Well, I don’t remember his name and I only vaguely remember what he looked like – he had eyes, I suppose he wore trousers. But I’ll always remember my first online date. I remember the day after, when my flatmate asked me how it went. I beamed at her over my cup of tea. “It’s like I picked him from a catalogue,” I said.
I met that man about 10 years ago. At various uncoupled times in the intervening decade, I’ve found myself slinking back to online dating, like so many other people. Millions of other people. So many other people that the Match Group, the US company, that owns the world’s biggest online dating platforms – Tinder, OKCupid, Match – is to float on the stock market with an estimated value of £2.1bn.
Our lonely little hearts are very big business. But for people trying to click and swipe their way to love, it’s also a confusing business. In all of my years of using the internet to meet men who turned out to be on the short side of 5’8”, here are 10 lessons that I’ve learned.
1 It’s still stigmatised
Online dating may appear to be the swiftest route to love, or something like it. But until you win the grand prize – never having to do it again – it always feels a last resort, the sign that you possess a fatal flaw that has prevented the achievement of true love through one of the more classic routes: pulling a stranger in a bar, meeting someone at a house party, sleeping with your employer. “I’m so glad I don’t have to do online dating,” your married friends say, “it sounds terrible.” Then you ask them if they know any nice single men to introduce you to and they declare that their friends are all awful.
2 but everyone is now doing it
In your 30s, at least, when people tell you they’ve gone on a date, it’s safe to assume that they met that person online. In the last two years, in which I’ve been mostly single, I have been asked out by a man in the “real” world just once and he was married. These days, if you do go on a date with someone you meet out in the world, everyone is very surprised and will get very excited: “You met him how? In real life? Tell us again about how he talked to you on the tube!”
3 Lots of choice means it’s hard to choose
The proliferation of websites and dating apps has not necessarily been a good thing. I know quite a few people who have found love through OKCupid and Tinder – marriage, in a couple of cases – but I know far more who have been on two or three dates with nice people who have drifted and disappeared after a promising start. Meeting people is one thing, but getting to know them – well, that’s a lot of effort when there are so many other people lurking in your phone. The rise of Tinder as the default platform has especially increased the speed and volume of choosing and rejecting. Once we read long-form profiles. Now we maniacally, obsessively screen candidates in milliseconds. Most apps put a time stamp on everyone’s profile, so that you can see when anyone has last been logged in. For example, you could find out if the man you went on a date with last night was looking for other women while you popped to the loo in the middle of dinner (he was).
4 It’s a great way to meet interesting people
Going on a meeting with a stranger that is prefigured as a “date” gives you permission to ask outlandishly personal questions, which is how I learned fascinating things about a man who grew up in an extreme religious sect, a C-list BBC celeb, an ex-naval officer, and the saxophonist in the touring band of an ageing rock star. I didn’t fall in love with any of them but, gosh, what a bunch of characters. I would have met none of them in my local.
5 It’s not so scary talking to strangers
I am great at job interviews and I’m sure that online dating has influenced that: once you’re proficient at having an hour-long conversation with a stranger over a beer it’s not a far leap to do it with one over a desk.
6 Falling in love still requires vulnerability
It’s so much easier to get drunk with a stranger who can’t hurt your feelings when it feels like there are hundreds of other people in your pocket who in principle could be better than the person you’re with (everyone you haven’t met is better). Online dating may have (sort of) solved the supply challenges of romance, but it hasn’t solved the biggest problem of all: emotional intimacy takes hard work. It means allowing yourself and your partner a kind of vulnerability that is often regarded as a sign of weakness and a source of fear. It’s still the case that nothing is less socially acceptable than admitting you’re lonely and longing to be loved.
7 It’s not about you
Remember the guy who I picked from a catalogue? After two dates he cancelled the third with an email in which he described a fanciful scene wherein he’d arrived home from a weekend away to find his best friend sobbing in his flat, declaring her undying love. “Can we be friends?” he concluded. I was upset. Ten years later, I’ve learned to remember that if things don’t work out with someone I’ve met online, it’s less likely to have anything to do with me and more likely to be related to the many years of real-life experience that he had before we met.
8 People who seem “meh” online don’t improve in person
In my early days of dating online I reckoned that I should give men a chance if I found their messages tedious but their profiles intriguing. “Maybe he’s not just as good at writing as I am,” I’d think. But the ones that I doubted beforehand never turned out to be men I wanted to get to know in person. If they don’t intrigue me with words before we meet now, I delete them.
9 Timing is as important as compatibility
In theory, it should be easy to find a relationship online because there’s a presumption that the other people you’ll come across want one, too. That’s why you’re there. In practice, mutual attraction is not enough: you also have to want the same kind of relationship at the same time. The most successful relationship I’ve had from online dating was a six-month liaison with a French sanitation engineer who, like me, was at a transitional stage in life when he was friendly but not interested in commitment. Having this in common with my ami avec des avantages was as important for sustainability, if not more important, than any other measures of compatibility.
10 But you really should look up from your smartphone once in a while
Last winter I signed up for some gym training. Lo and behold, there was an attractive single man of appropriate age in my class. Each week, the flirting increased. First, he complimented me warmly on my discount Gap leggings. The next week, he volunteered to pair up with me in an exercise. In the penultimate week, he hit me gently in the face with a piece of equipment (by mistake, I think) and took it as an opportunity to caress my forehead several times. “This is happening!” I thought, but when the class ended and it was time to part, he just pulled out his phone and stared at it, frowning and silent, as if hoping that a photo of me would appear on the screen. I never saw him again. Except, of course, on Tinder.
LOGGING ON FOR LOVE
? The UK’s online dating market grew 73.5% from 2009-14. It is currently worth £165m a year, which is predicted to rise to £225m by 2019.
? More than a quarter of UK adults now use dating websites or apps.
? The number of single Britons is rising, according to the 2011 census. In that year more than 15.7 million adults (35% of those aged 16 and over) in England and Wales had never been married, an increase from 12.5 million (30%) in 2001.
? Tinder does not publicise the number of users, but in 2014 it was estimated 50 million people use it globally every month. Users log in 11 times a day on average.