When I met him, at a conference on the internet dating industry in Miami last January, he asked where I was from.
‘Ah, Minnesota,’ he said: ‘Have you ever been to the Zumbro River?
Because in its early days the internet was prevalent in worlds that had historically excluded women – the military, finance, mathematics and engineering – women were not online in big numbers.
I am not usually comfortable in a bar by myself, but I had been in San Francisco for a week and the apartment I sublet had no chairs in it, just a bed and a couch. One Tuesday I had lentil soup for supper standing up at the kitchen counter. The bar had red fake leather booths, Christmas lights and a female bartender. At the other end, around the corner from where I sat, a bespectacled man my age watched the game. The couch had a woollen blanket woven in a Navajo-inspired pattern, exemplary of a trend in San Francisco that a friend of mine calls ‘White People Gone Wild’. I had fiddled with the knobs and the gas, but couldn’t figure out how to ignite it.
After I finished, I moved to the couch in the empty living room and sat under the flat overhead light refreshing feeds on my laptop. As the only man and the only woman alone at the bar, we looked at each other. He handed me his mobile and pointed to a Facebook post. When I moved in, the receipt for the blanket was on the mantelpiece. At night the room had the temperature and pallor of a corpse. I returned to my mobile and opened OK Cupid, the free internet dating service. ‘Tattoos are a big part of my friends’ and family’s life,’ he wrote.
He turned his back to me to watch the monitor over the pool tables, where the pool players now applauded some exploit. That night I scrolled until I found a handsome man who had written a benign invitation: ‘Let’s get a drink.’ I looked at his profile. The man generally held responsible for internet dating as we know it today is a native of Illinois called Gary Kremen, but Kremen was out of the internet dating business altogether by 1997, just around the time people were signing up for the internet en masse.
Today he runs a solar energy financing company, is an elected official in Los Altos Hills, California and is better known for his protracted legal battle over the ownership of the pornography website than he is for inventing internet dating.
I sat on a stool at the centre of the bar, ordered a beer, and refreshed the feeds on my mobile. A basketball game played on several monitors at once. I allowed myself a moment’s longing for my living room and its couch.
Then I pretended to watch the game on a monitor that allowed me to look the other way. I refreshed the feed that indicated whether other people in the neighbourhood were sitting alone in bars. An OK Cupid Locals invitation has to start with the word ‘Let’s’:‘Let’s go now you and I’ always comes into my mind, but I’ve never broadcast an OK Cupid chat signal, I just respond. Every era has its own utopian possibilities: ours is the chance to make our lives more bearable through technology.