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Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Over-used words #4: Efficiency

What it’s ‘sposed to mean: something that is running as lean and mean as it can be, working at optimum, doing its job as simply and directly as possible, with zero faff and zero wastage.

How it’s used: Nothing more than "making savings" rather than actually "making something work better". Excuse me. Before I go on, I should say this one is a little more serious than mild annoyance or pedantry, and as such I am about to lose my sense of humour and get polemical, even political (although, if you notice, all of these "over-used words" posts thus far have been about the [ab]use of language for power purposes).

Serious

I am really talking about how the term "efficiency" is often misused in the workplace, or by government (central or local) - all too often as a by-word for cuts, whether funding or staff. Doing more with less. Getting added value out of the bare minimum. Working smart. Rationalising. And all that good businessman’s horse-sense stuff.

Here’s the thing: Efficiency does not just mean saving money or scaling something down. There is something absolutely key here – to be efficient, something STILL HAS TO WORK. If your service or product is worse after “efficiency” savings, then the word “efficiency” is a misnomer.

An overloaded system is not an efficient one. If you have more coming down that conveyor belt than you can deal with then stuff will back up and fall off, or pass by without being properly processed, or processed at all – and that is wastage, and wastage is not efficient.

Worse, if you’re asked to be in two or three places, doing two or three different things, at once (which you wouldn’t think you'd have to point out was impossible, but people do surprise you) then the system is simply just not working.

And if your new system is a constant stretch and struggle to keep going, it is not efficient either – true efficiency, once up and running, should involve less effort, not more.

Vorsprung Durch Technik

The word “efficient” used to bring to mind (stereotypically) German engineering or the Roman army – something strict, precise, reliable, meticulous, infinitely functional, impeccably trained and relentlessly performing time after time, like the fabled well-oiled machine – it absolutely does not mean over-stretched and under-resourced, running on a combination of corner cutting, a skeleton crew close to burn-out or collapse, and petrol fumes.

Of course, one shouldn’t automatically sneer at the term – it can mean what it’s supposed to: Re-organising something in a way that makes more sense; simplifying needlessly complicated systems; smoothing out blockages; dividing the workload in a more rational, straightforward and targeted way, so every drop of energy reliably achieves something valuable; making sure everyone and everything is placed where most useful, to get the best out of each... Good. If that’s the case.

But that’s not always possible – it still takes a certain investment of time and resources to get there. Yes, austere times can drive a push towards true efficiency, but it’s not a one way-street. Austerity can just as easily screw up things that once worked just fine - by over-stretching them and sending them limping into a slow, sad decline.

Cheery old Nietzsche said “That which does not kill us makes us stronger” a nice observation on the character-building effects of struggle and suffering, not to mention the “thrive or die” efficiency of nature (though not true in every case – a frontal lobotomy doesn't do either) - but then some struggle and suffering does just kill us, even if it takes a bit of time. Cheery old me.

More Business-Speak

When the word “efficiency” is bandied about, I find it useful to think of two other terms and ask if, actually, these are what’s really going on/going to happen. The following are clunky business-speak terms, yes - not the most poetic parlance to slide silkily off the tongue - but I like them, if only as very - yes - efficient fire-power for a business-speak counter-attack:

False Economy: something that may seem like a saving or simplification on paper, but which ends up generating more cost and complexity in the real world – usually because it ignores the fine details or wider/long-term repercussions. The unforeseen cost is usually a result of sorting out the mess made by the original “saving” – like pushing down a lump in one place only for it to pop up elsewhere.

Opportunity Cost: a term known by every A Level business student, yet constantly overlooked in practice. Where your focus on one aspect of your workforce's activity is actually costing them the opportunity to be doing other things - often things that are taken for granted, and hence overlooked - that are actually important to the health and success of the organisation/business. For example an extreme focus on productivity at the expense of the opportunity to think and reflect - ie. show intelligence, solve problems and come up with new and better ideas; or heaping more and more duties on fewer and fewer staff, which may seem value for money, but costs them the opportunity to spend time, effort, care and attention on what they were doing before – which in turn can cost the organisation dearly in terms of the quality of work and good communication, not to mention morale.

