Love At First Byte

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Love At First Byte

Words by Mr Chris Elvidge

10 December 2015

Our columnist and cynical singleton approaches the world of app dating and muses: is there such a thing as too much choice?.

I should have seen it coming. Not the drink. That came out of nowhere. The circumstances leading up to the drink. There are certain things that you should never say on a first date, and “Do you mind if I write about this in my column?” is one of them. If I weren’t aware of that before, I certainly am now. Allow me to explain how I came to be stood, outside a bar, on a cold Tuesday night, with espresso Martini dripping down my face.

Whenever anyone asks me what this column is about, rather than give them the honest answer – which is “I have literally no idea” – I repeat the same five words that I originally used to sell the pitch to my editor: Carrie Bradshaw meets Tyler Durden. “Think about it,” I say. “The big questions. Narcissism! Nihilism! Third-wave feminism!” At this point people tend to lose interest and wander off, leaving me under no further pressure to justify my work.

If only it were so easy to pull the wool over my editor’s eyes. She commissioned Young Man In A Hurry expecting the Y-chromosome Ms Candace Bushnell. Six months in, with her author yet to go on a single date, her patience was understandably beginning to wane. I had no desire to let this column go; it’s the only thing providing my fragile ego with the attention that it craves. Which is why I decided to immerse myself in the terrifying world of online dating – a world where beggars can be choosers, and where love (or, failing that, sex) is but a finger-swipe away. Lock up your daughters, London. I’m back in the game.

I was the perfect test subject, having never touched a dating app before. It wasn’t that I was too proud; I’d just never felt the need. I’ve always been fortunate in relationships, not to mention happy in my own company. Whenever I’d wanted to date somebody, I’d go out a bit more, act sociable and wait for something to happen. (Trust me, my five-year plan is even less well thought out.) If somebody nice didn’t come along, well, fine.

The horror stories I’d heard from friends returning from Tinder dates like wounded soldiers from the front line didn’t exactly sugar the online dating pill, either. Take the story of one friend who, unaware of the real meaning of the phrase “Netflix and chill”, took a Wednesday-night trip all the way to the end of the Victoria line in the genuine belief that she was about to watch an episode of Homeland. “He didn’t even have a TV,” she said, shaking her head in dismay. “Or a kettle.”

But I had a job to do, and a column on the line. So, with gritted teeth and steely resolve, I grabbed my phone, typed “dating apps” into the search box and hit “go”. As an aside, if you’ve never done this before, I’d highly recommend it. The sheer diversity on show will force you to reconsider the boundaries of human sexuality. There’s an app for every niche, fetish and kink. There’s an app for people who can’t eat gluten, and one for people who love bacon.

Faced with the sort of indecision that often comes when presented with a surfeit of choice, I threw caution to the wind and downloaded as many as my phone could handle: Tinder, Happn, Lovestruck, Bumble, Grouper, Raya, Christian Mingle, JDate, AsianDate, Ashley Madison, DOWN Dating, Hitch, Hinge, Fringe, Fridge, Flip, Bloop, Blip, Beep and Uber (for making a clean getaway). As I was soon to discover, though, the app market itself is just the first example of the paradox of choice at the heart of the online-dating revolution.

Wasting no time, I jumped in at the shallow end with Tinder. In terms of barrier to entry, this is the Candy Crush of dating apps. No profile creation, no payment. All you need is a few flattering photos and a witty tagline – “willing to lie about how we met” – and you’re ready to go. Like a club without a door policy, though, it’s not necessarily the first place you should go looking for love. After half an hour, I’d dismissed somewhere in the region of 200 to 300 women. That’s the population of a village, or about a third of my Facebook friends – and certainly more women than I’ve met in the past year. Human beings, all of them, with thoughts and desires and ambitions. And I’d (s)wiped them out of existence with all the compassion of a contract killer. God, I thought, tossing my phone down on the sofa in disgust. I used to be nice. If Tinder doesn’t turn you into an awful person, nothing will.

I persevered, despite myself. I “liked” a few. I went on some dates. To a Spanish bar with a “mathlete”, or math Olympian, I forget which; to the pub with an arty girl who’d grown up in the tiny Provençal hilltop village in which I can be seen, on holiday, in one of my profile pictures (a coincidence that would have seemed serendipitous if she hadn’t had to sift through dozens of other guys to find it); to a noisy cocktail bar with a Chinese girl so softly spoken that I only caught half of what she said, and then got so drunk that I forgot the other half in the taxi home. They all followed the time-honoured first-date formula down to a tee: ride out the awkwardness until the alcohol kicks in, the contours soften and the conversation begins to flow. I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t enjoy it. It felt exhilarating to roll back in at 1.00am, blood-red lipstick smudged across my cheek, knowing that I’d have to be up again in five hours to go to work. Still, though, I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was missing. Where was my feeling of achievement?

We live in a world where everything comes in 57 varieties, even love. Is more choice always such a good thing? Take the case of my parents, who met in the early 1980s on a suburban street in the middle of England. My mother had grown up at number 1. My father moved into number 1. They dated. They fell in love. They got married. My mother moved in. They had four kids, including me. More than three decades later, they’re still married and still living at number 2. The classic girl-next-door love story, right?

But, what if that same scenario had occurred today? Would things have turned out the same way? If my parents had the knowledge that there might have been someone marginally better out there, just a tap and a swipe away, would they have stuck it out through the tough times? I’m not trying to suggest that my dad’s fairy-tale love story came about through a lack of viable alternatives. There was Karen at number 03, for a start, and Pam at number 12. If things had got really desperate, he could even have taken a bus into town and chanced his hand at one of the local bars. Not the smartest idea if you know where I grew up, but still. The option was there.

Maybe I’m just overthinking things. It certainly wouldn’t be unlike me to do so. I get anxious when I’m standing in the cheese aisle at the supermarket. Like, what if get Grana Padano, only to discover that what my salad was really crying out for was Pecorino? Am I a Comté or a Gruyère kind of guy? And wait! I haven’t even considered Burrata! If I’m this picky about the smallest, most inconsequential things, what are the chances of me not being picky about the most important decision of all: choosing a partner? Will I ever find what I’m looking for? Or am I destined to stand here in the aisle for ever, getting cold?

Let’s focus on the positives. I have this mantra that I’ve been using recently: “to have lived”. I like to think it’s the kind of mantra that Mr Henry David Thoreau might have used. “Why did you shun civilisation to spend two years living in a log cabin, Mr Thoreau?” “To have lived.” “Ah. How wise.” Of course, when I use it, it sounds less like a mantra and more like an excuse. “Why did you insist on ordering that second bottle of wine, Chris?” “To have lived.” Still, I’d like to think that I really mean it. And it makes perfect sense in the context of online dating, where, even if you don’t find love, you’re bound to wake up in the morning with a story to tell.

I recited this mantra to myself a few times as I stood outside in the cold waiting for my Uber to arrive. There’s an espresso Martini icicle beginning to form on the tip of my nose, I thought. Carrie Bradshaw never had to put up with this. But to have lived. I’m paying surge prices here and I’m miles from home. This is going to cost me an arm and a leg. But to have lived. It’s half-past midnight, and I’ve got work in the morning. Tomorrow is going to be a write-off. But to have lived. This online dating experiment has been an abject failure in every conceivable way. But to have lived. To have lived. To have lived.

Illustrations by Mr Giacomo Bagnara