Romance for digital natives

He’s waiting at the restaurant, looking slightly nervous and fiddling with his phone. He looks up as she opens the door. They hesitate, make eye contact and simultaneously exhale in relief.

Thank goodness — they both actually look like their OkCupid profile pictures.

Online daters aren’t always so lucky. In fact, the UC Davis seniors writing this article weren’t always so lucky.

Overwhelmed with curiosity — and after hearing about fellow undergraduates looking for love on the Web — we made accounts the first week of Winter Quarter. We chose OkCupid because it was free, and therefore, presumably more popular with people our age than paid websites.

In about a month, we collectively went on 36 dates with 14 people.

We wanted to learn a few things. Being in our early 20s and attending a large university should make these years the easiest, and most prolific, for dating in our entire lives. So why are there so many undergraduate students moving their efforts online? Aren’t websites like OkCupid only for weird, desperate or old people?

Believe it or not, there’s a sizable dating pool online just among UC Davis students. And some of them aren’t weird or desperate.

While we were juggling back-to-back dates, we complained about being socially exhausted, fatigued by small talk. We could have stopped at any time, but we realized at some point that we were actually enjoying ourselves. There’s a thrill that comes with meeting so many people, so far beyond your social circle, so quickly. And let’s face it, meeting new people is surprisingly difficult. No one actually pursues romantic interests by approaching a stranger at a bar with a wink and a hackneyed compliment. That’s creepy. It turns out, however, that this approach is entirely acceptable online.

We are officially people who found romance on OkCupid. And we are here to face judgment, share our war stories and examine the dating culture of a generation both blessed and afflicted by technology.

Weeding out potential creepers
Most people are hesitant to try online dating because of the “creepers” associated with that culture. Luckily, OkCupid makes it fairly easy to spot them from afar.

If you’ve never been on OkCupid before, here’s a brief tutorial: you create a profile, similar to Facebook, with photos and listed interests and so on. Unlike Facebook, you answer personal questions — lots of questions — while also ranking how important they are and what your partner would ideally say. The more you answer, the more likely you are to find another OkCupid user with similar views, as users are matched by an algorithm based on these answers.

Once you’re set, you can start browsing other profiles based on proximity, match percent and a slew of other filters. Then you can start messaging people and the real fun begins.

A particularly useful feature is the “unacceptable answers” filter. When visiting someone’s profile, you can see the answers to personal questions you both answered. Filter those by “unacceptable answers,” and you’ll see what you rank as important but also disagree on. So even though Ricardo seemed like a cute engineer with excellent taste in NPR podcasts, can we really forgive him for answering yes to the question, “Are women obligated to shave their legs?”

Keep your eyes peeled for other questions that raise red flags, like “Is there ever an instance in which someone could be obligated to have sex with you?”

Sometimes OkCupid actually imposes creepiness, particularly with a feature that allows you to see who is looking at your profile in real time. When “XxRicardoXx” checks you out, you’ll get a notice, and then when you click on his page, Ricardo will get a notice. This feature can be toggled on and off, but if you choose to peruse invisibly, you won’t see who is looking at you, either. Choose wisely.

As heterosexual females, we were averaging about 100 visitors per week. We were getting propositioned within minutes of creating an account; our inboxes overflowed with emoticons and cheesy, impersonal compliments. While we can’t speak at great length about other experiences, we’ve been told it’s quite different for the heterosexual male.

“It’s like casting a wide net and seeing what you get,” one date said. “You might send 10 messages a night and never get a response.”

The bad date
The bad dates were bad in exactly the way you’d expect them to be.

Hillary started talking to a potential match, whom she’d begun calling “James Franco boy” because of what she swore was a striking resemblance to “Freaks and Geeks” heartthrob Daniel Desario. They traded texts for about half an hour before he asked her out.

The first thing she noticed upon meeting him in person was that he bore absolutely no resemblance to James Franco. The next thing she noticed was that this boy was bent on filling every second with speech. As he drove to the movie theater, he asked where she was from. “Ventura,” she responded.

“Aha, ‘Bentura,’” he repeated, using the Spanish V. “Did you know it was supposed to be pronounced that way?”

Being a Spanish major and a native of the city of “San Buenaventura,” she knew that pronouncing the word as if it started with a B makes you sound pretentious as fuck.

But they got along better after the movie ended, as they finally had something semi-substantial to talk about. When he offered to buy her a drink, she didn’t turn him down.

A four-block walk later, he announced he left his wallet in his car.

Hillary paid for the beer as he got wrapped up in the Lakers game playing across the bar.
He must have gotten strange vibes from the evening too, because when he dropped her off afterwards, he used the word “friend” four times.

So it didn’t really work out …
Too bad you have to see these people all the time anyway!

Janelle had one date where nothing needed to be discussed — clearly this was never happening again. The awkward part only came when, the next evening, Janelle was at a bar talking about said bad date and said bad date walked in.

There was no acknowledgement. Yet somehow, they ended up at neighboring tables, back-to-back. Conversation shifted quickly. Bad date? Last night? What date?

Davis is too small to avoid these situations. If you were an OkCupid match, you have some things in common, and that includes drinking haunts. Then you catch a glimpse of one another at the farmers market, and then you debate saying hello at a house party the next week …

What’s even more awkward? Seeing people you recognize from OkCupid that you have never actually met. That one who sent you the really nice first message about cooking Indian food together, but you never responded to? You suddenly realize you have lecture together. How about that one guy you rated four out of five stars but never heard from? Surprise! He’s sitting at the café you wait tables at.

The 99 percenters
Based on the trusty OkCupid algorithm, our highest possible matches were 99 percent. And we found them. And we met them. And they were actually the closest we came to OkCupid heartbreaks.

