It’s 2004, and my friend and I are brainstorming a business to advertise for our mass media and marketing class. Our teacher, a crotchety, mustachioed man clad all in black who gives off the aura of a failed film auteur but bears a passing resemblance to a slightly more youthful George Lucas, stands at the front of the classroom behind a podium reading off a list of requirements as we follow along on our assignment sheet. We’re 14 and obviously won’t take in anything unless we read along, word for word, with him. The assignment is two-fold, a phrase he used to no end: part print campaign (poster) and part media (TV commercial).
It’s hard to like our teacher, I’ll call him Mr. George Lucas, because he is always sarcastic and totally inscrutable. Always, as in, we never know when he’s joking and when he’s serious, and he switches between the two without an appropriate warning transition. After a snarky comment, he doesn’t pause for comprehension to settle on our sleep-deprived, hormone-addled teenage minds. He just keeps plowing through the speech he’s scripted somewhere in his mind. The puzzled looks on my classmates’ faces disappear only 15 to 30 minutes later.
He never smiles, except in condescension. When he circles a big 95 in red ink on my graded quizzes, I still can’t tell whether he’s messing with me (red ink is emotionally taxing), but I’m guessing he at the very least appreciates the fact that I show up on time to class and put in a reasonable effort. He writes things like “Excellent” and “Outstanding” on my essays—still in scathing red, but then scowls at my classmates and me. It’s baffling. And whether because of or in spite of all of this, my friend and I decide to come up with something brilliant for our latest project.
My project partner, let’s call her Christine, is one of my best friends. We’ve gone to the same elementary and middle schools, and we graduated first and second in our class then, so I think it’s fair to say now that we’re some of the brightest kids in our current high school class. We spend our afternoons after we get home from school chatting on AIM about friends, school, classes, gossip, sports, TV, etc. Broadband is mainstream, though we still remember the days of dial-up in the not-so-distant past. Neither of us has had a boyfriend yet, and on TV, we see advertisements for fledgling online dating services, enabled by the dawn of faster internet connections, which entertain us to no end.
My married aunts, I tell Christine one day, set up my one unmarried aunt with an online dating profile and forced her to meet up with some guy she didn’t know. They “saw each other” for a while, but when it didn’t work out, the single aunt told my ancient, very Asian, great grandma, who barely spoke any English, that her boyfriend had died in a horrific, tragic, fiery motorcycle accident—just so she wouldn’t have to field endless questions about why she still wasn’t married in her late 30s.
Inspired by the unexpected drama of this story and imbued with the skepticism with which online dating was regarded at the time, we choose to create and market an online dating service for our project. We cheekily name it “WiredEmotions.com.” This, mind you, is pre-widespread-Wi-Fi, pre-personal laptops, pre-smartphones, which is why it didn’t even occur to us to use “wireless.” We were firmly routed (haha?) to our desktops.
It’s a website, of course, where lonely singles can chat with each other and make dates—as well as benefit from promised background checks, date consultations, and therapy centers. We don’t actually develop the site, so we draw up a couple mock-ups with a bastardized version of Photoshop, and for the campaign, we come up with the slogan “Feeling lonely? Tired of heartbreak? WiredEmotions.com can help.”
Our theme song is Britney Spears’s “Email My Heart,” a B-track off her debut album released in the heyday of the years we spent in either fourth or fifth grade. In the print posters, we layer subliminal messages (part of our advertising strategy) promising “true love” with tons of tacky hearts and computer-y graphics. And it is hilarious. We spend entire classes laughing, sometimes inappropriately and distractingly, especially when we cast the actors for our commercial, shot in the school’s TV studio. One, the girl, has obvious real-life designs on our pick for the male lead, which only makes everything viciously funnier when played out on screen—two lonely people, searching for love in separate panes, discovering each other through WiredEmotions.com.
We get a 90. Maybe Mr. George Lucas thinks we’re not taking this seriously enough. And we’re not because this is a high school class and online dating is totally foreign and ludicrous to us.
