Much has been written about how our smartphone-wielding, super-connected culture has changed us and the way we date, seek love, and find affection (I am guilty of at least three articles). We are told we are more distracted, less committed. We are distanced and narcissistic. Maybe that’s true (I checked my phone at least 5 times while writing that above paragraph) but I think our digital culture has just highlighted some of the ways that we humans have always been weird and annoying and narcissistic. Some people’s behaviors online are essential traits that transcend time. They are fundamentally true, in both digital and analog, virtual and IRL. And now that Tinder and Bumble and Hinge have made heterosexuals sex-app veterans alongside the Grindr'ing gays, these universal truths also transcend gender and sexuality. So, this glorious Valentine's Day, here are some lessons to remember when you're out there. This may be more for me than for you because at any moment, 24 hours of every day, there is the potential for me to unlearn these lessons and do something really dumb. Again.

Your Online Avatar is the Real You
It seems still in our internet age that people don’t realize your electric representation of you is you. So, if someone is racist or angry or cynical in their profile, they are racist, angry, and cynical in real life. If they are inexpressive and answer messages with “sup” or “home now,” then they are also inexpressive in real life (there may be some weird exceptions—like if you are chatting with a busy ER doctor, hip hop music mogul, or a lawyer at the ACLU) The bottom line: You can tell if someone is sketchy or a schmuck through messaging just as easily as you could if you met them in person and watched them being rude to a waiter. That’s because people are their electronic avatars.

Some People Just Need to be Heard
Recently I was back home, finally going through old junk I had left in my childhood bedroom—boxes of papers and drawings and spiral bound notepads of wandering, weepy poetry. Amid the piles of paper, I found a letter I must have never sent, dated August 1983. I was 13 years old. That month, I had met an older boy at summer camp who was beautiful and athletic with blue eyes and punky hair. He wore cut off Police and Blondie concert T-shirts—everyone thought he was cool.

I was a demoralized, frightened, depressed gay kid who had been teased and tortured at school back home. And for some surprising reason, this guy befriended me. He cut my hair, cut off the sleeves of my T shirts, and gave me a tape of Blondie’s Autoamerican album. We went hiking together and hung out at supper. “Why are you friends with me?” I remember saying to him, confused how someone this popular was being kind to me. “Because you are a nice person, Mike,” he said.

The letter I never sent is on graph paper, fastidiously decorated with checkers around the edges (so '80s!) in blue ink. It documents every thought and action of mine the week I left camp, beginning with the moment I left him. “I got to the gate at 10:28, and boarded the plane at 11:05. I was so depressed that I didn’t say goodbye to you and Meghan and Kevin. I was practically in tears. I think the people sitting by me thought I was an orphan or something. Camp has made me more sensative(sic) and…how do I put this? Um…oh I don’t know how to say it, but I'd be different. “ “

It goes on and on like this for 12 pages. 12 pages!

Why didn’t I send it? Maybe this was the time I finally realized I shouldn’t heap all my feelings on this person. Maybe I realized, for once, that what I was writing was really more for myself than for someone else. So, when you read someone’s wordy profile about their likes and dislikes and places they are traveling and overall life goals replete with quotes from 30 Rock and/or James Baldwin, remember that they may just be writing their profiles for themselves. They may even be dateable, but just know that you may be doing a lot of listening when you go out.

Grammar and Spelling Are Windows Into Your Soul
You can tell a lot from someone by the way they spell or punctuate. I am guilty of using too many ellipses…and I bet that makes me appear sort of spacey and juggling fifteen things…which I often am. ANOTHER EXAMPLE: PEOPLE WHO USE ALL CAPS IN THEIR MESSAGES OR PROFILES. THESE PEOPLE SHOULD BE AVOIDED. UNLESS YOU WANT TO DATE SOMEONE WHO TALKS AT YOU LIKE A NEWS PUNDIT AT ALL TIMES.

If They Sound Crazy, Then They Probably Are Crazy
Forgive me for the below byzantine example, but I just need to explain how I was recently gaslighted. I met someone on Scruff last fall (that's the other gay dating app). He got my attention because he was a former backup dancer for Madonna. I mean, come on, that is worth a least a few chats. Anyway, he was one of those weird rule makers who insisted that we "talk on the phone" to make plans to meet up (for coffee, so we could see if we click, you see). Now, I appreciate this effort, but I am a busy New Yorker and it's just easier to schedule a time to meet through text for me. That is one of the rare advances of texting! No back and forth phone calls! Just a simple text exchange and a date is set! Nevertheless, I tried to honor his request and tried calling him. After days of phone tag, I finally got him. He was weird and brusque on the phone. Then the texts started again, with him asking me to call him to make plans, almost shaming me into thinking I was superficial and shallow for not talking on the phone. I asked him to let me know when he was free to talk. He told me a time, and I called, and he didn’t answer. Then he texted he wasn’t available because he had had a seizure. “Oh no!” I said, like a fool who was born yesterday. “I hope you feel better! Get in touch when you can!” Then the requests to call him began again. Finally, we arranged to meet up one Tuesday evening. I was to call him when I left the gym. I did, and he didn’t answer. Finally, in December he got in touch, texting me a photo of a Christmas tree. I texted back, “Why are you getting in touch with me? You never contacted me the day we were to meet!” He wrote back: “I got hit by a car! I was in the hospital and thus couldn’t contact you by phone!” No joke. Gah. After 15-plus years into this electrodating bizarro world I apparently still needed to learn the lesson that if someone seems crazy online, they are crazy. And you can determine this in 3 exchanges at most.

And Yet
On that note, if the digital world is real life, then you will still make mistakes, because we always make mistakes. So don’t beat yourself up about it.

You Are Not Dead Inside
I certainly don’t pine like I used to when I was 13 and writing lovelorn letters. Mostly because now, as a single person, I don’t need to. It’s like saying there’s nothing on TV. Now there there are too many channels and too many people and too much potential. I feel like my desire for connection has been unfairly sharecropped, taken out of my control, and given hundreds of aisles to wander through. Sometimes I am left feeling numb by it all, and then I can make myself very sad thinking I have lost something essential that I used to have within me, some former time when I was fresh and unmarred. Let’s not think this way, Ok? Your desire and need for love is not gone or killed or irrevocably destroyed. It’s just being syphoned into little bite-sized pieces. (It isn’t a coincidence that the development of the ‘mini’ food item coincides with this fractured era. Mini Brownies! Mini cupcakes! Why not just have a brownie?) Anyway, all I am saying is, you have it in you! You are capable of loving! Your heart is in your control. There's a gorgeous garden inside of you, so tend to it with care and make sure you don’t let too many people trample all over the grass. And if they do, then put up a fence for a couple months so the grass can grow back. And when you do…

Be Classy
There is someone out there, like you, who is sexual and funny and not a jerk. You will find them. Just send out some signals and get back to living your fulfilling, action-packed life. There is an elegance to quiet restraint. Displaying endless photos of your abdominals, documenting every dumb entree you have eaten (or every fashion show you've seen), trumpeting out your opinions in a constant stream is less a display of command and more a show of insecurity (Hi, Mr. President). And if someone sends you a 12-page message, they are probably thirteen years old.

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