Q&A: After School founder Nicola Spunt talks about bringing people together in the time of OkCupid

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Founded by recent English PhD graduate Nicola Spunt, After School was born out of an acceptance of the abysmal place the academic job market had become post-recession. Motivated by a desire to remain active in education, Spunt created the salon/classroom/speaker series out of a desire to establish a more creative, alternative format for higher learning.

“The mandate is basically to make smart things happen in fun places with good people. I don’t think we should ever underestimate how important it is to get people together, face-to-face in the same room, to share and think and talk,” says Spunt. “Toronto is brimming with intelligent, diverse, inspiring minds, and the idea of finding great speakers and bringing people together to participate in something both thought-provoking and entertaining was just really exciting to me.”

The series was launched in November 2012 through a discussion with Dr. Mark Kingwell regarding why it is necessary to value arts and humanities in the 21st century. Meeting a warm reception, Spunt was inspired to continue building the series, and has since racked up talks with a list of speakers including former Toronto mayor David Miller, science writer Dorion Sagan, Emily Southwood (author of Prude: Lessons I Learned When My Fiancé Filmed Porn), and more. The discussions have taken on a breadth of topics ranging from the science of meditation and spiritual enlightenment to the role of cities in the fight against climate change.

No stranger to Long Winter, After School facilitated a discussion titled “Modern Love, Sex, and Singleness” at last February’s event at The Great Hall, and in January presented a panel discussion titled “21st-Century Art: Why Feminism Still (Really) Matters” to a sold out crowd at Long Winter’s AGO First Thursdays Takeover.

On Friday (Feb. 7), co-produced with online Random House magazine Hazlitt, After School will bring a live matchmaking experience branded “NotOkCupid” to Long Winter, featuring couples matched up to appear in on-stage speed dates hosted by Hazlitt contributor Naomi Skwarna. It all comes complete with post-date analysis from a professional matchmaker. Interested singles can fill out the NotOkCupid questionnaire (http://www.randomhouse.ca/content/notokcupid-long-winter) for a chance to participate.

In anticipation of NotOkCupid, we got together with Spunt to talk about just what modern dating has come to. Full interview below.

Long Winter: At last year’s February Long Winter you and After School curated a panel discussion about the virtues of “Modern Love, Sex, and Singleness.” It was pretty loud in the Conversation Room when that was going on so I didn’t hear everything, but the majority of what I could hear seemed to favour the “singleness” side of things.

Nicola Spunt: I don’t know if they were “favouring” it so much as people were more curious about it. In 2011/2012 there was a spate of books that came out about singleness because demographically the number of single households had surpassed the number of coupled household. So there’s been a demographic shift, and I think (A) that’s part of what was interesting about the topic and also (B) it was around Valentine’s Day, which was partly the inspiration for a topic that would be a little bit more subversive or edgy, and not to be a downer about romance, but to explore a condition that so many of us inhabit, which is being single, and everything that raises. That led into a lot of talk about online dating, which is partly what spurred this next event.

LW: This year you’re bringing people together with a live speed dating situation. What exactly will be going on?

NS: There’s about six or seven of us working on this, myself from After School and a whole team from Hazlitt, and we developed a questionnaire to match applicants.

The idea is partly that in Toronto – and in the West End in particular – OkCupid is obviously the most popular dating website, and part of the idea was to bring dating back into an in-person element. And so it’s kind of a challenge to and a play on OkCupid and online dating and speed dating, and a nod to all the different types of dating services, because we also have a matchmaker who will be on-site. So the way it works is – we’ve had almost 70 applicants and we’re matching people based on the questions and basic facts that they also provide about what they’re looking for in terms of gender, age, neighbourhood, and so on and so forth, and we will have somewhere between probably five and eight couples, we’ll have a host, [theatre actor and Hazlitt contributor] Naomi Skwarna, and then we have a professional matchmaker who’ll be onsite as well to do post-date analyses. So each date will be five minutes (we’ll set a timer); Naomi as the host will kind of help kick off the date and maybe intervene if it starts getting awkward, using some of the questionnaire material to spur on the date; and then the matchmaker will provide post-date analysis, and there might even be room for any spontaneous volunteers in the audience who feel game to get up onstage.

