Its 2am here and Brixton from my bed is as silent as anything. Outside, distant cars create an echoey soundscape and the penetrating light of my phone swallows up my face like a flood light. Its a sleepless night tonight. Just me and the disillusioned glow of a dating app to keep me company. Faces of people swoosh by, of people who seem to have fascinating lives. They’ve travelled to Europe, they work in the TV Industry, they have a successful startup in marketing, they have wonderful selfies caught in a dimly lit club, the flash of the camera over-exposing all the contours of their faces and the app has calculated your odds of success as 93% compatible! Your eyes bulge. Can it be? 93% is almost a guaranteed hit!
Sadly for you, however, the app has also calculated that 326 other men are just as compatible, and would you believe it? It looks like every single one of them fell for that goofy algorithm, too. By the time your 93% has landed on your lap, the person in question has already suffered through the worst (and the miniscule best) of men-kind: 23 dick pics sent her way, 47 arrogant pick up lines, 34 hi how are you‘s and probably a small handful of misogynist nazi abuse lodged into the side of their inbox like a shotgun blast. And yet here you are. You’ve shown up to her digital doorway with your Sunday best. You’ve got your cute bouquet of flowers ready, you’ve been practising your smile for hours. You’re ready to impress the hell out of Miss 93% with your charm and your charisma and your dad jokes. You knock on the door. Butterflies in your stomach. Tongue drying up. Oh god, what if she hates dad jokes? What if my ugliness kills her on sight? Well, luckily for you it doesn’t matter because nobodies home. Miss 93% has already suppressed her notifications. She’s tapped out. She can’t take it anymore, and you know… Who can blame her?
In my mind, I had hoped my first foray into online dating would be like Alice.
I met Alice in 2007. We met through mutual friends and she was a writer just like me, but it was all just hobbies back then. We did it for fun, sending little snippets of poems to each other, slices of prose we wrote. We even wrote about each other, pointing out each other’s flaws, spoiling each other with compassion and humour. We used to go to museums and spend afternoons kissing on Blackheath. I still have some scraps of writing she gave to me hidden away somewhere – some handful of lines written on a post-it note. With that in mind, it behoves me to point out that we weren’t really in love per-sé. We were more like friends who were renting space inside the minds of one another, like friends with not-quite benefits. Alice had long periods of time where she would disappear and abscond from public life and I had no idea where she was or what she was doing. Regardless, she always used to come back around and when she did, we never said a word about it. Just carried on like it never happened. Eventually, we petered out. Texts became few and far between, feelings slowly ran out like a sand timer and we just grew apart – slowly. Everything came to a yawning, natural conclusion. Well, folks, it was fun while it lasted. It was passionate without the romance. It was fun without the expectations. It lasted a matter of months and quietly whimpered away into the dark recesses of the world, a place before social media, where disappearing from sight was actually possible.
I wonder how much that has changed, now. Mutual friends guided Alice and I together organically but our collective mutual friends now are the google algorithm Gods. Digital effigies, deities from ones-and-zeroes, from search engine keywords and browser data. They keep a constant stream of butcher store meat scrolling through your phone. Earlier today, as an act of spectacular self-control and maturity, I poured over my social media profiles and edited them to perfection. According to OKCupid, I’m a charming, single 30-something writer. So fascinating, I bet he spends his days in coffee shops hunched over some beautiful prose, I bet he’s a starving artist, a suffering poet. My god, the pain in his soul must be unbearable. Predictably, that’s a hell of a stretch. And don’t look at me like that. You think honesty works? This is a buyers market, there’s always someone better than you, more perfect than you. How do you think it’ll go if I was really honest about how I spent my Sunday morning? Maybe telling people I spent it in bed reading a stunning Wikipedia page about a Russian serial killer isn’t the best look after all. Exaggerating through gritted teeth about how much you love puppies and burgers and Netflix might actually get you a match, but having the gall to admit you’re afraid of dying and nobody ever finding out? In our interconnected world we’re more judgemental than ever and that, dear reader, is social media suicide.
Apps like Hinge and OKCupid turn dating into a race to perfection and in all of our haste no-one really stopped to ask whether all of this was healthy. Pedicuring our social media image is like plastic surgery for the soul, sawing away the jagged edges of what makes a person unique, taking out all the uncomfortable home truths and undesirable traits and leaving a perfect skeleton of beauty – a facsimile of a human. A replicant designed to be pumped through digital veins – lost to the greatest digital trash heap of our times.
The sad part is I can see myself in all of that. I never thought to ask if this was good or if this was bad. I simply said yes and I dove right in. In a world where global politics increasingly becomes more about fear than love, it’s no wonder we’ve retreated into our shells – online and alone – and hitting 30 only fortifies that false image you’ve spent so long perfecting. You start to wonder why anyone won’t want to marry you, why won’t people match you on Tinder? You start to get all these funny lumps and weird wrinkles and, oh god, is that grey hair?
[Shower thought: I don’t think we were ready for instant global communication. Happy to receive the benefits, sure, but totally unprepared for the implications. It’s like the argument you’d have at school about which superpower you wanted. When your friend chose the ability to read minds, you had to point out that you’d get to hear how much everyone hates your fucking guts. That’s what social media is.]
So until we figure out how best to proceed, we just fake it ’til we make it. We answer the void by being perfect. By refusing vulnerability and honesty. We elect a falsehood to be our best foot forward and I’m worrying we’re learning to treat dating like a job. A mind filled with expectations, with cynicism and loneliness. Our anxiety whispers at 2am telling us how unlovable we are.
People, we were never meant to be this separated – we practically evolved on human contact. As someone who struggles to let people break down my own walls, as someone who has pushed people away in moments of weakness, like a vampire desperate to hide his ugliness from the light – be careful what you wish for. As we learn to rely on technology more and more, it’s worrying how much more alone we are even in our interminable interconnectedness. It’s almost as if the more we know about one another, the more we wish we didn’t.