Two Tales of Hacking Online Dating

Most unsuccessful daters confront self-esteem issues. For McKinlay it was worse. He had to question his calculations.
Kevin Poulsen on

My experiences with online dating are mixed so far: A lot of awful first (and thankfully last) dates, but also a couple of nice ones that led to even nicer experiences. I’m still searching and that’s okay. All but the current relationship fail — if you are not polyamorous. Thus, I am very interested in ways to creatively optimize online dating.

There are cool analyses on convenience samples like OKCupid Trends. Or there is this story about a person who trained his spam filter with profiles from dating sites, getting it to mark as spam those profiles he is not interested in. Very interesting topic, although it is not much use for me currently: Better fishing gear does not help you when all you have is this brackish puddle of water that is called a town — but still, “hope springs eternal”. 😉

Recently, there was an interesting article on Wired about a mathematician who hacked online dating (in the life-hacks sense, not in the computer hacking kind of sense, although he did write programs). My first association was this Non-Sequitur comic, but it turns out that this person was really creative and smart about it. He wanted to find a partner to spend his life with, so he invested a lot of thinking and programming to narrow down the search: Finding out the really relevant questions to answer, categorizing the women into clusters, using fake accounts that mimic human behavior to gather data, and much more. Brilliantly done.

Interestingly, there was a below-the-belt criticism on Buzzfeed, a site that I normally associate with helpful life-hacks and funny pictures. Recently however, it has shown some very strange leanings — I don’t know, perhaps they are out of their depth when arguments are involved. The title “Sorry Guy: Math can’t get you a girlfriend” pretty much says it all. If you read it you find the usual disdain for intelligent guys who use their intelligence for their purposes. A condescending tone. A detachment from reality (not only regarding the use of statistics, but also that it did already get him a girlfriend). And most of all, the accusation that something must be wrong with these nerdy white guys who assert power over women by reducing them to mere data points. (Seriously, I could not make this up.)

Strangely enough, a while ago there was a similar story of someone hacking online dating. This person did act in a highly similar manner: the same enthusiasm for data, the use of algorithms (although by feeding data from first dates), creating fake accounts to gauge the competition, also looking for “marriage material” (pretty objectifying actually), and using a scoring system and an ordered list of minimum characteristics. It was a presentation at TED done by Amy Webb (How I hacked online dating).

Looking at the two cases in comparison — they are not that different. And perhaps Amy Webb also did get below-the-belt criticism. But I guess she wasn’t called a Pickup Artist or a “nerdy white guy” who reduces men to mere “data points”. That requires a certain feminist/misandric Zeitgeist that has a problem with men using their smarts for their own purposes and rejecting women who do not fit them. And this feminist/misandric Zeitgeist is bugging me more and more.

Not only because it’s sexist — it’s stupid.

What’s wrong with using math? Yes, both represented people with numbers for their calculations. And that’s okay, online dating usually works this way by reducing people to data points. After all, it’s done by computers! And as long as that system is useful, it can be very helpful. Both just found out how the system operated specifically for the people they were interested in and they used their smarts to turn the system into their favor. Given that both seem to have answered the questions truthfully, there was no deception involved — just smart thinking that enabled them to get what they wanted.

Of course, neither system can be scaled up to make it useful for all people who go online dating, and perhaps even a completely bogus (placebo) system would have shown an effect too. At least you get out there and meet potential partners.

Even the “high” number of failed dates (in case of McKinlay over 80) is just a reality of dating in a world where people (think they) can be choosy. And actually, you should be choosy. Life is just to short to spend it with the wrong partner — which can range from “no spark”/”no shared interests” up to “complete and utter manipulative psycho nut-job”. I think the later is more likely in online-dating, sometimes there is a good reason these people (men and women) are single and look online. The horror, oh, the horror! 😉

And while finding the right partner can be a long process, they found a way to optimize dating for them and — thereby — for their partners. With smarts, not with deception. Creative and efficient — kudos.