In “Out There,” your story in this week’s issue, a woman decides that it’s time to get into online dating. But there’s a complication: it’s been estimated that many of the men on dating apps are “blots,” fake humans posing as eligible men in order to steal their targets’ personal information. What an excellent premise for a story. One of the recurring motifs of the piece is how difficult it can be to identify blots, since they seem, basically, like perfect men. How did this premise come to you, and what made it appealing to tackle in a fictional setting?
I wrote my first blot story a few years ago, during one of my forays into online dating. I know many people enjoy using dating apps, but at the time they felt to me like another alienating offshoot of the tech industry that dominates San Francisco, where I’ve lived since 2008. Somehow, the men I connected with through apps never seemed fully real, even after we’d met in person. And they felt more disposable, too, since I shared no social connections with them. I could message with someone for a bit, then close the app and never think about them again. The efficiency of the app reduced dating to merely another transaction. It was exhausting and joyless, but I felt obligated to do it, because, if I didn’t, I wasn’t “putting myself out there” and would therefore never date again. I’ve heard people say that if you really want to “succeed” at online dating, in the sense of using it to find a long-term partner, you have to “treat it like a job.” That always sounded awful to me.
My work often explores the notion of the uncanny and how technology, especially in the form of mediated communication and artificial intelligence, can tap into our deepest societal and personal anxieties. Along with dating apps, I’m fascinated by the uncanniness of, say, a spam e-mail, or a message sent from a friend’s hacked account, or a tale of catfishing. We live on the Internet, and yet we’re always braced to have our lives tampered with, possibly ruined by, the Internet. We’ve all accepted risk as the price of admission, and this highlights how all human interaction is risky—and no interaction is more fraught with peril than romance.
A blot is basically a spam e-mail come to life. In the story, the process that the narrator goes through—trying to figure out whether Sam is a blot—is similar to the process anyone undergoes in determining whether their new partner is cool or a creep whose monstrousness will slowly unfurl. Online dating only heightens the stakes of the discovery process, as you’re dating a person who hasn’t been vetted by anyone in your real-life social network. There is also a certain stigma to online dating—much less than there used to be, but I know a lot of people who still pride themselves on not using apps, as if resorting to them is a sign of limited social capital. And there’s always been societal suspicion, and pity, aimed at straight women who are single despite no longer being in their twenties. So I liked how, in this imagined world, the blots are imposing yet another layer of complication on the search for a partner. In this world, people’s judgment of women using Tinder is justified, because by doing so they’re inviting the chaos of a blot into their lives.
The narrator seems to be in a period of renunciation in her life. She’s in recovery. She says that she’s not attracted to “handsome guys.” She lives alone. What’s so appealing to her about this way of life?
I’m not sure if this life style is appealing to her or if it’s just kind of how things have ended up. I think she probably enjoys being alone more than she thinks she does and, to some extent, has made decisions that perpetuate solitude. The appeal of this life style, I think, is a sense of control, which might be particularly attractive to someone who’s often felt out of control. I see the narrator as someone who’s engaged in self-destructive habits in the past, and who has deliberately cut out influences that were harmful to her. She’s sober, but relationships can also be used addictively, and now she’s trying to navigate dating in a “healthy” way, a practice that doesn’t come to her intuitively. Maybe she’s had all-consuming, obsessive relationships in which she’s clung to a partner as if he’s a raft on the open sea, and so now she’s trying to do things differently with Sam, and adhere to a rational dating style of the kind suggested by self-help books. Unfortunately, sometimes a lack of obsession simply means you’re not that into someone. I think, when a person is accustomed to dysfunctional dynamics, it can be difficult to tell the difference between healthy passion and codependent fixation on a love object. Maybe when people are in the early, infatuated stage of love, these two strains are indistinguishable.
I also see this narrator as someone who’s had relationships that didn’t work out—ending dramatically or dragging out in a soul-depleting romantic purgatory—and she’s not quite convinced that throwing herself back into the dating pool is worth it. She’s perhaps swung to the opposite extreme and is looking at dating too rationally, with the awareness that any relationship she begins will end eventually. This leads her to wonder if there’s any point in beginning again, if the result will be disappointment, or worse.
The narrator meets a man named Sam and tries to figure out whether he’s a blot. Ironically, when he’s inattentive or kind of a jerk, she’s encouraged, taking it as proof that he’s not engineered to appeal to her. This seems perhaps analogous to situations in real-life romantic encounters?
In the story, the spectre of the blots has nullified all other criteria for romantic partners. If dating apps are now riddled with blots, then finding an authentically human man in that pool is a win in itself. In her effort to determine, definitively, that Sam isn’t a blot, the narrator is distracted from the possibility that he might fail to measure up in other important ways. I think this is analogous to how people can get so caught up in the “project” of finding a long-term partner that they’ll wind up ignoring all sorts of red flags. They become so fixated on attaining an idealized relationship with “someone” that they forget to consider whether they even want to be with this particular person in the first place.
Also, the blots play into our fear of someone who seems “too good to be true.” In the early stages of dating, I think we are all comforted by a person’s obvious (but tolerable) flaws and idiosyncrasies, because the alternative is worse—someone seeming perfect but then turning out to be terrible in an unexpected way. Being able to immediately spot a person’s defects can relieve a certain pressure. For the narrator, Sam’s selfishness and mediocrity seem like an acceptable trade-off—until, of course, they aren’t.
After a desultory romantic weekend with Sam at a hot-springs resort, the narrator comes to see certain tendencies in him that are no less programmatic than those of blots. In the end, she encounters a group of blots sitting at a table. They clear a space for her, and she moves toward it. Why does she make this decision?
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