articles by Dan SlaterPart 1Part 2Dan Slater is writing a book about the online-dating business and what technology means for the future of relationships, to be published by Penguin (Portfolio) next year. Slater is the founder and editor of The LongForum, a website that promotes the best of long-form journalism.Inside The Online Matchmaking Industry's Giant Blind Date
BY Dan Slater
Thu Jan 26, 2012How eager young geniuses of love like the founder of TheComplete.me plan to disrupt Big Relationship at the annual digital dating conference in Miami.
One guy says he can compute your "energetic compatibility" by punching the birthdates of you and your mate into an algorithm. When asked what information the algorithm takes into account, he shoots back, "Oh I can't reveal that!" And then whispers: "It's like our oracle." Another guy insists he can predict your "mate value" by gauging facial characteristics, like the space between your eyes, apparently unaware that such dogma was discredited decades ago. The pleas and promises come fast and ardent: We can eliminate deception in online-dating! We can catch romance scammers! We have The Next Thing!
Welcome to Miami. The online-dating industry conference, an annual three-day affair, hosts a diverse mix of the date-o-sphere's rich and poor. You've got the big corporate players (Google; Bing; and IAC, owner of Match and OkCupid); the geek-outsiders-cum-major-industry-disrupters (Plenty of Fish, Grindr); the pious marriage &^%$#$^; the purveyors of deviance; the upstart wannabes and the unabashed snake-oil salesmen. Some are too confident to brag or sell themselves. Others are too desperate or disillusioned not to.
Everyone thinks they've got a line on the future, a special sauce that will really "hit" in the coming year. It's going to be all about free dating! Paid dating! Users want more privacy! Less privacy! It's about leveraging the social graph! The interest graph!
In 2012, with a third of America's 90 million singles dating online--not counting those who hook up through Facebook and other social-media sites--it's easy to forget the recent bygone era, when "Internet dating" was considered a seamy, almost unspeakable underworld, where the web's most troglodytic misfits sought weird companionship.
Yet past, as the poets say, is prologue. So it was a rather perspective-enhancing move, on the part of conference organizers, to kick off Day One with a keynote address from a congenial, awkward, and unassuming man, the original weirdo, Gary Kremen. Seventeen years ago, Kremen, now 48, secured the domain-name "Match.com" from the government (when such was still possible), opened a small office in San Francisco's South Park neighborhood, bought a $750,000 server on credit from Sun Microsystems, and launched what would become the Internet's first mass-market dating site, a subscription-based service that promised, as the young Kremen reportedly put it at the time, "to bring more love to the planet than Jesus Christ."
The exuberance was short-lived, however. In 1997, investor infighting over whether to make Match available to gays forced a sale to Cendant, a consumer-services company, for $7 million, of which Kremen walked away with a fraction. Eighteen months later, Cendant flipped Match--by then on its way to becoming one of the largest dating empires in the world--to Barry Diller's IAC, for $50 million. "It's difficult, giving up your baby like that," Kremen told the conference audience. "I should've made the $50 million."
It might be some consolation: all these years later, Kremen's stamp is still very much evident, in at least one major way. Like its progenitor, most of the sites that followed Match guaranteed anonymity. You ponied up a picture and a written profile, but you didn't reveal your actual identity until you wanted to. It was a stigmatized business, after all. What if your boss finds out!?
Today, though, everyone's doing it. So, what if your boss finds out? Who cares?
In 2007, Alex Mehr and Shayan Zadeh noticed that the younger generation's conception of dating was more closely described by a social-networking site like Facebook than by a traditional dating site. Online-dating seemed neither novel nor extreme to a generation that grew up online, nurturing social networks and watching each other's lives play out in a cascade of relationship-status updates and Twitter news feeds. Privacy was something old people fussed over.
So Mehr and Zadeh launched Zoosk, a third-party dating application for Facebook. Zoosk allowed users to transfer their personal information over from Facebook. It had all the features of a social-network. You add people to your network. If they accept, then you can exchange messages with them and see their news feeds and photos. You nurture your network, chat via Zoosk's messaging system, date some or all of the people in your network, and perhaps start a relationship. Zoosk, Mehr says, "is for a social life--with dating in mind." By 2010, Zoosk had shot to the top of the U.S. rankings of online-dating sites, with nearly 5 million unique visitors.
Is the Match model dying? One of its former employees, who spoke to a packed conference room in the afternoon, believes that Match and its kind--i.e. traditional dating sites, which, by the way, currently account for most of the industry--have seen their day.
