Explaining one of the internet’s most annoying mysteries.
Here in the Weird Alternate Future, the internet has proven, despite its serious problems, to be something of a gender leveller. There remains a lot of ingrained sexism in internet culture, and some screaming misogynists hiding behind anonymity, but there are also a lot of places where the everyone-is-text phenomenon allows men and women to enjoy a more nearly level playing field than ever before.
There is, however, one phenomenon online that is so strictly and so heavily gendered that it is a source of much bafflement to many. I am referring, of course, to random spam messages on dating sites.
Every woman I know, when she joins OkCupid or Fetlife or any of the assorted pay sites out there, experiences the same thing, regardless of her profile contents: a slow but steady trickle of messages from random guys, all of them between one and eight words long.
“You’re hot want to get togeter sumtime?”
“u wanna get down n dirty”
“I want to cum on your tits”
And so on ad infinitum. You get the idea. Why the hell do some guys (and it is, as far as I’ve been able to observe, only guys) do that? A reasonable question, and one that does, in fact, have an answer.
The truth is, the spam messages are part of a strategy. It’s a strategy with two goals: to get the guy practicing it some attention from one or more girls, and to keep him emotionally protected in the process. People keep doing it because it basically works, and even when it fails at the first part, it succeeds at the second. So on average, it’s a pretty good strategy in a Tragedy of the Commons kinda way.
Here’s the thing. As I’ve written before, having the pressure on you to make the initial approach is incredibly difficult. It involves putting a lot of your ego on the line, just laying bare your sense of self and sticking a big KICK ME sign on it. This point is impossible to overemphasize, because it’s where a lot of this weird male behavior comes from.
Let’s say I take the time to carefully read the profiles of five women, and craft five individual messages to them. “I see you like macrame and duck hunting… I too enjoy killing things, and while I’ve never tried ducks, I bet it’s a lot of fun. Perhaps we could get coffee sometime and twist the heads off some canaries to get to know each other?” Now when I don’t hear back from any of those five, that is a genuine, personal, very specific rejection. It is a rejection of me in particular, based on the very best effort I could make. It means (I must assume) that I am physically repulsive, personally uncharming, and generally inadequate as a human being.
Now, let’s say that instead I randomly send “Ur really fuckn hot” to 300 women whose profiles I didn’t even read. Straight, gay, married, not looking, doesn’t matter. Everyone who I think might have boobies gets the same message.
I just accomplished three things. First, I annoyed between 298 and 300 women who are now sighing and hitting the delete button. Second, I potentially found the one or two women who are willing to message me back based on that. Third, and most importantly, I did not make any effort or expose even one inch of my actual humanity. If, as is likely, none of those 300 women respond at all, I can deal with that. It’s like lying on a bed of nails: the pain is distributed so widely that it’s entirely bearable. I exposed nothing of myself, and thus risked nothing of myself.
It’s not that these guys think that women enjoy receiving these feeble spasms of non-communication, it’s that they aren’t considering the recipients’ emotions at all. They’re just trying to protect their own emotions, trying to avoid adding another dollop of rejection and invalidation to an already overwhelming sum. Sure, it’s less effective than actually communicating with women like human beings, but more importantly, it’s less frightening and it’s less painful.
The real problem, of course, is that this really is a Tragedy of the Commons situation. By adopting a strategy that works for their individual emotional needs, they’re making the entire site a more toxic environment for everyone. I don’t pretend to have a solution here. All I can suggest is that for those who get random spam messages, just remember that behind their crude language and dreadful spelling, what each one actually says is “I’m afraid of being hurt.” It won’t stop the stupid things coming, but it might help them seem more sad than irritating.
This article is an updated version of a previous Noah Brand piece.
Feature Photo—Arnold Gatilao/Flickr
Armor Photo—Richard Taylor/Flickr