washingtonpost.com
Online dating assistants help the lonely and busy

By Ellen McCarthy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 1, 2010; A01

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.

For Scott Valdez it worked, but the endeavor required just a little too much effort. He was working 70 or 80 hours a week in sales for a start-up technology company and traveling constantly. Every time he tried online dating, he met interesting women, but he found the process leading to the dates "really repetitive." So he decided to outsource it.

"Why not just teach my secretary to do it?" he thought.

She didn't have the time (or maybe the stomach?) to tend to his Internet love life, so Valdez hired a recent college grad who could write e-mails in English and Spanish. Soon he was going on five or six first dates a month.

"It worked for me," he says. "And I knew so many people that could use the service."

Last June, Valdez, now 25, founded Virtual Dating Assistants -- a company that "specializes in making the dating dreams of busy individuals come true."

Author Timothy Ferriss popularized the concept when he wrote about outsourcing his online dating accounts to teams of competing writers in his 2007 book, "The 4-Hour Work Week."

Valdez's Atlanta-based firm is hardly the only outfit to offer such services. Dozens of profile-writing shops such as Arlington County-based TargetLove have popped up in the past few years, and dating coaches are increasingly managing their clients' online pursuits. Not to mention the well-intentioned friends and relatives who have taken over the process for the hapless singles in their lives.

But Valdez and his team of 45 freelance writers, including Hartshorn, do it all: write a client's profile, pick out potential matches, send introductory e-mails and message back and forth until a date is confirmed. Then they turn over the correspondence and tell the lucky fellow where and when he's meeting Madame X. (And it's almost always that gender dynamic; 80 percent of the firm's clients are men.)

Richard, a 39-year-old marketing executive who uses the service, would like to say, for the record: "It's not like I really have a lot of problems dating people in the real world." It's just that he's busy, splitting time among four cities, including Washington and Miami, and he figures it's best to meet as many people as possible.

Online dating has worked for Richard, "but it's all time-consuming," so when he heard about Virtual Dating Assistants, it seemed like a convenient solution for an on-the-go guy. "Just from a cost-benefit analysis -- me spending all this time on doing things that are purely almost secretarial doesn't make any sense for me," says Richard, who asked that his last name not be used because he doesn't want colleagues or potential dates to know he uses the service.

After a lengthy phone interview three months ago, the company's writers drafted a profile, let Richard tweak it and then started fishing for potential dates. Richard says they soon zeroed in on his preferences in terms of a woman's looks, education and interests, and he feels satisfied that he's being represented authentically in e-mails written on his behalf. (This has not been the case for everyone: Valdez described one client who came back from a date saying that "we maybe made him look a little too cool online." From then on, prospective dates were given a heads-up that the man was shy.)

Richard doesn't usually tell the women he dates that he didn't write the e-mails they received. But when one woman wondered why he was constantly active on the site through which they met, he told her the truth: "Look, it's not exactly like that -- somebody's actually doing this stuff for me."

Ask Jared Gordon, the 30-year-old editor of A Bad Case of the Dates, a blog that collects dating horror stories, and he'll tell you the practice is awful: "It is! It's awful! You're misrepresenting yourself. You're lying about yourself."

In Gordon's mind, it's tantamount to having someone else write your college term paper, or putting a picture of a more attractive stranger on your online dating profile. "You're going to fall in love with someone because of their honesty," he says. "And some people might say, 'Who has the time to write a profile?' But if something is that important to you, you make the time to do it."

Richard knows some perceive it as callous outsourcing, but he feels he's being represented authentically by his Virtual Dating Assistant. "These guys are really good at getting to know who you are," he says. And he adds that the one time he confessed to using the service, his date didn't seem to mind. "Once you have chemistry with somebody and they know you're a genuinely good person -- that's really all that matters," he says.

Mark Brooks, founder of Online Personals Watch, a site that tracks Internet dating trends, says this type of outsourcing is an ethically questionable form of "misrepresentation." Still, he expects the field to grow.

Professional matchmakers often charge $5,000 or more a year and have a limited pool of matches. Online dating sites are populated with countless singles but can require more attention than some users are willing to devote. "It may look like instant gratification, like you dive into the pool and instantly come up with a fish, but it doesn't really work like that," Brooks says. "You've got to tap, tap, tap on the keyboard quite a lot to get anywhere." (One site, OkCupid.com, found that a third of all first messages garner a response, though that doesn't mean they are positive or that they lead to dates.)

But for many, it's not just their time that's at stake; it's also their egos.

Luke Chao started having his receptionist send online dating e-mails for him after realizing that there was not enough administrative work for her at the hypnotherapy clinic he manages. It was a win-win, he thought, because "online dating is tedious -- you have to send out 100 messages to get 10 responses. You have to go through 10 conversations to get one date, and that's just the first date." (Dianne Nubla, who writes Chao's e-mails between her other tasks, says it's "a good diversion" that she doesn't mind.)

Chao, a 27-year-old Toronto resident, was soon dating one or two new women a week. In truth, he says, he has the time and writing ability for the task. But by having Nubla take over, he's sidestepping the worst part of the process: being routinely rebuffed.

"Most women you e-mail don't respond. Some look at your profile and don't even read your message before deleting it," he says. "That's just the nature of the game -- intellectually, I know that. But still, emotionally, I do feel a little small pain of rejection every time that happens."

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