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Mar 25 2013

Online dating in the uncanny valley

There’s a concept in animation and robotics called “the uncanny valley” – the point where simulated humans are so close to realistic but not quite that they are disturbing. The theory is that people will become more comfortable with simulated humans as they become more like living things, up until a point right before full similarity when the comfort level drops precipitously. Facial expressions that are ‘not quite right’, movements that are ‘unnatural’, other subtle clues that would make people uneasy*.

There is a less technological manifestation of this phenomenon, referred to commonly as Poe’s Law, where someone’s stated beliefs are so close to what it would look like if someone was mocking those beliefs that it becomes difficult (or, in some cases, impossible) to determine the intent of the speaker. This can be a useful trolling technique, or even a persuasive method of argumentation to demonstrate the absurdity of a position.

I poked around with online dating for a little while when I first moved to Vancouver, but had little luck and abandoned the experiment pretty quickly. Despite my own frustrations with the process, I have learned that there are far worse things out there than not getting messages from prospective dates.

You could, for example, get a message from this guy**:

An OKCupid dating profile

If I had an axe to grind with online atheists and wished to mock them (us), this is the kind of Poe-trolling I would do. Everything about this fits a negative stereotype – from the fedora (covered in internet memes!), to the neckbeard, to the bragging about activity on Reddit. Any one of these things would provoke eye-rolling and snickers from people who’ve dealt with online dating before. All three of them, unashamed, in the same profile? Seems too overt to be true.

And then there’s this winner:

Another dating profile from a Tarot reader who wants the re-legalization of polygamy before he will deign to marry any of his ardent fans

Single file, ladies. Are you ready to change your life with Tarot cards!? Just don’t get too attached – he doesn’t have a lot of space in his harem, what with all of the offers of marriage he has from his unwitting dupes fans, and if you want a commitment you’d better start lobbying for legalized polygamy.

And then there’s this guy:

A long, rambling, and at times self-contradictory rant about women and how much he hates them

First and most obvious thing to get out of the way: if you’re going to insult people for having bad grammar, make sure you know how to properly spell “you’re”. Second, I can’t help but note the similarities between this guy’s rant, and our friend of ‘SHOES AND PURSES‘ fame. Third, I wonder if this guy recognizes how often he contradicts himself by alternating between “pedestal” women and “fake” women as often as he does. Fourth, fuck this guy and his entitlement. Fifth, and this probably goes without saying, don’t actually fuck this guy.

People are silly, to be sure. These people are so silly as to beggar belief.

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*There’s a whole discussion of able-body (particularly neurotypical) privilege that goes along with this topic.

**I’ve got to say I’m not really a fan of this site. Some of the stuff on there is just mean-spirited. In this image, for example, why did they feel the need to include the fact that he didn’t want to specify his body type? Body-shaming isn’t funny or appropriate or necessary.

42 comments

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  1. 1
    mythbri

    That person should not have a dog.

    OKCupid allowed me to meet my current boyfriend (who, to protect his privacy, I will call Muffin). It was my very first time trying an online dating service. I’m still not quite sure how it happened that I met Muffin, really – OKCupid said that we had a high match percentage, so that’s why he popped up in my possible matches thingy. More luck than anything, though I doubt we’d ever have met in person, even though we live in the same town. Where I live, the major social places to meet people are church functions, and neither he nor I are religious.

  2. 2
    liamj

    Wow, you are a bit of a dick today, what on earth did that first guy do to deserve your public ridicule? Besides being a bit awkward, and possibly uncool. Seriously though this is dickish, I hope you were just being thoughtless and aren’t actually such a mean prick.

  3. 3
    Ryan Long

    A FreeThought blogger using their public blog to pick on and humiliate a random guy who did nothing wrong? I’M SHOCKED! Oh wait no I’m not.

    Also, slapping some PC-sounding hippie dippie rhetoric about how body shaming is wrong at the end of your article doesn’t make it any less petty and mean that you’re picking on that guy.

  4. 4
    Crommunist

    I’m so happy to have all these brand new commenters!

    Also, I picked on THREE random guys. Get it right.

  5. 5
    Ryan Long

    At least you admit you do it for the blog hits.

