February 24, 2023

Graphics by Tyson Humbert

I can’t help but shuffle the best photos on my profile around in an order that will strategically entice my viewers. Does my arm look too big in this one? Should I start with an open-mouth smile or closed? Just in case someone notices my teeth are slightly crooked on the bottom.

I want to live in a person’s mind the way I exist in my home online: eternally curated for their viewing pleasure. My heart is my digital footprint and it beats to the sound of a notification hitting my phone. It feeds my inner desire, my need to appear perfect. If a hair is out of place it is because I put it there. I do not fear perception on the World Wide Web; I crave it. I itch to control it. There is a monster behind the keyboard who watches the screen with glazed-over eyes and claws furiously at the keys. I catch my own eyes in the reflection of the phone and jump. My shoulders tense with anxiety that only eases with another like.

I have to make sure my prompts are just right, elusive yet enticing. I could include something about my music taste. A song that isn’t too underground but definitely not mainstream. I need to mention my love for fall and my obsession with my dog.

I put that I'm a student, an intern, a lover, and a fighter. I must maintain my mystique. I can’t let them know too much. If they know too much and still decide they don’t like me, it’s devastating. If they don’t know enough and decide they don’t like me, it’s because I didn’t want them to. I am secretive; I am protecting myself.

I once had higher hopes. The promise of meeting someone and the boost of confidence when they sent a like or a rose my way was exhilarating at first, the burst of pride. Yes! It worked! I have fooled everyone into thinking I am worthy of some meaningless small talk and the promise of roses on Valentine’s Day and a thousand coffee dates adorned with smiles and shared jokes.

But, of course, there were only 112 unread messages sitting in my inbox. 112 faceless matches who I couldn’t find the energy to entertain beyond the playground of my mind. I’ll swing on the swing set and slide down the slide but they will never hear a reply.

Before I became jaded by my online endeavors, I floated with a lightness that can only be brought out by a simple crush. I would lay awake at night furiously texting back and forth, grins hidden under my comforter. I tried to block the blue light from reaching my sleeping roommate. We talked about books and music and traded witty comments for hits of dopamine. It was a rush to feel that infatuation again. I was finally playing the game right. If I moved my piece four spaces ahead instead of two to the left, maybe I could win. After days that felt like weeks of texting, we made plans to meet. Coffee. Noncommittal.

On a perfect day in April, I was sitting there on that wooden bench at the coffee shop, which I’ve since moved closer to and now have to walk past daily. I was staring a hole through my sour lemonade that I wished I hadn’t bought. I had been waiting for the match to message me back after sending the classic “i’m here! :)” text. Spoiler alert: they didn’t. Forty-five minutes later, the match texted me some excuse about losing track of time. I blocked them before my ego could deflate completely. Ouch.

People with online dating profiles once feared getting catfished by a blonde supermodels' photos while some greasy-haired man sat behind the computer screen. I fear something else entirely. Something that has nothing to do with MTV’s hit show hosted by Nev and Max. I’m afraid of rejection.

I hated being the one that was more invested. I vowed to never sit on a wooden bench and let a perfect day be wasted on someone who didn’t have the decency to show up ever again. From then on, I had to be the one who was worshiped. To be chased and never do the chasing. Manifestations chant on a loop in my head, “I do not chase; I attract.”

Yet I still exist on the platform in a constant loop. I receive the messages and never send them back. It's monotonous to receive an influx of the same “hey, what are you doing right now” or the “you’re beautiful” messages, but I can’t stop.

I want to be desired. I want them to love me and to think of me fondly when their eyes close at night. I yearn to fall in love with a fleeting face, never to be seen again. Graze fingertips and not lips, well, maybe, but only for a second. For one moment in time, I hope they see into our future. Holding hands while we sway with the breeze. Sharing glances over a plate of pasta in a dimly lit Italian restaurant. I don’t need to be remembered; I just need to be adored for one second and I’ll be fine. The temporary validation will keep me fed through the winter.

It feels more hollow now. To date online is to have every encounter reduced down to a set of six photos and three prompts. Instant gratification comes and fades faster. Everything I've ever wanted is right at my fingertips! Someone to call me pretty, an admirer to confirm that I’m smart. What else could I possibly need? Could I even handle the weight of an in-person interaction after basing my entire self-worth on the shoulders of people who know nothing about me? They are made of a binary code, while I am flesh and bone and beauty. The people in my phone are AI personalities attempting to mimic emotion and thought. I am beyond them in every way but one: I need them more than they need me. I need their validation.

I found myself falling deeper and deeper into the pit. I’d obsess over the numbers. I’d get annoyed when someone didn’t start the conversation first. It’s addicting and damaging, but how will I know if I am worth anything unless a stranger on the internet confirms it?

Online dating is a rabbit hole. Please, God, don’t let me back on Hinge. ■

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