Like Amazon.com, OkCupid shows you, as you look at any particular profile, a sidebar that says in effect, “Users who liked this person also clicked on these ten people.” The personalities of the ten similar people are encapsulated with two- or three-word labels drawn from their respective bar graphs. While glancing at the profile of someone who’d caught my interest, I saw a person from my own university department in the sidebar, her identity summed up as Less Sex-Driven. (If the site brought a startling degree of knowledge about people I knew peripherally, it also made me privy to an astonishing amount of information about perfect strangers. Idling in the parking lot of my neighborhood co-op one day, I looked up and saw a woman walking by with her dog, whom I’d never met and likely never would, but who I knew liked anilingus and believed truth was relative rather than universal.)
I left my own profile and ran a search for singles in my area. No matter how many times one does this, the experience retains some capacity to dishearten and enervate. If you live in even a moderately sized metropolis as I do, you’re reminded that there is no shortage of singles in your city and its surrounding townships; on the contrary, there are hundreds if not thousands of them, and they spread out before you, acres of the solitary, many of them devastatingly homely: ogreish men who squint at you from selfies with dead deer or fish, or stand shirtless beside dumbbells; women spectral with makeup, their faces adorned with incipient mustache and skewered with piercings. On OkCupid they appear as a vast expanse of tiles, each displaying the user’s photo, location and compatibility percentage with you. The men’s profiles are rife with self-descriptions and statements about what they’re seeking, which betray their accumulated resentment toward women and often bizarre ideas about what the latter want: “Six-foot-two because apparently you think that’s important,” “Just want someone who’s no drama,” “Sick of getting cheated on,” and—so common—“I like to stay active,” likely code for “Overweight women need not apply.” These same men have a penchant for contacting women in that most gallant and ceremonious of ways: merely writing “hey,” which, a female friend of mine is fond of noting, is like kicking something to see if it’s dead.
Women’s profiles are more various. If there is a recurring type, it is the spray-tanned twenty-something who adores coffee, yoga, travel, has a picture of herself with a group of children from somewhere in the Global South and takes great pride in being “fluent in sarcasm.” (This last is a fascinating new development in youthful self-fashioning: Do they mean irony, or do they actually have in mind the taunting ridicule that comes with sarcasm? I try to imagine someone earnestly saying to himself, “I’m seeking a life partner who’s warm, giving, compassionate, patient and, above all, sarcastic.”) What so many women and men share (aside from a desire for a “partner in crime”) is a quixotic specificity about what they’re seeking. Between their profiles and questionnaires, you can begin to surmise the crippling idealism that afflicts so many online daters: they want someone liberal, fit, as educated as they are, very skilled at sex, funny, a parent to the children they already have, a parent to the children they wish to have, a believer in their God (or an atheist), and so on.
Just then I received a message. “Make me some cannoli,” a young woman demanded without salutation. Was it a double entendre? Was I naïve to wonder? I clicked on her profile: 29, newly minted M.D., had just moved to my city to do her residency; was family-centered, More Suave, dazzling in both scrubs and sequins. A doctor, and a fetching one at that! I felt my poverty and concupiscence in equal measure. That opening line, though—I couldn’t decide whether I was indignant or stimulated. I decided to write back: “Hi! That’s not normally something I do for strangers, but then, most strangers aren’t as cute as you. 😉 How are you liking this place and your residency so far?” She never wrote back.
I minimized OkCupid and returned to my cover letter. I felt afresh the silliness of the undertaking: to make an earnest bid for any job in which you’re one of perhaps three hundred highly qualified applicants, in a field where twenty such jobs might come along in a given year, requires a degree of moxie bordering on self-delusion. Both the academic job market and online dating, I was coming to realize, involve their participants in economies of excess, superabundance. You enter each world laden with the knowledge that you are one agent in a vast and hyper-competitive ecosystem surging with rivals; that, having captured the curiosity of a person or institution of your desiring, you’re but one of a dozen prospects they are likely entertaining alongside you. Make a false move—or simply come off as average—and risk being swept aside.