  6. 6
    hoary puccoon

    Tip for intelligent women:

    Any man who starts Day 1 of the relationship saying he’s been searching and searching for an intelligent woman and, praise be, he’s finally found YOU!! will spend days 2 through end finding ways to catch you out and trip you up, so he can prove to himself you’re not as smart as you think you are.

  7. 7
    Crommunist

    At least you admit you do it for the blog hits.

    How about I admit that you’re equally silly as the Tarot guy? Would that suffice?

  8. 8
    liamj

    I bet if you search hard enough you can find some disabled people who say silly stuff on there too.

  9. 9
    Crommunist

    I… don’t even know what that means.

  10. 10
    invivoMark

    I gotta say, that last one has a certain … character to it. It was almost mesmerizing reading through it. The lack of capitalization, seemingly random punctuation, the stream-of-consciousness style, line breaks where they just don’t belong, and the running theme of displaying contradicting qualities – it could be the work of an extremely talented artist, if it weren’t actually the words of a peabrained douchebag.

    (Or is it?)

  11. 11
    clamboy

    While I slaver over this blog (anonymously), others have a point. This post, while mild in comparison, is ‘pitty in a way. You have chosen to mock people whom you have never met, and who have caused you no harm (that I know of), based on their appearance, their use of language, etc. What good does this do? I will confess this to be a sensitive spot of mine, due to my having been treated in similar ways, but this strikes me as mean just for the sake of being mean, almost…yup…bullying.

  12. 12
    hyperdeath

    What has the first guy done wrong? Why does he deserve public ridicule? You recognise that much of that website is mean spirited, so why repeat it?

  13. 13
    Crommunist

    There is no “wrong” here – that’s not the point. The point is that, if I wished to make a parody of everyone’s stereotypes of an atheist’s online dating profile for the purpose of mocking atheists, it would look exactly like that. The line between parody and reality is indistinguishable in the first, the second is too bizarre to be believed, and the third reads like a fictionalized version of male entitlement. This isn’t a morality tale – they were just so over-the-top that they made me laugh.

    If I’ve hurt people’s feelings then I’m sorry. These just seemed like particularly silly dating profiles for the reasons I outline in the post.

  14. 14
    bram

    Yeah, those guys look like nerds! Glad i’m not those guys and am instead a highly respected blogger or something.

    Just kidding i’m genuinely attractive.

  15. 15
    Crommunist

    This is a very thoughtful and topical response, bram. Your feedback is invaluable to me, and you are every bit as special as you assume you are. Thank you for your contribution.

  16. 16
    bram

    You are very welcome.

  17. 17
    Crommunist

    Freeze-frame high five!

  18. 18
    clamboy

    The poster known as hyperdeath asked three questions, the second and third of which you did not answer. Sure, this may fit the very definition of a tempest in a teapot, but what if, say, that first person you mocked were a regular reader of this blog?

    And there does remain the interesting contrast between your mocking of that first person’s appearance and your statement “Body-shaming isn’t funny or appropriate or necessary.” Does “body-shaming” only apply to certain facets of a person’s appearance?

    Goodness knows, my precious widdle fee-fees aren’t hurt, but the meanness of this post is somewhat jarring. Seems a bit uncharacteristic, too.

  19. 19
    Crommunist

    I certainly did not intend this piece to read as mockery – I just thought the combination of elements hit the nail rather too squarely on the head. Clearly my sense of humour is more mean-spirited than I realized, and I shouldn’t have wrote this.

  20. 20
    lamaria

    I think the first one is on the edge. While, yes, it is very Poe-like, it would not have been so if the guy had been universally attractive. In both of the other cases what you´re mocking is clearly the idea´s these people share with the online dating community. Fair game.

  21. 21
    Gretchen

    lamaria said:

    I think the first one is on the edge. While, yes, it is very Poe-like, it would not have been so if the guy had been universally attractive.

    What does attractiveness have to do with Poe-ness? The hat and the self-description as “militant” are what set off alarm bells to me.

  22. 22
    Brandon

    I suppose making fun of these guys is a bit mean-spirited, but I’m not clear on why that’s automatically a bad thing. The first guy turned himself into a walking stereotype through deliberate actions. No one’s making fun of him because of something outside his control.

  23. 23
    daniellavine

    Crom@19:

    You might want to consider updating the OP with the admission it was a little mean-spirited. Not trying to be an asshole by saying so, just an idea.

