A Dating Algorithm By Any Other Name

I recently gave a talk at a conference in Berlin about my findings analyzing Twitter data about online dating.  Afterwards a man came up to me and excitedly told me about an article he’d read in which someone had created an algorithm to “hack” dating sites, and landed himself a girlfriend. I was intrigued but skeptical, and when I got back to the States, I looked around and found it:

GuardianHeadline

The author, a physics grad student, goes on to discuss the “algorithm” he created and successfully applied to dating sites that led to way more messages, more dates, and finally, a girlfriend.

You may have noticed I put algorithm in quotes.  The reason lies in the subtitle of his article:

GuardianSubtitle

Wait—that’s an algorithm?

Much has been made of the difficulties women have in online dating when they pass the ancient age of 30.  In this blog post from OkCupid, Christian Rudder does a fine job outlining the issue.  It’s not that there are no men of the same age who are single and looking to date; it’s that many men only want to date women younger than them.  Much younger:

As you can see, men tend to focus on the youngest women in their already skewed preference pool, and, what’s more, they spend a significant amount of energy pursuing women even younger than their stated minimum. No matter what he’s telling himself on his setting page, a 30 year-old man spends as much time messaging 18 and 19 year-olds as he does women his own age. On the other hand, women only a few years older are largely neglected.

From OkCupid OkTrends Blog
From OkCupid OkTrends Blog

The author of the Guardian article is in his 30s.  It would not surprise me if he’d set his search criteria for younger women.  He goes on to say (emphasis mine):

I realized that when I stormed out of the lab, I’d accidentally left off my search criteria during the auto-browse, and inadvertently discovered an incredibly powerful hack, a way to make the attention pyramid work for me. Over the course of 18 hours, my algorithm – logged in as me – had browsed thousands of active profiles, across all segments of women. These views didn’t pay attention to body type, race, or age, and mostly visited women that had just joined the site, or women that were high matches for me, many of them left wanting for attention by the usual online meat market.

As far as I can tell, he simply eliminated his search criteria and let the computer browse as many profiles as possible.  Since people can see who has browsed their profiles, many more women noticed he had looked at theirs.  Not surprisingly, this resulted in a lot more women messaging him (more in one night than he’d had in 3 months) and subsequently, more dates.

I don’t see an algorithm at all.  I see someone who expanded his pool of people he was interested in dating, which naturally led to more dates.  As Psychology Professor Eli Finkel has stated, online dating algorithms don’t work.  What DOES work is making the dating pool larger:

As a team of researchers… demonstrated, browsing profiles is virtually useless for discerning the sort of information that actually matters in a successful relationship. Curated text and a handful of pictures will never be able to tell you whether the first-date conversation will crackle or whether you’ll feel a desire to discover what makes this person tick.  The second faulty idea was that effective matchmaking algorithms could be based on information provided by individuals who were unaware of one another’s existence. One study…demonstrated that such information was highly ineffective at predicting initial attraction; another study found that such information was nearly useless in predicting satisfaction in long-term relationships. As almost a century of research on romantic relationships has taught us, predicting whether two people are romantically compatible requires the sort of information that comes to light only after they have actually met.

In additional, people are notoriously bad at determining what they want in a partner.  We can easily come up with a laundry list of “must have” traits, but when we finally end up with someone, he or she often doesn’t meet those criteria.  When dating sites allow you to narrow down your search to find your “perfect” candidate, they’re also doing users a disservice by eliminating people you would actually enjoy dating.

The man who created the bot ends his article on this note:

A pesky little voice pointed out that if I had gone outside once in a while instead of staying in my bed and coding maybe I would’ve run into her

Sounds like the best algorithm is to put down your smartphone, go outside, and meet people.

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