Tuesday, 13 February 2007

Advertising For Love In All the Online Places

For a special Valentine’s Day Orange Swan Review article, I've written a little piece about online personal ads. All the quotes in this article have been lifted word for word from some existing ad. All spelling, punctuation, and grammatical errors in the quoted material are likewise courtesy of their original authors. I have not provided identifying information for any quoted profiles, because most people post their ads in good faith and they deserve better than to be publicly ridiculed. Why, in that case, am I ridiculing them at all? Because after the many years (alas, alack) that I have spent reading ads in which the writers declare that they are looking for someone to “compliment” their lives (superlative as I am sure their lives are), I must have my pound of flesh.

Profiles range from the excellent to the functionally illiterate, but most are undistinguished and generic. There are some heavily used clichés in online dating profiles. They get endlessly passed from man to woman and woman to man like some sort of vitual STD. Here are some:

I’m looking for a woman who is as comfortable in jeans as she is in evening wear.
I’ll never settle.
I’m tired of the bar scene.
I never thought I’d try this online dating thing.
I don’t do head games.
I’m out to prove that nice guys don’t finish last.
I’m not sure what to write here.
If I peak your interest, get back to me.

Sometimes I wearily imagine there’s some sort of program out there that, for a fee, will concoct an ad for you out of these phrases, and sprinkle in “I love the outdoors” and a “No picture, no reply” as a free bonus. But then I read a few more ads with attention, and decide against that profile generator. Little gleams of personality come through almost every single one. This guy comes across as intelligent. That guy gives me an impression of energy and initiative. The next one works in a reference to Vikram Seth, Leo Tolstoy, and Guns, Germs and Steel (oooh!). Another seems illiterate and dull. Another refers to himself as a catch and declares he’s not spending his money on credits so it’s up to interested women to pay for the initial message if they want to talk to him. Some of the ads leave me intrigued; others prompt me to make a judicious use of the block function. Some of the ads set my teeth on edge for reasons I only half-define before clicking to the next ad. I have learned to trust this instinct.

Here’s the story of a time when I ignored my initial impression that a guy was a jerk. I read this ad on Lavalife:

Ladies, I have received more messages and smiles than I can handle at once. Please be patient with me as I comb through them all.

To avoid wasting your time or mine, I am forced to add the following.

* You can read and passed your grade 1 arithmetic class
* YOU ARE MY AGE OR YOUNGER. That means 34 and under NOT 35, 36, 37, 38, 39, 40 or 41.
* You are not a pathetic high school dropout. I require cerebral stimulation.
* You are not vindictive
* You are drug and disease free
* You are not a mentally unstable, professional chit chatter who has no intention of meeting anyone. I value my time and will not waste it on you. My brother is a psychiatrist, I will be happy to give you his office number.
* You do not have numerous fake profiles
* You avoid tacky lines such as "Work hard and play hard" and "Carpe Diem".
* You live within an hour of Toronto
* You are not self centered

On with the show

If you are happy, sweet, sexy, sincere, secure with yourself, love your life, love people, love to travel, shop, explore and have a GREAT personality please don't hesitate to contact me.

I'm multi-faceted, multi-dimensional and multi-talented. I love my life and seek someone else who loves their life just as much.

Please be sincere if you're going to write to me. I've dated some of the most beautiful girls in the world, but personality means far more to me than looks. If that wasn't the case, trust me, I'd still be dating them. I'm looking for someone that is as beautiful on the inside as the out. Someone with character, substance and integrity. I can meet and find ordinary any day of the week. I'm looking for extraordinary. You know who you are. I'm not into playing mind games so if you are, please pass me by if you're only passing through. :)

I was flipping through ads quite quickly that day and sent him (and about fifteen other people) a “smile”, which is a Lavalife no-cost feature and the way for its posters to find out if other posters are at all interested. He “smiled” back, attaching one of a list of pre-selected messages: “I couldn’t resist the fact… that we are complete opposites.” I revisited his ad. I was getting a vibe that made me very unsure that I should spend the necessary credits to send him a message. There are ways to describe the kind of person one wants that don’t involve using the sort of harshly arrogant tone he had used. However, I thought aside from the asterisk-starred list his profile was more or less unobjectionable, maybe he was just frustrated with the system, and that it had been so long since I found anyone at all promising that it was worth the risk. I wrote a brief, friendly message, in which I asked him why he thought we were complete opposites.

