The Failure and Success of Collaborative Dating

By Derek Zumsteg

This story is licensed under a Creative Commons license, available here. You are, to sum up, free to copy, distribute, perform, fold, spindle, mutilate, or otherwise make any derivative work you wish as long as you attribute the work to me, the work is noncommerical, and derivative works must be similarly licensed.

The worst idea of my life was taking my support group along on my date.

I realize that this will be a controversial statement. Those of you who wish to validate or argue should proceed to my shared directory, where you’ll find a public wiki that includes my stack-ranked list of the worst ideas in my life, along with relevant video, audio, and links to arrest records. There you are free to disagree, discuss, comment, annotate, and fork your own lists.

Like all of the best worst ideas of history, taking my group along with me seemed smart at the time. My divorce was only a few months old. During proceedings, my wife said all kinds of terrible things about how generally unattractive and uninteresting I was and introduced copious evidence to support those contentions, which is only to be expected when you marry a reference librarian. What little post-divorce dating I attempted revealed that either the pool of available candidates had been thoroughly peed in or that at some point I had lost all ability to screen potential candidates for total batshit insanity.

Therefore, while I have a long and query able record of honest behavior and level-headed actions, no history of mental illness, and have never used mind-altering drugs that might result in flashback hallucinations, there was little reason to believe I met Ranya at a really good party, talked to her for what must have been a long time, and asked her out on a date. There would be absolutely no reason to believe that she smiled and said that’d be nice, and arrangements were made. Even I doubted it.

When I woke in the middle of the night to take in and release water, I went to wash my hands and in the mirror I saw a number on the inside of my left forearm, written in a looping foreign freehand. My soaped hands hovered above the running water, and I looked at the number, the reflection of the number, the number, the reflection.

I didn’t go back to sleep, but I lay in bed for a long while until my alarm went off and I got up, walked over to my rig, and plugged in. The number on my arm was in a cell company block, but that was all I got. At the party, I’d recognized her and she’d shown up as “Ranya” with a reputation score rendered, in neat sans serif under her name, as “very large”, but I hadn’t validated her credentials. I looked them up, and found her full reputation score was expressed in scientific notation.

It was enough to make a guy feel a little inadequate.

Then again, I had a date with Ranya. My therapist, after the divorce shattered me, prodded, pleaded, and finally threatened me to join a newly-single support group for people about my age, and this was news that required sharing, discussion, and hopefully, awe, admiration, and gloating.

When enough people had joined the group channel, stealing bandwidth from their day jobs or whatever they were doing, I disclosed. On the audio feed there was only the ambient sound of a dozen offices leaking through the mics for a long moment in which I wondered if I’d been disconnected before someone called bullshit. Then all at once everyone had questions, and I didn’t have good answers.

Where did this happen?

I went out to a party with my married friends Anu and her husband Sanjit.

Like where, the M? Was it a high-society thing?

No, it was just a nice birthday party.

How did you isolate her from her protection detail?

I have no idea. I don’t think there was a protection detail.

What did you talk about?

I’m not sure. We started talking about growing roses.

Why would you talk about growing roses?

I don’t know.

What else?

I don’t remember much. Emmet Gowin.

Who’s Emmet Gowin?

He’s a photographer—

Never mind. Is this a joke?


You’re not shitting us?


What’s she like in person?

Tall. Funny. Her smile is knee-buckling and infectious. Smart.

She’s Ranya, what did you expect?

I don’t know.

How did you ask her out?

We were talking, standing on the porch smiling at each other, because, as I mentioned, her smile’s infectious, my cheeks are still sore, and I blurted the question before I knew what I was doing.

And you’re going out?

Yeah, this week, I haven’t called her yet.

Holy shit you have Ranya’s phone number?


Will you tell us what it is?


You have got to be shitting us.

I am not shitting you.

I assembled the interrogation into an FAQ for the group, and discussion began quickly. Initial estimations of the veracity of my story ranged from 20% at the high end, members willing to believe that I was at a really good party. Several others wondered if it was possible or appropriate to assign my story a negative percentage score because I was such a horrible liar. This led the conversation to a concerned branch about how unhealthy it was that I would make this up, and why I might do such a thing.