Brian Bowman used to be a VP of product development at Match. Now he's taking them on with a new dating application called TheComplete.me. According to Bowman, the pay-to-communicate format established by Match in the mid 90's resulted in a lack of innovation. Why? Because the business model Match spawned required anonymity. By limiting the amount of "real-world personal information" in profiles--i.e. Twitter handles, Facebook pages, etc.--a dating site can keep users on for longer. "Anonymity is a good thing when a person wants it," Bowman said. "It's not a good thing when it prevents someone who that person might like from understanding who that person really is." Personhood can't be captured in a simple database. You're more interesting than that. You're richer. You deserve better.
Rather than a static profile, TheComplete.me will "tap into the sites that consumers use every day"--such as Netflix and Amazon--to create "a more dynamic interest graph." It's one thing to say you "like comedies," "love to read," "live for travel." It's another to show potential mates that your Netflix queue is full of Chevy Chase films, that you just bought you and your father copies of the latest Stephen King novel, or that your Picasa album has been updated with pictures from Peru. In Bowman's vision, as Internet use rises, and people define themselves increasingly by where they go and who they talk to and what they post and buy--online--their dating profile evolves with them. "The first version of the Internet," recalls Bowman, "was based around 'It'--an index of linked websites that were interesting to most people, like Yahoo directories. Web 2.0 was based around 'We'--me and my human relationships, my social graph. Facebook won that round. The next iteration will be about 'Me'--who I am, my interests at this time, based not on what I say but on what I do." As daters navigate the date-o-sphere, they'll take their identities with them.
It's a big change from the days of Gary Kremen. And the sort of transparency that TheComplete.me contemplates (slogan: "It's okay, be yourself.") may make people uncomfortable. But that's okay. Privacy, as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has said, is a social norm that evolves. It also bears mentioning that many of online-dating's problems--such as deception, and the time that an honest dater wastes by chatting up someone who turns out to be married, or twenty years older than their photo--stem from the privacy norm.
If online-dating culture advances to the point where the person you're hoping to date has an expectation of transparency, or, in Bowman's words, "authenticity," openness will become the new norm. Privacy, as a trait or value, gets selected out. Zuckerberg was right. Morality may be divine but it's also fickle. It shifts as the means of technology make new things possible.Who's Telling You The Truth About Dating Algorithms?
BY Dan Slater
Fri Jan 27, 2012The online dating industry is a $4 billion business. And everyone from popular author Dr. Pepper Schwartz to mathletic OkCupid cofounder Sam Yagan is trying to crack the code for success. Business success.
You've seen the digital-age versions of self-help gurus, the ones with official titles suggesting they've cracked the code of human compatibility. Relationship Scientist. Behavioral Expert. They hold doctoral degrees. In labs, they reproduce the conditions of relationships, study interactions, generate conclusions. People of type A are compatible with people of type B. Here's why they worked. Here's why they failed. Here, read this new book.
As the global market for online dating surpasses $4 billion, the lucky ones get hired as consultants by online-dating companies. They write personality-profiling tests, tweak the algorithms. They speak at online-dating conferences
, describe their unique matching approaches, and promote their books. But the ones most likely to be telling you the truth are the ones that admit that their dating algorithms are also powerful marketing tools. And they're probably math geeks. Married math geeks.
Dr. Pepper Schwartz is no geek. But she is the author of The Love Test, The Great Sex Weekend, Everything You Know About Love and Sex is Wrong, and more. And she's a professor of sociology at the University of Washington in Seattle who mugs on behalf of the dating site PerfectMatch.com, where she co-developed The Duet® Total Compatibility System. On the final day of this week's annual online-dating industry conference in Miami, Schwartz, a pocket-sized woman with a calming smile, told the audience her system is based on the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, a questionnaire designed to measure how people perceive the world and make decisions. You can read about The Duet® Total Compatibility System in her book, Finding Your Perfect Match: 8 Keys to Finding Lasting Love Through True Compatibility.
Joining her was Dr. Eli Finkel (Northwestern University), Schwartz's younger colleague in the behavioral sciences, who staked out his own territory as industry-scold, denouncing eHarmony, one of the largest dating sites in the world and the first to market a scientific approach to matching. EHarmony has refused to reveal its algorithm, Finkel said, and therefore the company should not advertise a scientific approach to matching until it can show, publicly, that its system works according to the standards of scientific rigor. An up-and-comer hoping to make a splash, Dr. Finkel spoke with imploring volume and speed, as if an elaborate show of authority might convert the crowd to his cause. He does not yet work for an online-dating company.
For nearly 50 years, ever since computers were first used to help college kids hook up, people assumed, or hoped, that the fact of technology as mediator would mean not just more dates but better dates. The Great God Computer must know something we don't, the thinking went. It just must. The notion became a wonderful marketing tool--red meat for the media. As such, the math geeks who ran the first computer-dating services at Harvard in the 1960s were happy to perpetuate it. Oh yes, of course we're always refining our codes, optimizing our algorithms.
