By JEFFREY ELLINGER
After Ms. Read-and-Sex, I didn’t lose hope. Onwards, Christian soldier. I met a woman who seemed quite promising, then canceled our first date. A month later, after I updated my profile pictures, she returned from her silence and apologized. “I had a bad Internet date the night before,” she wrote, “and I just wasn't feeling it.” And so with all those bad omens scattered in the path already we went out for coffee. Drinking warm drinks on a very cold Minneapolis morning, we bonded over Woody Allen films and her work in comparative literature at the University of Minnesota and what the people in the table behind us were talking about (we decided it was their first date, too). All in all, it was one of the best dates a person could have, it really was, and we planned to meet again later that week. We would watch Manhattan.
I remember I worked that evening, so I told her I'd have to come over late. But just an hour before we were supposed to meet, she texted to say she could not, we would have to reschedule. She promised we'd see each other that week, even twice if I wanted. I said okay and waited with excitement. Then, when the night came we were to see each other, she called to cancel. Still, this was a woman who tweeted “nervous heart bubbles" after our coffee—I took that to be a good sign.
But I was misreading the signs (or the tweets) because after our one date, we’d never see each other, our “relationship” dwindling by way of online chats. Somewhat so in our first one where she told me she was "very busy" for the next couple weeks, then, more, when she told me she had another she slept with on occasion, then, the final nail, where I asked what she was "really thinking" and she responded with, "I'd be interested to talk about this, but right now I have to go eat." And, I know, it sounds trivial when I tell it like this. But in reality, it was heartbreaking in a way I can't seem to mend. It’s these kinds of frivolous heartbreaks that modern online dating is piling onto an already complex society, extrapolating them into exponentially higher rates.
After "Coffee," I met a new woman who renewed my faith in online dating. You think this is my storybook ending, my Cinderella, my perfect match, my Happily Ever After, right? Nope. Looking back at it now, meeting her was the worst thing that could possibly happen.
This person, we’ll call her The Artist, was just about as perfect as could be. I remember her profile name was CartoonDaisies, which probably describes her better than I ever could. From our very first meeting (over pancakes), The Artist was colorful and bright and supportive of my desire to be a writer, even if I was a little old to be chasing after a dream. Also, it didn't hurt that she was very well put together.
I considered myself quite lucky to have met The Artist that snowy morning and I wish I could say now I consider myself even luckier to still be with her. The truth is, this was a case of another missing “It.” So, in the end, we broke up. And, because I didn't break it off very gracefully, The Artist doesn't talk to me anymore. Still, since I was on the 'winning' end of the relationship, I went back to OkCupid.
Now it's almost two years later and I’ve had the few experiences listed here and an embarrassing amount more, experiences which led to me write this, experiences which have led many of my friends to tell me to "start a blog," as I'm sure many other people have advised many other friends to do, all because of all their "wacky" online dating stories. I’ve given you a taste. In fact, I kind of want to go on and tell you about all of them to strengthen my case. But I won’t. I’ve already given you enough to think of me as a loser, a dork, even a lothario.
Let's just say all these things happened: I was stood up. I was canceled on. I was told nothing at all. I was told I was "amazing," but we couldn't see each other anymore. I was told things were "complicated." I was told I didn't have enough confidence by someone I had never met. I was told about last minute interview requests moments before a date. I was told it was a game. I was told we should strive to be more open and honest by the same person who told me it was a game. I was told I was too aggressive by the person who complained of milquetoast men. And I was told, most of all, how straightforward this all is. But here in 2013 the one thing I can say with clarity is this: The place you do not want to go if you're looking for straightforward dialogue on love is the Internet.
The age of innocent Internet love, if it ever existed, is long over. The fact is, people, both men and women, rationalize treating those they meet on the Internet poorly, far more than they ever would with someone they meet from 'the real world.' Human behavior we'd normally call reprehensible seems to become acceptable when it's enacted towards a digital profile. I'm not saying I'm so innocent here either, I've done things my Christian composite would've frowned upon. He would have found it all very ungodly, yes, but he would have found it impersonal even more. He might have even used the word dehumanizing.
And I suppose the older, wiser me would have to agree with him there. The ease with which we bring people from the Internet in and out of our lives and the ease with which we shoo them back out again—with less than a couple of strokes of a keyboard and the click of a button—is kind of terrible. What’s even more damaging, what guarantees we’re all stuck in purgatory, is the numbers game the Internet is by its very nature. It's the newfound and, really, uniquely, bizarre compilation of people available to be browsed through on a dating site that results quite naturally, in the formation of a "queue.” And why shouldn’t we, the online daters, form this line? We have quite literally a million wonderful OKCupid pages to shuffle through. It’s not hard—effortlessly simple, even—to go on three, four, five dates a week. A friend recently told me she went on 11 different dates in 11 days, and that's tame compared to some.
But therein lies the problem. It’s the irresistable allure of what's over the fence—not to mention the thrill of new crushes, of new attention—and how misleading that can be, even devastating. Man with man, woman with woman, man with woman, it doesn't matter, it's all the same problem: there’s just too many of us. We live in a system which provides us with seemingly real, endless choices; choices that are in actuality a mirage meant to entice us into keeping our profiles active, into renewing our memberships, into searching for the perfect love who is surely out there, and just a little bit better.
It’s this kind of queue thinking which has caused us—the online daters—to become the kind of people who can at times fail to show the smallest modicum of human kindness. It's not because we're bad people, necessarily; it's just not pragmatic to be placating the feelings of every boy or girl who may have fallen for you after one or two dates when you’ve got a queue to return to. It's that coldness required to reject those you've already seen and are done with that makes us start believing that anyone who has ever online dated is made not of flesh and bone, but of wires and steel.
So what do you do then? I suppose, very little. We can’t all be rich, good looking, successful, lucky in love. And we can’t all meet our spouses in a animal husbandry program and start a farm and raise a family. Perhaps, in this day and age, there is no way to avoid writing long, four-part essays on the topic; to avoid over-analyzing the wait times of text messages and investigating the appropriateness and the frequency of smiley faces in said text messages; no way to not sit on at your lunch break re-reading those words you've seen before, "You know, I'm not really looking for a relationships.” Maybe all of this is now part of the human condition.
Maybe all I want to do is speak from the heart of my younger self to every hopeful online dater: if you're on an online dating site as you read this, my heart breaks thinking of yours, of how soon it will be crushed under the endless march of feet in your neverending queue.
Jeffrey Ellinger's writing has appeared online at Vice, Thought Catalog, and Pitchfork. He lives in Minneapolis. You can follow him on Twitter here.
Photo by Luke Faraone / remix by Fernando Alfonso III