Other group members joined, reviewed my question log, asked new questions. The consensus turned dramatically in my favor when I got Anu to verify she’d taken me to the party and seen me talking to Ranya. The conversation turned to the one question I shared with them:

What the hell was I going to do?

I staked out a clear position. For whatever reason, I met Ranya at a party and she decided to go out with me. Detoxified, I am not nearly so brave or smiley and I’m afraid that I’m also not going to be nearly as funny or charming or whatever Ranya saw in me as we leaned up against a porch railing and nursed our drinks because we didn’t want to stop talking and go inside.

Nikolai founded an opposing faction that voted him their spokesman. Nikolai argued that choice of venue was of tantamount importance, that I needed to balance ambiance, quality of food, location, suitability of decor, a dozen other distinct factors he’d identified. The ideal would be a relatively unknown hole-in-the-wall long coveted by locals, such that Ranya would be wowed and charmed, and the genius of that choice would reflect on me as a guy who could show a classy, world-weary chick like herself a good time. When I initially declined Nikolai’s offer to program a selection agent, he sent me an email so toxic that my filters identified it as bestiality spam and spared me the trauma of opening it. I was too kind to point out that this kind of thing is why Nikolai is, once again, newly single.

My counter argument was: It has to be some place that I like. I don’t believe that women are as impressed by choice of restaurant as Nikolai contends. As long as I don’t take her to someplace that rehydrates the beans before putting them on our burrito, the food on the first date will be fine. I agree that I want to dazzle a little, but I’m more concerned with making her comfortable as making her surprised. More than any of these other concerns, though, the single greatest point of failure is going to be me, and the significant chance that I would be out on this date and suddenly realize that holy mother of fuck, I’m on a date with Ranya, which means that the tantamount concern here is not dinner, the food, or how impressive the location is, it’s whether or not I’m comfortable enough that my blood pressure doesn’t spike over three hundred so blood shoots out all my orifices at once which, I’m willing to bet, would effectively preclude any further development of my relationship with Ranya, much less the date.

I would characterize the debate that ensued as “spirited”. The verdict found that I was an absolute moron and the group should substitute someone with any kind of measurable brain activity to go on the date for me. Fortunately, only I had Ranya’s contact information, and refused to divulge it for the greater good. My support group began to ding my reputation score in disdain.

My ideas for what to do received abjectly horrible feedback. Art gallery walk? I might as well have told everyone I was going to take her to a ritual puppy killing. Go for a hike? Why not drag her to a Republican caucus. Take a cooking class together? I didn’t even get a response, that’s how much they hated that one. And those were my good ideas.

Nikolai, in a shockingly adept political move I didn’t anticipate, agreed to make my comfort level a subjective 1-100 rating included in his venue evaluation program, leaving me no objections and trapping me into accepting his little program. All I could argue was the design of the agent, and I threw my whole career of managing and sabotaging projects at them and they still managed to get something done that day. Fuckers.

I carried only one other argument, that privacy was not a primary concern. One of the unheralded benefits of the utter and complete razing of the recording industry was distributed fame. There might be a dozen active traditional celebrities, putting out computer-generated pop-hook-of-the-week singles and still making unreal amounts of money, but the crystal hierarchy of charts shattered and the long tail prevailed. The best flamenco singer in the world makes as much money as the 4th-best grind metal band, and fans of one genre can’t recognize the stars of another on the street.

So Ranya, she’s one of eight members of a Toronto band that produces the best music 3% of anyone’s ever heard, she can go out with some random moron without anyone uploading handheld footage to the net immediately. Because 97% of everyone doesn’t give a shit, and a good chunk of that 3% is cool.

That was my reasoning for not worrying about exposure, hordes of fans, photographers, her embarrassed publicist showing up to slap her lightly, once on each cheek, and ask her what in God’s name had gotten into her before pulling her, earlobe-first, into a waiting charter jet to the French Riviera for deprogramming. Please note that I consider this line of reasoning to fall within the larger scope of the worst idea I’ve ever had, and have not attempted to rate it on its own.