Body Pump

The over-use of “efficiency” is a hangover from better, more voluptuous times. It may have been valid when the first cuts were being made and workplaces were bloated with unproductive, unnecessary and unwieldy practices and appendages. Maybe. But for many services and businesses today, at shop floor level, the enemy is no longer waste and sloth, it is paucity and exhaustion. Insisting on greater “efficiency” in an already critically over-stretched system, after the nth round of belt-tightening and redundancies, is like telling an emaciated, starving family they need to stop snacking so much and get down Body Pump. It beggars belief, makes the tears stand out in the eyes - and is not helpful to anyone. At all.

We are not fighting the flab here anymore, we are fighting malnourishment – and unless “efficiency” refers to reducing the workload and not the workforce, it’s just an insult - and a lie.

Ok, that’s more than enough seriousness for one night. Look at this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=29MJySO7PGg

Sunday, 1 December 2013

Taste Bigotry

This was supposed to be about the polarisation of people’s aesthetic tastes – with graphs like the one on the left. That graph’s axes are not exhaustive by a long shot – there could also be simple vs complex (NOT the same as visceral vs cerebral), playful vs sombre and so on. I may yet sling up such graphs, filled out with examples, but I’m sure you get the gist. For now this: What turned into a damn essay on taste bigotry, and the tension between the trads and the moderns...
   
Iconoclasts

Earlier this year I had one of those phases where I developed a sudden interest in something and, as is my wont, immersed myself in it for a few months: Modernist architecture.

Leafing through beginners guides to all the various movements, manifestos and Stijls, I noticed, unsurprisingly, that there were an awful lot of “shoulds” and “musts” about the way forward for slinging together some rooms n that.

I got it – the new, young, passionate architects were tired of the same old shit, and keen to lay out their vision, embrace technology, fresh thinking, the new demands of modern living – to make their mark and change the world, which they largely did, hence all the books about them.

But I couldn’t help a wry smile at all the “musts” and “shoulds”, the new rules that must be adhered to – because I kept thinking “Why?”

Technology must not be hidden away, but proudly on display said the futurists; architecture should make use of strong vertical and horizontal lines, all black and white and primary colours, said De Stijl enthusiasts; decoration must be binned in favour of simple, functional forms said the minimalists.

Radical, exciting and seminal ideas for sure, and they have been validated by continued use – but why the “MUST”? Why so imperative? Because that’s the way it’s so often stated – as if EVERYTHING DONE BY EVERYBODY FROM NOW ON MUST BE THIS WAY or dismissed as creaky old bollocks.

Fair enough, it’s only the more extreme exponents who talk like this, and it is the passion talking, and passion is a good thing – but it made me smile because it was all so familiar from looking back through the history of spheres I was more familiar with – in particular “popular” music. The beatniks, the hippies, the punks, synth pioneers, trailblazers of various dance and electronica genres... they all had their share of prophets insisting the old ways were crap and wrong and dead and things SHOULD be done differently now, and here are the new rules.

Basically, the same very-human responses can be found in any sphere that has developed and progressed – everything has its fashions, its iconoclasts and trend-setters, from visual art to literature to philosophy to... fashion itself.

So much for iconoclasts. While I admire their fire, I’m often a little cool on their single-mindedness and short memory. Seems a bit... well... closed, and the emphasis on erasing history a bit... well... Stalin. And it’s got to be said, the attitude that things MUST be this way (while defending a new idea) smells rather reminiscent of the similarly intolerant and diversity-dismissing attitude of the trad crowd (defending old ideas).

Trads

Classic ideas. Time-honoured ideas. Back to basics ideas. Authentic ideas. None of this new-fangled, faddy nonsense. On the one hand the trads can be a bit fuddy-duddy, like your mate’s dad who is baffled by anything outside his own cultural reference points – where all modern art is dismissed as “not real art, can’t even paint a proper picture”, all modern buildings are “bloody eye-sores” and all modern music is “not real music, it’s just talking/shouting/noise, can’t even sing/play, sounds like a drum kit falling down the stairs,” etc etc.

That kind of thinking is easy to take the piss out of and dismiss as ignorant philistinism – but often overlooked is the equally entrenched ideology of the young trads, rediscovering and re-asserting the “real” and “authentic” from yesteryear - from the current antidote-to-throwaway-culture passion for cosy, traditional skills, crafts and way of doing things (baking, knitting, iron-mongery, Polaroid photography, collecting vinyl records) to the perennial muso’s insistence that recording on analogue equipment is just better, that one must use “real” instruments recorded live and no gimmicky effects, that there is a soul in the simplicity of folk or delta blues or 60s jingle-jangle that is impossible to attain by any other method.

