Online dating is the new normal that — somehow! — no one seems able to figure out. There are entire books dedicated to it. Blogs. Classes, even. Now, in what may mark either the high or low point for the Internet as a communications medium, a company called Personal Dating Assistants is offering not only to tell you how to online date, but to do it for you — for a price, of course.
Matthew Valentines — yep, that is his real name — is the 35-year-old romeo behind this operation, which launched just last month to widespread Internet chatter. PDA has a simple, if intellectually troubling, premise: For the low, low price of $9.50 an hour, a “dating assistant” will set up a profile on the dating site of your choice; find and message eligible dates; and exchange phone numbers with interested parties — all without you typing a single keystroke.
It’s convenient, Valentines points out. It cuts the mess and frustration out of modern dating. It’s no different than old-school matchmaking, updated for the Internet age!
But in marketing materials, Valentines’ service comes across differently: superficial, selfish and vaguely misogynistic, like some distasteful hybrid of pick-up artist Neil Strauss and “Her’s” Theodore Twombly. PDA’s homepage is dominated by a photo of high-heeled, mini-dressed women with porn-star simpers on their faces. (“We originally tried women in potato sacks making frowny faces, but they didn’t generate quite the same interest level from the fellas,” Valentines says, by way of explanation.)
PDA only accepts male clients, which it divides into archetypes like “bad boy” and “successful & established.” (Women’s categories, meanwhile, include “attention whore” and “material girl.”) The site promises clients “a steady stream of fresh novelties” — “novelties,” in this case, referring not to confections or playthings, but to actual human women.
Then again, while PDA’s marketing lingo invites the skin to crawl, it’s not exactly responsible for the entrenched norms of dating culture. There are demonstrable — often gendered — rules to the online-dating game, as statisticians and digital strategists have shown repeatedly. The average man wants an attractive, shorter woman. The average woman wants a wealthy, taller man. Most people of all genders and orientations want the whole thing to be easier.
“This business is a response to a great cultural trend toward convenience in dating,” Valentines told me. “We have more methods of correspondence than ever before, but it’s harder to make a genuine connection … People feel more disconnected than ever. It should be the opposite.”
Valentines and I chatted by phone to discuss some of these issues in greater depth. This transcript has been lightly edited for space and flow.
So to start off, why don’t you give me your pitch on Personal Dating Assistants. What do you do, exactly?
Well, PDA is for guys who want to go on more dates, but don’t necessarily have the skill set or the time to find women who interest them. I know a thing or two about online dating — I went on my first online date maybe 20 years ago. I was talking to a girl in an AOL chatroom and we went for ice cream, to Baskin Robbins. So even as a 15-year-old, I thought online dating was basically the coolest thing ever. I still feel that way. The system is kind of based on my experience over the years, and my experience helping friends. There are certain things that are universal in online dating, and some that are very specific to the person doing the dating.
We find there are some keywords that seem to get a response from women — “gentleman,” for instance. But we also break our clients out by archetype. So for instance, is he a nice guy? A funny guy? More of a provider? And we break out the women by archetypes as well: say girl next door, or more cosmopolitan, or trouble —
Wait, you literally have an archetype called “trouble”?
Yeah, well — if a woman has dozens of pictures on her profile of her drinking 40s, you probably wouldn’t approach her the same way you’d approach a woman who says she’s “family first.”
I definitely want to talk more about the way PDA sees women. Because that has, of course, been one of the early criticisms of your service — that you offer online-dating help for men, but not women.
Right, we don’t currently offer services for women. But that’s because we know attraction works differently for men and women, and men and women use the site differently. For a man to get a woman’s attention online, he really has to be the complete package: the photos, the message, the follow-up, he has to ask for her number at the right time — not so early that it’s weird, not so late that she’s moved on to someone else. Attractive women, on the other hand, use online dating as a screening tool. With that in mind, we only offer the service for men now. I haven’t gotten to women yet.
But women arguably have many of the exact same struggles with online dating, in terms of not having enough time for it, or having to wade through a lot of junk to get to the meaningful stuff. So that still seems kind of, er … gendered.
No, right, online dating is definitely not easier for women. But for men, there’s this tremendous amount of outbound interest. You can’t send one message and expect a response. In fact, the average guy has to send a dozen messages to get one response. I don’t think most women relate to that — they can often just sit back and watch the messages come in. They can use online dating as a filter.
Sure, that makes sense. But I want to probe you a bit on the tone of the site — because it comes across as very pick-up-artist-y. Like, I’m looking at it now and thinking — why the obsession with “attractive women,” can’t you just say women? Why do the photos of women on your homepage exclusively show scantily-clad ladies with porn-star-orgasm faces? Why do all the male archetypes have really positive overtones, while their female equivalents are totally reductive? (For instance, a career-motivated guy is apparently a “provider,” while career-minded women are “vanilla.”) As a lady, that bothers me.