I drove a community car down, because no matter how bad-ass and impressive my Seven is, she is not, at least as far as my research could reveal, a bike aficionado. So I’d be a guy who shows up for a date on a bike, and not even a tandem I could pat obviously and say “hop on!”. Also, if I rode down, Nikolai threatened to have me killed.

I joined the group and turned on the links. My eyes were their eyes, my ears their ears, my nose still my nose. They complained about the quality of the video, which is like the Internet conference group “How about that weather we’ve been having?”

A metro cop blipped the override and my car pulled over and went totally dark five blocks away. My heart rate cranked up and adrenaline flooded my veins. I began to shake. I cranked up the quality of the video and audio feed as far as possible for the entirely silent group. The cop said someone had called me in from downtown as driving erratically – how would I even do that, anyway? – so the two officers gave me the full work-up with their field gear, scowled at the entirely clean results, apologized, and let me go.

I fed the building the one-time passcode Ranya sent me when I’d called and took the stairs up to her borrowed condo. It was beautiful, empty of any personal effects, obviously someone’s third or fourth home, a place they stayed when they were in town for a couple weeks a year.

As a warm-up, the group began to attempt to crack who owned the condo. I realized that in leaving the feed wide open after the police caught me, I’d given them the nearest intersection, the location of the building, even her room number. I cranked the resolution way down.

“Boooooo!” they all said in unison. I switched them over to captions.

Nikolai: He didn’t bring flowers.

Dave: Meh.

Angie: I agree, flowers are trying too hard

Nikolai: always bring flowers. Always. This is not an argument.

“If any of you have flowers delivered, I will destroy you,” I subvocd.

Nikolai: too late

Angie: you didn’t

Nikolai: I did

Dave: that is uncalled for

“How long do I have?” I asked.

Nikolai: unknown. Under thirty minutes.

With my luck, this would be the first time ever an internet flower order made it to an idle, competent florist with all the right flowers at hand, and when they’d tied it up a a passing bike messenger would volunteer to take it over and hit all green lights. I’d have to choose between waiting outside to intercept the delivery myself or go inside and risk having them arrive before we left.

Raz: I’m 90% certain the place belongs to one of the founders of her label. He lives in LA. Name is Simon Kester

Angie: No mentions in her interviews. Could be good could be bad.

Nikolai: called florist can’t cancel flowers sorry x10 but it’ll be for the best you’ll see

Dave: Nikolai promise us you won’t do anything like this again

Nikolai: no promises but I’ll try

*** Nikolai has been kicked from #project-R by Dave (I tried)

*** Nikolai has been banned from #project-R by Dave

Ranya wore jeans and a T-shirt, and claimed to be happy to see me again. I could have run it back, seen what the vocal analyzers thought of it, but I let it go.

“You want to head out?” I asked, and I smiled just looking at her. Ranya!

“You don’t want a drink or anything?” she asked, walking back to the kitchen. She opened the refrigerator. “I’ve got water and.... brown mustard.”

She turned, put hands on hips, and cocked her head to the side. It was weird, to see her again in front of me and not on-stage or on video or promo photo, because here she was alive and doing things, and I was going to have to get over it because she was looking at me waiting for an answer.

“Sorry,” I said, looking down. “You kind of hang my processes.”

“I what your what now?”

There was no heckling swimming up my vision, probably because everyone was too horrified.

“I have reservations at 515 Stewart,” I said. “Have you been?”

“No,” Ranya replied. “Do I need to change?”

I shook my head and she skipped past me out the door.

My car wasn’t at the curb. In the middle of the day, in front of some of the nicest condos in the city, someone had walked up and stolen my car in minutes. I called it in to the Flex people as I paced a little, and after I was done with the police, I got on the group channel.

“Someone’s stolen my car and I think there are two people watching us from down the street,” I said. I looked back at Ranya, standing on the curb, making a call of her own.

“Yur fag,” someone I didn’t recognize said.

“Totally,” someone else said.


Then a torrent of slurs, and silence.

“I’ve modded the channel,” Dave said. “Also, what the fuck?”