There is a clear merit to this as there are a lot of good things that have been, or are in danger of being, lost - and this fights the good fight against the fickle and forgetful march of so-called “progress”. But there is the point at which it tips over into young fuddy-duddyism, a retro-hipster’s snobby wet dream, recoiling from anything new. It can all get so worthy and backwards-looking that it becomes stifling and restrictive – The trad crowd’s accusation that any musical artist who tries anything experimental is “pretentious” is a case in point, and massively ironic. Sure, arty/experimental types may have high-falutin’ ideas that they don’t quite reach, but they often have an imagination, sense of humour and playfulness that worthy trad types lack completely. One of the meanings of pretentious is “takes itself too seriously, thinks it’s more profound than it is” – which for my money describes the “authentic” trad crowd precisely.

Paradoxically, the lets-get-back-to-basics trads are also often iconoclasts. As much as the futurists, they also want to wipe away the status quo and set up a better, golden future, but by harking back to an imagined golden past. Rather like the Nazis did.

Gaps

One of the problems I have is the unjustified leap-of-logic gaps at play here. One is the generalisation from what you like about a specific thing to sweeping, unjustified claims about whole genres, trends and styles.

Now, everyone has tastes. Everyone finds certain themes, moods, approaches and outlooks resonate more naturally with them. If you pay attention to how what you like is put together you will find recurring elements you can pick out and pin down – but the results are sometimes not quite what you thought. It could be as simple as a preference for certain harmonies and chord changes whatever the genre, certain sounds in a certain frequency range, certain materials or colour palettes or geometric structures and shapes. It could be that for some reason some element of an artwork evokes a mood you enjoy, or dreams and aspirations you have. Or it could be something opens your eyes to new possibilities or chimes neatly with your past experience. But it’s one thing to describe these elements specifically when talking about a specific thing, and another to then say everything of a similar genre, or made by certain group, must be “authentic” and everything not, “crap”. But people do that all the time.

Another leap is the gap between “I’m fed up of this and want to do this instead” and “This must be got rid of and everyone must do this”. There is no justification for that jump – it’s a simple case of “Everyone must think what I do, or they are tw*ts”.

We tend to lump radical idealists together but, for my money, there are two clear trends – one of which I have sympathy with and one of which I’m inherently suspicious of.

On the one hand you have the open-minded, expansive attitude: those who say things don’t need to be like they are, or have been – that we can cut loose, man, from old or current thinking, strive for change, try new things and new ways of being. Some experimentation will work out and change the world, some will peter out as naive and flawed idealism, but the point is to try, to encourage innovation and variety.

On the other hand is the closed-minded and restrictive attitude: once the “new ways” have been established something else creeps in – a dismissive, cooler-than-thou sneer towards anyone who isn’t on-board as the enemy to be stamped out. And anything not associated with the “new ways” becomes untouchable, the baby to be thrown out with the bathwater. This is simple bigotry, really, at best discouraging of free-thinking and diversity, at worst downright dangerous.

Bigotry   

Because while it might not seem to matter when talking about the silly subject of art and entertainment, such closed, prejudiced thought processes are precisely the kind of thing going on in the mind of any bigot, just translated into the sphere of politics, culture and society.

The philosophers Depeche Mode (in their sweet-but-cringingly-naive industro-pop hit People Are People) said: “I can’t understand what makes a man hate another man, help me understand.” Well, Martin (Gore, who, I think you’ll find, sings that bit, not lead singer Dave Gahan), this may help. If someone is refusing to acknowledge anything good beyond the tiny cluster of things that make up their single-minded obsessions – and worse, Martin, calling for all else to be stamped out and their vision thrust on everyone – then there lie the seeds of alarming, hate-breeding intolerance, even if all they are doing is messing about with paint. Thank God they’re a penniless artist and not in government, is all I’ve got to say, Martin.

Ok, it may not matter in art and entertainment – but that kind of thinking is still a bad habit and (if I’m allowed to use a “should” of my own) I think it should be challenged when it crops up.

It may seem trifling but sweeping generalisations like “all pop music is throwaway trash”, “all guitar music is boring” or “all electronic music is soulless” are groundless prejudice – that because something has often been that way, that it must always be so. If someone manages to wrestle high emotion out of “clinical” digital software, or creates something genuinely fresh and new out of the old and traditional methods, you are probably in the presence of genius – or at least something remarkable and exciting – because someone has done something that has eluded others. But the closed minded will completely miss such possibilities.

