For the longest part of human history, it was up to our family to decide our mate. Our worth was decided in goats or gold, and we were traded to secure property and lineage. But in our contemporary, hyper-individuated society we now act as our own matchmakers.

The online dating website OkCupid (OKC) helps us to do this via ‘science’. The aesthetics of the site set it apart from the naff divorcee vibe of RSVP, the smooth torso-driven hunkiness of Grindr, or the visceral inflated fantasies of Adult Matchmaker. Instead, it has minimalist styling, a playful and ironic approach, lots of quizzes to complete and games to play. It generates percentages for how compatible people are, and its ‘robot’ suggests people that you might like. The tagline is ‘we do math to get you dates’. In other words, it calls to the technological utopian in us, who is a bit in love with the idea that our love lives can be optimised through the correct application of algorithms.

OKC requires users to do the sort of identity grooming that is an intrinsic element of the heady narcissism of social media, now a part of daily life. To complete a profile, you are asked to nominate the first thing people notice about you; list your favourite books, movies and music; describe what you do on a typical Friday night; and upload some photos of yourself.

Needless to say, OKC profiles are heavily idealised curations of oneself that are ‘pitched’ to ‘selling yourself’ on what is, at this historical moment, an extremely open market. So it would be unlikely that a user would say the first thing that people notice about them is their extreme social anxiety; that their favourite books, movies and music are Ralph magazine, torrented porn and Supertramp; that on a typical Friday night they drink alone then cry themselves to sleep after masturbating; and that a typical photo of their lifestyle shows them squinting at the internet in their pyjamas.

Instead, people reel off lists of tastes and behaviours that make them seem desirable. In reality, not that many people can be that good at kissing. Not that many people can possibly like Amelie. Not that many men have caught that many really big fish. As has been so well catalogued in a some very fierce Tumblrs, not that many men can actually think that fedoras are a good idea or be the ‘nice guys’ that they claim they are.

In other words, OKC is a fantasy space where users carefully curate a persona. A space where ‘who you are’ is supposed to emerge from listing the cultural products you like and the lifestyle you lead.

It’s not surprising that a site that deals with sex and romance would encourage the creation of fantasy personas. The early stages of a standard relationship in the offline world are hardly a time in which one lets another person see ‘the real you’. We know this from sitcoms, and from the sitcoms that are our romantic lives. Heterosexual dating is a peculiar and quite artificial social ritual laden with regressive gender values. Heels higher or shoes shinier than you’d normally have. Less hair on the body, more hair on the head. Men open doors, women laugh just so. We pretend to like each other more than we do, in the hope that we actually will, someday. It’s a mutual negotiation of controlled presentations, a coded discussion of various agendas, and a time to bury all our sorrow and loneliness (aka the reason we’re going on a date to begin with) down deep.

But the convergence between social media and dating does lead to some peculiar situations. After all, a social media platform like Facebook hardly ever works as a tool to convert strangers into friends, with or without benefits. That would be creepy. Yet the whole point of OKC is to convert online strangers into real world acquaintances who like you enough to have sex or a relationship with you (or, if you’re very lucky, both). OKC itself endorses this, saying ‘the whole goal [of online dating] … is to eventually meet other people in person’. Our judgement of people’s behaviour on Facebook is tinged with our understanding of what they are like offline and is in constant flux as their updates flow through our feeds. On OKC, however, all we have to judge a person’s worth is a fairly static online-curated persona.

It would seem that having a fantasy persona on OKC would be counterproductive because, once one connects with another user, exchanges a few heavily edited messages and the relationship moves into the material world, it is hard to keep this persona up (so to speak). Which is maybe why many participants on OKC don’t actually want to go on dates, or have sex, or do anything that would require real world contact. They are interested only in fantasy-driven online engagement. Which would be fine – I’m not arguing for the primacy of the ‘real world’– if those fantasies were not so often a dull iteration of traditional gender roles often including the abuse of women.

It is entirely unsurprising for a heterosexualish woman on OKC to receive messages written in txt speak that suggest a variety of things that some guy would like to do to her body.  ‘U like anal?’, ‘Those boobs need attention’ and ‘you lke women just like me now that’s hot’ (sic) are just a few of the first contact messages I have received over the last couple of weeks. Things are even worse for Asian women on OKC, as the Creepy White Guys Tumblr attests – a frightening cavalcade of racist desire catalogued by women who have been approached by ‘Asian loving’ men on OKC. A typical example of a first message here is: ‘In your profile, you say you only date Asian Men. Is that because you’re afraid of guys with big dicks? It’s ok, I’ve got a big white one but I’ll be gentle with you.’

Many men’s behaviour on OKC is fuelled by a noxious potpourri of hatred of women in general and ‘sluts’ in particular, sexual frustration, poor social skills, insecure machismo and terrible spelling and punctuation. There is no way they can imagine that messages like these are going to get them laid. Can they? Really?

Instead, these kind of encounters are simply sexual harassment, an online fantasy version of the pub on a Friday night. The promise of brave new worlds of connection and engagement conducted through the liberating technology of the internet seems to have gone up in smoke. But at least the harassment on OKC is easy to screenshot.


Helen Addison-Smith

Helen Addison-Smith has been previously published in journals such as Island, Hecate and refo, and was featured in Overland's first e-book Women's Work. She's a reformed chef and a persistent single mother.

More by Helen Addison-Smith ›

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