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The Mysteries of Online Dating

May 14, 2013

It’s a funny old thing, this dating malarkey. It was funny when it was physical, with all that holding hands and feeling awkward and trying to figure out if the whole experience is worth repeating; and it’s even funnier now that all that stuff has been taken out of it and replaced with tap tap tapping on the keyboard.

I’ve nothing against cyber dating. It’s as good a way as any to get to know someone, although it’s worth being aware that people are quite different online to real life – it’s not that they aren’t being themselves, it’s just that they’re being a different version of themselves and the transition can be difficult to get used to. No, the really odd things are dating sites and dating profiles.

I recently did a little freelance work on “the best UK dating sites”, so naturally went and conducted some brief research. The resultant piece was 10 times shorter than it should have been and in all likelihood, injected with a fair bit more sarcasm than was called for by the client. I hope they enjoyed it even if they won’t pay for it.

The fact of the matter is “the best UK dating sites” are a mess. They are all about questionnaires and compatibility matching. How do we match compatibility in real life? We work from a basis of chemistry. Rightly or wrongly, when we meet a person for the first time, we trust our gut instinct. We don’t wait for irrelevant dribs and drabs of information, like whether or not they too like watching Spooks while wearing a ninja outfit and waving an ice cream scoop. Yet, that is precisely the basis from which dating websites operate; compatibility, based on little things, because they hope to get you the “perfect” partner for your needs and personality.

Let’s start with those questionnaires. In the process of my research, I went about constructing a profile for myself and realised two things: 1) I can’t be bothered to think too hard about the answers to these bloody questions and 2) It’s too early in the morning for me to be honest about myself – it might just depress me. That in mind, I constructed a profile for a 100 year old (you couldn’t go higher than that – I checked) male. The male / female bit is still an absolute must; there’s no “neither”, “both” or “prefer not to say” option. I know these dating sites work from the assumption that you are attracted to one or the other therefore you must identify as one or the other, but for the record it doesn’t always work that way.

That issue aside, the character profiling is always good entertainment. I grew particularly fond of eHarmony, which included as part of its profiling the question of to what extent and frequency did you feel “plotted against”. I didn’t get on very well with any of the other websites; I had all manner of problems setting up on Dating Direct and Match.com, which looked suspiciously similar to each other and turned out to be the same site, as I couldn’t make a profile with one once signing up to the other.

Match.com also took exception to my username, as it was purported to contain a “prohibited word”. I did a bit of fiddling and discovered that usernames including “Mc” are strictly not allowed. Old McDonald can have a farm, but he’s not allowed a girlfriend, it seems. Perhaps there is a different branch of Match.com for Scotts, run by the SNP.

To be fair, I was being a silly sausage, calling myself “DrainpipeMcGoven” – my joke username of choice (look out for me on Doodle or Die) so for a moment there, I thought they were on to me. I was thrown unceremoniously out of the site several times without warning and not allowed to sign back in, though Match did see fit to spam my inbox with “activate email” requests, none of which worked.

None of that with good old eHarmony. Interestingly, despite physical attraction being sort of a pre-requisite for most couplings, eHarmony is living in a future world inhabited by near-identical looking avatars, where sharing physical characteristics is heartily discouraged and thus, such petty details are not asked for. You can’t browse pictures or profiles of other users either. My, no. Don’t get ideas above your station. eHarmony will be running the proceedings from here on in, thank you. You just fill out the questions and eHarmony will do the finding. They couldn’t have you running amok, chatting up 36 year olds when you specifically stated that you had a preference of 35 years and under.

Challenge accepted, eHarmony! I made them a character profile they couldn’t have found a genuine match for if they looked for a hundred years. Here’s how it works: you select characteristics that you either have or want, then you indicate how important it is to you that the other person meets that particular characteristic. I said I wanted someone who was every race under the sun including white, black, Latino and “other”.

I was pretty sure Tiger Woods wasn’t on eHarmony pretending to be a woman and looking or a 100 year old man, so I felt sure the race thing would do the trick, but just in case I also stated firmly that only a New Age Jew of the same age as me living in one of five obscure countries in Africa would suffice… Moreover, one who also held my belief in Confucianism. Bit of trivia for you – I’ve discovered that if you type “New Age J” into Google, the first suggestion you get on the drop-down list is New Age jam. I’d love to know what New Age jam tastes like. Perhaps the fruit is boiled for less time for humane reasons. Strict fruitarians approve.