That said, certain ways of doing things have certain features, and lend themselves better to some experiences than others. The mistake is often to judge one type of thing with the criteria of another, and miss the joy to be found by judging it on its own merits. You don’t go to abstract art to see a pretty landscape. You don’t read Kafka for the laughs. You don’t go to a Bauhaus building for cosy rustic charm. That doesn’t mean there is nothing to be enjoyed or enraptured by there.

You don’t go to genre-shattering experimental electronica for emotional, intimate lyrics, nor acoustic ballardry for cutting-edge, rule-book-trashing new sounds. There is joy in both and room in the world for all. And there is room in yourself – to explore a kaleidoscopic variety of moods, tastes, and types of thing. Tying yourself to restrictive “shoulds” and “musts” will only cut you off from whole continents of experience – of what is, what was and what might be. Cut loose, man.

Thursday, 14 February 2013

"... and perhaps more": A useless guide to internet dating failure - Part 2; approaches and assessment

~Part 1~ is here. Or just scroll down, lazy.

It’ll be clear from the first part that these paragraphs are mainly based on the conversations, the note-comparing, the analysis that went on while doing the dating site thing.

So for part two here are some of the recurring key debates for your education and consideration. How fun.


Approaches

To play it safe or not to play it safe

The obvious thing when starting out on dating sites is to be terribly polite, terribly normal – an eager and interested blank page, like a daytime talk-show host at a business networking event.

This, I discovered, is wrong. Or at least it seemed to be for me – about a month in, one of my fellow dating-siters told me he was despondent about how women just weren’t getting his sense of humour. As soon as he dared say something a bit quirky they did the online-messaging equivalent of a nervous, blank look before disappearing altogether. He resolved to play it safer, keep up the “normal”, at least until they met in person.

But I was in an altogether different place. I’d decided, hell, screw it, if they don’t get my off-kilter asides and dry bon-mots from the off, they never would.

There was a reason for this beyond my own massive ego, mind. I’d spent a while doing the usual bland small talk, and it hadn’t really got me very far after the initial interest. I felt I wasn’t living up to my oh-so witty and self-deprecating profile – and worse, I was boring myself. How come, after a couple of back and forth exchanges to get the basics out of the way, I’ve ended up telling her about my f***ing commute to work, ffs? Why are we discussing things neither of us, quite clearly, give a crap about? This is not a good start.

Then, someone popped up who responded to my (very minimal, as I wasn’t sure I was really interested) initial prod with a distinctly kooky and vaguely sarcastic come back – and that was it. Suddenly I was interested. Never mind the “I do this for work, blah-blah, my commute is long” woman I was talking to, I wanted to talk to this one. There’s fun to be had here, I thought. So I, uh… told her about my commute. But in a way that was funnier. The conversation zipped along, it zinged, it fizzed, she was fun and suddenly things seemed to be happening.

Another time someone else appeared online with what can only be described as an utter piss-take of a profile - all “My hobbies include having feelings of self-loathing over baked beans” and “I hate to travel – who doesn’t, right?” and I was instantly smitten, even though she was too far away to be a realistic option.

Now, I suppose if you’re a hot female you can get away with being a bit more “out-there” than if you’re just some average-looking bloke like me – but all the same it was not lost on me that the people who stood out and got my interest were the people who played it light, honest and slightly knowing (ie piss-takey), and I resolved to be the same. It was simply a lot more fun than all this earnest “let’s compare notes and see if we’re suitable life-partners” stuff. And I got a lot further with it – that was very much a game I could play.

To facebook-friend or not to facebook-friend

On the one hand it would seem to save a lot of time and effort – why not invite ‘em into your everyday social media world? But it’s a massive, massive gamble, because, if you’re a regular user like me, you will have put a hell of a lot of yourself online and that’s going to be a hell of a lot for someone to take in all at once.

Rather than the natural slow drip-feed of getting to know each other, it’s like slapping each other with a family photo album of embarrassing pictures, forthright opinions and stupid in-jokes with friends, which is just as likely to alienate as endear. I was naively confident that I’d appear like a witty, interesting man doing interesting things with witty friends on the ‘book. But to a complete stranger with no context whatsoever, who the hell knows what it would look like? You may know your social-media self is but a warped caricature of you, but they will not. And who knows what state the constantly changing stream of nonsense will be in when they check it?