He emailed back a message that read, in its entirety:

You sound shallow and I am not. You look pyschotic and I am not.

And he blocked me from replying to his message. He had only “smiled” back in order to encourage me to waste my credits on him, and to give himself the consequence-free opportunity to be extremely rude.

He was correct that he and I are indeed complete opposites, but wrong about the ways in which we differ.

After this experience, if I am at all uneasy about the thought of smiling or messaging someone, I pay full heed to that unease. The profiles I respond to these days have to be genuinely appealing, with no warning discords. Sometimes this is an easy decision. On one occasion a man instant messaged me to ask:

when do uwant to have kids and will u move to Calgary

Tempting as it was, in a way, to message back, “yes i will live in ur house and i will have ur beebies send me $6000 plain fair”, I refrained.

But even as I go with my instincts, I still question them. I hope and believe I have basically good literary judgment. I’ve staked the existence of this web site on that belief. (If I am no judge of literary merit, I am sinking hours of work each week into making a public ass of myself.) At the same time I question my judgment, because I don’t think it excellent, just good, and I’m always afraid it isn’t even as good as I think it is. When I don’t like a book I frequently have tortuous, “is it me or is it the book” internal debates that last for days.

I question my assessments of profiles in the same way. I have had generally good experiences with online dating in that a very high percentage of the men I’ve met have been very decent people. But then a truly good experience in this context does not mean that I met someone who was an pleasant one-time coffee date; it means I found someone with whom I can share not only beverages, but meals, nights, camping trips, movies, visits to family, anecdotes of the day, and all those other homely things, on an ongoing basis. And this I have not found.

I wonder whether I am passing by someone good because I’ve misinterpreted something in his profile, or because he’s unwittingly put something misleading in his profile, or because he’s no writer. I worry I’ve unknowingly written a repellant profile myself. Recently I posted the text of my online ad on a community web log where I am known and invited everyone to critique it. You can’t appeal to everyone, of course, and I didn’t intend to try. But when the general consensus was that my ad was “too long and too intense”, I shortened and lightened it... to what has proven to be negligible effect. The thread became an interesting discussion of what constituted a good profile, and although people had thought provoking theories on the topic, no one seemed to know for sure.

To my comfort, I keep remembering something I read once in some letter to the editor re: an article about dating. The letter writer was a married man who commented that in his experience it was only single people who have theories about how to find the right person, while contentedly married people shrug and say things like, “Well, we just met.” The letter writer declared that the theories were just a way of passing the time until one found a partner.

I think that letter writer is on to something, that so many of the dating theories and self-help books and Sex in the City-style analysis are nothing but a way for single people to take the edge of their frustration by giving them a sense of autonomy in a endeavour that is so largely beyond their control.

So I keep on blundering through this endless dating, having experiences that range from hilariously awful to blandly forgettable to bitterly disappointing to fun and enjoyable if dead-end to shattering. I make my decisions to the best of my ability on a case-by-case basis, hoping I’m choosing aright, trying to protect myself as best I can from the wear and tear of repeated disappointments and frustration, trying not to focus too much on a process that has taken so much effort and been so largely unrewarding, and always making the effort to both trust my instincts and be open to what life has to offer.

And if a man’s profile consists of this:

Let Hang out I think you and I could make a really hot couple. I want you to meet my parents this weekend. That would be groovy. Peace

or contains anything along the lines of this:

I am open-minded, but that does not mean that I willing to yield to amasculinating societal norms. I am intelligent, and with that intelligence comes the insight into realizing that a man being "sensitive" for sensitivity's sake puts him in denial of what it means to be a man. It will make him a both a sexual and emotional dud for a woman. I am gentle, but I am not a pushover. I am firm and forceful when necessary, with my wrath meted out fairly.

You see my dear, being a good lover requires striking the perfect balance between raging hormones (the inner rapist), massive intellect (the inner philosopher), and an intense love of women (the inner Cassanova). I have self-actualized and have therefore found harmony amongst the three.

... I don’t get back to him. As with unmistakably execrable books, forming my opinion of some ads involves no internal debate at all.

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