hook, pick-up line, and sinker

It all began with bluefish423, a sumptuous blonde 23-year-old Brown grad in the Big Apple. She was beautiful, both inside and out (naturally)—anyone would gather this through her enticing OkCupid profile and infectious smile. Too good to be true, some might wonder. Well, like most, she did have one flaw—she was me.

In my sophomore year of college, I found myself interning for an online dating service. Don’t ask how—I can’t give a good explanation—but it was exhilarating. Their angle was that customers had no profile, hence no meaningless online interactions with one another. You sent them your credentials (face included), and they would set you up on a group date: three men, three women. Endless possibilities. No hassle, no commitment, freedom to choose. My job was to recruit—by any means necessary. The plan was simple: infiltrate the platforms that people were undoubtedly tired of using. Thus, bluefish423 was spawned. I was taught all of the insider tips and tricks to navigating the sexual cyberspace that is OkCupid: how to reel them in before explaining your fishing strategy, how to boost your profile to the top of New Yorkers’ screens, and most importantly, how to not get banned. It wouldn’t be long before I branched out to other platforms, but I’ll never forget my first.

The pink and blue landscape invited me in with a grand welcoming party. Bluefish was awarded the most extraordinary praise, none that the real fish would have ever received. A flurry of messages snowballed into a blizzard, and before I knew it, I was warned that my inbox was 90 percent full. I had set up my digital workplace only six days prior. Sifting through self-deprecating I’m-probably-not-your-type men and damn-girl-you’re-hot boys, I quickly learned that my work was more difficult than I had imagined. Each conversation was unique—something I would have appreciated if I were on display, but it meant that I had to tailor each approach with tact. I broke these men into groups based on their approach, recycling a well-formed conversation style to match each type, and anticipated almost every move and countermove. It was around the fourth message that I would reveal the lure, offer the hook (a discount if they mentioned my name—Sarah), and wait for a bite. It wasn’t long before I exhausted my options, sifting through every profile in the nearest five area codes. I had to start branching out to other cities and services. And so began the dating game, travelling between kingdoms of internet domain names scattered across an alien landscape of bicep-flexing photos and contrived autobiographies.

The League, an app-based dating service, claims to only allow the crème de la crème—the most date-worthy and eligible. You have to sit on a waiting list while their team evaluates your “credentials,” deciding if you’re an upstanding, worthy citizen. Among the seven tabs on the top of the webpage, one is entirely dedicated to “Differentiators.” They offer six ways that their service is far superior to all others. A personal favorite: “No randoms: an advanced screening algorithm keeps our community well-balanced and high-quality.” Well-balanced? High-quality? As a scientist I’d love some numbers, but as a human with emotions, I’d really love some numbers. Naturally, the website doesn’t provide any metrics for these evaluations. Why? Because they instantly reject you if you haven’t gone to a Tier 1 university and are not attractive enough by their standards. It’s scripted into their not-so-cryptic advertisements: “You Deserve the Best: We’re not saying Tinder doesn’t have its uses (hello Vegas!) but why not spend your time a little more … intelligently?” And my favorite: “Our concierges have no qualms about kicking bad apples out either (there’s other apps for them).” Did they legitimately say concierge, and make such a pedestrian grammar faux pas? Shame. These are nothing but baseless attacks on those without the proper education—those who maybe couldn’t afford the price tag, or came from underprivileged communities and therefore couldn’t break down the gates of an excessively hyped institution. Needless to say, Brown was accepted, and my state school was not. This crowd was fun to investigate, but I’ll say this: Ivy may grow higher than most vines, but not without the aid of institutionalized brick to ride on.

Tinder changed the rules. Connect to Facebook. I had enough experience at this point that I wasn’t afraid to show the world the real bluefish, and it was about time that I started reaching out to a new demographic—women. It wasn’t long before they told me that I was out of likes. Out of likes? But I was just getting started! A 24-hour refractory period gave me plenty of time to get to work on my fresh catch. I managed to finagle 28 matches—a sad fraction of the number that I gave the thumbs-up to (all). Smiling at the camera wasn’t cutting it. I did some field research: what do women want (online)? Unfortunately, I had no photos of me on a boat, striped bass cradled in my rippling arms (re: I didn’t own salmon shorts, and the only J. Crew gingham button-down that I had ever worn still sits in my ex-boyfriend’s closet (re: @thatjcrewginghamshirt). I found a shirtless photo of me on a beach, not exactly a display of “wealth,” but I had some tone. Post. Swipe. The school swam right into my trawling (trolling) net: 112 new matches. Thumbs tired, eyes burning, and an awkward match with an old friend left me bored and behind on school work. A fun game, but it was time to pack up my pictures and one-liners and move forward.

I quit after three months. Unpaid and overworked, I felt little return from the writing and rewriting of the same, tired responses. Who knows, I may have been an extra in someone’s whirlwind love story. On the back end, I never got this validation. What I did gain however, was insight. What do women want? What do men want? Exclusivity. Why does The League have enough members to be a league? Why do people value matches more than flipping through profiles themselves? We want to feel wanted. We spend hours on a clever bio, revisiting and polishing it when our numbers are low. We want them to message first, to ensure unequivocal interest. Are we worthy of this validation? If everyone sought it to the same degree, the system would fail. So, we play the game, spin the wheel, swipe right, cross our fingers. Trawling behind a screen won’t get you far. Maybe we should go fishing.