One of my friends (an artist with a love the female form) quickly regretted doing the “hey, find me on facebook” thing when it dawned on him what this poor, innocent woman had been faced with: “When asking girls you met on dating sites to find you on facebook, remember not to have a friends list full of burlesque dancers, lots of pictures of women in the nip and a status with the phrase 'If in doubt whip it out'. Needless to say, she hasn’t added me,” he said.

Nevertheless, maybe it’s not such a terrible thing. It’s a good test – if she’s still interested after clicking through your horrible photos and boggling at the oddball content of your wall, then that’s a pretty good sign.

And at least it’s even – you can see hers too. That can help you establish things like x) you may have no idea how you would fit into her life, but y) she says some funny things and is clearly not a hideous idiot, and z) most importantly she has a good ratio of good pictures to bad, so on balance she probably is actually hot in real life. Pursue.

To message much or not to message much

On balance, it’s probably best to meet up ASAP, and not a good idea to spend too long chatting online first.

Because it’s sad but true that, no matter how amazingly you think you get along in text, you simply never know how that will translate face-to-face.

On the one hand it’s not completely useless – if you’ve spent a couple of weeks chatting, laughing, and flinging information and observations at each other, you will at least know there is something there to build on. On some level you get each other and can communicate. And being someone who “writes”, I’m fairly comfortable and confident about coming across well in that medium.

But I’m aware I can also get ahead of myself – it can take a while for me to realize what I think is a terribly witty and zinging conversation is actually mostly me amusing myself and her just making (possibly bored) encouraging noises. I can happily carry on “hilarious banter” with just myself, really. All she needs to do is pop her head into the room and go “uhuh” and “haha” now and again. With no face and body language to tell you, you can think your material is going down better than it is.

And people often have different personas in writing to in person, it never completely prepares you for the sometimes jarring meet-up in the flesh. No matter how much you have been messaging, nor how many pictures you have seen, people are never quite the same as you imagined – mannerisms, voice, attitude and all. You are then faced with a weird decision to make – you knew you fancied the person you thought they were, but do you fancy the person they actually are?

It can be a bit deflating when your new exciting love interest of the past few weeks turns out to be a figment of your imagination. So because of this, I decided, along with prevailing wisdom, that maybe chat should always be kept to an absolute minimum – in fact if it wasn’t for stupid society and its stupid conventions, I’d happily wade right in with “When are we meeting up then? Day, time, place, let’s go, I ain’t got time to f*** about.”

Which is kind of what one woman did to one of my fellow dating-siters. After they “liked” each other she told him she was no good at web-chat and they should immediately set a date. A bit functional maybe, but refreshingly bullshit-free, no messing about, no false hopes raised, all done and dusted with the minimum of fuss. There’s a lot to be said for that.

But there’s a downside to that also, he pointed out – it puts massive pressure on the date itself. At least when you’ve done plenty of web-chat leg-work you feel like you’ve properly given each other a chance. You can be satisfied you’re not just making a decision based on an hour or so of awkward random first-meeting small-talk, which may be grossly misrepresentative if, for whatever reason, you’re not on form on the day.

It’s got to be said, if much messaging is done first, it makes for a much more easy and relaxed first meeting – as you already know each other a bit and you’ve got topics of conversation up and running. It’s pretty safe that you’ll get on ok and it won’t be horrible, romantic future or no. Maybe a quick meet up over a drink, with no little or no foreplay, is the quickest, easiest, most practical solution – but I can’t help feeling it’s missing something, and just not enough.

To big date or small date?

Though saying that, I’m in two minds. When I first entered into it I was keen to go all out - dinner, drinks, days out; zoo, art gallery, hill walking, whatever – maybe break the mold I thought, be inventive, have new experiences. But I must say as time has gone on I have downgraded to a more cautious “coffee is probably fine”.

The reason for that is just the realization that really, all you want is the chance to talk a bit, establish you are not weirdos, see if there’s any spark, and that’s it. Anything is else is just (possibly expensive) dressing, additional pressure, and doesn’t necessarily help.

As one friend commented on part one (you can go check): “The trick to internet dating is to keep the emphasis on dating. You’re not choosing a life partner there and then, you’re just asking someone to grab a coffee and chat nervously for a bit.” That's advice that I should really, probably take, probably. Really.

