Know Thyself ... and Then Log On?

Online dating as existential crisis

Amy Webb
Amy Webb (Photo courtesy of Brian Woolf)

Most dating sites tout two strengths over the neighborhood bar: access to more options (millions of users) and a means to process those options (their profile-matching algorithms). It would be hard to argue with the first advantage. But are dating sites really better at analyzing compatability?

Amy Webb, author of Data, a Love Story: How I Gamed Online Dating to Meet My Match, met her husband on JDate, an online Jewish singles community. She went on a lot of dates, but their low quality made her question whether sites were collecting the right data for her. She decided to take matters into her own hands by listing out the 72 qualities of her perfect husband in order of importance and then assigning each a scale and relative weight. She then scored potential suitors. Before she met a man in person, he had to hit a minimum score. "You need to know exactly what you're looking for," says Webb, "which means being honest with yourself and writing down as many attributes as you think are important. In my case, it was 72. In your case, it may be 32 or 102. Once you have your list, prioritize it like I did. Then set some benchmarks."

Developing your own list of important qualities in a partner during the dating process couldn't hurt, especially if you use an app like Grindr, a highly trafficked meet-up app for gay men that doesn't provide matching algorithms. In his book, Meet Grindr: How One App Changed the Way We Connect, Jaime Woo discusses how men succeed with the app, which minimizes the data users receive before they either chat (via its texting feature) or actually meet up. Grindr offers only three pieces of data – one photo, a 120-character description, and the user's proximity (in feet) – and it displays the closest users first. "One thing I think you'll notice is the sense of novelty," says Woo. "There are all these gay men around you. It's like having X-ray vision."

On Grindr, conventions within the community supplement the relatively thin profiles. For example, although Woo calls the following simplification contentious, he does note two main types of photos: faces and torsos. Whether a man chooses to display a face or a torso tells you something. "When you look at things like Facebook, we often show our faces. It's how we show we're here to socialize," says Woo. "If I put up just a torso, I'm not showing my mouth. I literally have no mouth to talk to you. There are some men who are looking for anonymity, but generally, [a torso] means 'I'm not here to chitchat. Let's get down to business.'"

Amy Webb
Amy Webb

Users' ability to recognize and weigh this type of nuance as it develops organically within a community could give them an advantage over a manufactured algorithm. But there's only value in dissecting a single photo if you know what to do with the information, which reinforces Webb's point: You have to know what you want. Maybe that's the appeal of dating sites' algorithms. By providing matches based on profiles, dating algorithms allow us to avoid defining what we want for ourselves.

Related Events

Data, a Love Story: How I Gamed Online Dating

Saturday, March 9, 11am

Sheraton, Capitol ABCD

Hooking Up Happier: Design Insight From Grindr

Saturday, March 9, 5pm

ACC, Room 10AB

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online dating, Grindr, JDate, Amy Webb, Data, a Love Story, Jaime Woo

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