  24. 24
    HappiestSadist, Repellent Little Martyr

    Agreed, Brandon @ #22.

    Also, I love that that first guy is a brony. Of course he is.

  25. 25
    loofasword

    No, I have an idea.

    Anyone who thinks that Crommunist is a big meanie needs to get a sense of humor. And he can say “silly” if he wants. It’s just a word. And besides, if they put their profile up, then they’re public figures. It’s perfectly okay to subject them to the most grotesque ridicule.

    hyperdeath, liamj, Ryan Long, enough with your war on Free Speech.

    This aggression will not stand, man.

  26. 26
    TaylorMaid

    Teehee! Your new friends are funny.

  27. 27
    hyperdeath

    Brandon

    I suppose making fun of these guys is a bit mean-spirited, but I’m not clear on why that’s automatically a bad thing. The first guy turned himself into a walking stereotype through deliberate actions. No one’s making fun of him because of something outside his control.

    He may be eccentric, but he didn’t do anything morally wrong. Yes, he could have avoided ridicule, but why should he have to? He certainly doesn’t deserve being mentioned alongside the repellent MRA in the third profile.

  28. 28
    oolon

    I do sometimes look at the ok cupid site mentioned, it serves a good purpose – pointing out the everyday sexism, racism and general bigotry that many blokes seem to ascribe to. When that is juxtaposed to them, trying to find a partner it is a little surreal. In their world its so normal it doesn’t even occur that someone could be put off them as a prospective match, bearing in mind they are *trying* to put their best face forward…. Yuk.

    I do wish they’d make the ppl a bit more anonymous as it crosses the line into shaming for looks too often rather than shaming for opinions and ideas. They can change the way they think but not the way they look, or at least the way they look is irrelevant to their worth as an individual.

    Problem here is it jars a bit, Crommunist has a good sense of humour but its normally aimed at the opinions and arguments people present not their person. Glad he see’s that in the comments above.

  29. 29
    flex

    I hate to say this, Crommunist, but this is not one of your better pieces of writing.

    I think I know that you were aiming for, but there are a couple different messages getting through. This mixed message is probably what is causing the disconnect.

    First, from the title and opening paragraph it looks like you were heading toward a discussion about that interesting phenomenon known as the ‘uncanny valley’. I’m not certain why you included ‘Poe’s law’ into that paragraph because these two ideas, ‘uncanny valley’ and ‘Poe’s law’ are not necessarily related. If they are, they are on opposite sides of the coin.

    The uncanny valley, as I understand it, deals with the non-human appearing mostly human but having just enough non-human characteristics to be jarring. What I find particularly interesting about this affect is that doesn’t appear to be related to culture. In other words, if some white-bread America was introduced to a person from India for the first time, there would be significant cultural disconnects, but they would still perceive them as human. They might see them as foreign, less intelligent, and not one-of-us, i.e. the other, but they would still be human. But show both people some creation in the uncanny valley and they will see something wrong.

    Poe’s law, on the other hand, is an entirely human phenomena. It’s an expression of disbelief, i.e. how can anyone seriously believe the idea expressed? What this person just expressed as their belief is indistinguishable from the broadest satire. Johnathan Swift wouldn’t have written it because no one would have accepted it as realistic satire, the idea is so wacky. But, we have no doubt that whether it’s really satire or not, it was a human being who expressed such an absurdity.

    Both the uncanny valley and Poe’s law are interesting and worth further discussion and study. But even though they were used in the opening paragraph and title, they are not the intent of your post.

    From what I can tell, the intent of your post was to poke humorous fun at the weirdness which goes on in the on-line dating scene. And there is surely a great deal of material for humor there. But you’ve prepped the reader to look at the examples you use to make your humor as residing in the uncanny valley. In other words, you have prepped your audience to see them as not quite human. Which is where, I believe you lost your audience. (Which, frankly tells me that your audience is attuned to nuances of this nature and willing to speak up about it. That is a good audience to have.) The reason your post has appeared mean-spirited to many is because many people in your audience can identify with the first individual, and even those who don’t identify with him object to showing him as less than human.

    Which brings up another point, and a very very interesting one. The majority of the objections are about including the first individual, while the second and third individuals are not getting the same objections. The smarminess of the second individual and the clearly privileged attitude of the third do not get them much respect. I know that your intention is not to shame anyone, but I suspect that part of the reason that the first individual gets more sympathy is because in this community we generally feel that exhibiting privilege is worth a little bit of shaming.

