To call Date Lab's followers "rabid" would be to undersell their savagery and passion — if only they were just frenzied animals frothing at the mouth. Instead, they are often mad surgeons who dissect every facet of each date. (Not long ago, someone posted a spreadsheet on Reddit analyzing Date Lab's success rate.) In droves, they take to the comments section to critique not only the daters but the writers — we who try to craft accurate, fair, entertaining articles out of blind dates.
Truthfully, I’m a little afraid of the commenters. I generally don’t read comments on articles I write. I have a keen sense that commenters add greatly to many conversations, yet I’m also too scrappy to hold my tongue when I think someone is out of line. Avoiding comments mostly means saving myself from myself.
Recently, however, I called a stalwart of the Date Lab comments section: Bob Wells, a 58-year-old tax lawyer who lives in Virginia. Wells makes a beeline to Date Lab — and the comments — on Thursdays, as soon as the column is posted.
“I love it! It’s like crack, honestly,” Wells said of Date Lab when we spoke. While he finds that the comments sections of The Washington Post’s political stories can get heated — and, in fact, he has been banned in the past for making things personal in political stories — he uses a more laid-back approach in commenting on Date Lab. “I can just be clever and witty without attacking anybody,” he said.
Wells has been reading Date Lab since its inception. “It’s a way to live vicariously,” he told me. “Those of us who are old married men and women, we’re not out there anymore. This is a way to see what the dating world is like.”
In addition to being a source of information on how people live now, Date Lab is, for Wells, a way of exploring how they suffer. “Schadenfreude actually is the right word in a way,” he said. “I just like reading about a train wreck of a date. I like when the jerk party gets obliterated in the comments, although when they’re both jerks, it’s the best of all. Then the comments are great. The worse the parties are, the better the comments get.”
In his comments, Wells offers a mild affect and deft theorizing: For instance, he recently left a comment calling B.S. on a Date Lab specimen whose silence on his date’s appearance was deafening. To Wells, that signaled clearly that the Date Labber in question wasn’t being upfront out of politeness.
This hit on two issues that vex me when writing Date Lab. The first is that so many dates don’t work out because they are truly blind and physical attributes are almost always key to sparking attraction. Wells was understanding on this front: “A blind date is a blind date, and most of them don’t work out in real life, so [you can’t really] expect it in Date Lab as well,” he reasoned.
The second thing I worry about is our subjects’ reluctance to be completely honest. Here, too, Wells is forgiving: “I kind of expect they’re not being really honest,” he said. “It’s like watching a movie that’s PG versus one that’s R. The R one is more honest in how it presents how grown-ups speak.” Besides, he believes those who don’t dish get their comeuppance: “Do they realize that if they aren’t at least a little honest, the readers and the commenters in particular are going to speculate and assume the worst?”
I wondered what Wells thought about the turn Date Lab took in 2017 (which opened the door for my participation). In the old format, daters recounted the date in their own words. Now, we writers interview the daters and piece together the story. The idea is to offer more color and context. “It was kind of jarring when that happened because that’s how change is,” Wells said. “ ‘Wow, what happened here?’ But now I’m good with the format.”
Wells is such a Date Lab devotee that he even enjoys the rare successful match. “When there’s a good one, I usually write a nice comment like, ‘Yay, have a great time, you crazy kids,’ ” he said. “But that’s it. What else is there to write about a good date?” This is indeed a tough question — for both commenter and journalist — but I tend to see it as an exciting challenge when it does happen. Which, unfortunately, as we all know, isn’t very often.
Rich Juzwiak is a Date Lab columnist and senior writer at Jezebel.