Should it come to pass that people match, great. If not, it’s just a fun idea and it also breaks down a lot of our – even though so many people are online and it’s like de riguer and it’s what everybody does – there’s still a bit of a stigma around it. And there’s a stigma around being single, and sometimes I think anxiety about admitting that you’re lonely or that you wanna be in a couple. So it’s also breaking down and almost blowing open any stigmas around dating.

There’ll also be a 10-minute intro where Naomi will interview the matchmaker about dating in Toronto and so on and so forth, and then we will open at different points and probably at the end for questions from the audience.

LW: You brought up the questionnaire you’ve created for potential date candidates to fill out, and there were a bunch that seemed like usual fair, asking things about orientation, beliefs – things like this – and then there were some really specific questions about liking The Simpsons, enjoying tacos, etc. Why so specific? Is this to prepare people for the questions they might run into on a date?

NS: I think when people sign on for online dating services and they sign up with matchmakers or they’re on a date, there’s always this blend of the very general questions – the getting the lay of the land – questions and then some really specific interests questions that are often the triggers for chemistry and where people might see eye to eye or not.

You can’t predetermine from general questions – you know, if you have the same politics, or religion, all of that stuff is really important, and important to some people more than others. But cultural things about music and film and TV are things that people really connect over, and especially in the context of an event like Long Winter being a multi-arts event, Hazlitt being an online journal or platform for good thinking, and After School being committed to all things cultural and multi-disciplinary, that element also factored into the kinds of questions we were asking.

LW: Some people will equate asking these specific cultural questions on a date with pulling out an itemized compatibility test – Henry Rollins called it “High Fidelity list shit” in one of his standup acts. The suggestion is that if a person doesn’t like your top 10 albums of all time, it won’t work out. Do you think there’s something to that? Is this type of dating strategy distracting?

NS: I absolutely do think that’s distracting. Even though I said that sometimes that’s the stuff that people bond over, when it’s predetermined – as we’ve done with the questionnaire, because that is endemic to the format we’re working with; on the other hand, personally and from personal experience, it’s impossible for it to not condition a predetermined horizon of expectations and ways of perhaps sometimes judging people or dismissing people too quickly based on answers that you read online.

Part of the impetus for doing the event is getting people in a room. Even though of course it’s heightened by the adrenaline of it also being a little bit of a performance, it’s not an eHarmony or OkCupid – one of these [services that question match seekers with] exhaustive lists that pride themselves on these psychometrics. We really tried to just be selective so we could have a very basic matching situation and then even though there’s a performative dimension to what we’re doing, it’s almost parodying the extent to which we’ve really become reliant on online dating to date.

LW: Most of the single people I’ve met in this city seem to be dating online or at least have online dating profiles. What do you think it is it about matchmaking services that draws so many people to open up to a faceless algorithm rather than head out and meet people in person?

NS: This could be a reductive answer, or stating the obvious, yet I think it holds very much: we spend the majority of our lives online, in front of computers. People are more and more becoming accustomed to presenting and shaping an online personality – self presentation – and so it’s becoming less and less of a foreign weird idea. Especially with the rise of Facebook. It’s not like it was 10 years ago when online dating kind of started – when it was super stigmatized and weird – now it’s just like everybody has their online avatar or online personality and I think there’s an ease to it, even though in my experience I don’t find it that easy or all that fun a lot of the time. And I think people are just extraordinarily busy.

I do agree with the argument that you could see spending a few hours one night instead of in a bar in some sense as not only just the equivalent but that the online option narrows down (or just gives you a lot more) information up front than finding someone in a bar and having a random hookup.

LW: There are plenty of services out there that pride themselves on operating as platforms that link up singles that share the same beliefs – Christian Mingle, for example. I’m wondering what your take would be on a dating service that strived towards connecting people of dissimilar beliefs – in the interest of fostering a culture of inclusivity. Should they exist? If they did, should it be a responsibility of theirs to be forthcoming with their politics?

NS: I would welcome sites whose mandates had a more philosophical, ethical, or political bent. I certainly place significant emphasis on these aspects when I'm gauging prospective partners or even friends.