    Could the same article have been written humorously without eliciting the responses you’ve gotten? I’m sure it could have been. Pointing out that all three of them have constructed personalities which they feel work to attract women, and pointing out how privileged each of their personalities comes across. And then possibly suggesting that we all share similar flaws would be the tack I would take. Not that I’m any good at humor, but I’ll give a quick attempt to show you one direction I could see to take this topic:

    Door number 1. What is the message here? I’ve adopted all the internet meme’s, and I’m rebellious enough to avoid shaving. I call myself a militant atheist. But I coyly cover much of my face. I’m passionate about my convictions so long as I’m not challenged on them, because I fear that my understanding of issues is technically accurate but not deep enough to defend a really aggressive attack. I know where, “All your base are belong to us” came from, but never played the game.

    If I selected this person to date, I’d be expecting to hear cliches all evening, and potentially a diatribe against religion. But not what I would like to hear, questions about me.

    Door number 2: Oh, I’d get the questions about me all right. But not the sort of questions I’d be comfortable with. The false sincerity simply oozes from the picture. Here is a player, someone who has learned how to play the game enough to get laid, but who has no idea that a relationship involves respect.

    Hey, this guy may be good in bed. And if I wanted to feel fawned upon for a night he might be fun. But with the number of partners he’s probably been with I’d rather stay home with Mrs. Rosy Palm.

    And behind door number 3, while our previous PUA hasn’t learned that relationships involve respect, the gem behind this door hasn’t realized that a relationship involves at least two people. If an onahole could be badgered into making a sammich he wouldn’t be advertising for a slave. And yes, the badgering is important, how else can he establish the dominion of his domicile without dominating a dame?

    Would I want to date someone who thinks women are dirt? Hey, I bet I can make him change!

    Is this a good example of what sort of humor is possible? I doubt it, it was certainly easier for the last two than the first one, but getting the right balance between insulting and illuminating is very difficult.

    Could I invoke Poe’s law? Sure. In all these examples parodies of their behavior exist which are not as blatant as these examples. Do any of these people recognize that their behavior has been parodied? It seems hard to believe that none of them have seen any of the parodies of internet geek, smarmy PUA, or MRA asshole, but they lack the self-awareness to recognize they are “that guy”.

    tl;dr version: Slacker! Either skip the comment or read it in its entirety. I’m not going to summarize for your benefit. I can’t say that it’s a life-altering comment, reading it will not result in a revelation, fire-works, or magical twinkies appearing on your desk, but I’m not going to pander to laziness. ;)

  30. 30
    hoary puccoon

    I’m a little confused by the responses, here. When did pointing and laughing become verboten on Freethought Blogs? Has anybody given Ed Brayton the message?

  31. 31
    Gretchen

    Hoary puccoon,

    They’re objecting to (what is perceived as) pointing and laughing at someone for his appearance and/or anything else about him that isn’t actually malicious or harmful. Aka public shaming, and shaming someone who didn’t do anything wrong.

    Now, whether you agree that that’s what Crommunist did or not, do you see the distinction between that and pointing/laughing at people who are malicious, who do say or do harmful things?

  32. 32
    hoary puccoon

    Gretchen–

    The only zap against appearance I can find is the crack about the neck beard– which is a style choice, not a disability.

    On the other hand, I can see plenty of reason to think the third poster, at least, is genuinely malicious. You may call it harmless to get on a dating service and use the platform to insult prospective dates. But if someone got on an online dating service and used it as a platform to insult women of color with anything like the vitriol that #3 used to insult insult women in general, would you be making excuses for him?

  33. 33
    Brandon

    Now, whether you agree that that’s what Crommunist did or not, do you see the distinction between that and pointing/laughing at people who are malicious, who do say or do harmful things?

    I see the distinction, but I don’t think pointing/laughing must be reserved only for malicious individuals. Someone adopting neckbeard/trollhat as their persona while trying to meet women is funny to me. I suppose, to be fair to the guy in that picture, presenting openly and honestly about his persona is more likely to result in him meeting the sorts of people he’d like to date, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not a bit comical.

