How I Used Algorithms, Data, and Lists To Game Online Dating and Find My Match

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
Jan. 31 2013 5:33 AM

Data: A Love Story

The algorithms, statistics, charts, and lists I used to game online dating and find my match.

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55. Be secure and quietly confident. But not arrogant.

56. Should not succumb to jealousy of me, of colleagues, of family members.

57. Genuinely like and appreciate my giant, loud Jewish family.

58. Likes cities, hates suburbs. I want to live in a place full of excitement, culture, and opportunities. Ideally, we’ll walk to the market together for groceries and try a new restaurant once a week. He should abhor chain restaurants and the McMansions of suburbia.

59. Must share most of my interests: touring historic homes, playing with new technologies, attending seminars and conferences. Of course, he should also share my non-interests and have apathy toward long road trips, mall shopping, wine culture, hanging out in bars listening to local bands.

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60. Is willing to participate in or try some of my activities: learning about cooking and cuisine, going to museums, seeing new places, etc.

61. Shouldn’t get angry. He should never feel compelled to punch a hole in the wall. Henry had a really bad temper and once got so angry at me that he slammed his fist into the wall about 6 inches away from my face.

62. No history of cheating. Not on a test, not in a game of poker, and certainly not on a former girlfriend.

63. Be totally devoted to me. He must listen well, pay attention, and love me intensely.

64. Be physically affectionate but not overbearing. I want him to hold my hand in public, not deep throat me at Sunday brunch.

65. Be adventurous in bed. He should be willing to try new things, new places, new techniques, without my prompting. He should be confident enough to pull off whatever that sexual adventure is.

66. Be very, very, very good in bed. I cannot stress this enough. He has to be amazing—so amazing that I’ll feel sheepish talking about him to any of my friends.

67. Must be very friendly (but not in a fake way) to waitstaff. He should be like Jay on our date, before he became a lecherous asshole.

68. Should be easygoing, adaptable. If plans don’t work out his way, he should be able to move on without whatever it was ruining his entire day.

69. Must get along well with Hilary. Non-negotiable!

70. Must be unflappably dependable. He should never forget dates and can’t flake out on our plans. If he says something, he should mean it and follow through.

71. Must have an excellent vocabulary. He should feel comfortable correcting me if I misuse a word.

72. Should never have the instinct to high-five me. No high-fiving allowed!

I sat back in my chair. I was no longer angry at Jay and lamenting my decision to go out with him. No, at this point I felt empowered, and proud of myself for being honest enough to develop such an impressive list of 72 data points. This Mary Poppins Husband List was exactly who I needed to make me happy. He was right there, detailed in black ink. None of the men JDate, Match, or eHarmony had introduced me to resembled anything like the man I’d just created with this list.

I lit another cigarette, celebrating my accomplishment. Then it dawned on me that I’d inadvertently created a small problem. What was I supposed to do with three pages of hand-scrawled notes? I needed to make sense of what I’d written. Reviewing my list, I noticed some duplication, so I’d need to fix some of what was there. I couldn’t really use the list as it was—I needed to codify the traits and characteristics.

In order to use it to judge future potential dates, I needed to prioritize the various data points. Was every one of the 72 traits I’d listed a deal breaker? Honestly, I could live without a husband as devoted to George Michael as I am. And it was probably OK if he wasn’t a classic-movie fanatic.

I decided that the list had to be sorted and tagged, using three frames of reference: traits in partners from previous serious relationships, traits demanded by my family, and traits I considered to be top priorities in order to please myself.

Thinking about Henry, I could see that there were some things that worked in our relationship. There were also plenty of issues that seemed to be problematic in other past relationships. For example, I wasn’t good at social drinking. My body seemed to transition from sober to drunk without warning, and as a result I didn’t like hanging out at bars. Sure, I was smoking as I made the list, but I didn’t want an occasional or social smoker. Instead, I wanted an avid nonsmoker who would force me to stop.

Was there a pattern to the men I’d dated previously? What were the common traits shared by men from my past relationships? I lit another cigarette.

Next to my legal pad were several Hi-Tec-C pens in different colors: red, green, blue, purple, and black. I decided to color-code the list for each set of traits, marking a small dot next to the list entry. I rolled the green pen toward me and at the top of the paper wrote: “Traits in Partners From Previous Relationships.”

