When I began working as a moderator for a popular online dating website in 2013, I was excited to get a behind-the-scenes look at how perfect strangers meet. I had no idea that the year I would spend patrolling dating profiles and private messages would ultimately reveal a darker side of online dating.
My job was to sort through long queues of profiles and conversations that had either been automatically flagged by the site or reported for misuse by another user. Many of these reported accounts were scammers — I saw a lot of fake Nigerian princes who wanted to bestow millions of dollars to the “lucky” individual they had contacted. Before this job, I honestly thought these types of scams only succeeded during the dawn of the internet and email. Surely, no one would fall for these scams now, right? Unfortunately, lots of people did.
I’d receive frantic emails from users claiming that they sent money to a person whom they haven’t heard back from, and there would be nothing I could do except ban the account and IP address that scammed them. Some scammers were quite smart, and many of them adapted their stories and methods to trick internet-savvy online daters into revealing private financial information. They would either pose as a wealthy white man or sexy young girl, and they’d usually claim to live in America. But when I’d look up their IP addresses, they would originate from Malaysia, Ghana, or Nigeria. And when I’d pop their profile pictures into a reverse Google image search, I’d find that they’d taken the picture from a cam girl site.
The fact that people were getting robbed on the dating site was upsetting enough, but I found it particularly disheartening that the victims often seemed to have genuine feelings for the person catfishing them. I took pride in my job, keeping the dating site a safe space, and here people were being scammed and heartbroken.
Then there were the people who used the site as a meat market, where they could harass and abuse other users — seriously, your worst nightmares about online dating are probably not that far from the truth. I’d see people mass message others, copying and pasting a heartfelt paragraph that seemed personal and genuine to hundreds of other users. Even worse, people would prey on people’s weaknesses and critique their appearances.
Sometimes, the mass messages would target specific demographics. I saw a Christian user message all users who identified as Jewish to tell them they were going to hell; I saw men message all women who identified as “overweight” just to tell them they’d never fuck them; and I saw people who would go out of their way to message someone for the sole purpose of calling them a racial slur. What was the point of doing this? Is it some sadistic way to blow off steam?
While I definitely banned some women’s accounts, I noticed that, more often than not, male users were the ones doing the harassing. I saw a lot of conversations that started out friendly, but quickly devolved into chaos when someone didn’t respond quickly or turned down a date. Sometimes a user would ask someone out, and then when they’d get rejected, they’d do a complete 180 and say something like, “WHATEVER YOU’RE TOO UGLY TO FUCK ANYWAY!” (Thanks to social media, people are finally aware of how often this really happens.)
While the majority of cases I reviewed tended to be scammers and abuse-related reports, I’d also see people using the site to promote escort services and prostitution. It was difficult for me to ban these accounts, mostly because I believe that all sex work ought to be legalized. But since it was against the site’s terms of service, I had to follow the rules. Reading the dialogue between sex workers and clients was eye-opening, and I found myself pleasantly surprised by how polite clients tended to be to the person offering services.
This wasn’t always the case, though. One afternoon, I came across a man who was mass messaging all women in his area to see if he could pay them to come over, have a glass of wine, and play with their feet. It seemed innocent enough, but when I scrolled down in the report to the profile picture, I realized that this man was an acquaintance of mine — an acquaintance I had almost hooked up with once.
As I scrolled further down in his messages, I found that he became abusive and aggressive toward a woman who had initially entertained the idea, and then turned him down. I immediately banned him and decided that was enough work for that day. This job was becoming more of a mind fuck by the minute. After that, every time I saw him out at the bar or at a party with my friends, all I could think about was his love of feet.
So, did I ever spy on anyone I knew? Working there was like having Pandora’s box staring me in the face — I could read anyone’s private messages. Even though I knew it was immoral, it was way too tempting. I’m ashamed to admit that I read my ex-boyfriends messages right after he dumped me. I wish I hadn’t, because what I saw was a very lovey-dovey conversation with another woman, which did nothing but make me feel like a shithead for invading his privacy. I felt so guilty after that I told him what I did the next week, and luckily, he forgave me. But it was clear that my private life was getting too intertwined with my job, and I was abusing the power I’d been given.
I’m no longer a moderator — I quit after a year. The work was enjoyable for a while, but ultimately, it was too mentally taxing to see how people abuse each other under the shield of anonymity. In this environment, you can say whatever you want to whomever you want with small consequences. Some of the behavior I saw was so messed up that I wish those people would have faced a bigger penalty than just a banned account.
Strangely enough, I haven’t lost faith in online dating. If I weren’t in a relationship, I know I’d still be using dating sites and apps — I would just be extra careful about who I trust and what I take personally. My time as a moderator taught me that the internet can make people forget they’re interacting with actual humans with real feelings, but I also learned that that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of people out there who treat others with decency and respect.
By: Zoe Ligon