Another friend insists that a first date should never last longer than an hour, but I don’t necessarily agree with that. Maybe you should not plan for longer than an hour, but if you get on, who knows? In my (ok, limited) experience the best dates are the ones that linger, that become an adventure, that neither of you want to end – obvious, really, but you can’t plan for that. One of my friends famously had a 36 hour first date. Or a 10 year one, she says, because she never really went home again.

The truth is there is clearly no “right way” to have a date. Everyone responds differently to different things. If you get on and the will is there, whatever you do is likely to be charming and fine. If you don’t, or it isn’t, you’ll blame it on all sorts of things. It’s alchemical. Who can say?

Assessment

So how successful was I? And how do I feel about it now? Well, I’m not hearing no wedding bells anywhere in the near, or even distant future, let’s put it that way. I think I have exhausted the pool on the site that I’m on – having gone with one of the less mainstream sites, the volume of people is not massive, and nor is the turnover.

Part of the problem is living in a small provincial town. You do a search for people including the nearest city and you get pages and pages of eligible types. You narrow it to 25 miles around where you live and there are, like, 10 – three of whom you recognize as people you already know. You quickly work out you may have to travel if you want to get a date.

When I first signed up I was getting a lot of interest, but that seems to have tailed off dramatically – mainly because I’ve seen everyone and everyone’s seen me and who’s interested in who (or otherwise) is now already kind of settled. I’ve reached stalemate. I’m now just waiting for new people to show up to pounce on. But I have also kind of lost interest, in a been-there-done-that kind of fashion, and of course, with these sites you only get out what you put in.

But it’s been an experience, and a confidence boosting, perspective changing one – at least I’ve felt like I’ve tried (a bit), encountered some interesting people along the way, and learnt quite a lot about other people’s attitudes, hopes and fears with regards to romance and dating. I don’t feel anywhere near as odd and isolated as I did, now secure in the first-hand knowledge that a massive amount of people out there are all struggling with exactly the same thing.

“So what’s the next step?” asked a friend of mine (who swiftly and happily met his partner of the best part of year on such a site).

“My next step?” I said, pausing for thought. “Well, die alone, I ‘spose,” I told him.

But I didn’t mean it. Maybe I’ll try a different site. Or maybe, what the hell, make a tiny bit more effort in the real world.

~end Part 2~ 

Sunday, 10 February 2013

"... and perhaps more": A useless guide to internet dating failure - Part 1; attitude and actuality


I AM very sorry, but no, I am not going to dish any details. That’s what you were expecting, wasn’t it? Well, tut. Bad reader, naughty reader. Too many people I know will read this (including, possibly, people I met on such sites) and, I mean to say, it’d be pretty ungentlemanly and bad form to kiss and tell like that. Which is convenient, of course, as it hides the fact that there isn’t a hell of a lot to kiss and tell about, but still…

No. The focus of this post is on the experience of using the sites themselves – hopefully a useful glimpse for those considering, a knowing nod-along for those using, and a voyeuristic laugh for those who have never had to (smug, self-satisfied bastards).

Anyway, yes, I recently gave it a go. This is what I found.


Attitude

Sign up

I signed up around the middle of last year. In theory I wasn’t against it – I have three or four friends who have met long-term partners that way, and another who seemingly has a regular turn-over of *ahem* “intimate friends” from dating websites.

But before I’d always reacted with quiet seething and dark mutterings when anyone suggested the idea. I’m a terribly vain and proud man. Going on a dating site is a bit like announcing to the world that… well, you’ve failed to “just meet” “someone special” like the normals apparently do; like admitting you apparently can’t just wander into a bar and enchant (or even find) the woman of your choice, and quite frankly, you might need a bit of help.

One thing that stopped me before was the idea of people I knew finding my dating profile. I wouldn’t even need to know they had – just the idea made me cringe (again, terribly vain and proud). Another was that when I’d flirted with the idea before I found myself having to fill in all these endless questions that I felt did not represent me – and threw my rattle out of the pram in resentment, spitting “f*** you, trying to put me in box!” at a small screen, on my own, in my bedroom. Terribly, terribly vain and pr… you get the idea.

But a change in personal circumstances at the start of last year made me keenly aware of just how little effort I had got used to making, and that maybe I was odd like that. Suddenly people around me seemed to be getting all pro-active and signing up to such sites themselves, and it became a topic of conversation. It was in the air. It was zeitgeist. It suddenly seemed intriguing, enticing and exciting rather than weird and desperate, something to be a part of, and I was carried along with it.

