Maybe It's Just Me, But...

Musings of a mildly mad multi-disciplinarian

Online Dating Assistants: Can E-Dating Get More Artificial?

Is the person you emailed the same person you'll meet?

Maybe it's just me, but I've always found online dating sites a bit artificial. (Yes, I am old enough to remember the development of personal ads in the newspaper—this applies to them too.) Look at this way: I consider myself a very introverted person, not fantastic to look at, and even I seem to meet fascinating, intelligent, attractive women quite often. Statistically speaking, I'm sure most of the millions of people who use online dating sites must be less introverted than me, so what can be their problem? Perhaps they're busier than I am, but I imagine much of their work involves interacting with other people, many of whom would seem like prime dating material (barring employer-mandated restrictions on dating coworkers, clients, patients, students, etc.).

Nonetheless, online dating seems to work for a lot of people (which, of course, depends on how you define "work" or "success"), so maybe I'm just missing something. Personally, I've met a number of women online with whom I've formed lasting friendships, and were I "liberated," who knows if something may have developed with one or more of them. (If any of them is reading this, I'm sure she's doubling over from laughter right now—it's a gift, what can I say.) But I met these women in the course of my normal online routine, not through a contrived virtual matchmaker, so if anything did develop, it would seem natural, even though it started online.

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Wait—it gets worse. A recent Washington Post article describes the growth of online dating assistants, people who (for a fee) will manage your online dating profile—sending out messages, responding to replies, engaging in light banter and flirting until a date is arranged—and only then do you actually join the process by meeting this person with whom "you" have been corresponding. In the article, some "high-powered" folks, undoubtedly terribly busy, say that they have had their personal secretaries or assistants handle their online dating for years. One harried executive hired a college student to do this for him, and when he saw how well it worked for him, he started a business to provide online dating assistance to others "in need."

To my mind, this development just compounds the artificiality of online dating. Participants in online dating sites have always had to contend with dishonesty in the listings—embellished (or simply old) pictures, puffed up descriptions, and the like. Naturally, people would discount the prospects of a potential date based on their experience in the past and how improbably "perfect" the person seems. But at least when you did make online contact with a person, you could be confident that you were corresponding with the man or woman you might eventually see and interact with in person.

Thankfully, the article recognized the element of the famous "Cyrano de Bergerac" story in this scenario. For me in particular, it is reminiscent of the version of the Cyrano tale told in the 1996 movie "The Truth About Cats & Dogs," in which a radio talk show host (Janeane Garofalo) meets a man (Ben Chaplin) who calls into her show and they develop a wonderful phone relationship. But when it comes time to meet in person, she sends Uma Thurman instead. (Personally, I find Garofalo much more physically attractive than Thurman, but I digress.)

Chaplin likes what Thurman looks like, but is disappointed that the conversation isn't as sparkling as it was on the phone (with Garofalo). Similarly, with online dating assistants, not only are you unsure if the person you arrange to meet looks like his or her online picture, but now you have to wonder if you're even meeting the person you emailed with! (And after you meet the person who "had" to use an assistant to arrange dates, you might rather date that person you emailed with anyway!)

One commenter in the article calls this practice "an ethically questionable form of ‘misrepresentation.'" (I'll take "Duh" for $200, Alex.) But it's also somewhat self-defeating, especially if the other person hopes to meet the person he or she corresponded so well with, and the person who used the online dating assistant does not and cannot live up to that standard—assuming he even knows what was said in his name! (Yes, according to the article, 80% of clients of online dating assistants are men.)

The article ends with the following example:

Luke Chao started having his receptionist send online dating e-mails for him after realizing that there was not enough administrative work for her at the hypnotherapy clinic he manages. It was a win-win, he thought, because "online dating is tedious -- you have to send out 100 messages to get 10 responses. You have to go through 10 conversations to get one date, and that's just the first date." (Dianne Nubla, who writes Chao's e-mails between her other tasks, says it's "a good diversion" that she doesn't mind.)

It seems to me that if Mr. Chao has the time to do this himself (as he admits later in the article), as well as to go on one or two dates a week, he could well spend a similar amount of time at a bar, a gym, a bookstore, wherever, and probably have 100 women to meet, out of which he can talk to 10, and possibly hit it off with one. (And I'm not even going to ask if any of these one or two first dates a week led to second dates—nope, not going to ask, none of my business.)

Generally, there's just something detached and clinical about online dating, with or without an assistant. I may be a hopeless romantic (emphasis on hopeless), but I still cling to the ideal of two strangers meeting each other's gaze across a crowded room while the world melts away, a la Tony and Maria in "West Side Story." The internet can be a wonderful tool to enhance our lives and expand our social networks, but it seems to me that some things are just not the same if they aren't done in person, and meeting the love of your life (or even of this month) would be at the top of that list.

As the saying goes, there are a lot of fish in the sea—but what's the fun of hiring someone else to go fishing for you?

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Mark D. White is the chair of the Department of Philosophy at the College of Staten Island/CUNY.

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