by Emily Witt
I wanted a boyfriend. I was also badly hung up on someone and wanted to stop thinking about him. People cheerily list their favourite movies and hope for the best, but darkness simmers beneath the chirpy surface. An extensive accrual of regrets lurks behind even the most well-adjusted profile. I read 19th-century novels to remind myself that sunny equanimity in the aftermath of heartbreak was not always the order of the day. On the other hand, online dating sites are the only places I’ve been where there’s no ambiguity of intention. A gradation of subtlety, sure: from the basic ‘You’re cute,’ to the off-putting ‘Hi there, would you like to come over, smoke a joint and let me take nude photos of you in my living room?’
The largest free dating site in America is another algorithm-based service, Plenty of Fish, but in New York everyone I know uses OK Cupid, so that’s where I signed up. I also signed up to Match, but OK Cupid was the one I favoured, mostly because I got such constant and overwhelming attention from men there. The square-jawed bankers who reigned over Match, with their pictures of scuba diving in Bali and skiing in Aspen, paid me so little attention it made me feel sorry for myself. The low point came when I sent a digital wink to a man whose profile read, ‘I have a dimple on my chin,’ and included photos of him playing rugby and standing bare-chested on a deep-sea fishing vessel holding a mahi-mahi the size of a tricycle. He didn’t respond to my wink.
I went to a lecture by the novelist Ned Beauman who compared the OK Cupid experience to Carl Sagan pondering the limits of our ability even to imagine non-carbon-based extraterrestrial life, let alone perceive when it was beaming signals to us. We troll on OK Cupid for what we think we want, but what if we are incapable of seeing the signals being sent to us, let alone interpreting them?
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