CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Harvard students have long had access to Tinder and match.com and Facebook, which was, after all, invented in one of their dorm rooms.
But they still sign up by the thousands for Datamatch, a Valentine’s-Day-only matchmaking service designed to bring a little bit of frivolity, community and romance into their lives.
“The whole project is silly and a lot of fun,” said Sam Goldman, a Harvard junior majoring in computer science, and a member of the Harvard Computer Society, which runs the annual program.
This year, the group decided for the first time to admit a few other select schools. Wellesley College and Brown and Columbia universities will be having Datamatches of their own Wednesday, with students given the choice of platonic or romantic matches within their own schools.
“It’s a really fun concept, and we thought it would be awesome to play a role bringing it to Brown, and also really awesome to help create some successful couples here at Brown,” said Cashen Conroy, a 21-year-old junior who grew up in Wayland, Mass.
In an era in which sexual hookups get all the attention, Conroy, an English major, said she likes the idea that Datamatch promotes old-fashioned dates.
Roughly 7,650 students at the four schools have signed up in the last week — so many in the first few minutes that they crashed the server, which the society had to pay to upgrade.
To join Datamatch, which doesn’t charge participants, students answer 18 to 25 silly questions that have the somewhat serious purpose of finding common ground. “The algorithm knows all,” Goldman said. “We trust it more than we trust our own intuitions.”
On Valentine’s Day, the algorithm provides each participant 10 possible matches. If two people who are matched accept the pairing, they go on a date. At Harvard and Wellesley, the pair receives a coupon for free or discounted food at participating venues, thanks to fundraising efforts and subsidies. The other schools hope to add this incentive next year.
Each school made up its own questions, many based on inside jokes and school traditions.
At Columbia, for instance, which is in New York, students were asked how far they would go for money. The five possible answers:
1. Marry Donald Trump
2. As far as the JP Morgan lobby
3. Approximately 6 miles
4. Find the oldest person on Seeking Arrangement [a website for people looking for an older, wealthy spouse], marry them without a pre-nup, engage in the slowest interaction of sexual embrace causing them to have heart failure, reap in millions
5. Get back in touch with my deadbeat millionaire father
This year for the first time, the questions are gender neutral and students are able to choose whether they want a female match, a male match or a match with someone who prefers a non-binary identifier.
“At Wellesley, it wouldn’t have gone well,” to have just two gender choices, said recent graduate Madeleine Barowsky, a computer science and mathematics major from Framingham, Mass., who helped bring her school into Datamatch. Next year, she said, she hopes the all-women’s Wellesley can pair with another school to expand dating options.
How effective is Datamatch? The program has been around since 1994, but the one couple it claimed — a pair who got engaged after going on an initial date through Datamatch — seems to have broken up since last year. “We can’t point you to that many more,” said Harvard junior and Datamatch volunteer Russell Pekala.
The matchmaking algorithm is a cloak-and-dagger affair. Volunteers at Harvard aren’t let in on any of its secrets until they’ve been involved for at least a month; students at other schools were sworn to secrecy (or, as liberal arts majors, kept ignorant by their own ignorance).
The algorithm is improved with student input and machine learning. “Each year, the people have fun tweaking it a little bit and adding their personal touches,” said Goldman, 20, who grew up in Port Washington, N.Y. “There’s a good amount that has to happen on a website for 7,000-plus users.”
Harvard provided the computing power and web portal behind Datamatch, and the other schools contributed their own questions and marketing. Harvard students had reached out to the editors of humor magazines on some of the campuses, figuring that those students would be most excited about Datamatch.
Why did a higher percentage of Brown students participate than Columbia ones? “They’re all hippies, and we’re all busy here,” sniped Catherina Gioino, a 21-year-old Columbia junior from Astoria, Queens.
At Harvard, 3,692 of 6,700 undergraduates have signed up so far this year; at Wellesley, 512 of the 2,400 students signed up; and at Brown, 2,544 — more than one-third of the student body — had signed up as of seven hours before the midnight deadline.
At Columbia — not known for its school spirit — Gioino and her fellow editor of the humor magazine Jester of Columbia, Supriya Ambwani, said they were pleasantly surprised by the 902 signups – including 100 in the first five minutes. “I did not expect people at Columbia to step up like that,” said Ambwani, a 21-year-old senior and urban studies major from Delhi, India.
The students at all four schools are getting along well so far, with none of the rivalries that usually accompany intercollegiate athletics. “We’re more like in the helping stage,” said Gioino, who is double majoring in political science-statistics and English. “Eventually, we’ll try to beat them down.”
Although Datamatch is intended to be completely frivolous, some of the students involved said they have burnished working-world skills by marketing the program and soliciting nearby businesses for discounts or freebies.
So, does working on a matchmaking algorithm and website make even a computer geek cool?
Harvard’s Pekala, a Minneapolis native double-majoring in computer science and math, said he got two dates out of Datamatch before he was involved in the program. “I still say ‘hi’ to them.”
Pekala said he will participate again this year, but insists the algorithm doesn’t favor Harvard Computer Society members. “We don’t do anything like rig the system in favor of our matches,” he pledged.