For Hillary, it began with his sending the longest OkCupid message she had ever received. “It’s a pity you live in Davis, because I think we would get along swimmingly,” it began.

“The 62 mile Davis to SF commute is an inconvenience certainly but I find myself in the bay more often than you might suspect, by which I mean I’ll be there Sunday,” is how Hillary started the longest reply she’s written to date. The two days it took him to respond were grueling, and filled with previously unprecedented levels of self-doubt.

Luckily, it turns out he was just slow to respond, and the date they found themselves on two days later turned out to be everything OkCupid promised it would be. Coffee and beer were consumed in painfully hip Mission District venues, Dolores Park was thoroughly explored, high schools were broken into and make-outs ensued.

Janelle couldn’t resist immediately messaging her Sacramento 99 percenter who also happens to work in newsrooms and claims his first word to be “baguette.” In real life, he had just as much dry wit as his profile suggested and the ease of banter was stunning. Following their date, the banter continued over text message, and indeed, it seemed like a resoundingly successful six hours. Which is why, two weeks later, it was so shocking that they hadn’t scheduled date number two. He blamed it on transportation — two carless people trapped on opposite sides of the Causeway.

Friends advised giving up on the 99 percenter when two weeks became three, and feelings of utter defeat took over when three weeks became four.

Heartbreak.

But then, two whole months later, a miraculous second date was scheduled. And over the several-hour event, the 99 percenter proved as witty as ever.

The strange thing about the algorithm
Hillary talked almost exclusively with people who were above a 90 percent match. Given the fact that her ex-boyfriends were 96 and 99 percent matches, she trusted OkCupid’s algorithm implicitly.

What she hadn’t counted on was the boy who messaged her “Ficus.”

He was a 59 percent match who listed himself as being “made of cotton candy” — she would have left him alone if it wasn’t for her strange love of word associations.

She replied “Fern,” and within a few days and approximately 40 messages, they were knee-deep in conversation about the next season of “Arrested Development,” Grizzly Bear’s latest album and what makes a choice concert venue (intimacy and foosball tables).

He smokes. He’s in a band. He lives in Dixon. He is not, nor has he ever been, enrolled in college. He used to work at Walmart and he has only just turned 21. Not only would Hillary have not expected to like this boy IRL, without the medium of OkCupid, she wouldn’t have met him.

The older men
OkCupid also manages to bridge the gap between undergraduates, grad students and young professionals. We took advantage and got a sneak peek into that sort of real-world dating dynamic that we had previously seen only in movies.

A first date that flowed effortlessly from afternoon beer and live music to fancy cocktails and hamachi at the bar of an uber-hip, top-rated San Francisco restaurant? An evening that actually started with, “Want to come upstairs for a drink?” before learning we had reservations for a nice — like, really nice — dinner in an hour?

Conversations about becoming a company partner at the ripe age of 23, living in Peru as a Fulbright scholar, going to Columbia for grad school and it totally not being a big deal — these things happen! They happened to us!

The point: Chivalry may be taboo in college, but it’s surprisingly strong elsewhere.

The second dates
With all the nervous excitement and guaranteed small talk, it’s fairly easy to have a pleasant first date, whether over a $12 cocktail or a $2 cup of coffee. But the second date is much more likely to go horrifyingly wrong.

Normally as college daters, we are way too scared to commit early on. And we don’t mean commit to monogamy — we mean commit to fleeting affection or even acknowledging consistent interest. OkCupid eliminates that awkwardness and confusion. Interest is evident in meeting at all, so committing to a second date carries significance.

Janelle didn’t really take this into consideration with her first second date, which she assumed would be a simple continuation of learning about one another. Immediately, however, he expressed keen optimism about their future as a couple. Oops.

Another second date seemed to falter because of mutually high expectations. The first date was filled with spontaneous energy and, admittedly, booze, and the second was filled with slow, repetitive conversation and sobriety.

Meanwhile, Hillary had some similar second date slumps and miscommunications. The boy who seemed perfect on date number one was out of interesting things to talk about by date number two. And following up a six-hour date that spanned four different venues requires a level of commitment and ingenuity that, as it turned out, neither party was actually willing to put in.

Then there was the decent first date with questionable levels of chemistry that became the okay second date with questionable levels of chemistry, followed by the third date where he was clearly invested and she suddenly realized she wasn’t.

If OkCupid taught us anything, it’s that straightforward communication is key to avoiding dating blunders.

The aftermath
Perhaps OkCupid is simultaneously as esoteric as we all thought it was and the most straightforward way to date anyone these days. OkCupid provides a space for relationship-seekers to be upfront about all of their desires, quirks and hang ups, and to present themselves exactly as they’d like to be seen. Combined with the anonymity of the internet, this creates a space where people actually feel empowered to put themselves out there. Fear of rejection is dramatically decreased when every online interaction feels a little less real.

We don’t view meeting people over the internet as the end to traditional, real-life interactions, but a valuable supplement to them. As it turns out, going on a ton of first dates makes you good at first dates, and interacting with potential love interests online makes it easier to do so in person, too. Over the course of this experiment, Janelle and Hillary each gave their phone numbers to people they met in real life simply because their experience on OkCupid had ingrained in them an ethos of “Why the hell not?”

On a recent Monday night, we found ourselves on a double date — both with guys we found on OkCupid. The strangest part is that it didn’t feel strange at all.

DISCLAIMER:
In the UC Davis undergraduate system, and elsewhere, unacknowledged heteronormativity is especially heinous.
Two female heterosexual students wrote this article, altering the names and personal details of those involved in order to protect their identities. These are their stories.

JANELLE BITKER and HILLARY KNOUSE can be reached at editor@theaggie.org.

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