  34. 34
    freemage

    I do think the attempt to invoke the Comedy Rule of Three here created an unfortunate linkage between Guy 1 (who’s silly and funny in a very human and relatable way), and the other two, who are deserving of outright scorn. And honestly, I’ve seen that image before, and I think most of the sites that have it have much, much better matches to the latter two gents (ie, guys who post absurd, entitled declarations about women). It’s not that the article itself was something that shouldn’t have been written, but rather, the decision to include that specific individual that created a weakness in the whole.

  35. 35
    Gretchen

    Hoary puccoon said:

    The only zap against appearance I can find is the crack about the neck beard– which is a style choice, not a disability.

    On the other hand, I can see plenty of reason to think the third poster, at least, is genuinely malicious. You may call it harmless to get on a dating service and use the platform to insult prospective dates. But if someone got on an online dating service and used it as a platform to insult women of color with anything like the vitriol that #3 used to insult insult women in general, would you be making excuses for him?

    Uh, I wasn’t making excuses for this guy. So far as I’m concerned, he’s an MRA scumbag who deserves any amount of vitriol you care to dish out. I didn’t say or imply that what he said was harmless. I didn’t say anything about him, actually.

    I was pointing out that there are times when it’s okay to point and ridicule and times when it’s not, and you appeared to be suggesting otherwise.

  36. 36
    Holms

    Ian must be thrilled at all his new MRA readers and the pretend concern they show for their own kind – clueless men!

  37. 37
    hoary puccoon

    Gretchen @ 35–

    I think there are plenty of times when it’s not okay to point and laugh. Ridiculing someone with a real disability, not a neck beard, would be completely unworthy of Crommunist and FtB.

    But I thought the reactions to this post were way over the top. Look at it this way– these guys are getting extra, free advertising for their posts. If they’re really not so bad and Crommunist is out of line, there’s even a chance they could get a date out of this. At worst, they might read the reactions, clean up their presentation, and increase their odds of meeting somebody they hit it off with.

    But if they’re using the site to spread spam (Tarot readings?) or to indulge in abusive insults to people who never did them any harm, then, frankly, I think pointing and laughing is a measured and reasonable response.

  38. 38
    Brandon

    But I thought the reactions to this post were way over the top.

    One might even question the sincerity of some of the reactions. Almost…

  39. 39
    teele

    Wow! Reading some of the objections to this post in the comments leads me to believe they are from men who haven’t had much success attracting women. While you fellas may think these guys look like great fun, and would enjoy hanging out with them at a bar, I can assure you that there are very few women (in the case of the first two contestants) who would find them promising date material — and it has nothing to do with their looks. As for #3 — I feel confident that there are NO women who would be willing to go out with this guy after reading his incoherent “I hate girls” rant.

    I do encourage the men who are enamored of these guys to check out the dating site, and hook up with them as friends. It may ease their dismay at not being overwhelmed with panting females bowled over by their wit, charm, intelligence and, in the case of Mr. Nuttybuddy, common human decency. It could be the beginning of a beautiful bromance

  40. 40
    hyrax

    Seriously, who got “mocking his appearance” out of Crom’s inclusion of Bachelor #1 up there? We can’t even see his whole face, for one. The only things that are being singled out are his neckbeard and his hat– both of which are style choices. And they aren’t even being mocked as in “Ha ha, look at how silly his facial hair is!” It’s the fact that he’s presenting himself as a walking stereotype.

    I do peruse okcgoldmine sometimes, and when I saw this the other day I was actually annoyed, because of that exact reason. Guys like this are why I feel like changing the public perception of atheists is like swimming upstream. For every thoughtful post I see about atheism on tumblr, I see ten more saying “Ugh atheists are so annoying” and citing guys like that. He just makes me want to say “No no, we’re not all like that!”

    Instead of “baby-eating satanists,” now everyone thinks we’re reddit-haunting brony neckbeards with meme-covered fedoras.

  41. 41
    John Horstman

    Who knew the neckbeard contingent was so numerous? Trust me fellow beard-growers: scarves are both more handsome and warmer.

    *I* thought they were funny, but I also get called a sociopath a lot, so take that with a grain of salt.

  42. 42
    F [i'm not here, i'm gone]

    Huh. I’m not detecting all the baggage others are seeing. Perhaps I best not work in airports.

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