Has the Online Dating Backlash Arrived?

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Photo: Lambert/Getty Images

We live in the golden age of sexual convenience. The smartphone-enabled urban adult can order dates anonymously on Craigslist, find a soulmate algorithmically on OkCupid, or locate a partner geographically on Grindr. The UK’s dating site du jour, Bag a Bloke, is designed to look like online shopping, with product specs and a shopping cart. And why risk locking eyes across a crowded room without Chatroulette’s handy “next” button? In the Atlantic this week, Love in the Time of Algorithms author Dan Slater fretted that the facility of digital dating is making us bad at monogamy. But what if it’s just making us socially inept?

Each Thursday, a couple dozen single New Yorkers convene in the West Side loft of the Nonverbal Group to learn and relearn the basics of IRL dating. The very basics. For example: How to walk towards a woman.

“Approach her head on," instructor Blake Eastman says. "She should be able to see you coming."

Sitting in two rows of plush chairs, a crowd dominated by computer scientists and engineers describe the diverse communicative frustrations that have led them to Eastman’s loft: A recent Chinese immigrant explains, in perfect English, that she wants to make sure nothing gets lost in translation. A Boston native wants to know if New Yorkers don’t wear wedding rings, or if there really are that many single women here. A middle-aged female computer programmer with a thick eastern European accent wants to “refresh skills with American orientation.”

Eastman, 26, is a child thespian turned professional poker player who founded a poker academy (tag line: “We Never Gamble”) four years ago. Since then, he’s changed tacks, parlaying his ability to spot a bluff into a career as a body language expert and used his winnings to fund his own body language research. His dating methodology uses nonverbal cues to take the guesswork and anxiety that drives people behind an online avatar out of face-to-face communication. “Learn how nonverbal communication can help you reduce anxiety and make you more comfortable in a social environment,” Eastman’s website promises. “Attraction is a key element of the dating world, and it is displayed 100% of the time nonverbally. You just need to know what to look for!”

Eastman is hardly alone. Take Adam LoDolce. The 27-year-old dating coach has made a name for himself with his all-offline method, "Go Talk to Her." In a short promotional film for the program, available online for a limited time offer of $97, LoDolce promises to "help you become the man who steps up to the plate and takes that risk" — the risk of face-to-face communication. “No more online dating,” he promises. “No more blackout drunk nights out with your buddies trying to ‘pick up chicks.’” Instead, accost women "in an organic way," as they go about their daytime business, with winning lines like: "Excuse me, I just saw you walking by and I just need to tell you're absolutely stunning, and I would have totally gone home and kicked myself in the face if didn't at least introduce myself."

Even online dating is moving offline, as a wave of new dating sites and apps introduce offline gimmicks. Location-based app MeetMoi directs users to available singles whose lives already intersect with theirs. “We are not an online dating service,” MeetMoi’s site states. “We make real-life introductions.” Grouper is a Facebook app that sends sextets of singles out on lower-pressure group dates, but founder Michael Waxman told Slate that the secret ingredient is its human concierge/yenta, Challen Hodsen. “What I’m really fascinated by is this interesting middle ground that isn’t algorithm and isn’t crowdsourced — it’s this augmented human trend,” he told Slate. Meanwhile, Match.com and OkCupid have added events like craft beer tastings and pasta making classes to their virtual winks and arrows. Earlier this year, New York Times' Jenna Wortham reported that traffic to online dating sites had leveled off. The addition of offline member events, she wrote, came on the heels of a study in which "researchers said there was 'no compelling evidence' that matchmaking software worked better than more primitive methods,’ like, say, striking up a conversation in a park or a bar.

The more primitive methods definitely make for more meet-cutes. According to LoDolce's surveys, 60 percent of women say the story of how they met their significant other is important to them — and 50 percent say they would feel uncomfortable telling their parents about meeting a partner online.

