In the weeks running up to Valentine’s Day (or as I like to call it, “Single People Make You Aware of How Sad and Lonely They Are Buy Calling it ‘Single People’s Awareness Day’ Day”), the marketing machine usually spins into high gear, shilling heart-shaped romantic nonsense and reminding everyone that a year’s worth of transgression and indiscretion can be cured with a sparkly gift, because women, like small mammals, have tiny brains and are easily distracted by shiny things. For obvious reasons, we get reminded that “diamonds are forever,” “every kiss begins with Kay,” and “most of our products don’t fund terrorist activities or ongoing civil wars,” (™ Helzberg Diamonds) but we also get conversation hearts and heart-shaped donuts filled with pink creme; it’s even the one time of year when Hallmark is as relevant as when they were the only purveyors of Beanie Babies. There’s chocolates, roses of all colors, and for those of us who are truly lonely, Valentine’s Day-themed pet clothing and accessories. The combined spending for the day topped out last year at almost $20B (that’s B, with a “B”), putting it at #3 on the list of total spending per holiday, behind… Thanksgiving, for some reason?
This all just goes to say that Valentine’s Day is a lucrative business, and it makes sense for companies to advertise for it — it’s clearly working. But this year, I haven’t seen a whole lot on that front. Maybe it’s just that I don’t really watch TV or listen to the radio anymore (thanks, internet!), or maybe I’ve finally grown callous enough to completely ignore ads, but I can’t think of a single diamond commercial from this year, and the last time I went to the grocery store I didn’t see a huge display of chalk-flavored candy telling me to “b” its. I haven’t heard people frantically discussing plans or worrying that they don’t have dates; the closest thing I’ve come across was my friend asking if I wanted to watch the NBA All-Star game and drink by ourselves that night. It’s a time-honored tradition. We’re very lonely.
Maybe I’m just running in different circles now that all of my friends are either married or cripplingly unloved, but the one thing I’ve noticed this year leading up to Valentine’s Day is a stark uptick in stories about online dating in the media. Admittedly, looking at Google Trends, it’s more like a very slight uptick that is temporally correlated with, but does not necessarily imply causation by, Valentine’s Day, but as a member of the online dating community, I’m probably a bit more sensitive to it. It’s kind of like all the happy people got together and decided that this year would be a charity case looking at those less fortunate than themselves. To their credit, I have yet to hear a story that paints people who use online dating services in a negative light — it’s never about “look at this hilarious and sad person who is so inept at human contact they do their dating through a computer.” Generally, the pieces I’ve seen have been interesting, if somewhat academic, looks into what they consider the world of modern dating. Still, it can’t help but feel a bit… Band Aid-y.
As I literally just mentioned, I’m a (proud?) member of the online dating community — I’ve had an OkCupid account (more on that later) for well over a year at this point, but I only recently really started actively using it to fulfill a resolution to go on a date every week. Since I’ve basically been advertising that goal (along with my other resolutions — come on, did you even read that post?) to anyone and everyone I meet, I naturally get the reaction, “That seems like a lot of dates! How are you going to meet that many people?” so I end up having to tell people that I have an online dating profile.
The thing about telling people you’re doing online dating is that they immediately treat you like some sort of recently-persecuted minority. At the advent of online dating, there was something of a stigma attached to it; it was new, and people didn’t understand it. I think it’s largely accepted now, but people still kind of acknowledge its stigma’d past. People usually skip a beat while they decide to either totally ignore it or address the issue head-on in currently-acceptable terms (“Oh, I’ve heard that’s a great way to meet people, especially if you’re busy,” or “The internet is the single greatest human connectivity device ever created, why wouldn’t you use it to connect with people?”). It’s like we reached that stage where people aren’t “retarded,” they’re just “mentally handicapped,” and everyone is trying to tiptoe around the issue without saying anything that’s politically incorrect. It’s like when you meet the congenital amputee whose arms both stop at the elbow and you want to ask him how he does basic things like open doors or put on clothes but instead you stare straight at his face and talk about soccer or riding a bicycle, and you’re just thinking to yourself that if he had been born 50 years ago the Spartans would have thrown him into the chasm of Mount Taygetus, but now even saying something like “You’re so brave!” would be a belittling acknowledgement that he’s something other than a normal human. You just want to send all the signals that say, “Your people have a troubled history, but I’m past that — and so is the rest of the world. You’re safe here! I understand that people used to think that dating online meant you were socially inept and unfit to breed, but now I will tell you what you must be telling yourself to make it seem OK.”
Of course, in the online dating world it’s a different story — we’re still free to discuss the stigma. I recently had a date who said something embarrassing about herself and then followed up with, “… and now you understand why I’m on OkCupid!” and we both had a hearty laugh. And the truth of the matter is that, notwithstanding the fact that I’m batting about 50% for that resolution even with my OKC endeavors, I really wouldn’t be able to get a date without it, regardless of how busy I was. This is partly because, as previously mentioned, I am an awful human being, and in person I would drive off any potential mate long before she accepted an invitation to be alone with me for any length of time suitable to drinks or dinner, whereas on my online profile I can fix that problem by just lying about myself.
