Avatars in Love

A secret society lurks in the Lonely Hearts Club of online dating.  In addition to the faces who innocently sell themselves in the Sears Catalog of Mating, there exists a subculture of Scam.com creeps, liars, and other unsavories. Scammers are crawling the ’net, ardent lovers whose faces you’ll never see.  They are avatars.

Most of the people I know who sign on to virtual hookup sites have had positive results, or at least, results equal to the live meet-and-greet scene. Some have even found true love.  Though 20 percent of today’s couples allegedly first met online, this brave new world has yet to be fully understood. And for the unsuspecting, virtual victimization is just around the corner.

One late evening, on impulse, I decided to see for myself what it was all about.  I was impelled more by anthropological curiosity than by a desire to meet a man.  Nonetheless, I answered all the match-up questions sincerely and played the role of a love desperado.

I confess that I was predisposed to disrespect the enterprise — a perspective shared even by the men I encountered. (“Why are YOU online?” one asked me, incredulous. “You don’t seem like the type who needs to fish for men!”)

Still, I persevered.  Within 48 hours, 150 men had “liked”, “winked”, “favorited”, or emailed me.  I was overwhelmed by the tidal wave of would-be admirers.  By week’s end, the count exceeded 300.  Some were easy to weed out by their photographs – wrong age range, not my type, unflattering pictures – or by the content of their profiles.  The first to be deleted were the semi-literate, such as the poor soul who wrote earnestly that he loved “fine dinning” and “cuddling on the coach”.  To each his own, I say.  If he likes the coach that much, he should go for it.

There are the occasional “never married, no baggage” profiles, but they get snapped up like bottled water just before a hurricane hits town, and their profiles go dark before a single greeting may be sent.

Most of the others fit several categories of undesirable.

Common are the divorced men in frantic search for the next Chief Cook and Bottle Washer.  They can barely hide their real intent, which is less true romance than true desperation for household help.  These are the guys who lift their profiles right out of a Hallmark greeting card.  They all like to hold hands and take “long walks on the beach”.  No, really.

Then, there are the sad widowers.  I was approached by several.  One was proposing marriage within 48 hours of “meeting” by correspondence.  He had a 12-year-old son who needed a mother.  This group is mostly the mommy-shopping crowd.  They share a peculiar lack of discernment about the qualities of their next mate, except that she be willing, and soon.

The next category of men I discovered were the newly separated horny toads using the site as a way to reclaim their youth by arranging no-strings hookups.  One wanted me to wear a school girl costume on what would be our second and last date.  In a moment of unvarnished honesty, he told me that a guy “will say anything he thinks you want to hear in order to get into your pants.”  These jokers paled, however, in comparison to those who want to get into your wallet.

According to virtual dating vendors, approximately 10 percent of online “members” are actually con artists.  I met one of these almost instantly.  He seemed nice enough, and interesting.  One of the alleged widowers, he shared photos of a sweet daughter and a cute dog and had an unusual profession aboard an oil ship near the Falkland Islands.  He went from zero to 60 in 16 seconds, proclaiming his love for me in under a week.  His answers were strangely unresponsive to my texts or emails most of the time, and his story lacked some credibility.  Still, I hung on in fascination, though clearly telling him that I was ‘not the one’ for him.  One day, he wrote to me that he wanted to write ‘I miss you’ on a rock and throw it at my face so I would “know how much it hurts to miss you.”  Deeply disturbing, I told him.  “You have no sense of humor,” he answered. Later that night, he claimed that his professional license had lapsed, and asked me to send him $845 to renew it.  When I refused, he became instantly ugly.

Three more insistent Loves of My Life, stationed overseas, had similar speedy ardor, professed a deep religious faith, were sympathetic widowers, and had a young child. Each claimed to work in a consulting profession – usually engineering – that took them to foreign lands, preventing an actual face-to-face consummation of the romance.  My German civil engineer building a bridge in Malaysia wanted $8,000 to get a piece of equipment out of Customs.  My Italian civil engineer building an orphanage in West Africa needed $2800 for a work permit. The third one couldn’t keep his facts straight, but near as I could tell, he was either from South or North Dakota, was divorced or widowed, had one or two kids, got an engineering degree from a college that doesn’t offer one, and was working on a construction engineering contract in the Philippines which, he mourned, was, unbeknownst to him, “a Third-World country that doesn’t take credit cards”.  Because of their overseas gigs, one never actually meets such avatars, one receives only escalating proclamations of love, proposals of marriage, and over-the-top compliments.  The German engineer kept telling me I was “astonishingly beautiful”.  I am not.  He was the one who wanted the largest sum of money, apparently to invest in a gilded edition of Roget’s Thesaurus of Insincere Compliments.

These are the schemers who one reports to the dating vendor and to the FBI.

Plucking wheat from chaff is a wholly individual exercise, and some of us may be more discriminating than others.  But still, how does one really make a valid call when each profile, each list of questions back and forth, each exchange seems so contrived?  It is rare for someone to shine in such an artificial environment.  And that’s perhaps why potential mates tend to suggest a more traditional venue for communication, such as via one’s own email address.  On home turf, it feels more like two people, rather than two avatars, engaging in the get-to-know-you dance.

Be warned that this can get tricky, too.  One would-be suitor, a cop who lived 3,000 miles away, figured out a way to undermine my chat program’s deletion function when I cut him off.  I had told him we weren’t a good match, and he begged me to give him another chance.  When I remained firm, he became obnoxious.  When I tried to delete him, the delete function wouldn’t work.  I had to go to my chat vendor’s security people to reverse what he had done to my account.  For that reason and others, online dating vendors urge members to keep the conversation on their neutral site and not to give out emails, phone numbers, and addresses until a face-to-face relationship has been established.

Not that in-person meetings provide any guarantee of authenticity or safety, of course. The real world has its share of crazies and Dangerous Dans too.  I wonder, though, whether the visual and spatial distance of the virtual environment lends a false sense of security.  It may be that some seekers give away too much information too soon in the online world, making them vulnerable to bad outcomes. Oversharing may accelerate the getting-to-know-you phase, but it also affords the malevolent access to you and your stuff.  Also, it’s hard to detect telltale tics when the person is not sitting across an actual table.  If one is eager to meet “That Special Someone” (an overly used profile phrase), one may disregard red flags.  Desperados want to believe in the fantasy so much that contorted logic overtakes common sense.

I observed this phenomenon repeatedly when sharing emails with my admirers.  If they said they were deeply religious and I said I was an atheist, they immediately affirmed their satisfaction with that mismatch.  If they told me that they wanted to settle down with That Special Someone and live happily ever after, I hardly caused a ripple when I said I was not so inclined and really didn’t care to marry anyone.  Whatever I was, they wanted.  Whatever I said, they liked.  Whenever I disagreed with them, they saw “the perfect match”.  In other words, they were delusional.

Within a week of signing on, I turned off my profile to take a break.  It was like closing a gushing spigot.  In all the hours of sifting and sampling, I rarely found a match who seemed to be in possession of all his marbles.  Once a possibility emerged, I took a page from the Human World, eschewing the avatar for the real deal.  That, fellow gamers, turned out to be the winning strategy.

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