The Uncanny Valley of Online Dating

Good writing sticks in your head like a catchy song, and a good personal essay relays another person’s experience in a way that makes you understand new things about your own. Sam Lansky‘s recent essay on Medium, “The Theory of Visitors,” does both.

Lansky writes about dating almost compulsively, with the specter of a lost Big Love ever-present in the background, lingering in that frustrating way of lost loves. At one point he writes of “the uncanny valley of online dating,” a reference to the discomfiting effects of things that are eerily-close-to but not-quite human. Online, we are not quite our true selves, with all our flawed, disgusting, delightful humanity. We are our best, curated photos; our funniest, most deliberated-over quips.

Dating in general, and not only of the online persuasion, can feel like an uncanny valley after a Big Love. Everyone feels just a little off in a way that makes them feel silly, like you’re some kind of dating Goldilocks. This one has a weird smile, this one talks too much, this one doesn’t talk enough. He wasn’t the Big Love. It didn’t feel like it I remember it. What if it never feels that way again?

What do those big loves leave us with? What did they take from us? Are we less than we were before them? Will we ever be whole again? Or could we be more than we were before?

Lansky complains to a friend that he’s sick of dating. The friend tells him “the theory of visitors.”

“All relationships are transient,” she said. “Friends who stab you in the back. People you network with at a fancy party. Relatives who die. The love of your life. Everything is temporary. People come into your life for a limited amount of time, and then they go away. So you welcome their arrival, and you surrender to their departure. Because they are all visitors. And when the visitors go home, they might take something from you. Something that you can’t ever get back. And that part sucks. But visitors always leave souvenirs. And you get to keep those forever.”

I thought about this constantly. The visitors. The phrase popped into my head a hundred times a day. It was a little bit sad but a little bit hopeful, like all my favorite things, and it seemed to flick at the funny way people could pass through my life and then be gone forever, ephemeral as ghosts. It wasn’t revolutionary, but there was something unusually elegant about how Debby had distilled this, her theory of visitors, and even sort of spooky. It haunted me into the next night’s date. Tucked away in a corner booth at a wine bar with a guy who had followed me on Twitter (and I had thirst-followed back after looking him up on Facebook, stalking his tagged photos and determining that we had enough mutual friends that he was worth going out with), I might have looked like I was seeing him as him, but I wasn’t. I was seeing him through this new lens, the lens of the theory of visitors.

How long will you be staying with me? I wanted to ask. When will you be ready to move on? What will you leave behind for me to remember you? And what will you take with you when you go?

Read the essay