Like the OkCupid profile, the academic job letter reduces the multi-chromatic splendor of a self to a single beige that it shares with everyone else. Here are inner worlds—rococo architectures fashioned over years of contemplation—broken down into a short opening paragraph wherein you introduce yourself, indicating your home institution and the title of your dissertation, as well as the job you seek (MY SELF SUMMARY and WHAT I’M LOOKING FOR); two paragraphs in which you sum up your dissertation, articles and research interests (WHAT I’M DOING WITH MY LIFE and I SPEND A LOT OF TIME THINKING ABOUT); a couple of paragraphs in which you dramatize your strengths as a teacher and convey the myriad things you offer in the way of department service (I’M REALLY GOOD AT); a closing paragraph in which you say, in effect, “I’d love an interview; if you’re interested, here’s how to contact me” (YOU SHOULD MESSAGE ME IF).
Somehow, within the confines of this form, I had to capture hiring committees’ attention. This meant gussying up the raw material of my scholarship in language that was sexy, piquant, certain to leave them wanting more. English academics, I should explain, occupy a peculiar relation to their ideas and the language in which these are housed. Many display an erotic responsiveness to the terms trending in their field: the aptly chosen theoretical catchword, or charismatic articulation of a (preferably anarchic) thought. (I once asked a colleague whether she and her partner spent much time talking about their research together. “That’s called foreplay, Andrew,” she responded.)
Literary scholars no longer simply read; they “interrogate,” a largely joyless procedure that entails subjecting poems and novels to the interpretative equivalent of a colonoscopy. The critic uses this examination as the basis for an urgent “intervention” into politics or culture, triumphantly reconfiguring how readers conceive of both. The intervention is peppered with newfangled nouns ending in “-ity”—systematicity, discursivity, Oedipality, digitality—and sent forth to do its radical work in the world, or rather, in the cloistered pages of journals archived on JSTOR and EBSCOhost.
I stared at the screen, pondering my dissertation. Was it an interrogation, or an intervention? Or both? If it tried to resuscitate aesthetic pleasure as a dignified concept in literary criticism, my description of it also had to be pleasurable, pushing the buttons of committee members, enticing them to linger over me. What would my bar graph reveal? Less Theoretical? More Pleasure-Driven? I drafted a few sentences, then decided to look at some of the job ads from previous years. Maybe this would help me get going.
It didn’t. It turned out that the job ads had been written with an ambition that dwarfed even the most idealistic of OkCupid profiles. One sought candidates who worked on “nineteenth to 21st-century British literature” with additional expertise in “Black British and post-colonial literatures,” as well as the potential to teach at least one of the following: “literary theory, cultural studies (transnational, diaspora or digital humanities perspectives especially), professional writing.” Nineteenth to 21st-century British literature: so, Wordsworth through Dickens through Beckett through Rhys through Ishiguro? And then, as if they were afterthoughts, the bottomless mineshaft of “post-colonial literatures” (don’t ask—just all of them), and black British writers. Another—this a one-year visiting assistant-professor position without the potential for continuation—wanted someone to teach a 4/4 load (that is, four courses per semester) while serving on faculty committees, for about $5,000 per class. The position will not be renewed because you are filling in for a faculty member on sabbatical—which is another way of saying you are being temporarily plugged into a professor-shaped void.
Other ads were graced with a grandiloquence that sounded borrowed from the founding documents of some obscure republic with an outsized image of itself. One noted, “Successful candidates will be published researchers, superb writers and imaginative commanding teachers. We also seek visionary citizens of the humanities in its myriad constitutions.”
I began to see that I would have to create some simulacrum of a self—masterful, near-omniscient—that I would inhabit like a coat of mail for the foreseeable future of my professional life. How this new self would interact with, or undercut, that other persona I needed to cultivate as an online dater, I couldn’t yet calculate. How both performances might impact my actual self, I didn’t even have time to consider.
