SEATTLE » On most days during his commute from Green Lake to his Georgetown office, Alejandro Peña is looking at his phone. Like any 24-year-old, he’s texting and emailing friends and colleagues, but he’s also messaging potential dates.
Using multiple dating apps and sites, including Siren, Hinge and Coffee Meets Bagel, as well as OKCupid, Double and Plenty of Fish, he spends much of his 45-minute commute searching profiles, swiping right or left on Tinder, sending out and responding to messages, and making plans with women.
He devotes up to 13 hours a week to his dating life. If it sounds time-consuming, that’s because dating, with today’s plethora of websites and apps and the seemingly endless possibilities they offer, has become work.
A study by John Cacioppo, a University of Chicago professor of psychology, found that between 2005 and 2012, more than 34 percent of married couples met online, outstripping work and friend introductions (a combined 26 percent). In 2005, OKCupid’s users sent 150,000 messages each week. That number now? Fifty-one million. For the millennial generation, online dating is the norm.
Six years ago, 27-year-old Gabrielle Hooks says, she was ashamed to admit she met her ex on OKCupid. “But these days, everyone’s like, ‘Did you meet on OKCupid or Tinder?’” she says. “And if it was not online, it was like, ‘What! You met in real life?’”
Her best friend, Jacqueline Vindigni, 25, points out how quickly attitudes change. “Even back in the day, that used to be weird, admitting that you met in a bar or a club or something,” she says. “It used to be back before the Internet was popular and dating apps were popular, that (the bar) was the version of the strange meeting.”
How did searching for love become a part-time job? Eric Klinenberg, a New York University professor of sociology and author who worked with comedian Aziz Ansari on “Modern Romance,” a book about online dating, says, “The interface we use for dating is the same interface we use for work.
“So many people spend their workdays sitting in front of a screen, doing some blend of mind-numbingly dull data entry and analysis with the occasional challenges, that when they come home at night and find themselves in front of an online dating screen and they have to do mind-numbingly dull data entry and analysis with occasionally charged moments, they are just repeating the drudgery.”
Finding love is no longer the product of kismet, or even boozy nights out, but regimented, analytical, ruthless searches for perfection.
Peña averages two to three dates a week, but has gone on as many as five. A business analyst for a tech company, it’s not surprising that when he started dating in January 2015, he did so in a methodical way.
He had friends read over his profile to make sure he presented himself accurately. He read OKCupid co-founder Christian Rudder’s book, “Dataclysm,” for tips. “I did my research to make sure that what I was saying would be optimal,” he says, sipping a cocktail at The Upstairs lounge in Belltown.
Peña’s success rate is impressive. A polite, well-dressed, charming conversationalist, good-looking with dark brown hair and a warm smile, he is also 5 feet 4 — a deterrent for many women.
Since he began filtering for people shorter than 5-5, he now has so many dates, he’s got a different problem: keeping them all straight.
When I started looking for story subjects, I Facebook messaged Jonathan Zwickel, senior editor of City Arts magazine. He’s a fellow scribe with mutual friends, whom I often ran into at art events. I asked whether he knew any good candidates.
“Let me know if you need a cynical 41-yr-old male voice,” he typed. “Last thing I do before bed, first thing when I wake up. That is SO LAME.”
Like many of the people I talked to, Zwickel spends an inordinate amount of time swiping, texting and meeting. “I want to believe I’m being proactive in my dating life,” he says over lunch. “I know in my heart of hearts that’s BS.”
He goes through phases, going on as many as three dates a week, then burns out and deletes everything from his phone before capitulating and re-enabling the dating apps. He’s offline now.
Though Zwickel is looking for a serious relationship, with so many options, it’s easy to be distracted. A few years ago, while waiting for one OKCupid date at a bar, another woman he’d been texting, but hadn’t met, started sending him salacious pictures, enticing him to a Bellevue, Wash., hotel. After the original date, he rushed to the Eastside and realized he couldn’t go through with it. “The whole thing just felt so contrived and forced and uncomfortable,” he says.
