Lisa Bonos is Outlook’s assistant editor.
When a Harvard student named Gerry filled out a questionnaire for a new computer dating service in 1965, he was matched with six young women. He went out with two who lived nearby but didn’t contact the others.
One of those others — Nancy, an English major at Mount Holyoke — sent him a postcard that read simply: “Dear Gerry, Do you exist?”
That note blossomed into weeks of correspondence and eventually a relationship. Nancy and Gerry married two years later, had a son and eventually divorced.
Their child, Dan Slater, grew up to become a journalist who, in his new book, “Love in the Time of Algorithms,” traces the history of computer-mediated matches, from the clunky system that brought his parents together to the sophisticated models of today’s dating Web sites.
Slater’s parents were ahead of their time; online dating didn’t explode as an industry until the 1990s and only recently shed its social stigma. Now, with about a third of singles dating online, it’s pretty clear that these daters do exist — even if they’re 20 pounds heavier or six years less educated than their profiles suggest.
So, as Valentine’s Day approaches, an updated version of Nancy’s question might be: Are you the best I can get?
I hope daters aren’t directly asking this of their matches. But two new books, Slater’s “Algorithms” and Amy Webb’s “Data, a Love Story,” suggest that succeeding in online dating, whether you’re the Web site making the matches or the person looking for them, is all about staying competitive.
It’s a tough marketplace out there. If you’re going to compete with these legions of singles, you ought to do some research to understand how your competitors are marketing themselves. And if you’re not a great date, or if the spark of marriage is fading, the Web promises plenty more where you came from.
On the business side of things, if a particular site doesn’t provide an enticing selection of singles and a type of matching that’s unique — such as OkCupid’s match percentages or eHarmony’s arduous screening process — daters will quickly move on.
Slater explains how competition affects dating on a macro level — how, for example, online dating companies market themselves and their algorithms to attract different kinds of daters. He delves into the world of niche sites, illustrating that, whether you’re an inmate, in the military or treating your sexually transmitted disease, there’s probably a site specifically for you — such as Meet-An-Inmate, MilitaryCupid or PositiveSingles. Locals, take note: The biggest market for the site Ashley Madison (slogan: “Life is short. Have an affair.”) is Washington.
But are these sites helping us settle down or keeping us uncommitted? The growth of sites promising to help you find The One, Slater reports, can make it harder for people to get into — and stay in — relationships. Think about it: Dating sites woo users by convincing them that their databases hold thousands of desirable people, and that courtship of the customer has a flip side, a tendency to make us wonder, “Hey, can I do better?”
Slater speaks with a young man in Portland, Ore., who met his girlfriend on Match.com and confesses that he’s “95 percent certain that if I’d met Rachel offline, and if I’d never done online dating, I would’ve married her.” He adds: “When I sensed the breakup coming, I was okay with it. . . . I was eager to see what else was out there.”
Another dater, whose OkCupid travails in New York are interspersed throughout the book, ends up in a relationship with someone she really likes, yet she sometimes finds herself “itching” to get online and browse through potential boyfriends. “The thought/fear/curiosity of someone better around the corner is always there, Internet or not, especially when you live in a big city,” she says.
However, Erika Ettin, an online dating consultant based in Washington, doesn’t think the Web threatens our relationships. “If someone is inclined to settle down,” she told me, “they won’t be logging on to see what’s out there.”
Although he’s one of computerized dating’s first poster children, Slater stays almost gratingly neutral on it. Is there a conflict of interest between sites that want us to keep paying dues and customers who want to pair up and log off? Will our willingness to share every last detail of our lives on Facebook and Twitter lead to online dating profiles that are less anonymous, with real names rather than screen names attached? Slater poses fascinating questions about how online dating is transforming our pursuit of love, sex and commitment, but he lets only his sources answer them. I often found myself thinking: Smart question, but what do you, son of Gerry and Nancy, think?
Webb, on the other hand, has very strong conclusions about online dating. Her success story is a little unorthodox — and since it’s been all over Web and print media in the past month, you may be familiar with it.
After more than a dozen bad dates — which she catalogues in detailed spreadsheets tallying the men’s high-fives, stupid sexual remarks, misused vocabulary words and other offenses — Webb sits down and lists the 72 attributes she’s looking for in a mate.
Some are broad (smart, funny, successful); others are laughably specific (“must weigh at least twenty pounds more than me at all times,” “likes jazz only from the 1920s to the late 1940s” and “appreciates the beauty of a well-crafted spreadsheet”). It makes you wonder if Webb’s real soul mate might not be a man but Excel.
After figuring out just who she’s seeking, Webb rejoins JDate, the Jewish dating site, as a man — creating 10 profiles for men she would want to date, with stock images and character sketches so elaborate you’d think she were outlining a novel. For example, we learn from the spreadsheet she makes for LawMan2346 that he and his younger brother, Mark, “didn’t get along great as kids, but they’re best friends now. Mark is the total opposite of him — plays sports, drinks beer. Typical man’s man kind of guy.”
But she’s not Catfishing, she’s doing opposition research. For a month, she corresponds with 96 female JDaters through these fake profiles, never meeting these women but interacting just enough to collect data (more spreadsheets!) on how they present themselves. Then, she can mimic her competitors and hopefully snag a better catch.
“My goal in this experiment wasn’t just to observe other women on JDate. It was to understand them deeply enough so I could model their behavior,” Webb writes. “I didn’t want to try to hide who I was or to pretend to be someone else — I just needed to learn from the masters and present the best possible version of myself online.”
Her retooled profile has more relaxed and revealing photos. She swaps out the resume-speak — earlier, she referred to herself as a “future thinker” who adapts “current and emerging technologies for use in communications” — for language that’s fun, sassy and a little generic: “My friends would describe me as an outgoing and social world traveler, who’s equally comfortable in blue jeans and little black dresses. I’d say they’re right.”
Then she starts to score the men with whom she interacts on the site, giving them points based on how many of those 72 attributes they possess. As a journalist turned management consultant, she writes that “data was what I knew. It wasn’t emotional.”
Spoiler alert: Adhering to her self-tailored algorithm, Webb meets her future husband.
The story of her journey certainly sells well in a big-data, Nate Silver world. But I’m not sure she needed to “hack the haystack,” as she puts it, to find her soul mate. A little self-awareness, and some editing help from a trusted friend or two, might have helped her mold that “future thinker” into a more desirable dater without spending a month stalking the competition.
Additionally, her belief that women should barely mention their jobs in their profiles — it isn’t LinkedIn, after all — will be tough for Washingtonians to swallow. Still, Webb’s willingness to expose how she transformed from clueless to keyed-in shows just how manufactured and unnatural it can feel to look for a mate the way we shop for shoes or electronics.
Competition has always been part of the mating game, says Glenn Geher, a psychology professor and co-author of “Mating Intelligence Unleashed: The Role of the Mind in Sex, Dating, and Love.” But in online dating, “the bar is much higher,” he says, than when first impressions are forged in real life.
“Deception detection” is heightened, Geher says, when people meet online. Everyone is putting forth a polished, aspirational version of themselves, pushing daters to think: “I have to dig deep to find out what this person is really like.”
In that context, Webb’s instincts, while a little creepy, make perfect sense.
Lisa Bonos is Outlook’s assistant editor.
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