Gretchen Chomas has been in Spokane less than four months, and she already knows one thing with certainty: Guys here really like to fish.
More specifically, local men really like to show photos of themselves fishing. Even more specifically, pictures of themselves holding fish they've caught.
Welcome to the Inland Northwest, Gretchen. This is your life.
That fishing and outdoor pursuits are popular here isn't surprising. But Chomas didn't learn that by talking to her new co-workers or researching the area before she relocated. She's just seen a boatload of pictures of guys holding fish — images that are meant to attract potential dates.
Chomas is, in her own words, "a professional online dater." Now 30, she says she's used online dating sites since college, when she attended a small liberal arts school in Virginia, and was looking to meet people beyond her relatively insular network of connections.
There's a dating site for every taste and proclivity — from Jews to Catholics, even farmers — and Chomas has tried a bunch of them. She's at the point where she wants to write a book about her experience, tentatively titled My Cats are Better Than Yours: Tales of An Online Serial First Dater.
Even with all those first dates and no long-term relationship yet, she's not giving up.
"I don't have a time limit," Chomas says. "I'm not going to say, 'If I'm not married by 33, I'm done.' I'm not going to become a nun. At the same time there's a great freedom to being single."
Online dating, and an in-depth story about it, is not especially new or exciting. Meeting people through Internet-enabled means has been around as long as the World Wide Web. Match.com started in 1995. Before that, there were phone-dating services, and the personal pages of newspapers (which, if the popularity of the Inlander's "I Saw You" section suggests anything, are still alive and well).
Computers, in fact, were actually matching people with potential partners before the modern Internet came to be. Long before.
Online dating can trace its roots to 1964, when Lewis Altfest saw a display at the World's Fair in New York matching people with potential pen pals overseas. Intrigued by the concept, he recruited his friend Robert Ross, a computer programmer, to devise a way to match people locally. Instead of pen pals, they wanted to match people for dates. The result was Project TACT — Technical Automated Compatibility Testing — the origins of which are detailed in a 2011 New Yorker story about the history of and modern trends in online dating.
Users of TACT, who were confined to New York City, paid $5 and answered profile questions. The answers were put on punch cards — the way we interacted with computers at the time — and out came results pairing users with suitable matches.
In the 50 years since, not that much has really changed.
"There's nothing new with online dating," says Amy Webb, a data expert, journalist and tech consultant who has studied the online dating industry extensively. "There hasn't been any kind of seismic shift in the algorithms — that is to say the fundamental taxonomy. The fundamental logic behind it has never changed. Matching is not that much better [than it was in the 1960s]."
Webb speaks not just from being an informed data expert. She's a success story of how online dating can work, especially if you make it work to your advantage.
Her 2013 book, Data, A Love Story: How I Cracked the Online Dating Code to Meet My Match, details her efforts — and struggle — to meet a person she wanted to marry.
After disastrous and failed first dates — and, as she says in a TED Talk about her experience, "crickets" on her online profiles — she realized she was going about the process all wrong. To meet the kind of person she wanted to marry, she first needed to understand her competition: The other women who were on the same sites looking for the same kind of guy. To do so, she set up dummy profiles of men, but not to trick anyone or lure them into a fake interaction. Rather, she wanted to see the profiles of other women who were successful, and learn how to adapt her own to be more attractive — to stand out in the crowd.
After analyzing all the data she collected, she overhauled her profile for the right keywords ("fun," "love," "girl"), types of pictures (showing a little skin) and ideal length (about 100 words).
Within a few weeks, she met her match. Their first date resulted in a 14-hour-long conversation. He proposed a year and a half later on their vacation to Jordan. A year later, they were married.
BATTLE OF THE SEXES
Chomas and Webb are part of the larger narrative of what online dating — and really, just human interactions — are like in the 21st century. Their stories reveal something unique about each person and situation. But in a scientific sense, they're the same little dots in a churning sea of nameless information. Cogs in the wheel. Another brick in the wall.
They're all data points, really.
It's true of Facebook, Twitter, Google and nearly every online dating site: When a service is free, the user is the product. That product is what gets sold, in this case to advertisers.
"As a founder of an ad-supported site, I can confirm that data is useful for selling," Christian Rudder writes in his bestselling book Dataclysm, published in September. Rudder co-founded OkCupid with his fellow Harvard math friends, and together they built one of the most successful and popular dating sites.
It's also conveniently — or, rather, intentionally — one of the largest online repositories for information about human behavior. The subtitle to Rudder's book: "Who We Are (When We Think No One's Looking)."
Rudder uses data collected about OkCupid users to weave a story about how humans behave behind closed doors, and in doing so shines a bright light on what the darkest corners of the Internet have long kept hidden.