Let’s do it! Damn right! I thought. I was fed up of just hanging around waiting for the right person to show up. I’d become like a panda, getting off my arse to show some romantic interest in someone perhaps once every 18 months, then going back to grumpily chewing bamboo and ignoring the wider world when it went tits up. No more – get amongst it, Thomas.

Take it Lightly

Of course, the real reason was that on a furtive, curious, preliminary browse, I saw someone I liked and thought I MUST HAVE HER. She was a nurse, had a lovely, gentle, warm smile and a willowy, curvy figure, and she lived in my town. I signed up, gritted my teeth through the interminable put-me-in-a-box questions, clicked on “interested” and - imagine it - winked at her. I have never winked at a strange woman in real life. Largely because I think it’s a pretty creepy thing to do, mind, but still. I think I sent her the obligatory “Hi, I liked your profile blah blah blah,” for good measure. “My god, it’s that easy!” I thought, and went to bed happy, thinking “…and we’re off!”

I got home from work the next day to find she had checked me out and… completely ignored me. My friend called up. I told him what I had done, he was impressed “Well done,” he said, “so what do you reckon to it?”

“F*** it! That’s it! She can’t even be bothered to answer back! Women obviously hate me! There is NO ONE ELSE on there I fancy. I’m done!” …was a brief summary of my response.

To which he (a man of slightly more dating website experience) said: “You can’t treat it like that – if you take it that personally it will kill you – you’ve got to see it as a bit of fun, you’re just window shopping, meeting people, seeing where it goes. Take it lightly. Have fun with it.”

He was, of course, very right – taking it lightly is the key to it. I re-wrote my profile with a light touch, and soon was a getting a rather pleasing amount of interest, that was indeed pretty ego-boosting.

My friend then decided maybe he should make another concerted effort and signed up. He did a systematic sweep of everyone nearby that he vaguely fancied and sent out 15 first-contact messages in one go - which to my ears sounded a bit over-egged with info (by that stage I’d learnt to keep it brief). I know this because he read it out to me. I say "it" because all 15 messages were identical, cut and paste, except for one final line such as "Oh, and I see you like kittens, I like kittens too" to add that authentic personal touch. The next day only four people had read his messages and only one had responded; and they said “thanks but no thanks”.

And he told me: “F*** it! That’s it! Women obviously hate me! I’m done!”

Which just goes to show we all get caught up in it, against our better judgment, and I had to respond: “You can’t treat it like that – if you take it that personally it will kill you – you’ve got to see it as a bit of fun, blah blah. Take it lightly.

Amen.

Actuality

Just Like Real Life

So how does meeting someone online compare to real life? Well, at first it seems massively liberating. You can happily browse all these people (although you have to accept they will know you have been looking – though that’s also liberating in a way). You can “wink” or “like”, and of course, you can message.

Everyone knows what you are there for, so there’s no “How do I switch from small talk to asking her out?” moment. The pressure is off – just going “Hi” is basically saying “I think I might want to either a) take you to dinner and/or b) have sex with you.

This is a real weight off the shoulders, and takes a lot of embarrassment and sting out of the process. There’s no public shame of being watched by others as you oh-so-casually sidle up to her and spew up your version of “I really like your hair”, “Ssssssssaaaaayyyy, baby!” or “DUHYOULIKEMUSIC?”, and you don’t have to see the look of dead-eyed contempt on her face as she pointedly turns away and ignores you. Plus, you don’t have to feel guilty about ignoring anyone trying it on with you who you’d rather wouldn’t – that’s the nature of it.

Great stuff. But once the novelty of this newfound openness and freedom wears off, you realize it’s not so different to real life after all. The amount of conversations that just dry up and go nowhere makes you realize you’re still doing the online equivalent of sitting down next to a girl and chatting for a bit until one of you gets bored and goes away. People very much are window shopping, and not all of them are particularly serious about taking things further.

What’s interesting, though, is how much more even it is – I found myself much more likely to flirt around with multiple people at a time, some whom I was more interested in than others, in a way I never would in real life. And instead of being crippled with worry about whether my hair looked ok or I was being funny enough in the presence of this divine creature, I’d be all calm control, dryly assessing “Is she interesting? Do I really fancy her?” like I was George f***king Clooney.