“Gayyyyyyyyy,” came the same voice.

“Totally,” came his friend. “You guys are fags.”

I dropped the channel. Dave called me directly.

“Your server’s slag,” he said. “They got the rack’s router too, you’re fucked. We’re going to have to move to a new host, private server, and... shit, I’m under DOS too, my connection-“

“Nikolai can help,” I said.

Dave’s voice was distant, heavily compressed and error-corrected as his connection was crushed under the weight of someone’s spambot network. “Yes,” he said, and dropped.

We walked to the restaurant, which had no record of my reservation. Ranya tried to make a complicated reputation-based argument but seemed to be getting nowhere.

I got an invite notice and joined a new channel.


“Welcome back,” Nikolai said.

“You too. Who’s hosting?”

“For legal purposes you’re all better off not knowing,” Nikolai said.

“How do they know where we’re going for dinner?” I asked.

“Someone leaked?”

“There’s no way,” I said. “Not this fast.”

“The restaurant’s internet-connected,” Angie said.

“No,” I said. “They didn’t break every reservation system in the city looking to cancel your dinner reservations.

“I would have,” Nikolai said. “You wouldn’t have to break into all of them. It’d be easy, you write a program, have it look for likely date candidates first, evaluating them on a number of criteria--”

“Fuck!” I yelled, and Ranya looked back to glare at me. The maitre de wore a vindicated look: of course we wouldn’t have reservations for such a pair.

“Sorry,” I said. She turned back.

“There’s still time for us to replace you with someone who could salvage something,” Dave said.

Angie sighed. “It’s his date, let him go,” she said.

“You’re fucked,” Nikolai said. “Either they know because they have the feed or they generated a list like mine and then went down it and exploited every restaurant.”

I gave into suspicion and blipped Ranya to see if she was broadcasting. She had no rig at all: the only thing she had that responded to pings was her bracelet, and all it would give was an bare self-identification and her public key. No implants, no rig, no handheld, no palm, not even a watch.

Ranya gave up on the reservation. “Do you have any other good ideas?”

“Let’s walk further downtown,” I offered, trying to buy time for suggestions from the peanut gallery.

She shrugged and we left.

Here, as it turns out, is the flaw in the logic that led me to thinking that privacy was not an issue and, in a more general sense, that sharing was good. If I share my dilemma and my fears with my support group, one of them will be a fan and flip out, or they’ll know a fan who keeps trying to push the band on them, or whatever, it leaks out pretty fast that there’s this guy, you see, and lightning reached out of the blue sky and zapped him where he stood at a party and now he has a date with motherfucking Ranya.

This guy, then, is judged in a thousand tidal pools where Ranya’s breath is the nutrients that wash in twice a day with the waves. Everything about him from his arrest record, his marketing preferences, credit rating, political donations are all easily discovered, set out, and messily dissected.

Say you go to date Minerva and her dad turns out to be Rome. How would that interrogation go?

Walking down the street, I asked Ranya what brought her to my town.

“I’ve got pretexts,” she said. “A couple of shows, friends, the exhibition you’re running, as it turns out,” and she smiled, so I smiled. “But really, for a while I’d suspected the guy I was dating was cheating, so that hadn’t been going well, and then I realized that if I suspected it, it was almost certainly true, and I decided to get out of town before everyone else figured it out too.”

“Were you really dating—“

“Yeah,” Ranya said. “Yeah. I know. You make weird choices on tour, it’s like space is warped around you, and on top of that it’s such an intense experience...” she shrugged.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“Not your fault,” she said, weaving between two tourists, heads turned upwards to gawk as they walked. “It’s shit like that that’s convinced me I’m never going to marry. I don’t buy it.”

“Maybe you’re dating the wrong kind of person,” I said. Her eyebrows shot up and she looked at me with an open mouth of surprise. “I mean musicians and whatever, right, you’re an odd bunch, and part of what makes you a great artist is probably going to make you a bad match with someone who’s also talented enough to be at that level—“

Nikolai: ha ha ha ha nice save

Angie: Don’t distract him

Dave: it is pretty funny

Ranya punched me on the shoulder. “Oh, I get your point, and don’t think it hasn’t occurred to me,” she said, grinning and laughing. “I’m surprised you’d be willing to say that on a first date.”

