Illustration: Christina Koch

Not Always Right

Speeding along to the song of a particularly gifted busker, I weaved my way through the throngs of pedestrians on 7th Street. I was running late. I’d spent a few too many minutes finalizing my plan in a nearby coffee shop.

Two young gentlemen were leaving the Chinatown WeWork building just as I arrived. They held the door for me, a lucky break considering it was past 7:30 p.m., when the doors were set to lock. If not for them, I would have had to suffer the shame of calling or texting to be let in late. I was already embarrassed enough attending a class called “Become More Right-Swipeable,” and didn’t feel like providing easy ammunition to a room full of strangers undoubtedly eager to judge.

I bounded up the stairs. Even though I’d spent the past hour doing so, I thought it best to collect myself in the bathroom and get my cover story straight one last time. I was a 24-year-old, tired of my friends using Tinder as a mere referendum on their sex appeal, seeking advice and discussion with those who took online dating more seriously.

But the bathroom was locked.

I impulsively made for the exit, getting halfway back down the stairs before stopping myself. This reaction and my doused armpits indicated I was more nervous about this operation than anticipated. I paused to calm myself down, remembering that I wasn’t attending this event as an earnest version of myself.

No – I was a voyeur, here to observe and then write a withering criticism of a class that ostensibly existed to help people commodify themselves. I had gotten myself worked up over some things mentioned on A Little Nudge [editor’s note: this site is no longer up, but here is the company’s Facebook page] – the dating app consulting firm putting this event on – namely their services of writing bios, composing first messages and the promise of a data-based approach to the formulation of dating app profiles.

I was so worked up, in fact, that I had even started writing my criticism. Here’s an excerpt.

“I’m no misanthrope. My problem with such dating app consultation services is not with their stated goals of helping people better connect. It’s with how they go about achieving these goals – by commodifying and outsourcing people’s personalities.

There’s a secondary problem too – that of capitalizing on people’s loneliness. However, we’ll assume good intentions here, and a mutually beneficial, totally transparent process. I’ll even assume that the testimonials are true and indicative of the normal experience.

The problem still remains though. Is it okay to be disingenuous if it leads to love? Shouldn’t our dating app profiles come from our own minds, reflect who we truly are? Surely at least our messages should?”

Having made my way back up the stairs, I pushed open the glass double doors and entered the cartoonishly millennial, exposed brick, open floor office. Immediately, I was greeted by the hostess of the event and founder of A Little Nudge, Erika Ettin.

Ettin was warm and offered me immediate and undivided attention. She felt like an old friend. This lent her a lot of credibility in my eyes – she knew how to quickly endear herself to strangers. She directed me to a square table with a spread of beer, wine and some light snacks. I uncapped one of the beers and observed the group from the fringes, while finding a place to stow away my bag.

Of the 25 or so folks in attendance, I was the youngest by about five years, and maybe 15 years below the median age. Given that I had come so late in the mingling hour (the class was actually slated to have already begun), people were quite absorbed in conversation with one another. Fine by me. I was there to watch anyway.

I killed about five minutes through a brief and vague exchange with a man in his mid-30s, and then grabbed a front row seat when the class began. Disarmingly, Ettin asked me if I could monitor and answer her phone in case any latecomers called. I obliged with a smile.

But when she began talking, I was laser focused, and the only phone I cared about was my own, resting on my thigh, waiting for notes to be punched into it. Between the first beer buzz and the anticipation of my own acerbic snark, I struggled to contain my grin.

We began with an overview of the dating apps and sites, going through the popular ones and where they diverged, raising our hands to indicate which ones we were active on. A raucous duo of 50-year-old men made predictably incredulous comments throughout. For instance, of Hinge, an app that tracks locations and matches people who have crossed paths with one another, one asked, “What are they gonna track next? When we use the bathroom?”

The presentation continued forward, providing examples of good bios, the importance of setting intentions, data-driven best practices around photo selection and the relative success of “text speak” as compared with more proper language, which won by a landslide.

More interesting were the questions that came up throughout. If the woman messages first, who pays? What about for same sex couples? Should you always do drinks or coffee as a first date, or is dinner okay too? Can I put up pictures of myself that are a few years old?

A serious discussion ensued after most of these questions. I even got into it myself, interjecting my opinion that the cost of a dating app meet up should be split evenly. The majority disagreed, unabashedly describing themselves as old-fashioned in their conviction that the man should always pay.

The seriousness and respect with which everyone approached these discussions and subsequent lines of questioning portrayed intentions far different than I had assumed going in. Ettin herself was more innocent than I had preconceived. In fact, several times throughout the night she even scolded people for suggesting they had been, or planned to be, somewhat deceptive in their dating app profiles.

This wasn’t a class on professional catfishing as I had thought. It was an honest-to-goodness learning session, and a safe space for those who hadn’t grown up flirting and otherwise fostering relationships digitally.

The bio writing services? Just a way to spruce up the writing of those who approach every message as if formal email correspondence. Same with the service for first messages. The data added some weight to what I thought were common sense tips, like don’t make it impossible to tell what you look like by uploading nothing but group photos.

For me, a person perhaps more comfortable articulating emotion through text than speech, it didn’t occur that such a class would be necessary. I felt that if something like this existed, it had to be both sinister in its intent and in the group that it attracted.

But, no, these people were there merely to expand the possibility of finding love. I don’t blame them. It’s lonely enough for those of us fluent in the digital dating world, but at least we have the option, the possibility of a certification of our desirability – a match, a flirtatious text exchange, even a date – right at our fingertips. I can only imagine what it’s like to lack the comfort that accompanies this possibility.

The final portion of the class was a crowdsourcing session wherein attendees paired off, swapped dating app profiles and critiqued one another. I couldn’t keep up the lie any longer, though. I felt my profile would out me as someone who had no business being there.

Sheepishly, I rose from my seat, grabbed my bag and whisper-mumbled to Ettin that I had to leave, but the session was great. I only hope I didn’t leave someone there without a critiquing partner – with no match.

Dan McCarthy is a DC-based writer of both fiction and nonfiction. He’s read his work at the Inner Loop Literary Reading Series. His writing can otherwise be found on his parents’ refrigerator in New Jersey or on his blog. Dan lives with his two roommates, his cat, sometimes a dog, and outside of writing spends much of his spare time skateboarding. He graduated from the University of Delaware in 2015.