Eastman has a grimmer outlook. As online daters pair off and shut down their accounts, he told the Cut, online dating pools are increasingly contaminated by those so undesirable or socially awkward their meet-ups invariably fail to yield lasting connections. Meanwhile, the "crutch" of technology has hobbled man's social instincts. Our nadir is Craigslist's Missed Connections section: "You type in, ‘I saw you on the 7 train. I looked at you. You looked at me,’ because people are too afraid to say hello. Why? We’re in a culture that allows for it, because we’re all on our cell phones, our iPads. Have you ever been on a train at 9 a.m.? Everyone’s got their headphones in, looking down at their iPhone — it’s fucking miserable."

Those who remember dating before the age of text message tend to agree. After reentering the dating scene in their middle age, ex-husband and -wife Paul N. Weinberg and Dr. Susan Dyer reunited to author The I-Factor, a book about what they feel has been lost with the rise of social media — the feeling that you actually knew someone — and how to get it back. (The “I” stands for intimacy.) “The explanation for this seeming contradiction of isolation and disconnectedness in a massively interconnected world is that most of us have never learned — or seem to have forgotten — how to connect or even what it means to connect on a fundamental level,” they write.

Back in the Nonverbal Group loft, Eastman’s students are preoccupied with online dating’s capacity for deception.

Scientific American said that 90 percent of people lie on dating sites,” says a white-bearded math tutor in mismatched wool tartan pants and tie. “How do you fact check them?”

The oldest person in class by a decade, he explained earlier in the class that he’s getting into the dating after the death of his girlfriend of twenty years. When Eastman remarks upon his unique personal style, he says that he doesn’t usually dress that way but he’s come directly from his dead girlfriend’s memorial service. Eastman is momentarily speechless, but the old man presses him.

“How do you know if they’re lying?” he asks. “How old are you really, sweetheart?

The answer — which seems unfortunately crass, given the situation — is to take another Nonverbal Group class. The dating workshop is, as Eastman is quick to admit, a foot-in-door offer meant to make students aware of their need for his private tutelage and his other classes, such as a lie detection class that attracts Homeland geeks and a general body language class popular with salesmen.

The goal of analyzing one’s body language is to make sure that it’s congruent with what one feels, ideally projecting a coherent message of confidence and attraction to potential mates. He borrows from the language of cognitive behavior therapy: “Thoughts are connected to feelings are connected to behavior,” he says. “I love that little circle.” Or, as Freud puts it in the quotation framed and hanging from the Nonverbal Group’s wall: “No mortal can keep a secret. If his lips are silent, he chatters with his fingertips; betrayal oozes out of him at every pore.” LoDolce’s methodology also involves body language, something he calls “animation communication.” The problem, of course, is that body language only exists when the body — not a computer — is present.

In the Facebook era, honest, face-to-face expression seems like a virtuous goal; Eastman’s and LoDolce’s techniques seem particularly benign next to the insecurity-inducing manipulation of rival pick-up artists in The Game. But there is something a little regressive about the current offline dating movement, and it’s not just technological. LoDolce’s methodology, for example, is just for men. Eastman's class attracts plenty of women, but many of them are looking for ways to attract approaches from men. He suggests planting a friend at the opposite end of the bar to keep tabs on which men look at you when you walk by. In both Eastman and LoDolce's dating schools, men are the active seducers and women are the passive objects of their desire.

Eastman applies his research to platonic forms of communication, corporate negotiations, and the like. But the advice to look for physical signs of sexual attraction in all social interactions seems unlikely to encourage daters to regard women as equals and friends (the best friend of their future wife, maybe) and without the expectation of sex as an immediate reward. Likewise, one doubt's LoDolce’s one-size-fits-all paeans to strangers’ beauty will yield meaningful friendships. Wouldn’t it be simpler if we just agreed that when a person wants to sleep with you she will tell you, not with an elbow touch or virtual wink, but with her words?

Until then, long live LoDolce. "Even if the approach doesn't work out," he says, "at least you've made her day."