up.” A long tail is a sales concept that refers to the sales of items in small quantities that suit the interest of a more refined audience, which over a period of time can accumulate to take a larger market share than hot must-haves on the market.
“Imagine the business cycle of a video game,” he explains. “The game initially sells then settles at a medium number of sales and continues at that level over a long period of time. Original product life cycle is a spike up and then a sharp decline, then another bump and another decrease, so when you're talking about a long tail, you're talking about something that's in demand, but for a longer amount of time. It's not a hard sale, you're not going to close the deal right away. You have the opportunity to take the first step, get your foot on the door, and go from there.”
What I do, essentially, is make myself available over different non-dating-specific networks and distribute my content that way, accumulating users in these networks who are like-minded, or who at the very least find my contributions valuable.
“Catching the eye of the Flox is an arduous process,” my friend Jack joked when I called him to ask. “I was direct messaging you on Twitter for months, then e-mailing back and forth for six months before you finally agreed to go hang with me.”
By interacting with a stream of content, people don't just get a snapshot of me taken at any single point in time, craftily devised to make me appear more awesome than I am. They get my work, my neuroses, my obsessions, my interests, the way I communicate with friends, the frequency I cuss, a peek into what I do and eat—everything. Even when it's 140 characters at a time, the entirety of the stream provides more than a single profile page could.
My profile photo is a professional shot, but because I upload mobile photos, people who browse my streams get to see the more natural side of me, as well. But the emphasis isn't really on looks the way that it tends to be on dating sites: it's on content. To get my attention, to even get a follow-back on Twitter, you have to publicly message me and engage with my content.
“The conversion point is different,” says Geoff. “The old saying used to be that women make up their minds in the first ten seconds of seeing a guy. Now it's a longer decision period that has a lot more information. It may lead to people being attracted to one another for the right reasons.”
By using a network not designed specifically for dating, I am essentially forcing a more conventional form of interaction. Call it wooing, if you like. I do.
No column about online dating would be complete without a sojourn into some of the most popular sites on the web. With that in mind, I jumped on Match.com and eHarmony.
Match presented me with a lot of questions: basics such as relationship status, gender, what I'm looking for, how far I am willing to go to get it, height, body type, eye and hair color, sports and exercise I like, stuff I do in my free time, favorite cities, smoking and drinking habits, job, children and whether I want any, my ethnicity, my religion, what charities I am drawn to, what comedians I think are funny, what I would do with a bonus, what I want in a man, and finally, a section for me to share myself in my own words (200 minimum, 4,000 maximum—sounds like a high school essay, jeez).
Color me old-school, but I don't trust an algorithm to understand the secrets of my heart. Especially when none of the questions they asked about my ideal match have anything to do with what I consider important.
Here's the truth: I do have a type. But tall, dark and handsome isn't it. I like a man who can keep up with me intellectually and sexually, who can handle how hard I will adore him (more a wildfire than a hearth—which is, admittedly, a little frightening), who is secure enough that I adore him that he will not live in a constant state of worry because I am a sex blogger and that means that, more often than not, while he's at home missing me, I'm going to be doing something conventionally inappropriate, like being tied up and flogged in front of a crowd of spectators wearing little more than lingerie, or getting crazy with porn stars in a cage at a convention, or running around some exotic locale with the director of some new porn flick. Face it: invites to the Mansion don't often come with a “plus one.” That's a tough one.
Is that it? I can think of a few more things, which are less important: decorum, an understanding of etiquette, cleanliness, passion for what he does, and the ability to stand up to his family if necessary (a man who can't tell his mother that he loves her, but no, she can't be mean to his wife, is no man at all).
Before I completed my profile, I saved it and logged out and ran a search for women in my area and age range to see what they were saying. They looked like variations of the same copy: “I'm nice! I'm always smiling! I have a great sense of humor! I love the outdoors and walks on the beach! I love eating out! I love animals! I love traveling!”
I went back to my profile and wrote a slightly caustic profile about not liking walks on the beach very much, eating out out of convenience and liking travel but hating commercial flying. Surprisingly, even with such a bitchy profile, I got some responses. Or, I should say, I was surprised until I read them and realized that most of the men replying hadn't read a damn word I'd written. What did I expect from a site that bases itself on simple searches like age, location and keyword?
I ran over to eHarmony, a site that promises a more discriminating process.
Their 20-page questionnaire took away 30 minutes of my life that I will never get back. More LiveJournal tell-me-about-you meme-esque than Myers-Briggs personality indicator, their survey sought to get a feel for who I really was, to better match me with people in their database.
Unlike Match.com, eHarmony cares about your brain and tries to make a distinction between education and intelligence. But they delve no further. Intelligent how? Like, won't cross the street without looking? Is a rocket scientist? Wrote a treatise on our aversion Comic Sans based on the work of Derrida and Lacan? Can complete a sudoku puzzle in one breath before his first cup of coffee? What the hell does “intelligent” mean?