Weeks passed. In time I finished drafting the cover letter. My OkCupid account hadn’t yet yielded any dates, though, so in an effort to kickstart my love life I created a Tinder account. Now I’d be operating on two fronts.
As many know, Tinder is modeled after Grindr, the gay hook-up app, and like Grindr it advertises itself as a “geosocial networking” technology, presenting users with a stack of profiles belonging to single people who are in their vicinity at a particular instant. It is also a descendant of Hot or Not, the rating site created in 2000 that asks users to submit photographs of themselves so that other users can rate their attractiveness on a scale from one to ten.
Unlike OkCupid, Tinder is specially designed for smartphones and tablets, and, rather than having users anchor themselves to specific locations—on OkCupid, even if I spend a weekend in Honolulu my profile will remain affiliated with my hometown—Tinder shows you whatever users happen to be near you right now, wherever you are, and you to them. Its ethos is Heraclitean: life is measured in instants, no two of them alike. Foresight, commitment and a long view of time evaporate in a pulsing rush to maximize the present moment with its unique combination of hook-up prospects, induplicable, lost tomorrow.
You proceed through the profiles individually as you would a deck of cards, swiping right if you like them, left if you don’t. Because nearly everyone accesses Tinder on a device, “swiping” entails reaching with your fingers or thumb and touching the person—often their face, since most photos are head shots, but sometimes their chest or loins or legs, or occasionally the faces of their children—and rubbing your digits across this body part. If you choose to rub the person leftward, a large red icon that says NOPE will appear on the user—usually their forehead—and you will never see them again. If you rub right, a green icon that says LIKE will appear on them. If two people rub each other rightward, they’re considered a match and can then exchange messages.
To say Tinder grafts a vapid consumerist logic onto our search for companionship seems almost too easy: here is an app that presents you with a Hoyle deck of human beings you are invited to assess instantaneously, primarily on the basis of their fuckability (though some users include brief self-descriptions, you have to scroll down to see these); you plow through three score of them as you might sleeves of Oreos, glutted and half sick. More striking to me was the resemblance of this activity to the work hiring committees did in flipping through monolithic stacks of applications. I hated the thought of being tossed aside by committees on the basis of criteria I felt were ill-conceived. Yet here I was, sorting through multitudes of singles according to standards that made those of the hiring committees appear prudent, even compassionate.
There were differences, of course. But my swiping aligned me uncomfortably with those committee members who, in just a few short months, would be sizing up my application materials in the first round of reviewing. I could see them already, their laser-like focus picking out my doctoral institution, list of publications, the vital details of my dissertation synopsis. Was I hot or not?
Tinder yielded connections immediately. I had twenty, thirty, forty matches. One posed with a St. Bernard; her profile said, “Road-trip car repairs, so I’m in town for the night. Show me around?” Another sat on a dock in a floppy sun hat, hair tousled by sea breeze. “NSA-finder,” her profile said. “Because this ass isn’t going to eat itself.” (NSA stands for “no strings attached.”) Still another caught my eye and made me linger. It belonged to a woman who’d included only one photograph of herself, and a slightly blurry one at that. In it she appeared to be surrounded by people on either side, people she had her arms around—but she’d cropped them out so she alone was visible, looking off to the side and smiling. Her name was Lindsay and her profile was unusually detailed for Tinder: she was 33 and single and had a degree in classics; she was interested in Diogenes, Catullus and “fun and romance” in equal measure. She liked The Wire. She was emphatically not interested in meeting any meth heads.
