Melissa McEwen is a tracker. She wears a Fitbit. She keeps a spreadsheet of hair products. She ranks the flavors of Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams in Chicago, where she lives. When she wanted to make room in her closet, she tracked what she wore every day for more than a year, noting fabric type and wear, figuring out what to ditch and what to spare.
McEwen got started young, first tracking her life with notebooks and then with Microsoft Excel. Now the 31-year-old freelance software developer uses Google Sheets and the project management software Trello, which is influenced by kanban, a Japanese system to maximize efficiency.
“Basically, if Trello went off the market, my life would be in shambles,” she says, adding that she has Trello boards for meals and upcoming movies.
And since 2015, McEwan has tracked her dating life, recording which online app she uses for each interaction and how far along the messages go.
“I frankly wasn’t very good at online dating at first because I’d never really dated before,” she says. “I was one of those people who would just end up in relationships with people I already knew.”
Some of her early mistakes didn’t require Excel to see where she went wrong, such as partaking in a six-hour tasting menu on a first date, but the tracking helped her refine the process, especially when it came to dealing with the deluge of incoming messages common for many straight women on Tinder, OkCupid, Hinge and other apps. She learned to limit her swipes on Tinder and that incognito mode (where you can see potential partners’ profiles but they can’t see yours) was the way to go with OkCupid. Before that, filtering through all the messages had been nearly impossible.
Earlier this year McEwen posted an infographic on Reddit titled “How I met my boyfriend — 6 months of dating in 2016,” joining a trend of redditors sharing their personal experiences via data visualization. Posted on the Data Is Beautiful subreddit, these graphs offer big-picture looks at the finer points of matching, messaging, dating and ditching. Other entries include “My 180 days of lesbian online dating,” whose creator seemed to have better results starting with a GIF than a message, and “My last 90 days of gay social apps,” which included 471 interactions, 41 photos of genitalia and sex with 27 different men.
The graphics are sometimes imperfect and difficult to grasp at first glance, but they all tell a story, charting paths from initial messages to random hookups, from quick interest to gradual ghosting, from fiery first dates to loving long-term relationships. Data is power, and these redditors are trying to use that power to control a process that’s often riddled with frustration, or worse.
Dating sites track their users for a variety of reasons, and some, such as OkCupid, share at least part of the data with the world. Perhaps OkCupid’s most famous insight, printed on the site’s blog and in co-founder Christian Rudder’s book, “Dataclysm,” is that if you enjoy the taste of beer you’re far more likely to have sex on the first date. On a smaller level, many singles, in search of patterns, keep spreadsheets of their dating lives. But the visualizations on the Data Is Beautiful subreddit are raw and personal, an open invitation to view the users’ paths to love and lust, and maybe even learn from their efforts.
McEwen sat on her findings for a while before sharing publicly — “It’s pretty pointless data if I can’t point to a positive outcome, so I waited until I’d been in my relationship over a year.” But another woman didn’t hold off on sharing a far more negative experience.
In “Results of 6.5 weeks of mostly online dating for a single white 37 year old woman,” a Denver redditor who asked to be identified as Rose (for the sake of privacy) charted how more than 40 percent of her online interactions resulted in harassment or rape threats.
“There seems to be this myth that men do all the messaging, and therefore take on all the risk, and that women have a much better rate of return,” she says. “I found that I also had a very low rate of returned messages and I had to put up with abuse I imagine men don’t experience.”
Going through the messages and analyzing the data made her so upset that she has since deleted her OkCupid account.
“I was surprised by the anger and vitriol seemingly normal men sent my way for no reason other than that they just hated the fact that I existed,” she says. “I had never spoken to them, never rejected them, nothing at all, and they felt free to either be abusive or threatening. It makes me question how many men around me are harboring horrible, violent thoughts towards women all the time.”
Rather than being dismayed at Rose’s experience, some redditors complained about the design of her infographic. This wasn’t a surprise, she says.
“There doesn’t seem to be any empathy for the pain the harassment causes,” she says. “The rejection is bad enough, but when you include the harassment it’s like I’m playing Russian roulette any time I try to meet someone.”
Redditors were more kind to Teresa Francke, a 30-year-old pansexual who lives in Lima, Peru. In her post “My 2017 of successful Tinder unicorn dating,” she explained how she’s game to hook up with both partners in a couple without any emotional expectations. (If that sounds rare to you, you get why she’s called a unicorn.)
Francke is a selective right-swiper, and more than 75 percent of her conversations on the app resulted in some kind of hookup. She prefers tourists and always says no to one question a potential partner asks before agreeing to meet them, to gauge how they might deal with consent. Thanks to Tinder, she had 23 one-on-one hookups last year, not to mention sex with another 20 groups of two or more.
She says she wasn’t surprised by the results after pulling together the data, but it was fascinating to see it all in the aggregate. When she revisited past conversations to collect the data, she marveled at how comically shallow some of them were, especially in relation to how well she eventually came to know some of her lovers.
“I’ve always known I’m somewhat of a statistical aberration, so it seemed like a fun idea to see how my data would compare to other people’s,” she says. “It was also a nice trip down memory lane. Anyone sees numbers where I see meaningful connections, stimulating conversations, amazing people.”
Correction: Teresa Francke is 30 years old; this story originally stated that she is 31.