Now, he’s focused on finding his ideal match: someone who shares a love of culture and the outdoors. He broke up with one woman in part, because, he says, “She had not a single book in her apartment.”
Our waitress comes by and asks what we’re talking about.
“I met my husband organically,” she says. She tells us she never would have met him online. Online, people employ checklists, “but that’s not how chemistry works. Chemistry has to do with your personality, and it has nothing to do with what you have in common.”
Her husband is from the Middle East. “We don’t really have things we like to do together,” she says. “He’s into cars, and I’m into helping refugees. He’s into computers, and I’m into art.”
She takes our check and walks away.
Finding love is “like picking options on a new car,” says Jon Birger, author of the book “Date-onomics,” which examines how unbalanced gender ratios affect dating behavior. “A lot of people have never seen the dating profile of people they might click with, because they’ve narrowed their screens so dramatically.”
Frankie Rentas, 33, an introvert with dark good looks and an easygoing manner, leaves his musical preferences vague on OKCupid for this very reason. He admits sheepishly he likes Josh Groban, an artist who might be judged harshly by what he called the “cool gays.”
“When you meet someone in person, there is the initial attraction, and you don’t know anything about them. That could go any direction,” he says. Online, it’s easier to reject them before meeting. “Because of that, I, as a user, have to be very careful with what I am putting out there and how I represent myself.”
“The paradox of choice — when the choices are too abundant, the choices aren’t made,” says Birger. “You have to pick out a new smartphone. If you have too many options, it takes you a while to figure out what you want. If you have two options, you make a choice real fast.”
In “Modern Romance,” Ansari writes that men and women who are now in their 70s and 80s often married one of the first people they dated, often someone from the same neighborhood. When older couples were asked why they chose their spouse, Ansari writes: “They’d say things like, ‘He seemed like a pretty good guy’ … ‘She was a nice girl’ … ‘He had a good job.’”
But modern couples’ answers are far more dramatic: “‘She is my other half’ … ‘I can’t imagine experiencing the joys of life without him by my side.’ “
Maggie MK Hess, a 29-year-old local writer who chronicles her online dating experiences on her blog, Dear Mr. Postman (sample post: “Scumbags of Tinder, Part 3”), suggests that perhaps dating is supposed to be work. “We work on so many aspects of our lives: We work on our careers; we work on figuring out exercise routines that work for us,” she says. “It’s important! Why shouldn’t we work on it? Why shouldn’t we devote time and energy to finding the right people for ourselves who are going to make our lives richer or more fun?”
It doesn’t help that the Internet has made far-flung relocation more common, breaking community ties, making dating anonymous.
“Everybody stayed in Minnesota, or everybody stayed in Phoenix or everybody stayed in New York,” explains Renessa Rios-Strong, a dating coach and matchmaker who works in the Seattle and Bellevue areas. “That’s not the same anymore.”
Rios-Strong also hosts speed-dating events. At one event in Bellevue, 50 men and women met for 500 dates. One woman, Maxine, a youthful-looking 54-year-old personal trainer from Redmond, found online dating a chore and decided to give speed dating a whirl.
But while speed-dating events take the research out of dating, they still are time-consuming and costly. Rios-Strong’s event, which cost between $33 and $45, lasted almost four hours.
Like online dates, speed dating mirrors a very fast job interview, perhaps the least romantic thing imaginable. Rios-Strong and Klinenberg advise going on more interesting dates, but doing so creates a Catch-22.
“Most of the time, you meet the person, and pretty quickly you figure out you don’t want to go out with them,” says Klinenberg. “So you don’t want to invest too much in the first date, so you schedule a bunch of boring stuff for yourself, so you spend your life going on boring dates. And that sucks.”
