“If a girl puts down that her favorite book is The Fountainhead, there’s no way I’m going to contact her,” said a 30-year-old law student, quaffing a beer in the garden of an out-of-the-way Williamsburg bar called Lockinn, which features Scrabble-inlaid tables and a large barbecue grill. His friends—many of them fellow veterans of the New York online dating scene—nodded in agreement.
Later, over lunch at an Upper West Side falafel joint near his apartment, the law student clarified his position. “I’ve never actually read The Fountainhead,” he said between bites. “It’s an unspecific thing. It just kind of comes from the belief that a mixture of someone being philosophical but not very bright seems dangerous.” And Objectivists the world over cried a little bit inside.
The somewhat arbitrary nature of the law student’s preferences, however, belies a more significant point—significant, at least, for the thousands of unattached New Yorkers who have been turning to the Internet to find love (or, failing that, sex) for many years now . The decision to reject someone’s online profile is made in minutes, if not seconds, and it’s often due to these deal-breakers—cultural red flags that pop up in categories as seemingly harmless as the Favorite Books category.
Or Favorite Movies. “If they put down Breakfast Club instead of Sixteen Candles or Better Off Dead, that’s a big sign that they don’t really know what they’re talking about,” said 33-year-old Andy Deemer, a filmmaker who produced Lloyd Kaufman’s Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead! (a “chicken-zombie musical satire,” according to Mr. Deemer’s Web site) and is currently working on a documentary about religion called my god.
“ Garden State as a favorite movie is pretty bad for me,” said 25-year-old Phil Gilman, who lives in Williamsburg. “It means she has unoriginal indie aspirations. And I think the movie’s so bad, so cheesy and it’s just—it’s just so generic, but it’s supposed to be all alterna.”
Mr. Gilman mentioned the scene in which Andrew (Zach Braff) and Sam (Natalie Portman) meet for the first time, in the doctor’s waiting room. “‘This song will change your life,’” Mr. Gilman said mockingly, referencing the moment when Sam introduces Andrew to the life-changing qualities of the Shins’ “New Slang.” “It’s just a song. I think I said that to my girlfriend when I was in middle school about a Less Than Jake song.”
Of course, profiles are written to attract some people and repel others; one man’s Garden State is another man’s Citizen Kane. (“I find a girl who puts down Garden State kind of cute. And it’s a lovely soundtrack,” said Mr. Deemer. So there.) But there’s also a danger in wanting to appeal to everyone.
“People who list, like, 7,000 different books, from all genres—that was a turn-off,” said 28-year-old business-school student Priya Gandhi.
For some gay men, that can mean referencing what a 28-year-old architect called the “gay Top 10.” “I immediately checked for The Golden Girls, the Scissor Sisters or Will and Grace,” he said, recalling his days on the dating scene. (He currently lives with his actor boyfriend on the parlor floor of a Cobble Hill brownstone.) “There’s a fundamental difference between liking The Golden Girls—I love The Golden Girls—and putting it on your profile. If you put it on your profile, it defines you. You’re saying, ‘This explains me.’ It means there’s a good chance that you cut the sleeves off your T-shirts and that you dance at the Roxy on a Tuesday night.”
The ability to make snap judgments about what could be seen as somewhat superficial cultural touchstones is a necessary online-dating evil, according to a 30-year-old banker who first started dating online a month ago. “If you have to spend, at minimum, 15 to 20 minutes with them, you want to cross out the people who are going to be really painful. That’s 15 minutes of your life you can’t get back,” the banker, who lives in Hell’s Kitchen, said. “And you have a very limited set of information, so you’re kind of constructing this personality in your head from their profile. The littlest thing can really make a significant impact on the constructed personality that you have.”
His comments were echoed by a 27-year-old magazine writer who lives in Harlem. “Nerve’s questionnaire has lots of details, so that helps weed people out,” she said. “There’s a question, ‘What’s the best or worst lie you’ve ever told?’ Reading the answer to that, I’ve just been turned off. If they say something like, ‘I told some girl I was a doctor, but I’m actually not’—well, that’s cheesy and stupid.”
The “About Me” and “Interests” sections are other potential minefields. “Travel, architecture, photography, gym, anything in the sun, a great bottle of wine, amazing conversation, people-watching—these are things anyone would enjoy,” said the architect. “You’d have to be brain-dead not to enjoy these things. It’s like taking the sample résumé and just using it.”
(An informal recent perusal of Nerve’s profiles revealed that most single people in New York enjoy the Times crossword and cannot live without their iPods.)
