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January 12, 2013

Experts' Expert: Amy Webb on why your online dating efforts are such a disaster

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Her piece in today's Wall Street Journal is bracing and encouraging — but only if you're willing to get down off your high horse and stop with all your dealbreaker nonsense and get real.

You can get results — wonderful, life-changing results — from Match.com and JDate and their ilk but only on one condition: you play the game to win instead of to be true to yourself.

Your choice.

Me, at the end of a case I'd rather have a live patient — having done the wrong thing — than the opposite, but I know some who take the opposite approach.

Your call.

Below, excerpts from her essay, which itself is adapted from her upcoming (January 31) book, "Data, A Love Story: How I Gamed Online Dating to Meet My Match."

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Hacking the Hyperlinked Heart

I was 30 years old, just out of a long-term relationship and no longer interested in playing the field. It was time to settle down with the right man, get married and start a family. At the urging of several friends (and my worried mother), a strategy was settled upon: I joined Match.com and JDate, a website for Jewish singles.

What followed was a series of bad dates worthy of a romantic comedy: stupid sexual remarks, too much alcohol consumed (by them). A surprising number of men high-fived me, for reasons that remain unclear.

My profile was obviously attracting the wrong kind of man. After one particularly disastrous date — he casually dropped the fact that he was actually married — I decided to change my approach. Drawing on my background in data analysis, I set out to reverse engineer my profile. I outlined 10 male archetypes and created profiles for each of them on JDate. There was JewishDoc1000, the private-practice cardiologist who hated cruise-ship travel, and LawMan2346, an attorney who was very close to his family and a former national debate champion.

Posing as these men, I spent a month using JDate. I interacted with 96 women, cataloging how they behaved and presented themselves online and scraping data from their profiles (such as the language they used or the number of hours they waited before emailing back one of my profiles). Wanting to learn everything I could about my competition, I kept a detailed database, and I recorded which female profiles were popular. While JDate doesn't publicly release its algorithms, at the time of my experiment I observed that the more popular profiles come up higher in search results, allowing one to get a quick-and-dirty ranking of who's hot (or not). I quickly realized that the popular women seemed to know something I didn't; they were clearly attracting the sort of smart, attractive professionals who had been ignoring my profile.

What did I discover? Popular profiles used aspirational language (like "I want to travel" or "a big ambition of mine is…"), kept descriptions short and generic and lied about various physical characteristics (though not the ones you think). Their style was easygoing, youthful and spontaneous. I'd never once referred to myself in writing as "fun" or as a "girl." But it was easy to see that I had been far too stuffy and professional in my presenting myself (I'd gotten lazy and cribbed from my résumé).

I learned that short profiles that express just enough information to pique someone's interest are the ones that do best. A good cutoff point is the 500-word mark. In my case, I'd written close to 900 words — a dissertation. That put me in the bottom 8% of all profiles I looked at. If I was blathering on that much before even meeting someone, what would I be like in person on a first date?

I assumed that daters lied about their weight. I certainly rounded down. What shocked me, though, was how many women seemed to be lying about their height. All of the 96 women I interacted with listed their height as between 5-foot-1 and 5-foot-3, even though the average height of an American woman is 5-foot-4. Though it isn't impossible that 100% of these women would have fallen below the average, it's statistically improbable. (Plus, you could tell from their photos that most of the women were taller than they said.) These women assumed that men wanted shorter, more petite dates, and they appeared to be right. Why? Because men lie about their height, too.

Another surprise: My parents and friends always told me to let men approach me; otherwise, I'd seem too aggressive. But successful online daters were bold and friendly. Popular women didn't hesitate to reach out to my male profiles. They sent casual messages that were just a line or two long. They would open with "Hey" or "Hi there" (instead of, say, "Hello, [name]") followed by "I like that you [detail from profile]. I'm interested in [detail] too."

Some other interesting details I discovered:

• Use between three and five photos in your gallery. More photos can do some good, but after five, my analysis suggests, profiles pass a point of diminishing returns.

• Lead with your hobbies and activities, unless they require lots of description or explanation. So you can start with tennis, if that's your thing, but not aikido — or worse, "I have a black belt in aikido." (I actually do, and I put it on my profile at one point, which prompted some men to challenge me to a fight on the first date, which was as horrible and awkward as it sounds.)

• It's really hard to be funny in print — especially if you're naturally prone to sarcasm. I found that people who thought they were being funny in their profiles weren't. Instead, they seemed angry or aloof.

• Women: Don't mention work, especially if your job is difficult to explain. You may have the most amazing career on the planet, but it can inadvertently intimidate someone looking at your profile. I realize this sounds horribly regressive, but during my experiment I found that women were attracted to men with high-profile careers, while the majority of men were turned off by powerful women.

• Women with curly hair are at a distinct disadvantage online. I have no idea whether men prefer blondes, but I can say definitively that most men prefer women with healthy, long, straight hair. If you have curls and feel comfortable (and look good) straightening your hair, give that a try.

• If someone instant-messages you while you're online, go ahead and IM back if you want — the popular women I interacted with online certainly did. Otherwise, for email exchanges, they waited 20 to 23 hours, on average, between contacts for the first few messages.

At the end of my analysis, I'd compiled enough information to create a super profile — a sort of amalgam of what I saw the popular women doing, along with my own personal details. Instead of bullet points and résumé speak, I wrote that "my friends would describe me as an outgoing and social world traveler, who's equally comfortable in blue jeans and little black dresses."

Soon after it went live, my super profile attracted more than 60 responses, many of them notably different from the ones I'd attracted before.

Among them was a response from a profile called Thevenin, an attractive, Jewish man who seemed smart and funny. His real name was Brian, and he was my last first date.

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FunFact: The classic cartoon by Peter Steiner which heads this post will, in less than six months, celebrate the 20th anniversary of its appearance on page 61 of the July 5, 1993 issue of the New Yorker.

January 12, 2013 at 04:01 PM | Permalink


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Alas, nothing here could possibly help the dating life of American Wine Glass inventor and BOJ nattering nabob of negativity Dillon Burroughs.

Posted by: 6.02*10^23 | Jan 13, 2013 3:18:06 PM

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