Seventy years ago, the Yale sociologist John Ellsworth Jr. was researching marriage patterns in small towns and concluded: “People will go as far as they have to to find a mate, but no farther.” This still seems to be the case in 2018. Though the internet allows us to connect with people across the globe near-instantly, dating apps like Tinder prioritize showing us nearby matches, the assumption being the best date is the one we can meet up with as quickly as possible with little inconvenience.
A year and a half ago, I was 23, single, and working as an engineer at the online-dating site OkCupid. The site held a similar philosophy when it came to distance, and we employees would sometimes joke we needed to add a special filter for New Yorkers that let them specify, Show me matches under 10 miles, but nobody from New Jersey. At the time, I loved the concept of online dating and went out with other Manhattanites almost every weekend. But I quickly came to hate first dates themselves. I found myself always distracted, thinking more to myself about how to make a graceful exit than about whatever my date was saying.
Then one day I had my wisdom teeth pulled and my cheeks became grapefruits. Figuring this was not a great first-date look, I made no weekend plans. Lonely and alone on a Saturday night, I started scrolling through OkCupid and, out of boredom and curiosity, expanded my search options to include users anywhere in the world. I was drawn in by the profiles of some of these new, distant matches and messaged a few asking if they’d like to chat on the phone. That weekend I talked to a neuropsychologist from Milwaukee; a software developer from Austin, Texas; an improv instructor from Seattle; and an economics masters student from London. At first, these calls were a little awkward—what were you supposed to say to a complete stranger you’d probably never meet? But then, what couldn’t you say to a stranger you’d probably never meet? Freed from the pressure of a pending outcome—no question of a second drink, moving to a second bar, or going back to anyone’s place—I became immersed in these conversations that lasted, sometimes, for hours. For the next few weeks, I called the Austin programmer often. I wondered what it would be like going on a first date with him, now that I sort of knew him. But I had no plans to visit Austin and we lost touch.