One particularly intriguing insight as it applies to people seeking the opposite sex: the age disparity in how women and men rate each other. Women between 20 and 50 generally say they find men around the same age as them to be most attractive. A 23-year-old woman thinks a 23-year-old man is best looking. A 50-year-old woman likes a 46-year-old man.
As Rudder points out, men are completely different the older they get, which doesn't do much to dispel the notion that we're a bunch of superficial pigs. A 20-year-old man prefers a 20-year-old woman. No surprise there. But as that man ages, his preference toward women never changes, fluctuating around ages 20 to 23 for the next 30 years.
In other words, a 50-year-old man still finds a 20-year-old woman most attractive.
Rudder has named this phenomenon Wooderson's Law, after Matthew McConaughey's 20-something, can't-really-grow-up character in the film Dazed and Confused. Wooderson's oft-quoted line: "That's what I love about these high school girls, man. I get older, they stay the same age."
"VARIANCE": LAW OF ATTRACTION
OkCupid and other dating sites might be teeming with men who find women 30 years younger most attractive, but the "real world" isn't. Frankly, most 20-year-old women don't want to date 50-year-old men. And men know that (generally).
This means there's a difference between what age men rate as most attractive versus who they actually contact, or what men are looking for in a potential partner. Rudder explains that as men age, they continue to rate far younger women as most attractive. But they actually send messages to women who are much closer to their age. A 50-year-old man is most likely to message a 40-year-old woman.
That gap in age is close to the real-life example of Mike and Jessi Rising, a couple who live in Spokane.
Mike, who is 45, first messaged Jessi, 37, because he thought she stood out in a sea of other good-looking women on Plenty of Fish. They of course had similar interests, and as a writer and English teacher, her profile was well crafted. But her pictures caught Mike's eye, too.
Jessi made no attempts to hide her background as a divorced mother of five. She married young at 18, and by the time she was pregnant with her fifth kid, she and her then-husband were ready to separate.
"My ex is country conservative," Jessi says. "I'm a city liberal."
Mike knew this background up front and was OK with the idea of kids from a previous marriage. That stands out enough, but Jessi's style of thick black eyeliner, and a dark way of dressing — what you might describe as "goth" — stood out to Mike.
A lot of guys might be turned off by that. Mike wasn't.
They probably don't know it, but Mike and Jessi are practically textbook examples of "variance." Or, rather, Jessi's pictures, presentation style and overall profile were likely very attractive or very unattractive to men looking at her profile. There likely wasn't a lot of middle ground.
Variance, in ratings by men regarding women, is an important factor in whether men will contact a particular woman. In other words, having a high variance (a lot of ones and fives on a five-point scale) will likely mean the woman is contacted by a certain kind of guy who is attracted to her brand of "uniqueness." It might be a turnoff for some guys, but it's attractive to him, and he rates her high.
And that, Rudder explains in Dataclysm, is a good way of getting noticed.
"To some degree, her very unpopularity is what makes her attractive to him. And if our browsing guy was at all on the fence about whether to actually introduce himself, this might make the difference," Rudder writes.
Mike sent Jessi a message, and after chatting for a time, she agreed to meet him. Upon arriving at her house before going out, Mike noticed a poster from Monty Python and the Holy Grail on her wall. He was hooked.
Six years later, they're married and raising all five kids — and helping to organize ComicCon gatherings. They'll soon host an anime-themed cosplay party.
"I kind of hit the jackpot," Mike says.
Mark it down as a win for variance.
WHERE EVERYBODY KNOWS YOU'RE GAY
When Kyle Richardson and Tim Forrester met each other through Gay.com, same-sex marriage was not legal in Washington state. Both were looking for a connection beyond a sexual hookup and weren't interested in looking for a potential partner at a gay bar. Aside from bars and perhaps volunteering at LGBT organizations, meeting other gay people isn't as easy as it is for straight people.
Quite simply, the numbers are stacked against you.
"I never thought about meeting [a guy] at work or at the bars. If I wanted a relationship, I went online," says Forrester, who was previously married to a woman before coming out at 29 and getting divorced.
For Richardson, the playing field is leveled online. It takes the guesswork out of wondering if that cute co-worker is similarly interested. Even in a time when LGBT acceptance is growing, and same-sex marriage is practically expanding to new states every week, it's still statistically a straight-oriented world.
"I feel that heterosexual people, if you're out and about, the probability of meeting someone who is attracted to the opposite gender is higher," Richardson says. "It would be easier to flirt with someone of the same gender online."
The two met in person after several weeks exchanging messages online and talking on the phone. Richardson compares the process to opening a present on Christmas.