“When a guy says he’s ‘spiritual,’ it gives me this image of the Tim Robbins character in High Fidelity,” said 27-year-old Maggie Serota, who lives in Astoria. “He has a ponytail, listens to world music, wears karate pants and is probably an Asian fetishist. If I told him my astrological sign, he’d tell me, like, five traits I have. He says things like ‘I have some Japanese lithographs I’d love to show you.’”
People talk about selecting dates in much the same way they purchase organic blueberries from FreshDirect, and the array of individual proclivities cited by these picky daters suddenly makes trolling for love in a bar seem romantic and blissfully mysterious. Online daters, however, who’ve read line after line, cliché after cliché, tend to be pretty insightful about the signs and signifiers of a love interest’s profile.
“Those girls who say, ‘I’m just as comfortable on a night out in my high heels as I am kicking back with you on the couch watching football and drinking beer,’ or any variation of that—there are tons of people who say that,” said Mr. Gilman, effectively wiping the entire female population of Murray Hill off his dating map.
According to Mr. Gilman—who added that he went on a date with one of these women, against his better judgment—this attitude indicates a depressingly typical outlook on life. “It’s a specific type of girl; she’s totally standard,” he said. “She’s also trying too hard to please the average Joe.”
Another common turnoff: wizards. “People will put a kid’s book on, and if it’s a relatively good one, it’s funny. Harry Potter I find very annoying,” said the architect, in a comment echoed by several others. “There’s nothing cool about reading Harry Potter.”
“Someone repeatedly describing themselves as intelligent is a bad sign,” said the law student. “Or when someone’s taste seems too pretentious. No one’s favorite book really is Candide.”
(“I really like Candide!” protested the magazine writer. “But it does come off as pretentious. Then again, my profile probably comes off that way too.”)
Perhaps deal-breakers are simply another way for notoriously choosy New Yorkers to maintain their unrealistic standards—and stay single. “I did online dating for about six months, and during that time I think I went on dates with three different girls,” said Mr. Deemer, who is currently single. “And I figured if it took me that long to find three people to even go out with, only one of whom I even liked at all, that’s a sad fact. So I decided to not put too much effort in it anymore.”
But according to Ms. Serota, the failure of men like Mr. Deemer to find a girlfriend online has little to do with the quality of women available and everything to do with … Garden State.
“Guys all say they’re looking for the same woman. They’re looking for this whimsical, beautiful girl who’s really a geek inside,” said Ms. Serota. “They’re all looking for Natalie Portman’s character in Garden State, or at least that’s what they write. They’re looking for the quirky girl who’s going to save them from themselves. They’re looking for these girls that are, like, manic-depressive without the depressive.” (In Ms. Serota’s estimation, this syndrome is endemic to “basically anyone in an urban area who doesn’t dress like they work at Blockbuster Video.”)
“They’re looking for Amélie,” she continued. “And if you read girls’ profiles, they’re trying to sell themselves as Amélie.”
But according to relationships expert and Elle magazine columnist E. Jean Carroll, it’s actually more important for a girl to look like Audrey Tautou. Despite all their highbrow grumblings about things like literary taste, “it’s all about the pictures,” said Ms. Carroll, who also runs the Greatboyfriends.com Web site, where women write profiles for their ex-boyfriends so that other women can date them.
“Spend some money and have a good picture taken,” she continued. “Go down to Bergdorf’s basement and have your makeup done, or have your friend with a digital camera shoot 200 shots and then choose the best one. And wear something that shows you waist up—a close-up, not a distance shot.”
The quality of the photo, as Ms. Carroll alluded to, is important—largely because of the questions it can raise. “Some photos are grainy,” said the banker. “So I think: Are they afraid someone will recognize them? Or are they trying to cover something up?”
According to the law student, it’s almost always the latter. “You have to imagine the worst possible version of them based on their photo,” he said. “If you don’t see their arms, you have to think: ‘Maybe they don’t have arms!’ You learn all these things. If a photo is overexposed or washed-out, she probably has bad skin. If it’s just shots of their face, or shots solely from above, she’s probably self-conscious about her weight.”
But more important than looks? Baggage. “Women have got to downplay romantic history,” said Ms. Carroll. “Don’t go on there and say, ‘I’ve been burned so many times, I’m looking for Prince Charming. Or ‘I’ve kissed too many frogs, I’m looking for Prince Charming.’”
But is it really about you? The ultimate deal-breaker might have to do with how one’s profile makes online perusers feel about themselves.
“I really hate when people put that their most humbling moment is ‘doing this,’” said the banker. “You would hope that the person would be kind of excited about it. I mean, what does that say about me if I’m looking at your profile?”