Fast forward to now, and online dating is not only accepted, but the cultural norm. There are a ton of services from which to choose in an industry valued at $2 billion this year, according to this report from CNBC. Aside from the leaders, Match.com and eHarmony, there are also platforms like OK Cupid, Plenty of Fish, Zoosk, Coffee Meets Bagel, to name a few. And then there’s Tinder, which I can’t even begin to understand.
Plus there are interest-specific sites like Christian Mingle, J-Date, or Farmers Only, even Ashley Madison for married people seeking an affair. It’s outrageous. Christine and I, who are somewhat surprisingly still in contact seven years post-high school, reflect on this from time to time and realize that if we had some technical know-how and foresight as teenagers in a small bubble of a town, we basically could have been billionaires.
I’m slightly bitter, but that’s not the only reason that I refuse to date online, in spite of my perpetual singledom and imminent spinsterhood. I really have nothing against online dating, except that I know it’s not for me. Plenty of my friends are doing it, and they seem pretty happy. Many have even found potential lifelong partners, and good for them. I say that without irony.
But for me, the concept of online dating seems—I don’t want to say easy because it’s not—but too transactional, too straightforward and algorithmic for something as mystifying, magical, and strange as love. While I’m not so much worried about any potential social stigma of having met someone on the web, I do think searching for love loses some of its allure and glamour when it amounts to browsing through profiles and photos of potential suitors and selecting a few as though you were comparison shopping something as ordinary as purses online and adding them to your cart. Many matches are served to you like advertising, based on compatibility quotients and preferences that try to quantify what I believe is the unquantifiable.
Taking the next step then and contacting these people is more or less like asking a sales agent for a quote, or for more information prior to purchase. Although I have no doubt that this is an efficient and effective way of meeting someone you could one day marry or even just pass part of your life with, it’s simply not what I personally want. In this one instance, I don’t want efficiency; I want the old-fashioned, crazy love story.
Like many others, I used to think that online dating was a last resort, a sign of desperation. It was for those “feeling lonely” and “tired of heartbreak” a la WiredEmotions.com. But now my hesitation to join the online dating fray is more a product of my personal beliefs about the roles of chance and self-determination in writing my own narrative.
Consider it for a moment. Do you believe in “The One” or “Destiny”? Or do you think it’s possible for you to veer off course, to completely alter the person you’re supposed to be and whom you end up with? What in life do we really control? Do you think that love can and should be mediated by technology, and if so, how much? Is this how modern love is supposed to work?
They are a lot of fundamental questions running through my mind here that don’t have a single, right answer, and as I puzzle through them, I find myself thinking that online dating is akin to taking the fast lane in a choose-your-adventure novel to get to the end. It’s like playing the half-hour version of Monopoly, like skipping chance meetings, sidelong glances, the initial and hesitant, face-to-face witty banter, the build-up, the wait that makes people really worth it, the immortalized, legendary story of how you met.
Obviously, personal preference comes into play here so if you want to skip it, rig a meeting, and deal out all those property cards, go for it. As a friend pointed out, only the initial meeting is artifice, a construct. The rest is just as a “normal” or “traditional” relationship would function. She’s right, of course, but then again the initial meeting is foundational. The initial meeting drove nine seasons of a show called How I Met Your Mother.
But anyway, in spite of pressure on all sides—from friends constantly getting engaged and married to relatives routinely questioning me when they will see additions to the family—I’m in no rush to find someone. I like taking the long, circuitous routes, and watching life unfold and stories develop offline (with as little technological mediation as possible). Even if it can sometimes get lonely, I’d much rather wait it out and serendipitously stumble upon “The One” instead of altering the course of my narrative by intervention—wired or otherwise. Maybe that’s the real reason why I never took that high school project seriously and why today, much to my chagrin, I’m not currently one of Forbes’s 30 Under 30. But eh—fortunately, on both fronts, there’s still time.