We began to talk. “Cool profile!” I wrote. “I like classical lit too, and The Wire, and fun and romance, and, well, I’m certainly not a meth head. What do you do for a living?” She replied: “Well, all right! Thanks for writing. Though I started off as a classicist, I ended up becoming an architect!” She wondered what I studied as a grad student, and did I ever write things that weren’t academic? “Nineteenth-century poetry,” I answered, and noted I kept a music blog. She wrote back right away: “No way! I’ve got a thing for Baudelaire, Verlaine, Rimbaud.” Now we were humming. “What’s your dissertation about, and can you send me a link to your blog?” she asked.
Was this a request for additional materials? I sent a link to my blog, then found myself tasked with having to write a second synopsis of my dissertation on pleasure, this one in a Tinder dialogue window. I couldn’t just paste in my cover letter’s description, surely? Nor could I dumb it down in an effort to make it “approachable”; that would seem condescending. (“It’s actually about pleasure of all things! 😉 LOLZ” was off limits, for example.) I decided to keep it straightforward: “It’s all about nineteenth-century poetic theories of pleasure! In my field at least, it’s become stereotypical for scholars to denigrate pleasure—it’s distracting, it’s trivial, it’s selfish—but I use poets like Keats and the Rossettis to argue it can be enlightening and empowering.”
I sat back, took a breath and waited. Had that seemed pedantic? Just then a response came. “I love that! I’m constantly thinking about pleasure. Actually, I think a lot about dopamine, specifically: where it comes from, where I can get my next fix.” She wondered whether I wanted to get a drink that weekend. Of course I did.
We made plans for that Saturday night, but when Saturday arrived I had to postpone because a kitten I had arranged to adopt from a local shelter suddenly became available, and I needed to be at home with him during his first night at my apartment. We arranged to go out the following Saturday instead—the night before Easter.
During the ensuing week I did what’s become, in the age of digital dating, the requisite internet research, feeling all the requisite creepiness in the process. Many digital daters have had the experience of sifting through a prospect’s Facebook photo archives until, with a pang of appalled self-disgust, they realize they’ve reached the person’s tenth-grade formal pictures. The latter were, thankfully, unavailable in Lindsay’s case, though I did discover where she was from and the fact that she was an amateur runner. The next Saturday, as I pumped my bike pedals en route to the bar, I admonished myself not to betray any of this knowledge during our conversation, rehearsing my looks of surprise and captivation as she told me about that area Crazy Legs 5K she’d placed third in the previous September.
When I got there she was the only one sitting at the bar. As I approached she rose and we did some grotesquely unchoreographed combination of hugging and shaking hands. She had black hair, impish blue eyes and a wry, knowing smile. Though she mumbled at first and made only sporadic eye contact, after a drink and a half hour of talk, seeing I was kind and asked questions, she spoke more confidently. We bonded over our travels—we’d both lived in Ireland—and the talk migrated to education. She’d done her undergrad at Yale and graduate work at Stanford: it became clear that she was at least a minor genius, though in such an airily understated way it was almost preposterous. Her sister, like me a Ph.D. student in English, had grown viscerally depressed and become incapable of producing written work. Lindsay had cheerfully stepped in and written a 25-page seminar paper for her, expunging her sister’s incomplete grade from her transcript.
“How did you ever find time for that?!” I asked.
“Oh! Research is totally my wheelhouse,” she said, “so it wasn’t at all a chore. Plus I learned a shit-ton about Tristram Shandy.” She laughed wickedly.
We traipsed off to another bar nearby, where we had a third drink and then a fourth, and before I knew it we were sitting beside each other in a booth and I had my arm around her. “Can I say something?” she said after a time. I looked up. “The last time I said it, the guy got up and walked out on the spot. Will you promise not to do that?” I reflected I didn’t have a choice and promised. “I’m not really 33,” she said. “I’m 42 and I have three kids and technically I’m still married.”
I sat with this, wordless. She sighed. “I’ve tried so hard—tried everything,” she went on. “He’s a lost cause.” Another mute minute went by. “You still there?”
“Of course,” I said. “Why did you have to lie to me, though?”
“There’s no way you would’ve gone out with me if I’d listed my actual age.”