"I think there was always some excitement with it," he says. "Chatting with someone and then turning it into a phone call, and then meeting that person and putting it together, and seeing their mannerisms. It was almost like opening a present and seeing the full package. Comparatively, to just meeting someone in person, I always felt that online was really the first of multiple steps. It was a good way to find people, but the process wasn't complete until you met the person."
Before the two met, and after his divorce, Forrester was in a five-year relationship with someone he met through a phone service. He says by the time he met Richardson, he was ready for long-term commitment.
"When I asked Kyle out for a date, I was not looking for sex," Forrester says. "I wanted a quality relationship. I wanted to date before having sex. With Kyle, I was ready for a relationship."
They dated for several years, getting a domestic partnership in 2012, which became a legal marriage earlier this year.
"Hey, guys, I found her."
"No, really? Is it her?"
This was my introduction to Tinder, a smartphone-based dating app that primarily targets people in their 20s.
My friends, Myles and Andrew, were scrolling through their Tinder matches while we were ostensibly supposed to be "away from it all" on a camping trip. They were curious if a girl they had talked up the previous night when we went to the nearest town for beer and karaoke was possibly on Tinder.
The girl — who was every bit a strong, confident woman, and a heck of a karaoke singer — was out for the night, a rare evening of fun away from her young daughter. The life of a single mother.
Now back at our camp spot, they were happy and a bit surprised to see she was also using Tinder.
"Swipe right," Andrew tells Myles. "See if she swipes back."
This is the lingo of Tinder, really, the lingo of a current generation of smartphone apps designed to quickly measure someone's interest in anything — a potential date, a product, any choice between two outcomes. Swipe right across the screen after seeing a picture, and you're saying you like it. Swipe left, and your potential match is swept away forever into a digital wasteland, never to pop up again.
With any swipe to the right, you wait, hoping the person on the other end who comes across your profile will swipe right as well. If so, you're immediately notified of your new match and prompted to begin messaging each other.
On the surface it seems an incredibly vapid, shallow way to find a potential date or a hookup for casual sex. There's no meaningful profile to judge, outside of a few hastily put together sentences and a selection of pictures. But as superficial as it sounds, this is stripping down dating — and human interactions — to what everyone does all the time, every day. If you're looking to talk to someone in a bar or any public setting, you're first using your eyes and making judgments about who is and isn't someone you'd like to interact with.
"People are making very, very quick judgments when they are presented with any digital information," says Webb, the data consultant who met her husband by gaming the online dating algorithm. "This is about attention. Tinder has a lot of criticism. But all that is doing is automating a human behavior that already exists."
And if I'm writing about trends in online dating, I'd better test them.
This wasn't my first time on a dating site. Far from it.
Eight years ago I was in a new state, attending graduate school, looking to connect with people in my new environment. But at a deeper level, I was struggling to understand being gay (but not out), and even in this setting, where I ostensibly had a clean slate and knew no one, I kept that part tucked away — hidden from roommates, from new friends made in school, at work and in my church community.
The place I went to find answers, and connect with people who might help me make sense of an unfamiliar situation, was online. I wasn't as much looking for romantic relationships or sex, but connectedness in a relatively safe environment.
That helped, and through the years I've started and maintained relationships sparked by online dating sites. Some have been thoughtful, long-lasting, enriching experiences that continue today. Others ended before the check arrived. At the same time, I've had relationships that started and ended without having any online component — the "traditional" way, if you will. Those relationships have been similarly fulfilling or unfulfilling.
But there's a unique, instant gratification that has come with the digital lives we lead, a kind of stimulation our brains enjoy when we get a new text message or hear the "ding" of a new email pop up on our phones.
To look at your phone and see a new message — or a first message — from someone you had your eye on produces a sense of excitement that sends endorphins to your brain and makes you feel wanted.
I felt that the first time I used Tinder several weeks ago, just as I felt a twinge of joy the first time I got a message back from someone on that initial dating site eight years ago.
The technology has changed, but the fundamental interaction hasn't. And in both cases we're just more data points to be observed and written about in someone else's book.
After a few hours using Tinder, I got an alert saying I had matched with someone. He'd swiped right on me, and I'd done the same for him. When that happens, you're prompted to send a message to your new match. Or you have the option, in Tinder's terms, to "keep playing." Tapping that option takes you back to all the people you haven't seen. You're once again faced with the choice to swipe right or swipe left, your finger hovering over the screen, your brain making split-second decisions, evaluating the new face in front of you, analyzing, wondering if the face staring back at you is a face you would know how to talk to directly and make meaningful conversation.
If you only had the guts to say hello.
And if only the other person swipes right, too. ♦