When I ended up single in a small town, I turned to a dating app. But finding someone fully and messily human was harder than I thought. I did not intend to be single in the rural village where I live. Then the wedding was off and I found myself single in a town where the non-student population is 1, people. I briefly considered flirting with the cute local bartender, the cute local mailman — then realised the foolishness of limiting my ability to do things such as get mail or get drunk in a town with only 1, other adults.
For the first time in my life, I decided to date online. The thing about talking to people on Tinder is that it is boring. I am an obnoxious kind of conversation snob and have a pathologically low threshold for small talk. I want a conversation partner who travels through an abundance of interesting material at breakneck speed, shouting over their shoulder at me: Keep up. I want a conversation partner who assumes I am up for the challenge, who assumes the best of me.
It will not surprise you to learn that this is a totally batshit way to approach Tinder and that, for my snobbery, I paid a price. The first man I chatted with who met my conversational standards was an academic, a musician. He taught refugee children how to play steel drums.
He had a dark sense of humour, he was witty, and he laid all his baggage out there on the line right away. Even through our little chat window it was obvious he was fully and messily human, which I loved, and so we chatted all day long, for days, and I could not wait to meet him. Reality was different. What had seemed passionate and daring online, turned out to be alarmingly intense. There were multiple bouts of tears, there were proposed road trips to Florida to meet his mother and dog, there was an unexpected accordion serenade, and there was the assertion that I would make a very beautiful pregnant woman.
Listen: I think a man who can cry is an evolved man. I hope to some day have kids, which, I suppose, would entail being, for a time, a pregnant woman.
I even like the accordion. None of this was bad on its own, but it was so much. I chalked this experience up to bad luck, and continued to only date people with whom I had interesting online conversations. Our chats took the form of long blocks of text. Anecdotes swapped and interrogated. I love such things; I am a magpie at heart. But these stories became grotesque in real life. But when we went back to his apartment for a drink, it was beautifully decorated: full of plants and woven hangings and a bicycle propped against a shelf full of novels.
He was smart and handsome and sort of an asshole, but perhaps in a way that would mellow over time in a Darcy-ish manner. We drank some wine and eventually I said I should go home but he got up and kissed me, kissed me well, so I told myself this was what online dating was like, and I should carpe diem and have an experience. During sex, he choked me.
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Not for long, and not very hard, but his hands manifested very suddenly around my throat in a way I know was meant to be sexy but which I found, from this relative stranger, totally frightening. I had not indicated this was something I liked, and neither had he. I know people are into that. I could even be into that. But not as a surprise. He said that he was really interested in mass shooters and the kinds of messages they left behind and, still naked in bed, he pulled out his phone and showed me a video from 4Chan. I said I had to go. The next day, and a few times after, he messaged asking why I had run away and gone dark.
What you should know about texting and dating
I realised that perhaps what seemed interesting online did not translate into real life. My method of going on dates only with people who gave good banter was working poorly. It was pointing me toward the extremes. But once I gave up on the banterers, my Tinder chats became uniform. The conversations read like a liturgy: where are you from, how do you like our weather, how old is your dog, what are your hobbies, what is your job, oh no an English teacher better watch my grammar winkyfacetongueoutfacenerdyglassesface.
The conversations all seemed the same to me: pro forma, predictable, even robotic.
'this is small talk purgatory': what tinder taught me about love
This seems a good moment to tell you that, for a civilian, I know a lot about robots. Specifically, I know a lot about chatbots and other AI meant to perform their humanity through language. In fact, I was teaching undergr about robots in science writing and science fiction when I began online dating. In class, we discussed the ways in which a robot, or chatbot, might try to convince you of its humanity.
This effort is, in short, called a Turing test; an artificial intelligence that manages, over text, to convince a person that it is actually human can be said to have passed the Turing test. I began seeing similarities between the Turing test and what us Tinder-searchers were doing — whether we were looking for sex or looking for love.
A Tinder chat was its own kind of test — one in which we tried to prove to one another that we were real, that we were human, fuckable, or possibly more than that: dateable. Online dating seemed more bearable when I thought of it this way.
It was easier to pretend I was a woman conducting a scientific investigation of language and love than it was to admit I was lonely.
Easier than admitting that an algorithm someone had made to sell to singles was now in charge of my happiness. Easier than admitting that this was a risk I was willing to take. I knew a little bit about how to proceed with my Tinder Turing tests from one of my favourite books — one I was teaching at the time: The Most Human Human, by Brian Christian. He serves as a human blind, chatting with people through an interface, who then have to decide whether he is a human or a chatbot.
In the book, he asks: what could a human do with language that a robot could not? What are the ways of expressing ourselves which are the most surprisingly human?
What is a date and what’s hanging out?
How do we recognise our fellow humans on the other side of the line? I was thinking of robots metaphorically, but there are real chatbots on Tinder. I never encountered one to my knowledge; was Dale, age 30, with the six pack and swoopy hair and the photo on a yacht who wanted to know if I was DTF RN only ever just a beautiful amalgamation of 1s and 0s?
But I know lots of people who have, and men seem to be particularly besieged by them. You might think this is ridiculous but one of my favourite screen shots of this going down the Tinder subreddit is a glorious place re as follows:. Tinder: You matched with Elizabeth.
How to flirt, according to dating experts
Actual Human Man: Oh lord. Gotta do the Potato test. I dare you to try to make a better first message ahaha.
Actual Human Man: Say potato Elizabeth. These conversations never resolved into anything more than small talk — which is to say they never resolved into anything that gave me a sense of who the hell I was talking to. I started taking hopeful chances again, and many of my conversations yielded real-life dates.
I could write you a taxonomy of all the different kinds of bad those dates were. One way or another, though, what it always came down to was the conversation. In short, the book is the known series of chess moves that should be played in sequence to optimise success. Some might say, as themselves. Kasparov holds that he did not lose to Deep Blue because the game was still in book when he made his fatal error and so, while he flubbed the script, he never truly even played against the algorithmic mind of his opponent.
The book is necessary in some ways, as it is in chess Bobby Fischer would disagreein order to launch us into these deeper, realer conversations. This was my trouble with Tinder. No matter how hard I tried to push into real human terrain over chat, and sometimes on real-life dates, I always found myself dragged back into a scripted dance of niceties.
I might as well have been on dates with Deep Blue, ordering another round of cocktails and hoping its real programming would eventually come online.