I browsed the profiles eHarmony selected for me based on my questionnaire answers.
“I love new things, places and people!” “I love the beach!” “I love traveling!” “I like eating out!” “I'm funny!” “I like to travel!” (yes, again). “I love to live life 'in the moment'!” (who puts “in the moment” in quotes in that kind of statement anyway?)
I logged out. A few minutes later, during a cursory browse of my inbox, I saw Match had nearly exploded it with winks and e-mails.
“You should try OK Cupid,” my friend Dee told me.
OK Cupid is not a bad site. Combining the usual location-based matching, this dating site also offers thousands of tests you can take to better narrow down your search. Unlike eHarmony's questionnaire, these tests are made by OK Cupid and members themselves and are often more fun than scientific.
I'd tried OK Cupid back in the early zeroes, during an experiment to see whether I would have more fun going out with people based on looks (through Hot or Not) than based on personality (through OK Cupid). The consensus: neither looks nor personality-defining test answers were enough for me to get a sense of whether the date was going to be a good time investment. I didn't go on any second dates and several I ended a few minutes in because there just wasn't a spark (yes, these were largely comprised of the Hot or Not 10s I'd contacted).
I need more information. Time is a precious thing. I would rather go on three dates per year with people I know are interesting and turn me on, than go on 300 dates with people I'm unsure about. People who say “but it's a free dinner!” offend me. I'd much rather starve with people who really matter to me.
(And as a freelance writer, I'll tell you: I have indeed starved.)
Last year, at the behest of my friend Simone, queen of dating and long-time Match subscriber, I did the whole “egalitarian dating” thing, meaning I went out with people who seemed cool, but whom I wasn't totally hot for yet because their streams didn't have enough information and we hadn't engaged for that long. Three dates with three different men: two were only slightly boring and the third was downright excruciating. Never again.
“There are a couple of things you have to consider,” says my friend Dee. “First: you're really weird. Most people are not as weird as you. Most people do like caring, funny, outdoorsy types. You make up a very small percentage of the population that wants to have emotionally electrifying loves filled adventure and craziness and really dirty sex where afterward you'll graph the frequency of sex with your partner over a period of time and then get in a fight over the role of neurotransmitters in love and desire.”
I burst out laughing.
“But if you step outside of yourself for a moment and consider the average person, like, say, me,” she went on, “who are lucky enough to have pretty standard ideas of what they want in a partner, these sites work. I just want to meet a nice Jewish guy who likes hiking and isn't allergic to dogs, who's between 30 and 35 and is fairly successful. So JDate works for me. Look at a few pictures, exchange a few e-mails, maybe go on a date, see where it goes.”
Gina agrees. She told me intelligence was important, but this was easy for her to infer from their back and forth on e-mail.
“Essentially, dating sites are for people who know what they want,” my friend Simone said when I called her to get her take. “There are millions of niche sites for just about everything. Are you in recovery and need someone who's there with you? There's a site for that. Want someone who's a Christian? There's a site for that. Want someone who loves their pets? There's a site for that. Looking for someone else who's HIV-positive? There's a site for that, too. Have you checked IntelligentPeople.com? They make you take an IQ test to join.”
“Is there one for intelligent perverts?”
“Hmm, I'm not sure,” she replied. “How would you gauge that? Solve this equation, then please select whether you'd like the answer in a.) your mouth, b.) your pussy, c.) your ass, or d.) all of the above—at the same time!”
My friend Maxine got fed up with algorithm-based dating after trying out Match for a few months and finding few prospects.
“I tried every twist I could find to meet people in those environments and I couldn't get the dogs to pick me up,” she told me. “When I did have a date with somebody, I generally found they were intellectually not up to who I wanted to meet.”
She knew what she wanted was a bit of a specialty market, so she quit Match and got on Craigslist.
“You can hit specific vertical markets and the response is immediate,” she told me. “If you're familiar with the immediate response technique in advertising—particularly in radio—they tell you the exact time they're going to be advertising and you better have people by the phone because you're going to get flooded with calls. Craigslist to me is immediate response dating. It's a fantastic venue. You can play with different methods and see what works and what doesn't.”
She averaged a couple hundred responses putting her own ads together on Craigslist. Without profiles, people knew they had one chance to get her attention.
“I developed a good eye for who I should respond to and who I shouldn't,” she told me. “If they were writing me shallow—you know, 'U sound like yr hot,'—-responses, then they probably weren't my type. And then there are what I call the professional guys, who'll answer everybody, sometimes with the same response, sometimes with a different response but the same address. I think that if you just take the intelligence factor and who has the ability to communicate and start looking at that really carefully, you're able to select down to a pretty specific group within that hundred people and you increase your chances of meeting somebody you'll really like.”
