Online dating assistants help the lonely and busy

(Nathan Daniels for The Washington Post)
By Ellen McCarthy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Max Hartshorn has pretty much mastered online dating.

It took awhile, but the 24-year-old now knows exactly what kind of message to send to pique a woman's interest. The Montreal research assistant will come home from work, sit down with his laptop and bang out dozens of e-mails to attractive, eligible women.

He's never needy -- always charming and a little flirtatious. He keeps his missives short and usually includes a question or a subtle challenge. He's witty, a touch aloof and not overly complimentary.

And when he gets the woman, it's not his heart that flutters. It's his bank account.

Hartshorn is a hired gun, ghostwriting correspondence on behalf of single men unwilling, too busy or too inept to do it themselves. His online dating is done on commission for Virtual Dating Assistants, one of the first full-scale Internet-dating outsourcing companies. For $600, Virtual Dating Assistants guarantees clients two dates a month; the "executive service" package promises five dates a month for $1,200.

"I get paid for each woman who writes back positively," explains the modern-day Cyrano de Bergerac. "It's very analogous to sales . . . like a cold-caller or a telemarketer."

A telemarketer who toils anonymously in pursuit of love for the lonely. Darkly romantic, no?

No. "I don't care that much if it becomes a date or not," Hartshorn admits. His job is "lead generation" only. Sealing the deal is up to the company's "closers."

And going out on actual dates? That, unfortunately, the men have to do all by themselves. And the women never need know who hooked them.

* * *

The great promise of online dating is this: You sit on the couch in pajamas, click through sparkling profiles of nearby singles, fire off a few quippy e-mails or a nonchalant "wink" and -- ta-da!-- a series of romantic rendezvous is instantly on the docket.

It's love through a high-speed line, a model of amorous efficiency.

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