I really miss what it felt like to be at a middle school dance. The middle school dance of the aughts: the ultimate hormonal arena. It hurt like nothing else to be passed over for a slow dance to “My Heart Will Go On,” but my God, when that boy with the blonde tips asked you to dance after months of standing with arms folded over by the bleachers, there was no greater triumph. When he tried to grind with you it was a little less romantic, but hey, I was lucky to come up in the aughts and in the wake of sexual liberation. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so strongly in my life.
I wanted to feel captive to John’s kind blue eyes. We hadn’t stopped talking for the duration of a thoughtfully planned date, down to the extended, roundabout route we took to the train. I enjoyed his company, how he also liked to spend time outdoors, how despite our common interests he didn’t agree with everything I said to placate me like some sleazebag.
As we lingered at the subway entrance, I couldn’t shake the feeling that no matter how much I enjoyed his company, something didn’t quite gel. In the middle of me neurotically trying to strike up some sort of deal with myself that I HAD to give this a try–this being the physical contact portion of the night, the kiss–my bubble burst when a few feet away I spotted Scott. Scott is someone I’d met through work and felt an intense physical attraction to for a long time. I told friends more about those 30 seconds during which Scott stopped to say a cordial hello (him merely removing his earbuds gave me that Middle School Dance) than the previous four hours of what was, by the books, “a great date.” Scott ambled down to the subway, my date muttered an accusatory “who was that,” and we parted after one forced, transactional kiss. They say the opposite of love is indifference; this was that idea incarnate.
That night I went home and, for what I’d guess was probably the seventh time, deleted all of my dating apps. It was final.
I relayed this story to friends exhaustively in the coming weeks. It’s funny how we put the burden of our own understanding on others, cautiously adjusting stories here and there to try and make our narratives digestible. An internet person in every other aspect of my life, I even dated someone I once met through an extended network of people from Twitter. The night with Scott was merely a catalyst for the a feeling I’d buried: that I somehow felt wronged by dating apps.
Each time I downloaded them it was only a matter of weeks before they felt like a clumsy daytime distraction, yet another contender for the internet notification dopamine–lever instead of something useful for finding someone to share time with – or even playful flirtation. I felt that if you really wanted to make use of them and the seductive pull of having a high volume of suitors (dating apps traffic in choice, in volume) half your free evenings were taken up with drinks. What is it with everyone always wanting to get “drinks,” anyways?
I’ve since tried to understand the particular tangle of vulnerabilities that’s left me feeling so ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ about both experience of using dating apps and the dates I’ve gone thanks to them.
A few weeks back, a friend and I were chatting in his apartment when the topic of dating apps came up. He was well versed in all of them. When he disclosed that he’d quit them entirely, I was overeager in sharing that I recently had as well, for real this time. We’re both internet people, and despite having gone to the same college, our friendship was born years later, over Twitter and in New York. How can someone who’s never really had scruples about meeting people from shared interests via the internet be so put off by finding someone to flirt with or date or anything in between online,” I cried to him, refreshing my Instagram.
From the humorous to the *theoretically* heartfelt, the internet is full of tales about people who quit dating apps. Some attempt humor but end up blaming the user. Some are painfully reductive, notable for gripes such as “the date could be terrible’ or “people don’t look like what I thought they would.” The platitudes are endless. We’re blamed for having too many choices. That I refuse to buy into. One of my favorite parts of Aziz Ansari’s Modern Romance is the examination of how people’s selection of mates has changed over time. Generally speaking, people used to marry someone who lived very close to them. Over the last 50 years or so, this tendency has dropped off, and the book makes arguments based on focus groups, subreddits and the like that despite our the seemingly endless options in our phones, we’re less happy. Read the book for the myriad personal, sociological and psychological citations. Many of these make sense, but I still couldn’t buy them as the sole reason for my melancholia at the hand of swiping. My own grandparents had an arranged marriage, so I embrace the somewhat dizzying freedom of choice and its attendant increased odds of rejection. Dating apps hardly took me out of the neighborhood anyways, and I desperately felt that without them I risked missing out on great guys–think the hunnie you share a commute with, sometimes wind up entangled with on the train, but never meet.
In speaking with about others who gave them up, I attempted to better understand this little issue (is there ‘viagra’ for digital magnetism?). Why did we, all open-minded folk who spend countless daily hours on the internet, feel so relieved when we quit swiping?
There’s nothing I dislike more than the attitude some people have that they’re above dating apps, or as some of the dudes I interviewed made very clear, “don’t need them.” After a summer of heady flirtation, my fall would have benefited from them working for me. Forget the disaster stories, the guys in “I’d fuck me too t-shirts”–we can compartmentalize those. I meet enough assholes IRL to know these are merely an echo of dating apps putting us “behind the wheel,” per se. Horny humans have acted a fool (send me a sexy pic ;)) since the days of AIM screen names. Nevertheless, flirting in something called Bumble never quite made me squirm the way it did when I met someone by chance.
You’re forced to face up to the image of your ideal self, and she can be a huge bitch.
