I realize that I am retreading old ground with this post, and I should not be writing about this given that I don’t actually have profiles on any dating apps. Furthermore I come across as an old fuddy-duddy who happens to smell like an ignorant bitch. So be it. It is time to stop hiding my true nature.
In light of my New Years resolutions, I have been spending too much time contemplating the subject of boyfriends, and in particular how one goes about obtaining one. The more I reflect on the dating apps and websites the more I despair. They might be okay for hookups, but it seems that they are structured incorrectly for finding boyfriends.
I think of a hookup as a person with whom one has a few sexual encounters, and with whom the connection is primarily sexual. There is usually a sexual component to boyfriendship as well, but also boyfriends form longer-term emotional connections and (I hope!) enjoy each other’s company outside the bedroom.
The problem is that we conflate sexual attraction with other forms of compatibility. Internet dating seems to optimize for the wrong thing.
Most dating sites are photo-centric. When browsing through profiles photos feature prominently. Those with nice photos get more attention and those who have poor photos (or worse, no photos) lose out. Tinder seems to be the natural evolution of this.
I understand how we got here, but it is messed up. Because photos matter so much some people game the system. People post photos that are years old, when they were younger and/or fitter. People take photos at particular angles using particular lighting to make themselves look better.
Photos are a surprisingly low-bandwidth medium. Most of us are not just attracted to a static picture of how somebody looks. We also are drawn to the way people move, the way they interact with us, the way they speak. Photos don’t convey any of that. Even videos lose a lot of information.
Let’s say that somebody looks gorgeous on their dating profile, and furthermore that they are that gorgeous in real life. So what? If they have beautiful outsides but ugly insides then they are not good boyfriend material, and a proper dating app would filter that out. If their looks were to fade then there needs to be some other connection that keeps you together.
But if somebody does not look good then we swipe left and are done with them. Do we actually bother to read their profiles or initiate chat?
Too many fish
Maybe the paradox of choice is not a real phenomenon, but I still believe in it, and it seems to be a big problem on dating sites. I don’t want to be matched with 100 different people. It is actively harmful to have that many matches, because if I find somebody who is fairly compatible with me but has some flaws, then it is easy to discard that person and keep looking for Mr. Perfect (who, incidentally, does not exist). Everybody comes with irritations. In successful long-term relationships, people work through those irritations and live together. But if there are plenty of fish in the sea, then why not keep fishing?
In addition to fish, there is the problem of frogs. All of the dating sites claim to have algorithms that will find your dream boyfriend quickly. Do any of these algorithms really work? If so, why are you bombarded with dozens of possible candidates? Why do you get messaged by so many poor candidates immediately? These systems reward those who blast out messages and come-ons to as many people as possible, which lower the overall quality of the results.
For what it is worth, I believe that we are headed straight towards a psychological profiling dystopia, and that it may well become possible to algorithmically find Mr. Right. But I do not think we are there yet, and I am not sure I want to live in a world where such a thing is possible.
I think dating sites fool us into thinking that we can optimize for an ideal boyfriend in ways that are unrealistic. We are granted all these options and think we need to filter for an optimal candidate in that group. Finding the fifth-best candidate or the tenth-best candidate means we lose out somehow.
I think dating sites promote this perception, but that it is pretty dangerous. Let’s switch contexts to see why. Consider coworkers. Unless we are in hiring positions, we usually do not have much say in selecting our coworkers. Some coworkers we like, some coworkers irritate us, and some coworkers we hate. But unless our workplaces are toxic, we tend to get along with many of our coworkers “well enough”, in the sense that we would rather keep our jobs with these coworkers rather than leave. Our coworkers have foibles; we adjust to them or we discover we can’t.
I claim that we do not need ideal, top-of-the-line coworkers in order to feel comfortable in our work environments. If our coworkers are mostly good and mostly easy to get along with, then we do okay. Better coworkers can definitely make a difference over worse ones, but as long as our coworkers are above a certain threshold then we are fine.