I liked the fact that eHarmony is obviously not moderated strictly. There was a little kerfuffle at the start, where eHarmony asked me to put the same information in twice and then gently chastised me for putting in information that was different to the first time. But mostly, you have a fair amount of choice with the lengthily and thorough character interrogation; you can often choose multiple options and pick the degree to which each apply, plus occasionally you get to type in whatever you want rather than tick a box.

When asked for his favourite thing to do on weekends, Drainpipe typed that he liked to dangle dwarves upside down over bins. I expected a curt message to appear a little while later informing me that my response was invalid or reminding me of the website’s serious nature, but not a bit of it; eHarmony is not opposed to a bit of merry dwarf dangling. It would be interesting to see if any matches come up for that particular hobby in the future.

So, having carefully constructed the laziest, meanest, vilest, most temperamental, ultra-conservative, unfriendly, paranoid, selfish git imaginable, who drinks many times a day whilst insisting on dating a teetotal and sports an unhealthy obsession with wombats, I eagerly awaited my matching.

How gutted I was to find that eHarmony regretfully had found no matches for my requirements at that time! But oh, the customer service; right after my rejection by all humanity, eHarmony popped up and offered me a little advice on my character, as if whenever they can’t find a match for someone, it’s because the person behind the screen is such an odious little worm that they need their whole personality revamped in order to get a partner in life.

What struck me about the character advice page is how, like all parts of dating sites, it was bordered by numerous pictures of smiling men and women of every creed and colour. In this particular instance, I think it would be fair to suggest that they would not be smiling so happily.  After reviewing my answers to the questions, eHarmony kindly informed me that I demonstrated emotional instability and that this “might rub some people up the wrong way.”

More strangely, despite my constant assertions that Drainpipe McGoven hated company or romance of any sort, eHarmony still asserted that I was a friendly individual at heart, that I was open and that people would flock towards me. I suppose it was confused by the amount of oxymoron that found its way into my answers, like Drainpipe calling himself unhealthy and inactive but maintaining to be very happy with his physical fitness.

All stupidity aside, I am seeing a major flaw in character profiling. While quite fun in its own way (it used to be quite the thing on Myspace, if anyone remembers) it’s just not very accurate. Here’s the thing; people are fickle. On different days at different times, we change our opinions and feelings about things at the drop of a hat. We change minutely every day. Go on, dig out an old school report or diary entry from yonks back. Do you even recognise yourself? Many significant things do stay the same and the more you read between the lines the more you see that, potentially at some point, you did genuinely feel that way… But it just might not be relevant to you anymore.

I’m not only talking about the small stuff here, like “I like dogs.” I mean big things, too, important for relationship things. Maybe I’m just young, but my thoughts of having children and getting married revert every day. Some days, having the whole kit and caboodle family-wise sounds swell; on other days when I’m feeling a bit more jaded, I just think :“Damned silly idea. Won’t be doing that anytime soon.”

It’s not as if either of these things is untrue, they’re just different parts of the same whole. That, I’d say, is the biggest problem of matching sites like eHarmony; they just don’t allow you to be human. You have to have a schema and fit into a pre-designed formula. It’s appealing, in a way, to categorise your personality and boil your entire self down to a few simple, easy-to-articulate traits. You are doing the same thing when you talk about your “type”. You don’t have a type. It’s just easier to have a type. You don’t really have a schema, you’re just spotting trends which have gone before and drawing basic conclusions. But like with all trends, what has happened in the past does no definitely indicate the future.

Again, this is all fine in moderation but it’s too restrictive – eHarmony and other sites like it try to account for all the variables by giving you the option to select what degree each trait affects you and by asking the same question in a few different variations to look for consistency and attempt to recognise where there is a subtle distinction.

The problem is that, it doesn’t matter how complex the mathematics and how advanced the formula, humans are too complex for all that. The computer can’t (yet) account for all the variables. You aren’t playing chess here – at the end of the day, you will find people who are a great match for you on the computer but in real life, they bore you. That can’t be explained with lazy notions like “opposites attract” or any of that old bollocks. That’s just you, being a coy, complicated little crumpet.

By all means look online, but look for yourself. You’d be surprised what you’d be willing to compromise on once somebody takes your fancy. So what if they aren’t a wombat lover and they only watch Spooks in their Pokemon pyjamas, not a ninja costume? In 10 years time, you might not like either of those things anymore. Even if you do, once you’ve been with one person for a decade, you will have long stopped wanting to spend every waking moment bonding with each other. Might sound pessimistic, but it’s a blessed relief, if you think about it. Do you really want to have to share that awesome-unique-special-Ninja-Spooks-combo forever?

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