Monday, October 21, 2013

My Life Online: Go Fish

I remember the first time I heard the phrase "catfish." It was in early 2011, before Manti Teo and the MTV Docu-series that made the term a household expression. I was talking movies with a friend who mentioned a crazy documentary he had recently watched, in which a man began to doubt the veracity of his online girlfriend and piece by piece watched as an elaborately-constructed fantasy came tumbling down.

He was careful to avoid spoilers, insisting that I watch the movie immediately. But before I could, the idea of "catfishing" – or manufacturing a false online persona – became ubiquitous and the gig was up. Once you know what a "catfish" is, you don't have to watch Catfish to know it's about a catfish.
But then last month while I was in Hawaii, I happened upon an episode of the MTV series – in which the original filmmakers assist would-be online romances in a case of the week – and curiosity killed the cat. I came home and immediately grabbed a copy of the 2010 Sundance Documentary.

Catfish revolves around Nev, a New York-based photographer who begins a professional friendship with a child artist named Abby after she sketches one of his photographs. She lives in a small town, so Nev happily provides her with images from his travels to give her new and challenging subjects.

In time Nev is absorbed into the Facebook circles of Abby's family, cultivating distinct relationships with her mother, father and siblings, including her older sister, a dancer/singer named Megan. A romantic relationship blooms between Nev and Megan, but inconsistencies begin to pop up, launching Nev into a bizarre mystery as he tries to determine who it is he's actually talking to. Without giving too much away, it's alarming to see the lengths people can and will go to in order to fabricate an entire world.

Now, before you get excited, this month's edition of My Life Online is not about my encounters with a catfish. But after watching the film I couldn't help but wonder about the various persons with whom I've conversed during the course of this project. Were they who they really claimed to be? Was I? I may not have fashioned a human being out of thin (digital) air, but do I represent myself 100 percent accurately online? Does anyone?

By and large I am a proponent of the democratization of the internet but it helps to remember that as the web grows bigger there are more dark corners created. I recently stumbled across an advertisement for an online dating website called Ashley Madison, which caters to people looking for anonymous, extra-marital relationships. You almost have to give the site credit for its blatant honesty. Its home page features a beautiful woman pressing a secretive finger to her lips and the site's tagline says, unabashedly, "Life is short. Have an Affair." (Hint: Ashley Madison wasn't my niche online dating service).

After Catfish, my internet obsession become the blog 40 Days of Dating, in which two hip, New York-based graphic designers decide to put a pin in their years-long platonic friendship and try a publicly-documented dating experiment for 40 days. They agree to a number of ground rules – they must see each other every day, they must take one weekend trip, they must visit a couples therapist each week – and at the end of each day they document the latest developments by responding to a simple questionnaire, accompanied by the kind of colorful, popping visuals you would expect from two hip, New York-based graphic designers.

The entire production has a very glossy, manufactured feel and the two characters are conveniently cast in perfect dramatic archetypes – he's the player who can't commit, she's the romantic willing to give it a chance – whose character arcs ebb and flow at very convenient plot points. I'm not saying their story isn't genuine, but it seems a little too tailor-made for mass consumption, especially considering the book and movie deals the pair just scored.

Still, it's an interesting (albeit frustrating) read that gives you a little peek behind the he said/she said curtain of modern relationships and the writers – who are professional content creators mind you – offer a few interesting nuggets into the grand conversation of love.

For example, a recurring question through 40 Days is whether we cast ourselves in roles that we then play out in perpetuity, to our own detriment. I've been thinking about this a lot lately, since my character in The Ben Show has always been the loveable nerd who doesn't get the girl. I'm essentially Duckie from "Pretty In Pink." I couldn't get a date in high school, I couldn't get a date in college and now, while navigating subscription-based websites for people whose express purpose is to meet and build relationships, I still can't get a date.

My interactions online follow an alarming pattern that would be humorous if it wasn't so inescapable. It goes something like this: "meet" a girl, flirtatious banter, flirtatious banter, flirtatious banter, extend a date offer, crickets. Rinse and repeat.

Take Lindsey, who we met last month on Tinder. For one week we had a very engaging conversation. We talked about the places we'd traveled to. We talked about our work. We talked about our favorite music, hobbies, calendar seasons and films. Then, at 3:15 p.m. on September 20, I asked her if she'd want to meet up for a cup of coffee and never heard from her again.