It’s also because the world of online dating actually has a number of qualities that make it great, especially for someone like me. The biggest problem that I face in the dating world is that I don’t know any eligible women, and I don’t have any friends who know any either. Of the people in my generation (or, from what I can tell, in my parent’s generation) who are married or in a committed relationship, almost every single couple met at work or in school. I’m not in school, and I work at a firm that is 99.9% male (we employ 64 people, you do the math). The rest met through friends of friends, but none of my friends know any attractive single women either, so that option is out.
This basically leaves the bar scene, and I have literally never heard a description of the bar scene that didn’t begin with “I’m so sick of…” I have never been one to approach strangers (I wouldn’t order for myself in a restaurant until I was 12 because I was terrified of talking to the waitstaff), and I’ve certainly never been able to approach women I’ve never met and pretend to be interesting. Don’t get me wrong, I’m fine talking to people — I have had several conversations with women at bars, but I’m also respectful of stranger’s privacy to a fault. I don’t want to force myself on anyone, so I never make the first move for fear that it’s unwanted. I don’t want to be that guy who hits on a girl who’s just there for a drink, so I end up just leaving everyone alone. Plus, I’m terrified of failure — especially public failure. The last thing I want is for people to find out my ladykillin’ rep is all a facade to hide my considerable insecurities.
That’s the brilliance of online dating — no one is just there for a drink. Everyone is there for the same reason: they want to go on dates with strangers. (When you say it like that it’s a pretty weird reason.) For example, on OKC, right from the get-go, you’re asked about your sexual preferences and told explicitly it’s a dating site (not “a great way to meet people,” which is a somewhat ambiguous euphemism).
But really, you never have to have that fear of “I wonder if I’m bothering this person,” because even if you are, even if they think you or your profile or your message is stupid, they don’t have to take the time to respond. They’ve wasted, max, 30 seconds of their life reading your message and glancing at pictures of you, and then they can move on. And, better, the online dating community accepts this as a social norm — nobody has to engage anyone. You don’t have to send a “no thanks” message, you just don’t respond and the world moves on. There’s no awkward “I have a boyfriend” moment, followed by rolled eyes and exasperated sighs from girlfriends. Since nobody has to see you fail, it decreases the negative consequences from failure, which in turn encourages ongoing efforts — not hearing back from someone isn’t the end of the world, in fact it’s quite common. And it could be for any number of reasons, none of which actually have to do with you (although let’s be honest, it’s probably because you’re lame).
At the same time, therein lies the issue — failure is incredibly common. Of the messages I send, I probably get about a 10% hit rate on returns, which you could say is my fault for having a bad profile or writing boring messages, but it might even be above average. Anecdotally, other men I know who are on OKC or similar sites suggest low response rates — I have yet to talk to a guy who does not refer to it as “a game of numbers,” or a girl who does not say that her guy friends refer to it as such. The basic premise is that if you have low returns, your best bet is to blindly message hundreds of women, which leads to the problem of women on dating sites (especially free dating sites) getting tens or hundreds of messages that have no real content — just a “hey” or “sup” that might lead to a profile view. I’ve been told this is really annoying for women, who basically get their inboxes flooded with inanity, and several profiles will say something to the effect of “Message me if: you have something to say other than ‘hey.'”
- Joke about something in the profile (“‘Drinks: A lot’ — Love the honesty!”)
- Honest question about something in the profile (“I see you’re a furry — what’s your costume?”)
- Sign-off with a reference to something in their profile (“May the force be with you, “)
This (theoretically) shows that I’m fun, gives them an easy way to respond by answering the question or acknowledging my reference, and most importantly is 4 or 5 sentences max, so they don’t have to read a book report about their profile. It also makes it seem less about me and more about her, because saying, “I’m also into gimp suits” makes it look like you’re talking about yourself.
The problem with these messages is that they take time to write — unless something immediately jumps out at me about their profile, I will spend about 20 minutes coming up with something witty to say or a question to ask. Since I get a 10% return rate, and of those I probably get a 25% date rate, I end up writing about 40 messages per date that I go on. At 20 minutes per message that’s 800 minutes (13+ hours) on OKC per date. That’s an hour a night for 2 weeks to find the next person to go out with. If that seems like an exaggeration, keep in mind I probably spend about an hour a day on the site, and I’ve been out with two people this year.
OK, 13 hours is about a half-day — maybe a half-day’s work isn’t so bad, if you’re going to find your soul mate. After all, think of all the bars you’d probably have to go to, or the jobs you’d have to get or the school you’d have to attend to find someone compatible. 12 or 13 hours seems a pittance compared to that. Of course, that assumes that you actually find your soul mate on the first date, so maybe it’s closer to 5 or 6 first dates, maybe 10? That’s a week to find your match. Still not bad!
