You've Reached the Character Limit
Dating technology rules and boundaries may be cheapening how we see ourselves.
Posted Jun 25, 2019
Gay, single, sober, and 32. My straight friends are mostly paired off, and I was at their weddings in a blazer. Most of them know better than to attempt to set me up with the one other queer person they know, an all too confident mistake made by well-meaning, usually settled-and-mated acquaintances who want to flex their own romantic fortune, or superpowers, for the universe. My queer friends are few, mostly because I find the necessary “I will not engage sexually or compete sexually with my friends” pre-friendship disclaimer gets to the bottom of what they imagine friendship might provide for them and scares them off. Three years into retirement from drinking, I don’t go to bars often--perhaps twice a year for a performance or birthday party. I work in an office in a small city, but near a large city. And without these channels, if that even matters nowadays, I “date” the same way that I think most of us do anyway: through apps.
When I started to embark on internet dating, ten or so years ago, Grindr and Tinder hadn’t existed. On OkCupid, profiles included personal details, answers to elective surveys that analyzed your potential partner’s tastes and style, and, usually, a lengthy profile cataloging ambitions, perceived shortcomings, and some construction of a biographical narrative. That is, people wrote about themselves so that we could get a sense of who they were. Often, I’d scroll through matches. I’d click on profiles who didn’t seem like a good match to read what they had chosen to share in hopes that I underestimated them by the highly touched photos they published to draw us in. One of my now ex-boyfriends actually re-tooled his profile once we got together and exclaimed that we had reached a “96% compatibility.” Another time, following a series of lengthy exchanges, I took a Greyhound bus to New York City, eight hours from Pittsburgh, to walk up to the front door of a building, on a first date, where the guy I had been chatting with for two months or so had been working as a personal assistant. He was extraordinarily literary online, a masters students in English who blogged about queer identities. In person, he was shy, nervous, and walked down the steps past me so quickly that I had to chase him down the sidewalk.
Now, though, online dating, or “app dating,” has changed. Some of the reasons why are nebulous. Arguably, the gamified technical and neurological mechanisms for choosing social and romantic partners has caused us to enjoy the payout of matching, or being contacted (Your phone lights up, buzzes, or otherwise notifies you that somebody is interested in you.), more than the payout for the work one might put in to establish a meaningful or deep connection. There’s a safety in matching without further pursuit that rewards our brains with affirmative pleasure. We exchange compliments, trade shirtless or nude images, express (or feign) interest, and resume scrolling. But different than before, we don’t know much about each other from the beginning. We’re living in an increasingly less private world, and yet, our personas have become less divulgent, more shallow. We’ve become cartoons of real humans. How do the profiles look now? Well, this has been a constant horror to me.
The “@-er”: One style of profile assumes or purports that an Instagram handle is sufficient portrayal of one’s identity, biography, personality, style, tastes, and interests. And I never find this to be the case. Headshots, photos enjoying your friends, or series of landscapes don’t tell me much about you, except for what you’ve chosen to point your phone at, or at what angle you’ve asked your friends to point their phones. Is your body what you’re hoping to show off? Or that you regard yourself as “fun” or “artsy?” I’m never really sure! I appreciate getting to see a photographic scrapbook of one’s life, but where is the information?
The “One Liner”: This person’s entire profile is a single hollow joke. Here are a few complete profiles that I’ve read: “I have perfected the grilled cheese.”, “Italian- Self-diagnosed”, “Well versed in bird law”, “My mom says I’ll never meet a man lookin’ like this.” The One Liner begs the question, for me: “Are we all so broken that we’re only comfortable as simple, unthinking, and fun? Then, there is the sub-type of this person, the “Relational One Liner”: this person’s one quip is about how much he is liked by his mom, your mom, everyone’s mom, his dog, all dogs, or how much he likes dogs. It’s a presentation of safe likability: this person wants you to know he’s safe and benevolent, which might be valuable if that’s your only metric for interest.
The “Emogist”: This person chooses to self-identify entirely with a new language invented by the manufacturer of his phone. Usually, with discernment, you can get a sense of what this person likes to eat or do, but no clear thoughts, feelings, or ideas are presented. This person is a summary of pictorial likings. He likes avocados and bowling balls! Cool. But, can he or will he type complete sentences? It’s unclear.
Since online dating has come to lose out in a competition with apps, there’s another clear reason why our selves, or presentations of selves, have come to be reduced. We’re not just choosing to boil down and boil off our intricacies, complexities, and intellectual value: we’re being forced to. Tinder has a 500-character limit for profiles. Grindr’s is 250. (I know that people sometimes say, on Grindr, “I’m not here to hook up,” but it would seem to me that there may be much better ways, technical or otherwise, to meet or interact with someone that doesn’t restrict you to a 250-character bio.) 250-500 characters is not a lot of room for a human person, of any experience, to present to the world the things he or she might like the world to know. So, we “@,” tell a joke, or choose emojis. We say “well, if he likes me, he’ll ask,” and we assume that if we draw someone in by self-presenting as fun, likable, goofy, or easygoing, and if our pictures are attractive enough, that a conversation will ensue. But how many of us have begun, over the past few years, matching with people who never send us a message or reply to ours?
This polemic is not a criticism about “good vibes.” That criticism has been made hilariously elsewhere, not by me. This is a social and political catcall to expression, identity, and vocabulary. If we continue to accept calling daily selfies “content,” we lose sight of how richly and deeply packed and meaningful content can be. If we persist in recognizing that a “story” is a series of sunset photos on Instagram that don’t tell us anything about each other, or have a beginning, middle or end, we gain no greater sense of how we fit into each other's lives, or what the experience of that sunset had on the person experiencing it (Well, except perhaps that is “WAS SICK.”). And, here and now, with our thoughts technically and literally restricted to 500 characters, I’m asking people to use every last one of them, because if that’s all we’re going to get from Tinder, or Grindr, or any chance to connect with someone who might love us back, we should want them to know who we are. Because we’re not just a dad joke, or a petter-of-dogs, or an engineered sushi emoji. And we’re all still on here swiping, looking for someone, too.