THE HARD SALE BLITZKRIEG
As someone who writes about sex and relationships, I run across a lot of different products for maximizing one's opportunities in dating. I have written one or two guides in my day but I nevertheless get a little turned off by things like The Matchbook Method, which completely strips the online dating experience of the personal in the name of quantity.
“Don't even wait for her profile to load,” says founder Action Jackson, after performing an advanced search of single women on MySpace based on a few specifics. “Find the first attractive woman you want to message, open her profile in a new window, as soon as you see the send message—e-mail me, whatever—button, click on that. As soon as it loads, we copy one of the openers into the body... as soon as you see the message has been sent, close the window, go back, find the next cute girl you want to message, click on her profile, don't even wait for it to load, message her, rinse and repeat.”
Using the same opener, Jackson messages 28 different girls in ten minutes.
Look. I'm all about helping people find someone. But this whole business of “don't even wait for her profile to load” and copying and pasting the same message assembly-line type of approach makes me nauseous.
THE LONG TAIL
Sam Lawrence and April Donato have taken a stand against this impersonal approach to connecting. In an effort to create a space for people to really get to know each other and meet, they created Blackbox Republic, a paid site that requires members to vouch for you before you can join.
“It started with 17 hour ride home from Burning Man,” Lawrence told me when I interviewed him last month. “April and I were in RV filled with dust and dirt and garbage. Burning Man is about self-expression, creativity. On the drive back we talked about how the most kick ass thing was people didn’t talk about work or houses or kids. It was a much more intimate conversation. We started asking ourselves why there wasn’t a walled-off place like that, where people don’t judge you and you can really be you.”
They went online to see if something like this existed.
“We found two things,” Lawrence explained. “There were dating sites, which have a short-term value proposition, and which are splintered by a lot of labels, race, sexual orientation, age–all these classifications. Relationships are messy, the social web is messy and people don’t want the labels. They want to self-organize without the labels.”
The other thing they found were the social networks with which we’re familiar, like Facebook and MySpace.
“Facebook and networks like that don’t guarantee you connect with like-minded people,” Lawrence added. “Everyday in the news we see people dropped from jobs because they were drinking a beer.”
The result is Blackbox Republic: a walled-off hybrid of Facebook and Twitter (and if you think Facebook is pretty walled off, think again) with various security layers already in place, and the option to have people as followers or friends. The site also allows for “winking” a la Match, only on Blackbox, these “winks” (known there as “wishbones”) expire after a certain period of time—because the founders know that people aren't static.
The site also features a sliding scale on everyone's profile displaying how straight or gay they are, how much they feel like engaging in new entanglements and how ready they are to take on another partner.
While they don't market their offering as a dating site, its founders know that's a likely result of inhabiting a space where you are really free to share yourself.
“Sex will happen!” exclaimed Donato. It's more than an admission—it's a mission statement.
But to prevent the kind of gaming that plagues MySpace and dating sites, the search on Blackbox Republic is limited to sexual orientation, relationship status, a willingness to add more partners to the mix you have going on, how much you like sex, how outgoing you are, your preferred gender, geographic proximity, and whether you seek friends, love, social dates, parties, pillow fights (yes, really!) or hookups.
The founders' understanding of the complexity of dating in this day and age is also present in the relationship status section of the site, which allows you to make connections to the people you're dating—like on Facebook. But unlike Facebook, you can have more than one partner and you can describe your relationships however you like.
Not only can you input whatever label you want on your entanglements, but the other person can pick something totally different. Lawrence’s relationship with Donato is “in love.” Her relationship with him? “Cuddling.”
With options like these, you need never select the grossly ambiguous “it's complicated,” again. Because it is complicated. It's much more than a label, a picture, an opener. It's about people, in their constant state of change, finding each other and making real connections.
So, what did I learn from my little sojourn into the world of online dating? It's about what works for you. Like Simone said—there is a dating site for almost everything. Run a search on Google for “dating” and whatever other keyword describes what you're looking for and chances are you will find a site that can help you connect with other people looking for the same thing. And if you want to maximize your ROI on a site, there are a million products available to help you game the system.
But if you have a specific and somewhat uncommon combination of things you want in a partner, or if you want the hell wooed out of you, then, my friends, the best answer is to put yourself out there on social networks.
I did a quick survey of my partners following my divorce. This is the breakdown:
The fastest way to a man's heart may be through his stomach, but the fastest way to mine appears to be through consistent, intelligent interaction on Twitter.
Jack, Ev, Biz—consider yourselves heroes.
What about you? Do you date online? What sites do you use and how successful are the you've connections established there?
AV Flox is the editor of /Slantist--what your newspaper would look like if it had a sex section.