“I’m very stupid,” I said.

“It’s a little charming,” Ranya said, and giggled again.

Nikolai: I hate to interrupt this tender moment


Nikolai: This is important.

I held up a hand and caught Ranya’s eye. She stopped.

Nikolai: Your reputation’s toast and you have a credit score of zero. The news is now widespread.

Dave: Yeah.

“What happened to my credit? I had great credit.”

Raz: Looks like you opened a series of credit lines and then... the purchases are out of bounds, I think they posted the account information in the wild.

Angie: I’m working on the damage.

Nikolai: Here’s what’s worse though – now when people look at this, they’re seeing a guy with a zero—a fucking zero – reputation out with her, and all the rumors aren’t going to explain it. I’m surprised there isn’t a blackmail thread out there

Dave: I just queried, there are several scenarios under active discussion

“Goddammit!” I yelled. Ranya’s eyes went a little wider.

So that 3% that loves her band, spends a significant chunk of their time trying to spread it while refusing all missionaries from other sects... in a city of eight million, that meant there were 240,000 of them, and if only 1% were batshit fanatical...

Angie: in fact, they know you’ve stopped.

Raz: I think they’re buying real-time data on you. Wow.

Angie: Ranya’s data is protected, of course, I wonder how she got that

Raz: Many, many lawsuits.

Dave: there’s a wiki entry on your date

Angie: yeah, with “Save Ranya” donation button.

Nikolai: the site is very badly implemented...

“Hold that thought,” I said. “We’re being followed,” I told Ranya. She sighed. “Also, I’m blackmailing you with something sexual, I’m holding you hostage with a concealed weapon or biological agent I’ve previously infected you with, and... I don’t even understand what the third theory is.”

She laughed, and I felt a little lighter.

“This isn’t funny.”

“It is, a little,” she said.

“They’ve crashed my reputation and credit rating. I’ve got some friends on it, but...”

She nodded and her smile kept tugging at the corners of her mouth as she tried to look serious and concerned.

“Hey guys, can you crash that wiki?” I said out loud, and clipped them back to audio.


“Was that a no?” I asked.

“Roger that,” Angie said. “Break and attack, kids.”

“Taking it to ‘em,” Raz said.

“I’m opening a coordination wiki,” Dave said. “Use this address, one port up.”

I hailed a cab, but cabs don’t stop for zero reputation and zero credit. The next one stopped for Ranya, of course, and we piled into the back on top of each other, which would have been pleasant except I took an elbow to the eye.

“Up the hill,” I told the cab driver. He grunted as we untangled ourselves.

“I started a flame war!” Angie chirped. “I’m so happy! But your credit is fubar, this is going to take days, and I don’t know how to start with rolling your reputation back, or if that’s even possible.”

I clipped them back down to text and looked at Ranya.

“Here’s the thing, I was really nervous about making a good impression, so I talked to my friends about this, and –“

“Oh I see where this is going,” she said, reaching across the cab to smack me solidly on the back of the head. “You moron. What are you going to do now?”

“I’m back to my original ideas.”

Nikolai: Don’t do it

“What’s that?”


“Art gallery walk, go for a hike, the zoo...”

“Well, we can’t go on the gallery walk now, neither of us are dressed to go hiking, and the zoo... wow. Where’d you come up with that?”

“I don’t remember, I thought it might be hip again.”

“It’s not,” she said. “I’m really hungry. Is there a place to eat where ever we’re going?”

I grinned. “Yeah,” I said, “I think you’ll like it.”

Gooey pizza out of a brick-fired oven with a pitcher of beer at a place mostly filled with grad students holding office hours didn’t make the quick candidate list Nikolai’s agent kicked out a minute after I’d come up with it, and I ignored it.

We were fortunate enough to get our order in before the power went down.

“Oh goody, a fan rescue mission!” Ranya squealed, clapping. We went out the fire exit, and ran past a startled pair of kids wearing white arm bands.