Same thing happened with Taylor, a med-school student at the University of Utah. She wants to be an OB/GYN and we joked about how her life was going to be exactly like a hospital-set television show, a la Scrubs or Grey's Anatomy, full of love triangles and workplace shenanigans. I suggested lunch. The conversation flat-lined.

The other take-away I got from 40 Days was the Jung Typology Test, which I found insightful. According to Jung, I am an INTJ personality type – Introverted, Intuitive, Thinking, Judging – which means I'm introverted (yes) and rely on logic more than emotion (yes).

People often don't believe me when I say I'm introverted. They assume I must be extroverted because I'm loud, opinionated and like to perform in public. They assume this because they don't actually know what "introversion" and "extroversion" mean.

In a nutshell, extroverts are energized by social interaction whereas introverts are exhausted by it. My own particular brand of introversion, INTJ, can be especially deceptive, since logical thinking is sometimes perceived as confidence. To explain this better, I give you an exerpt of an INTJ description by Marina Margaret Heiss.
"To outsiders, INTJs may appear to project an aura of "definiteness", of self-confidence. This self-confidence, sometimes mistaken for simple arrogance by the less decisive, is actually of a very specific rather than a general nature; its source lies in the specialized knowledge systems that most INTJs start building at an early age. ... INTJs know what they know, and perhaps still more importantly, they know what they don't know."
I particularly like that second sentence. According to Heiss, it is not me that is arrogant, it is you who can't make up your mind.

But then we get to the part about romantic relationships, where the negative aspects of being an INTJ really start to show. It should be noted, Heiss isn't telling me anything I didn't already know about myself, but there is something comforting about seeing my personality flaws laid out on an academic slab. Turns out I'm not broken, it's just Psychology 101.
 "Personal relationships, particularly romantic ones, can be the INTJ's Achilles heel. While they are capable of caring deeply for others (usually a select few), and are willing to spend a great deal of time and effort on a relationship, the knowledge and self-confidence that make them so successful in other areas can suddenly abandon or mislead them in interpersonal situations."

"This happens in part because many INTJs do not readily grasp the social rituals; for instance, they tend to have little patience and less understanding of such things as small talk and flirtation (which most types consider half the fun of a relationship). To complicate matters, INTJs are usually extremely private people, and can often be naturally impassive as well, which makes them easy to misread and misunderstand. Perhaps the most fundamental problem, however, is that INTJs really want people to make sense. This sometimes results in a peculiar naivete', paralleling that of many Fs -- only instead of expecting inexhaustible affection and empathy from a romantic relationship, the INTJ will expect inexhaustible reasonability and directness."
I could spend all day on that paragraph but for today's purposes I want to note the beginning of the second paragraph, where it talks about how we INTJs have no patience for small talk and flirtation. The rote mechanics of modern dating has always been a stumbling block for me. There's been many occasions where I've said that dying alone is worth never having to go on a first date, which is timely because I went on a first date last week.

Online dates are essentially blind dates that you set up yourself. You have a little time to exchange some pleasantries (which may or may not be completely false) but you're still essentially confining yourself to a period of human contact with a complete and utter stranger, for better or worse.

My date with Julie actually was relatively pleasant, like a "no cavities" dentist appointment. We both work downtown so we met for lunch and I introduced her to the joyous rapture that is butternut squash soup. We swapped used-to-live-in-New-York stories and I had a chance to brush off my rusty Portuguese – that's right ladies, I'm bilingual, form an orderly line.

But I still found myself questioning the fundamental motivations of my gender. A 45-minute lunch didn't exactly fill me with an unyielding desire to see her again. Should it? I have no idea. There's an old joke that goes something like this: Anyone who thinks first dates are fun has either never gone on a first date, or never had fun.

I have never, not once in my entire life, "gotten a number" in the traditional sense of meeting someone at a party/club/coffee shop/book burning/etc. Most men scoff at this as an inability to close but I ask why would I? Why do any of us? On the other side of that phone number is, at best, a blind first date and, at worst, a humiliating rejection.

But apparently, as described by Heiss, most men actually enjoy that nonsense. They enjoy the chase, the forced asinine chit-chat about number of siblings and hobbies, the attempts at humor and the insincerity. They think it's fun, and I just think that doesn't make any sense.

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