In 1966, the inventor of computer dating, a Harvard math major named Jeff Tarr, joked to a reporter: "If there's some chick I'm dying to go out with, I can drop her a note in my capacity as president of Operation Match and say, 'Dear Joan, You have been selected by a highly personal process called Random Sampling to be interviewed extensively by myself ... '" The industry's second-comer, another Harvard math geek named David Dewan, remembered: "There was a lot of randomness to it. 'Do you like pizza?' 'Me too!' 'What kind of movies do you like?' 'Romantic comedies?' 'Me too!' Then you go meet her and most of the time you put your head in your hands because she was so ugly--and she was thinking the same about you." (This was the pre-Internet era, mind you, when computers had 12K of memory. Match sheets arrived without photos.)
Their doubts aside, the young men still boasted publicly of doing it better than the competition. From the company's perspective, claiming a superior "scientific matching system" or "personality profiling test" could distinguish you from the field. In 1965, Dewan told the Harvard Crimson that his competitor's questionnaire was "less sophisticated, appealing to the big, Mid-west universities."
All these years (and all this behavior science) later, it's not the professor-backed dating sites but the ones run by math geeks that seem to be on top. At the conference, Sam Yagan, a cofounder of the free dating site OkCupid.com, strutted around, collected multiple awards (for the second year in a row), and gave a talk on how he sold OkCupid to Match.com last year for $90 million, an incredible sum for an advertising-based business model that is thought by many in the business to bring in little revenue.
Playing on their admiration and jealousy, Yagan, a Harvard grad who wears jeans and OkCupid T-shirts beneath a blue blazer, encouraged his colleagues one minute, and provoked them into fits of rage the next. At the awards dinner, Yagan seemed to privately commend a cofounder of HowAboutWe.com for the company's recent completion of a venture capital financing, in which it raised $15 million. The next day, he told the conference that historical valuations of online-dating companies don't justify large venture investments, and therefore "woe be to those who take money."
But on the algorithm panel, Yagan, the lone dating site owner invited to speak on the topic, was relatively subdued. He responded to Drs. Finkel and Schwartz with an occasional eye roll. When it was his turn, he dispatched a very brief, slide-assisted explanation of OkCupid's matching process.
The user, let's call him John Dater, is not required to answer any questions. But the site is premised on the idea that the more questions John D. answers, the better OkCupid works for him. Questions range from the abstract (Would you prefer that good things happened, or interesting things?) to the specific (How often do you feel the need to get really drunk?); from penal policy (Which of the following is the more appropriate penalty for rape: death, castration, prison, community service?) to trust issues (Would you be okay with your significant other spending a lot of time with his/her ex?); from the practical (Ideally, how often would you have sex?) to the downright intimate (How do you feel about kissing your partner after he/she goes down on you?).
For each question, John provides three answers: (1) his own answer, (2) the answers he's willing to accept from a match, and (3) the level of importance he attaches to the question: irrelevant, a little important, somewhat important, very important, or mandatory. "Our objective," explained Yagan's partner, Chris Coyne, "is to figure out what you want, rather than figure out what's best for you. So to accomplish that we play a giant question-and-answer session with everyone on the site at once." When John clicks on a new profile he's shown a "match percentage" that accounts for all the questions that both he and the potential match have both answered. If they've both answered 1,000 questions, then OkCupid's algorithm generates a match percentage based on 6,000 answers--the product of 1,000 questions times 3 answers per question times 2 daters.
The innovation of OkCupid--and what distinguishes it from other "matching" sites such as eHarmony and PerfectMatch--lies in its pliability. Coyne believes he can give members the power to sort through matches online the same way they would offline--assuming a world of perfect information. "Suppose your buddy tells you he has a girl he wants to set you up with," Coyne said. "No matter how much you trust him, you're not going to say 'yes' without asking questions first. In your mind you have a filtering process that's built in, which is different from another guy's filtering process. EHarmony would say they know all our filtering processes. We say we don't. But we can give you the tools to express your filtering process. We can show you how everyone stacks up against your filter, and how you stack up against theirs. Then you're on your own."
As for Yagan, this side of the business is not his priority, and he distances himself from the notion that they're relationship gurus. "We're a bunch of math guys," he told the Boston Globe in 2007. "We don't know anything about dating." This is typical Yagan: We don't even know what we're doing and we're still doing it better than you.
So it could be false modesty. Or it could be that there's only so much technology can accomplish when it comes to predicting compatibility. That one of the most successful sites is run by four young nerds, all of whom are married, seems meaningful.
"I don't care what matching system I have," Yagan told a reporter after the algorithm panel. "I just know I have to have one."