It goes without saying that we should aspire toward a culture of greater inclusivity. But, even sites like Christian Mingle or J-Date, which definitely operate from a more exclusionary principle, are ultimately about matching like-minded people – people who share one another's values. So if more niche sites started cropping up that foregrounded what we'd maybe consider more progressive or inclusive mandates – emphases on politics, the arts, environmentalism, or spiritualism – in a way they wouldn't be entirely different in spirit from ones that match people based on religious compatibility. Inclusivity is a value in and of itself, and not something we can force upon people, as much we might like to! I once challenged myself to go on three dates with a guy who, although a really nice person, was right-wing and Zionist. I ultimately couldn't get past that. So I'm not sure how far we'd get with a site that explicitly matched people with altogether dissimilar beliefs, although maybe it would be an interesting experiment?

LW: Are there any of them out there, to your knowledge?

NS: Not to my knowledge? But I'm sure I'm not aware of every single dating site out there.

LW: Back in October, there was a story out of Toronto that received a lot of media coverage wherein a woman was “serial dating” in order to check off a list of restaurants they’d never been to, without any intentions to go out on second dates or any romantic interests. What can people take away from a story like that?

NS: I think that people do that in real life as well as on their online lives. There are just people out there to try and fuck with the system to get what they want.

I don’t recall if [the woman in this instance] had any interesting or honourable motives; my recollection was that there wasn’t that dimension – it wasn’t intentionally subversive; it was more self-serving. But I mean you’re going to encounter men and women who whether online or in person are going to have those propensities. And they just suck.

LW: It’s something that’s been going on for a long time, just in different contexts. People will go on dates all of the time, solely to end them in a one-night stand.

NS: Sure. It could be about sex, it could be about getting… I mean the courtesan, if we’re gonna go back to what she did, there’s a lot of women who for centuries who being in a kind of underclass have actually supported themselves in that manner and have brought pleasure to men. And there are ways in which that exchange works for people. Again, I don’t think that necessarily was the case with this circumstance, but that’s why dating is always a risky game.

LW: And then there are these fairly anonymous hook-up apps like Grindr and Tinder.

NS: Yeah. On the one hand, they've taken online dating to the height of commodification. You aren’t even looking at a profile; you’re literally just flipping through images. You might as well be flipping through a catalogue of faces. On the other hand, there’s a total honesty about it. A lot of the time people are just looking for sex and fast intimacy.

But they’re very clever. And addictive. Tinder is set up like a card game. You get this virtual card deck of photos, and swipe right to "like" someone, left to reject them. There is an option of writing a short note about yourself, but ultimately you’re just flipping through pictures.

If we want to be generous about it, like I said – there is a kind of bald honesty about these platforms. But if we’re going to take a critical approach, they're pretty much the pinnacle of an alienated society; it’s commodification at its utmost. And yet, people want and need to have sex, so…

I think that while Grindr started as a way of facilitating socializing among gay men and had a kind of liberating dimension, there are complaints about it having become a cyberbullying platform where users discriminate very openly against different races, body types, ages, etc. The deeply ugly side of the putative anonymity people feel entitled to wield however they want. Tinder is as close as we'll come, I think, to a version of Grindr for heteros. It was very smart to build in Facebook as some kind of a safety net, although I imagine that with the exponential growth of users, only a minority of matches would actually yield "friends in common" at this point.

LW: There’s probably also a case you could make for using Tinder with evolutionary intentions in mind. Some people are focused on looking for mates they can see themselves making beautiful babies with.

NS: If we’re gonna hold that that’s true, that’s what people are doing anyway. Like when you’re getting set up on a blind date through friends and asking, “do you have any pictures?” or “are you friends on Facebook?”

It’s becoming harder and harder to go on completely blind dates because you can Google people and, again through setups, you can mine your friends for information, so people are always trying to get a sense of whether they could be physically attracted to someone. No one’s going to pretend that that’s not a major component of chemistry.

LW: Last question. Without getting into gender norms or expectations, who picks up the tab?

NS: I think it’s definitely nice when both people offer to pay. And then again, as a straight woman, as a victim of social conditioning like we all are, when I’ve been on dates where men have insisted on paying… with chivalry being kind of somewhat dead, or let’s say on life support, the throwback can sometimes be quite lovely and charming. But philosophically from a gender perspective, I don’t think it should fall to one gender or the other. Obviously what’s nice is if you end up going on multiple dates, people trade off and offer to pay. But it is nice more in terms of a human tendency to pick up bills and be generous that way, it’s a good trade whether you’re male or female, gay, queer, trans, what have you.

Interview by Tom Beedham