The problem is, it’s not 10 first dates. OKC and match.com (and presumably all the other major dating sites, too) have proprietary algorithms and questionnaires that allow them to generate a match probability, and they feed you people who have higher match probabilities, so you’d think these systems would be better than picking out at random from the general population. Unfortunately, there’s two things that throw the system off-balance. The first is that people lie — and not just posting profile pictures of supermodels, but in smaller ways that can throw a non-obvious wrench in the system. For instance, I hedged my answers to make myself sound more interesting or more tolerant to the first 200 questions I responded to on OKC; when I looked at people who matched highly with me, they all liked to go clubbing and were super adventurous. By trying to make myself more attractive to others, I had inadvertently made myself seem attracted to people I really wasn’t interested in. Of course, those people were also matched with me, so if we assume that I had gone out with any of them, you can imagine they’d have been pretty disappointed — this happens too, where people create a profile that makes them seem a certain way that they perceive others to find attractive, it works, and then people have terrible dates when they find out you’re not into eating raw sea turtle from street vendors, or whatever the kids are doing these days.
The other thing that throws the system off is that it really only seems like you’re getting help from these matches. I’m not saying the algorithms are wrong or that in the end there’s some human factor that trumps science — I love science, and if science had an online dating profile and we were both completely honest, it’d be a 100% match. I’m just saying that they flood you with hundreds of people who are matches and it makes it seem like they weeded a bunch of people out for you and you’re connecting only with the top choices, when in reality we do this every day in our lives, and if we’re in an environment (for example, school) where we have the opportunity to meet hundreds or thousands of potential mates, we weed out the non-matches ourselves and gravitate toward those where there is mutual attraction, i.e., a higher match percentage. The real service isn’t the weeding out (although without that component, the service would be unusable), it’s the introduction to an environment with hundreds or thousands of potential mates.
These two factors combine to mean that an online dating profile allows you to simulate an environment where you have hundreds or thousands of potential mates, but the weeding out process is warped. You’re held captive to the persona that they put out without the ability to build up a backlog of human interaction, so you end up having to meet a whole bunch of people to weed out the people who should have been weeded out, but weren’t.
I’m not just complaining because neither of my first two dates ended in marriage — that media hype about online dating I mentioned earlier actually has some pretty interesting examples. There’s a Cracked article about how OKC users ignore profiles and match percentages and message hot people no matter what, which would indicate that the weeding-out system is broken. Then there’s the Freakonomics podcast “What You Don’t Know About Online Dating,” where they actually interview Alli Reed, who wrote that Cracked article. I’m actually only about halfway through that one, but signs point to an economist telling someone how to make their profile better.
More telling is the intro to the recent Planet Money podcast “Dear Economist, I Need a Date,” which opens with a story about a producer’s experience with online dating. The story begins with Lisa Chow deciding she’s going to “be more aggressive” about online dating; she actually describes herself through this process as being “efficient” and “focused.” So, how long did it take efficient, focused Lisa to find a match (which I basically define as someone who precipitates an exit from the online dating market)? It took her a year and a half, and she went on 50 first dates. Ultimately, she met her husband, but in the meantime she had to create a spreadsheet to track her experiences so she could remember anything about the guys she had been on dates with. Keep in mind, this is the efficient solution of a successful person who knows exactly what she is looking for.
Maybe more revealing is this story of how a math PhD at UCLA created an algorithm to determine not only the characteristics of women he was most attracted to but also how to create a profile that would make him more attractive to those groups. He spent a couple of months setting up the profiles (including automating several accounts so he could pull data on the OKC users in the greater LA area), and then used those targeted profiles to try to find a mate. This guy had already done months of work to target exactly the right group of women, and he had a profile that was specifically targeted to those women (i.e., it wasn’t a problem of getting dates), and it still took him 88 first dates to find a match. It doesn’t say how long this took, but if we assume one date a day (again, let’s assume his profile made him utterly captivating), that’s still 3 months. For a poor schmuck like me hoping for one date a week, that’s a year and a half; at 13 invested hours per date, for 88 dates, that’s 19 full days of OkCupid time.
Again, this isn’t to say that I’m turned off from online dating or that that it can’t work — I really believe it can. In both of the cases above, the people ultimately met a mate, and statistics show that online dating is become more acceptable, and marriages that began with online dating are on the rise, making up a growing portion of overall marriages. I certainly am not about to quit OKC (again, it’s… basically my only option…), although maybe I’d switch to another site, if I could find any efficiency stats on online dating (seriously, I Googled for like an hour. There is nothing). But for something that’s billed as a way for busy folks to quickly meet new people, I’m hard-pressed to believe there’s not a more efficient solution. It provides a great service of artificially creating a “target-rich environment,” as they say, but doesn’t substantially decrease the legwork — in the end, until the algorithms are refined or people stop lying about their preferences or they find some other way to capture that human factor, online dating will be less efficient and inferior option compared to meeting people in the real world. Which, for me I think means… grad school, anyone?
PPS My “hilarious” pictures now all come with Alt text, which means one thing: more bad jokes. Get excited!