By Stewart Mandel
I don’t mean to brag, but I know an awful lot about today’s single woman. In fact, I learned most of it without ever leaving my computer.
I know, for example, that today’s single woman “is as comfortable in a pair of jeans as she is a dress.”
I know she “likes to go out on the town but is equally happy to curl up on the couch and watch a movie.”
I know she “loves the outdoors” – camping, skiing, kayaking, climbing Mt. Everest.
I know she’s “tired of the bar scene.”
I know she’s “passionate about everything life has to offer and loves exploring new places.”
I know she has read Eat, Pray, Love.
And I know she can’t live without “my Blackberry, Starbucks chai lattes and my dog.”
If you think I’m merely throwing around stereotypes, you’re wrong. Over the past decade, I’ve read thousands and thousands of women’s online dating profiles – and the overwhelming majority of them contained at least one of the aforementioned factoids (especially the part about Eat, Pray, Love). These are not stereotypes, people — these are extremely informed observations.
If online dating were a history textbook, I would have been among the first voyagers on the Oregon Trail. Not only was I one of its earliest pioneers, my wagon crashed roughly every eight miles along the way.
I first joined JDate in the spring of 2000 – 2000! — upon learning that a high-school friend had met his soon-to-be wife using this newfangled invention. Back then JDate was merely a whisper among certain, date-deprived Jews, not a backbone of the religion. In the decade since, I subscribed, unsubscribed and resubscribed to that soul-sucking Web site enough times to pay for one of its Times Square billboards with the smiling, happy actors-pretending-to-be-couples.
Along the way, I also dallied with Match.com, Chemistry.com, EHarmony and RussianBrides.com.
Yet despite nearly a decade of on-again, off-again experience in online dating, I never managed to shake the belief that I must be doing something wrong.
While nearly every online dater I know claims to loathe these sites, there’s no denying one intrinsic benefit: It gets them dates. Lots of them. I’ve known guys on JDate who could barely keep track of which 27-year-old-elementary-school teacher they were taking out on which night. I’ve known women who received so many emails from potential suitors they created an Excel spreadsheet in order to keep them straight.
Meanwhile, my pattern usually went more like this:
1) Upon initially signing up, I would receive immediate encouragement when one of the very first women I contacted wrote me right back. To this day, I’m convinced dating sites rig this somehow to suck you in, much the way you’re guaranteed to win the first time you visit Las Vegas.
2) Whether or not this initial exchange resulted in a date, it did result in me gaining a skewed sense of self-confidence and e-mailing several more women, all of them far hotter than the girl I originally contacted. They did not write back.
3) As my response rate continued to worsen, I would begin to act increasingly desperate. Remember that episode of Cheers when Cliff Clavin goes on Jeopardy and all the categories seem to have been planted specifically for him (“Stamps From Around the World,” “Beer,” “Mothers and Sons”)? I would stumble upon someone who was quite clearly my intended soul mate – i.e. “a cute, low-key Ohio native who loves Arrested Development, Chuck Klosterman books and corned beef from Katz’s Deli” – only to have my heart broken when even she didn’t write back.
4) Finally, against my better judgment, I would go out with the one, slightly less appealing woman who actually responded. When it became apparent within the first five minutes of the date that there was little-to-no chance I would ever see this person again – or even worse, when she awkwardly followed me to the bus stop afterward in apparent hope of a good night kiss — I would become so aggravated and frustrated, I would let my membership lapse.
Rinse and repeat.
Here I was, paying $34.95 a month for the privilege of enjoying a never-ending cycle of rejection (both of me and by me). I wonder whether the nation’s therapists are sending these sites a finder’s fee.
All of this seemed particularly bewildering to me because in theory, I should be the king of online dating. I’m a writer, for crying out loud. Amongst an otherwise indistinguishable sea of lawyers and financial analysts, my charm and witticism should have been jumping off the screen at these ladies.
Of the many “introductory openers” I penned over the years, I was particularly proud of this one:
“I’m a native Midwesterner who got bored of the Olive Garden and Applebee’s and moved to the big city. I’m trying to walk faster.”
What self-respecting woman wouldn’t want to date that guy?
Apparently, they’d rather date “InexhaustibleE103,” a 27-year-old hedge-fund manager who, at the time of this writing, was the first profile to pop up when I did a search for “most popular” 25-to-35-year-old men on JDate. His profile begins thusly:
“I have a forceful zest for experiencing life, and people say my verve and inexhaustibility is infectious.”
One of his listed hobbies is “playing with my computer’s thesaurus.”
However, our intrepid bachelor also lists himself as 5-foot-7, 160 pounds with dark brown hair, brown eyes and an “athletic/fit” body type. I’m looking at his picture right now, and I have to admit: He’s definitely got a rugged, handsome face and a big, toothy smile. He’s Matthew Fox with a big mound of curly, brown hair on him. In one picture he’s smiling while wearing a baseball cap, beer in hand, looking every bit like the president of someone’s ZBT house five years earlier.