But one thing’s for sure – while a lot of the bullshit drops away, internet dating makes you shallow. I’m aware I have fancied people in the flesh who I haven’t necessarily thought that hot in photos; or who, on paper, I shouldn’t really get along with, but somehow, in the flesh, something clicks. But here you are analyzing four pics and concluding “funny nose”; and browsing a handful of self-report “facts” and sneering at their love of R’n’B and that they’re a dog person not a cat person, so that’s it, it’ll never work, let’s move on. You know you’re doing it. But you still do it. Which is why the profile is so essential…

Other People’s Profiles

No matter how acceptable and mainstream online dating has become, browsing these sites can still make you feel like a desperate weirdo – either because 1) you are like other people on there or 2) you’re not like other people on there. You can’t win.

Of course, there are quite a lot of distinctly odd and alarming types who pop up, and as one of my friends put it, you start to think “Am I odd and alarming too, and I just don’t see it? Have I tragically messed up my youth and now this is what I’m left with? Are these my people now?” The scary thing is, the answer is probably a resounding “yes”.

At the same time you can browse and browse and find no one at all with whom you feel a remote kinship or compatibility, and that can be a very dispiriting and isolating feeling.

Sure, people are savvier than to put utterly pointless tripe like “I like having fun and going out”, but there are a whole new set of clich├ęs for the internet generation, and a massive amount of profiles are depressingly identikit.

I grew so sick and tired of reading about people’s travel aspirations that it started to make me properly angry. Rather than making me think “Oh, hey, yeah, wouldn’t it be wonderful to jet off to Peru and climb Machu Picchu together?” I’d be more likely to think “Jeez, give it a rest, we all want to travel more, already, but give me a break, it’s finding the time and money and everything and STOP OFF-LOADING ALL YOUR ASPIRATIONAL DAYDREAMS ON ME WE’VE ONLY JUST MET GODDAMIT.”

And everyone keeps banging on about how they “love life” which presumably is supposed make you think being with them must be the most fun anybody has ever had in the history of having fun. Actually it just makes them sound either i) desperate to appear exciting or ii) self-satisfied. Or both. Well good for you, I’d think, you don’t need me hanging around bringing the party down then.

For the record, y’know, I kind of like life too. I’m certainly not keen on stopping doing it. And I kind of resent the implication that if your life isn’t one massive gap-year party, and you don’t like f***ing dancing, then you’re somehow ANTI-LIFE. Everyone seems to be constantly backpacking around the globe, taking up extreme sports, spending every weekend at festivals, jumping out of aeroplanes… it sounds exhausting. They can’t possibly be doing all this stuff all the time. Or do these people have more hours in their day than the rest of us?

It’s not that I wouldn’t want to do any of these things but, cripes, I don’t want to feel like I’d have to sign up to all that just to get a second date… Does no one just want to just, y’know, hang out? Kick about, have some drinks and some chat, get something to eat, see a film maybe?

But those life-loving profiles are the more competent ones. Many are little more than a cringe-worthy catalogue of a person’s pretensions about themselves, with glib assertions about how generous, ker-ay-zee or spiritual they are (but little evidence that’s based on anything resembling self-reflection or self-awareness).

Then you get profiles that are a list of demands and no-nos “I’m *this type* person so you’ve got to do/be like this…” or “I don’t want a guy who (reels off 10 commandments)…”. Well, sheesh, that’s romantic, that’s fun, that’s enticing.

And a surprising amount are just plain weird and baffling, to the extent you think “How would anyone arrive at the conclusion that that was a good thing to say?” or “Why would you upload a dingy, off-centre shot of you pissed up and scowling in a comedy fright-wig in your en-suite toilet as your profile pic?”

Strangely, though, this is rather encouraging. I mean – face to face, you tend to presume attractive people are automatically socially competent, even if they’re morons. You presume if they find you odd and boring, it’s because you are odd and boring, not them. But a quick browse of the dating sites is revelatory – the vast majority of people, including the very attractive, are pretty rubbish at knowing how to present themselves. They are every bit as full of oddities, insecurities and self-delusion as you are. In fact, compared to these losers, you’re a figure of charm, confidence and suavity. Albeit a lonesome, isolated figure of charm, confidence and suavity.

So at least you've got that knowledge to keep you warm as you sob into your cold pillow alone at night. Um.

~end Part 1~

Will post Part 2; approaches and assessment on Valentine's Day. I'm sure you'll have nothing better to do.