“Yes I would’ve,” I said. But I think I was lying.
I didn’t get up and walk out. I sat there yammering with her another half hour, our adjacent bodies convecting. She was awed at the abundance of prospects online dating afforded, in contrast to the dearth of options most single people had in the early Nineties when she’d last been single. She was planning to write a book detailing her online dating experiences entitled Reentry. I shared how I’d been out of the game several months, having briefly dated another academic who so mercilessly subordinated love to work that when I suggested, desperate, that we get together just once a week on a night of her choosing, she accused me of trying to “regimentalize her life.”
Lindsay looked at me, appalled, grasping my thigh as if for stability. “I’ll give you a night a week!”
“Aww,” I said. “That’s because you’re sweet.”
It got late. “Had enough?” I said.
She paused. “I kind of want to meet your kitten.”
I felt my face inflame. “Yeah, of course,” I said. “No problem.”
We paid the bill and both departed for my place, she in her minivan, I on my bike. Twenty minutes later, back at my apartment and half breathless, I set about shoveling out the two litter boxes, then swept up the fugitive gravel strewn about both. I put on a João Gilberto album, sat down on the futon and breathed. Half an hour went by. Had she flaked out? I imagined her hauling the van aimlessly around our city’s streets, weighing whether to follow through on the impulse of rebellion that had moved her to suggest this—a whim of subversion, probably even revenge, against some man I would never meet, who likely lay alone this very moment in their bed, a monument of aridity and fossilized promises.
Just then the doorbell rang and my cats scattered. I went downstairs, flipped on the outer light and she was there, beaming and nonchalant. She said something about having confused my street for another with a similar name, and I led her upstairs. Together we loafed our way to the futon and sat down.
A street lamp shone like a stage light though the window, brightening us both. I got up and drew the blinds, returning to her side. I wanted this. Grad school and the market might pummel the body into unfeeling dormancy, but pleasure was a defibrillator and could jolt it back to life. “This has been such a nice evening,” I said. “It’d be a shame if we didn’t at least have a kiss goodnight.” She looked at me with an almost ceremonial solemnity, then nodded. We kissed for the next few minutes, sedately at first and then with amplified intensity, then began to get undressed. Undoing my belt, she leaned forward and said into my ear, “I want to know all about what you’re going to do to me. Where are you going to put this?”
Caught off guard, I weighed the question in as literal and academic a fashion as one could, then said—I kid you not, reader, I actually said this, and without a trace of irony—“Your vagina?” She drew away, looking at me, first quizzically and then with slight exasperation. After a moment she recomposed herself, this time addressing me with the unflinching resolve of someone aiming a .44 Magnum: “Come on. This is your audition.”
This was my audition. I mulled this over. I scarcely knew this woman. Until three hours ago, the entirety of our interaction had been digital; now she loomed before me, a perspiring presence demanding that I prove my mettle as an improv filth-talker. I hated the thought that there might be eighty other men biding their time in her Tinder queue, a few of them wildly inventive dirty talkers who could do it in heroic couplets if called on. I had only a few seconds to act. I shut my eyes, tried to forget myself and began to talk. I asked her to imagine that the next morning had arrived, and the two of us were hidden in her closet rutting while her kids were off searching for their Easter baskets. “Imagine what the kids would think,” I said into her ear, and held my breath. Incredibly, it worked. She let out a thrilled cry that resounded through the house. When I asked politely if she could keep it down because the lady downstairs was very noise-sensitive, she said matter-of-factly, “Well if I get too loud, you can just—” The thing she suggested I could do in that event was so graphic I almost gasped.
She left early in the morning to prepare and hide the baskets. We had a last kiss and made plans to go out again the following weekend. “You’re a good guy, Andrew,” she said, then added, “you’re a good guy if you’ll see me again. You’re not a good guy if you disappear on me.” Of course I wouldn’t disappear, I said, and bade her goodbye.