Remember that line I mentioned earlier that I’ve read in so many women’s profiles about turning to the online scene because they’re “tired of the bar scene?” Let’s not kid ourselves, people. Internet dating is a gigantic bar scene. It’s like getting to stand up above the crowd with binoculars, pick out the 10 hottest guys or girls in the place and approach them all at once.
If there’s anything online dating has taught me, it’s that single women are every bit as superficial as single men. As proof, I offer you the results of a little experiment I conducted several years back.
I was just getting back into dating after breaking off a serious relationship, and, yet again, JDate was thoroughly flummoxing me. No one was responding to my overtures. So one evening, I created a new screen name while keeping the same exact profile, word-for-word. The only change: I replaced my mug shot with that of a certain All-American-looking college quarterback.
Upon logging on to the site the next afternoon, I was floored to find page after page of women who had “viewed” me. Several had e-mailed. “Your profile interests me and I find you very handsome,” wrote a strikingly attractive 26-year-old. Moments later, an instant-message window popped up. People never instant messaged me. “Hi there. You have a great smile,” wrote an eager little NYU art student.
I didn’t have the heart to respond to any of them under the pretext of my false alias. Which apparently puts me on an extremely different moral stratosphere than many of my male counterparts.
Some of the horror stories I’ve heard from my female friends about their online-generated dates leave me wondering how some of these guys manage to function in their every-day life. One guy told my friend Meredith on a first date that he “likes to pull hair.” Another guy, sensing his chances of a second date were running thin, demanded to know why my friend Erin didn’t like him — then asked if she’d like to hear what he didn’t like about her. And one particularly puzzling gentlemen ended a previously encouraging second date by asking my friend Michelle, with a straight face, whether she’d like to “make love.”
Every time I hear one of these stories, I find myself thinking: This is my competition???
Online dating has long carried a certain social stigma, despite the preponderance of attractive, sophisticated professionals that pervade most of these sites (MySpace notwithstanding). Many of the same people who hold this outdated stereotype also believe that Internet dating sites are a haven for creepy, socially awkward males who would otherwise be home playing Call of Duty, thus explaining stories like the ones above.
More realistically, the world is full of creepy, socially awkward single men (not to mention frighteningly desperate single women) who you’d be just as likely to meet at a bar or on a set-up. In fact, the strangest date I’ve ever had was not through JDate or Match but the one time I allowed my Mom to fix me up — with the daughter of a woman she met at a wedding. Strangely, the one person in the world who’s supposed to be most protective of me showed no hesitation whatsoever giving my e-mail address to a complete stranger based solely on the fact said stranger was 28, female, Jewish and lived in the same city as me. What if this woman had turned out to be a violent schizophrenic with three illegitimate children? She wasn’t — but she did regale me with stories about her experiences as a phone-sex operator and author of erotic literature.
The inherent problem with online dating is that not everybody does so with the same intentions — and unfortunately, it took me far too long to figure this out. For years, I operated under the naïve assumption that the entire point of dating was to find that special someone who would allow you to stop dating. You know: A relationship.
Some guys solely scour the sites in search of their next one-night stand. Others think they’re ready for a relationship with someone they’ve met online — until they receive an enticing e-mail from someone else. Most puzzling of all, there seems to be a large number of singles who actually like dating so much that they simply can’t stop. Women hoping to live out their own Sex In the City fantasy write blogs chronicling all their various dates (even giving each guy a clever, Carrie Bradshaw-inspired nickname) and the ensuing “drama” that unfolds.
About eight years into my reign as an on-again, off-again online dater, I took a second crack at EHamony. Like many people, I was originally put off by the site’s cryptic claims of being able to scientifically measure “compatibility” (it turns out I’m a “builder” and a “negotiator” — apparently I have a future in real-estate construction), not to mention its daunting, 8,000-page questionnaire.
Upon further reflection, however, I realized the inordinate amount of effort required by the site actually works to the benefit of anyone truly interested in finding a serious partner. You’ve got to be pretty darn serious to answer that entire questionnaire (and then endure five rounds of “guided communication” with the people you contact), thus weeding out most of the potential interlopers.
Meanwhile, unlike sites like Match and JDate, you don’t get to “choose” your potential matches from amongst anyone who signs up; EHarmony picks them for you. Again, what at first seems a turn-off is actually a positive. It’s probably no coincidence that I enjoyed a far-greater response rate among the women I contacted, not to mention quite a few promising candidates actually contacted me. Perhaps they weren’t offered Mr. Inexhaustible Hedge Fund Manager as an option.
Over a three-month period, I went out with several women from EHarmony, nearly all of whom I’d consider to be a “catch,” but, for whatever reason, we didn’t quite click. Then I took a few months off (again). Then I got back into it. Then I met Emily.
As I walked down Broadway on a cold December night to meet her for coffee, my long-held bitterness toward online dating had finally been supplanted by genuine optimism. Eventually, I got to cancel yet another account — but this time with gratitude.
The best part: After all those hundreds of online daters over the years who never returned my emails, Emily was the one who initiated contact. She actually clicked on my profile without any prompting.
Also, she hated Eat, Pray, Love.