On Hinge, I’m super tan and in shape in photos from the summer (I’ve since put on my stressed-in-NYC weight). I’m hiking, even though I hardly do that anymore. And here’s the token group shot, where I’m pictured with a blonde friend! Maybe her hair will entice him in some fucked up way if my particular ethnically ambiguous look doesn’t do it! Come to think of it, I’ve always had a blonde sidekick, perhaps a latent social survival technique to balance out what can be my own brooding energy. These are my perceived best selves, the same ones I’ll present to you anecdotally should we meet for a first date. “You’re suddenly able to choose how you want to be perceived by the dating world and that’s almost scary,” one friend explained to me, “it’s not reflective of you, it’s reflective of your ideal self.” Ideal Kristina became a judgmental bitch who pointed fingers for no longer looking as “hot” as she did in profile pictures. Perhaps she’s the one who sat on my shoulder during dates, keeping me locked up in my head and separate from the baser impulses that feed what one could call chemistry.
This girl points fingers at me, the one who’s too insecure to use a recent selfie. If I don’t trust my own curation, how can I trust yours?
We have many selves, many faces. Forced to face the duplicitousness of this dating app self, I wondered how she differed from the me who held flirtations on other platforms. Varying online personas develop in accordance with the platform and to an extent, the user experience is designed to make that happen. “With Twitter or other social, it’s truly randomized, with online dating there’s a goal,” a 28-year-old writer and Twitter enthusiast summarized. “With someone in a social space you probably don’t have a goal in mind to be trying to find someone. You are reading news and Kanye’s tweets and sometimes you happen to stumble upon an interesting POV, something you vibe upon.” Taken out of the “I’m screening you for hotness or with a bio arena,” online mediums like twitter echo the offline way of things in their randomness. Personally, it still feels exciting to stumble upon someone in these mediums. Unlike my dating app self- a carefully crafted image that I hoped would be hot and also just irreverent enough to scare off finance bros, signifying to some unicorn man that I’m deep, or whatever, me on Twitter is pretty raw. I’d argue that my projections on that medium are the least filtered of all, perhaps more so than IRL me.
It seems that somewhere along the way, hating the disparity between your ideal projected self and your “real self” (whatever that is in 2016) became a battle that took the fun out of it all. I didn’t feel sexy and questioned the person sitting across from me at “drinks,” projecting my own neuroses onto him. I couldn’t help but think about how my narcissistic, eerily charming ex-boyfriend would do so well on the medium. This alone made me shudder.
It felt like ordering off a menu where there is no option to add a side order of smoldering glances.
Stendhal once wrote, “Glances are the heavy artillery of the flirt: everything can be conveyed in a look.” The only heavy artillery used in Tinder is how many vacations a dude could convey he’d been able to afford in the past year. Of the 20 or so people I spoke with, each had choice words on how dating apps failed to align with their perceived notions of flirtation. “There’s something about catching a glance across a humid dim lit room you just can’t get from an app,” explains Leeanne, a 29-year-old art director, adding “They always felt manufactured.”
A younger friend who recently moved to LA likened the experience to ordering off a menu. “We do everything on demand. Certain types of people prefer records, the slowness of things and getting hands in the dirt instead of on demand all the time. I’m sure it works better for people who are used to a transactional life, having things on demand,” she explained, adding, “chemistry is chemical. Dating apps took that away from me.” In my own experience, going on dates and sorting through profiles began to feel like the job application process. Bios felt like cover letters, and cover letters are awful.
It’s just a personal preference thing. How do you handle the mystery?
Conjuring up attraction is a mystery and buying into the uncertainty of that is a thrill I’m unwilling to part with. One male friend explained, “The primary reason for ultimately removing all kinds of apps and profiles was that I come from a place where I believe that the best connections I made in my life have been through random occurrences.” I too buy into synchronicity and randomness, but this thought felt somewhat in line with a judgy voice in my head (maybe it’s that extra tan bitch-self I created for the apps).
Leeane disliked the value dating apps place on first impressions. “In my experience, people like to present idyllic versions of their lives on apps that they never live up to, whereas you could probably meet the same person at that very same bar and hypothetically have an amazing night where you end up idealizing them in ways you would have never done otherwise.” Some people can’t live without the thrill of chance interaction.
But unlike many, I’m not tied to a meet-cute story, and I’ve always sort of resented those who do have perfect stories for all of their firsts… don’t they drink?
In the end, quitting them freed me from myself. I realized I was willing to take the risk of missing out on potential mates. I’ll never fully come understand why online dating didn’t vibe with me but now accept that it’s ok to feel at odds with something that works for a large portion of my peers. When it comes to meals, some people like to order from Seamless, some shop solely from the farmer’s market and almost always cook for themselves. Sometimes I’m broke and eat peanut butter for a week… We seek people out, people pursue us, and the mixture of pheromones, economy of choice and personal preference mysteriously entwines. I wish I liked dating apps, it would align nicely with my current goals to be free of a codependent relationship while also flirting at restaurants I’ve wanted to try forever. Till that changes, I’m the same girl who rode the impulsive hormonal waves of the middle school dance, just a little wiser and equipped with an iphone to fire off bitter tweets if the cute guy across the bar pays me no attention.