“This is really ironic to me that we’re meeting to talk about dating, and it’s basically a date,” Matt Clear tells me over a drink at the Bookstore Bar & Café at the Alexis Hotel. I was asking where he is from (Southern California), how he likes Seattle (loves it, might stay), what he does for fun (music, photography, cooking).
Clear, a 29-year-old account manager for a research and data company, goes on one to three dates a week. In addition to being time-consuming, he notes, dating is expensive. Two rounds of drinks can run $50. Multiple dates a week can add up to hundreds of dollars a month — even after going Dutch.
But, Clear says, “In my world, first dates are a thing that I want to pay for.”
Unlike others, he had a success story: a two-year relationship with a woman he’d met on OKCupid. But when it ended, he was back online, using Tinder and Bumble. He’d stopped using OKCupid because, he says, “It felt like research, and I don’t want it to feel like research.”
Though he is likable, outgoing and attractive, he never approached women in person. “I’m terrible at it. It makes me so uncomfortable,” he says.
Unwittingly, he was contributing to a very specific Seattle problem. Rios-Strong, from Scottsdale, Ariz., first noticed the notorious “Seattle Freeze” at one of her first singles mixers here. She watched in awe as dressed-up men and women stood in opposing corners with their arms folded, not talking to each other.
The city’s large population of men who might charitably be described as socially awkward doesn’t help. Of guys who work in tech, where there are few women in the engineering field, Birger says: “They don’t have a lot of experience socializing with women. I’m not surprised that some of them tend to be socially awkward.”
Peña, the analyst, laughs at his good fortune. “Thank you, Amazon! Thank you, Microsoft!”
But, he adds, “When I go on dates with women sometimes, they’re like, ‘Oh, thank God you’re not a computer scientist.’ That is honestly a response that I have gotten. It’s like I’m afraid to tell them that I know how to code.”
Liang Shi, 29, moved to Seattle five years ago and went on more than 75 dates her first year. She came from another tech hotbed, Atlanta, where people talked to her in line at the grocery store. Here, “Everyone’s in their own box.”
Shi likes tech guys, but she suspects they’re hanging at home. “It’s not like a rager or anything; it’s only like five dudes, and they’re playing Halo all night.”
Shi had profiles on just about every site. But last summer on vacation, in her hostel in Barcelona, she had a revelation.
“I spend so much energy and money. And it’s not even that, but it’s space in my brain,” she says. “Honestly, if I was doing nothing, nothing would change, but I would feel less stress because I wouldn’t be thinking about dating.”
Perhaps the most disheartening part of online dating is time wasted on bad dates and flaky people. For many, incidents of catfishing and ghosting — a person pretending to be someone he or she is not, and a person disappearing without notice — are legion.
Clear spent a month talking to a woman who put off meeting, until she admitted it wasn’t her in the pictures. She lived in Kansas and claimed to be researching a book.
Michelle Norkowski, 32, a veterinary practice manager, recalls her worst date: a guy who got drunk and started “using the word ‘retard’ and ‘retarded’ in a way that it wasn’t just a slip,” she says.
Norkowski has mentally handicapped siblings.
Worse, when she told him there’d be no second date, he responded by texting her “a meme of a mentally handicapped girl with rainbows shooting out of her head saying, ‘My favorite pet is carrot.’ “
Peña’s first Tinder date lied about her age — she turned out to be 19, not 23 — and after the second date, she turned clingy, asking whether they were boyfriend and girlfriend.
Still, Peña says, dating is “a net positive.” Maybe it’s that he’s been at it only a year, maybe it’s his youthful optimism, but the hope hasn’t been beaten out of him yet.
“I’ve met cool people,” he says. “It’s a fun way to explore the city and find new restaurants and bars.”
“But,” he adds, as he sips his cocktail, “I will be so happy when I can just shut down all my accounts and say, ‘Nope. I’m taken. Sorry.’ “
©2016 The Seattle Times