“Stay there!” Ranya yelled back, and they looked at each other, us, each other. We cut right and were gone.

“There’s a bunch of fans wearing white arm bands to recognize each other,” I said to the group, “see if you can take them down.”

“Uh, we’re under a pretty serious Denial of Service attack,” Nikolai said. “We’re not going to be able to mount a counter of any kind.”

Ranya took my hand, laughed and grinned, and we walked on.

“I need a car,” I told the group.

A scared seventeen year-old met us ten blocks up in the parking lot of an art school. “Uh, Nikolai told me—“ he stared at Ranya, squinted as if the problem was that she was out of focus.

“Thanks,” I said, and we got in.

“Okay,” he said, and waved weakly as I pulled away.

“You’re abusing the interns now?” I asked.

“That’s what interns are for,” Nikolai said. “We’re under pretty heavy attack again, we’re going to jump to our backup which, uh.... it’s going to seem like we’re on a two-second delay, for reasons you could figure out but probably shouldn’t.”

The channel dropped.

“Let me call someone,” Ranya said. “This is getting ridiculous.” She produced a phone and dialed.

“I need you to put out a statement,” Ranya said. “Uh, yeah, look, I’m on a date and the fans are hassling me. Can you put out something? Yeah, whatever.” She paused, smiled at me, stuck out her tongue. “That’s fine, but say ‘appreciates..’ yeah, yeah. Then can you put Leon and – that’s great. Oh! See if you can put something in there about giving this poor guy his reputation score back. Let me know if you need anything else.” She snapped the phone closed and pocketed it. It buzzed at her immediately, and she made no move for it.

“So,” Ranya said. “Where to?”

We went for mini-golf.

“Was this on a top twenty cute date idea list from four, five years ago? Next to the zoo and cooking class?”

“Could be,” I said. “But I lived near here for a while, and it’s fun and I think you’ll like it, even if you don’t like mini-golf.”

She leaned in and I thought she might be going for the surprise kiss for just an instant before I realized she was giving me a close inspection to see if I was putting her on.

“Okay,” she said. “I’m game. You’ll have to help me, I don’t think I’ve done this in ten years at least.”

I used cash – cash! – at the register. On the outskirts of town, the course had space to spread out, and took advantage of it. Beautifully landscaped, no clown mouths or anything, and with most of the teenagers studying for finals or something, we were almost alone. It was quiet, cooling off with the sun setting, and with my mic turned off, I talked to Ranya for two hours as we worked through a full 36 holes. She was surprisingly adept at putting, always relaxed and playing easily, without concern. After working the rust off, my years of practice meant I was better, but any advantage was negated by her charm and trash-talking ability, both of which she was shameless about using. I ended up losing by two strokes, which is ridiculous bullshit but seemed to make her happy.

So then what next? She hadn’t dropped any clues, no “tired” or “early session with the lawyers” or any other thing I – or the group – could have interpreted as a request for date termination. Drinks at some place on Nikolai’s “Best Drink” output list? Offer to take her back for gentleman points and hope for the invite? Fierce debate raged, and I ignored it.

There’s a park on the hill, it’s barely the size of a house lot, and all it is is two plastic benches, some grass, a low stone wall, and a view, but it’s a full view of the city. There are always people here – drunks, stoners, locals walking their dogs, cops, couples like us – like us! As we got there, the sky was turning from the darkest shade of blue to black, and all the city’s lights were laid out before us.

“This is amazing,” Ranya said. “If I lived here, I’d watch the sunset every night.”

“Awww,” Angie said.

“Nice,” Dave said.

“You’re insane,” Nikolai said. “A, she’s going to be recognized, B, even if someone only looks at the reputation scores they’re going to see something strange is up and maybe call the cops.”

I cut the feed before he could get to C.

Here’s the thing about kissing. You want a moment to make it obvious not just that you want to kiss her but that you’re going to kiss her. Then you cattle prod yourself into the approach, which has to be swift like you want it and you’re confident, but not so fast that you startle them or they can’t lower their forehead and deflect your oncoming skull.

I’m sure you could program an agent to prompt you. We did perfectly without.