We’re not [pick-up artists]. Are we getting that comparison because we’re effective at what we do? I don’t see it…
We distinguish between “women” and “attractive women,” because they behave completely differently on the sites. A guy can’t afford to make mistakes with the ones who are in high demand. Naturally, these are the types our members are interested in. The others are much more forgiving.
As for the archetypes, we strive to be equally reductive for our male and female archetypes. Personally, I love vanilla women. As far as I’m concerned, the more cats, the better. That’s not even sarcasm. I really dig cats.
… alright, so let’s say I’m a young man and I want to use your service. I e-mail you and sign up. What happens next?
Well, first we do something we call a “personality deep dive.” It’s basically a one to two hour phone call, where the personal assistant finds out what the client is interested in. It’s also a bit of a strategy session — we kind of make a game plan, figure out if the client is more casual or serious, and choose dating sites based on that. And then we’re also trying to come to an understanding of who he is, really pull out his strengths. A lot of people don’t know their own strengths, so we ask very probing questions to pull that out.
From there we do a photo referral — we’ll recommend a photographer in his city, someone who really gets online dating, to take some pictures. We know that you can’t really pose in your profile pictures. You need to look candid, maybe look away from the camera — the “1,000-yard stare” is really effective. It makes the woman feel like she’s choosing you.
Anyway, then we start messaging from the client’s account. This has been the most controversial point, I think, because people misunderstand what we’re doing — there’s this impression that we’re presenting people as something they’re not. But actually we use a very light touch. We’re there to signal interest and get contact information. We want to minimize our involvement. That more significant connection will come in-person — in-person chemistry trumps all. When people meet, that initial messaging will be completely forgotten.
Sure, I could see that. But there’s still some tension there, right? The person you meet can’t possibly match the profile, because the profile is — I don’t want to say fictionalized — but certainly idealized in a way the actual client is not.
Yeah, but whenever you meet somebody on a first date, he’s trying to put his best foot forward. People can be delusional. They can certainly be delusional about themselves. Whether you have a professional help you or not, that online and in-person impression can be different. But even if they’re different, the in-person chemistry will trump everything.
Interesting! So you’re basically arguing that this sort of disconnect is inherent in online dating, or even the human condition in general — it has nothing to do with whether a third party is doing some of the dating for you.
Right. We’re simply helping.
[A note: This actually echoes social science research on online dating in general, which has found that lying is not only widespread, but necessary. To quote the New York Times’ Stephanie Rosenbloom, “research shows that lying is partly a result of tension between the desire to be truthful and the desire to put one’s best face forward. So profiles often describe an idealized self; one with qualities they intend to develop (i.e., “I scuba dive”) or things they once had (i.e., a job).”]
In that spirit, can you give me some pro tips for online-daters? Like what are things that men consistently do wrong that you find you have to correct?
Bathroom selfies. Bathroom selfies are a big no-no.
Being too directly sexual is also a turn-off. Innuendo is okay, but if you’re too direct it comes across as off-putting, and men tend to do that a lot.
We also tell people not to get too into consumer culture — and I know you’re a culture blogger! But these guys who list hundreds of books and TV shows and movies — they come across like spectators. We want them to look like participants. It’s kind of a “show don’t tell” thing.
This is a confusing point for me, though. Because what if you have a guy who really is a participant? How do you market people who just, by virtue of their personality, go against all the rules and conventional wisdom of online dating?
Well, I guess we’re fortunate in that the guys we’ve worked with so far have a lot going for them. They just don’t have the time to pre-qualify their dates, for the most part. So we don’t have to work miracles.
So let’s say it all works out: you match a client with someone, they hit it off. Do you advise clients to tell their dates they use your service? You know, like come clean about those early messages?
If they’re feeling a vibe and hitting it off, there’s no reason that should be a concern. They can tell their dates if they want to. People have been using assistants to communicate for centuries — the only reason this is getting attention is because it’s using an assistant for dating, in particular.
Do you have any numbers on your success rate yet? Or on how many people you’ve signed up, as clients or assistants?
We’re not sharing numbers yet. But since we launched last month, we’ve had sign-ups every day. And we’ve had two calls from reality TV shows since launching last month — I’m like, guys, we just started!
This does seem like the stuff of reality TV, for better or worse. Have you heard of that Bravo show “Millionaire Matchmaker”?
I would love to team up with “Millionaire Matchmaker.” If I can get Patti’s blessing … I’ll die happy.