We don’t apply the same standards to finding boyfriends. Why? I can understand that our thresholds for boyfriendship are higher than our thresholds for coworkership, but so long as the threshold is met then it seems entirely reasonable that we can be happy. There are a lot of arranged marriages in the world. I am sure a bunch of them are terrible, but I think a lot of them aren’t, and it is worth asking why that might be the case. Maybe low expectations are a factor. Maybe shared cultural and class values are a factor. Maybe there are other factors that could apply to our culture.
Dating doesn’t scale
I feel that trying to evaluate and match strangers algorithmically is much less efficient than what humans do naturally. Think about it: people are very efficient at sizing each other up in person. If you put 100 potential dating partners in a room and structure activities so that they naturally mingle, these people will quickly filter out people who do not interest them and will quickly gravitate towards people they like. Some of the criteria by which people will filter others will be as dumb as the ones dating sites use (namely, looks) but it will happen a lot faster.
Instead of promoting these group meetups, dating sites want us to evaluate candidates one by one. Furthermore, they expect us to meet strangers on the Internet (!) and then jump to boyfriend status with only a few dates in between. That’s insane. No matter so many of us are sick of kissing frogs. First we swipe left on good candidates who might not give a good first impression, and then we are expected to spend time evaluating the remaining candidates one by one. That’s terrible! Nobody wants to spend an hour drinking coffee with somebody whom they can tell will not work out within minutes. And if you find somebody who is promising early, then there is some temptation to keep looking just in case the overall dating pool is good and you will quickly find somebody better.
Frankly, I feel that we focus on meeting strangers too much. I understand that we have taboos that prohibit us from hooking up with people who are too close to us, because maybe we will mix our genes and have babies with genetic problems. But as far as I can tell, we did not stray that far outside our social circles when finding marriage partners in the past. Even if we did not know our future boyfriends beforehand, we often had known of them, or members of our own social circles knew them.
I think we are poisoned by the idea that somewhere in the world is Mr Right, and surely he is a handsome stranger in shining armor, and without some third party service catering to desperate singles we would have no chance of finding him. That is a narrative that serves the interests of the dating sites, not the interests of those seeking boyfriends.
I also think we are poisoned because technology turns us into lonely introverts staring at screens. We get most of our other entertainment sitting alone by ourselves, so why would we not organize our love lives in the same way? (The answer is: because this does not work well.)
The dating sites are not stupid. They understand my banal criticisms and go out of their way to claim that they match on more than photos. They claim to limit your options to the very best matches for you. They say the right things, but I have my doubts about whether they follow through.
There are some dating sites that cater to niches. They hope that by appealing to Christians, or Jews, or environmentalists, or hairy men, they will make it easier for like-minded people to find each other. Maybe this is the case if the aspects they filter on happen to be the aspects that are most relevant to you finding a successful boyfriend.
Unfortunately, the most popular websites for men to find boyfriends tend to skew heavily towards hookups. I am sure there are some marriage-minded gay dating sites out there, but they may face the opposite problem of having too many fish: without a critical mass of users it may be very difficult to find anybody who is an appropriate match.
There are high-end dating services that advertise themselves as “exclusive”. They charge lots of money and (in addition to their algorithms) claim to screen out inappropriate people (namely: people without money). I guess this is a good filter for social class, but these companies have a clear incentive to keep you on the hook as long as you will keep paying their fees. I wish I knew whether they were more successful than average dating sites at leading to actual boyfriends.
I had a lot of hope for OK Cupid. I liked its statistical approach to matching people, and I had hopes that it was not as photo-centric as other sites. My enthusiasm has waned since the site was bought out by match.com, however.
There are some dating sites that offer interactions other than one on one messaging. Some dating sites have forums. That might be a good way to evaluate others in group settings.
But the biggest counterexample to my argument is that everybody uses online dating now, and somehow it works. People really do find boyfriends online. So clearly I am missing something. What am I missing? Is it just a numbers game? Or do these dating sites work for some reason I am overlooking?
Personally I think there must be a better approach. Furthermore I think I have a sense of what one better approach might be.