I thought about Henry and about all the other relationships I’d been in that lasted more than a few months. I marked a green dot next to each trait that was relevant:

  • Smart
  • Funny
  • Interesting
  • Between 5-foot-10 and 6-foot-2

That’s it? That can’t be right, I thought.

I scanned the list again, objectively evaluating each trait and holding my green pen close to the paper. I’d just made a comprehensive list of everything I demanded in a husband, and of everyone I’d dated—even casually—there were only four traits that previous partners had? No wonder those relationships didn’t work out. I put my plastic mug back up to my lips and tilted my head back as far as I could while still focusing on the paper, but there was nothing left. I licked the rim a bit. The wine, Chateau LaFou–something-or-other, wasn’t very good, but the taste was starting to grow on me. I put the mug down on the table, reached for the bottle, and poured.

I rolled the blue pen toward me and wrote “Traits Demanded by My Family” at the top. Then I combed through the list, marking blue dots next to each one of the traits that qualified:

  • Smart
  • Jewish
  • Must not smoke
  • Must have actual career
  • Wants two kids
  • Has a positive outlook on life
  • Is mature, a grown-up
  • Lightning-fast thinker
  • Be from Chicago or willing to relocate there
  • Be very good with money
  • Must genuinely like and appreciate my family
  • Shouldn’t get angry
  • No history of cheating
  • Be totally devoted to me

This, of course, made sense. My parents, sister, grandparents, aunts, and uncles all wanted me to find someone who would treat me well, who would keep me interested, and who would fit into our existing family structure. They wanted me to be in the kind of relationship where I became a better version of myself.

Now, I thought about what was crucially important to me. What were the traits I’d need in a husband in order to make me truly happy? I brought the red pen up to the paper, at the top wrote, “What I Need To Make Me Happy,” and judiciously awarded red dots:

  • Smart
  • Jew ... ish
  • Career is important
  • Wants two kids
  • Challenges and stimulates me
  • Is genuinely able to crack me up
  • Be very good with money
  • Must genuinely like and appreciate my family
  • No history of cheating
  • Be very, very, very good in bed

Now that it was dark outside, I had to use the light from my computer to review all of my markups. My list was now covered in different colors. It made basic sense, but a spreadsheet would help me to visualize what was really important. As I pushed my chair back, it rumbled against the wood of the patio deck. I knocked against the table a bit as I stood up. I was dizzy, and the backs of my legs tingled. I checked the time on my mobile phone. It was 10 p.m.? How had three hours passed?

I brought my bag back outside and arranged my MacBook on the table next to my list. I opened up a basic spreadsheet and entered all of the traits from each color:

WEBB-7-Traits

Using the red list as a base, I decided to narrow the pool down to a prioritized list of 10 deal breakers. Since no drugs and no smoking should both be assumed, I disqualified them from consideration. Ten seemed like a good round number. I didn’t feel like I was being too greedy, and I was focusing on the things that mattered most.

I started a new spreadsheet, typing my 10 deal breakers in priority order in one column. In the next column, I gave each a score to weigh each trait: 10 = highest, 1 = lowest: 

WEBB-8-Top-tier

I took a sip of wine from my coffee mug and thought about what was on my screen. I’d just ranked what traits in an ideal husband were most important to me and to the people in my life. These 10 deal breakers made perfect sense, but there were other data points on my list that I knew were also significant. Ten was just an arbitrary number, I figured. So why not create a second tier of almost-as-important traits, and change the weighting system? Deal-breaker traits would receive a distribution of the 90th percentile of points available out of 100. Then I could give the second-tier traits much less weight by allocating fewer than 50 points per category:

WEBB-9-Large-trait

It would be highly unlikely that someone who scored a maximum number of points in the second-tier category would not also score at least several of the more heavily weighted deal-breaker traits. Glen would have scored a 50 if I was feeling generous, and I would have given Jim about 150 pre-date.

Looking at my list now, 150 points shouldn’t have qualified Jim for a date. Karaoke night with Glen should never have been an option. What was a good number? Doing some quick math, I decided that from here forward, anyone I’d consider going out with would have to score an initial 700 points. He could get extra credit in any category up to 10 points too. This would ensure that I would eliminate bad dates before I had the chance to go out on them. In order to score a potential date accurately, I’d have to use email or instant message and also talk to him on the phone long enough to determine whether he’d met the 700-point threshold.

And then, after the first few dates, I would force myself to re-score him. In order to enter into a relationship—a semi-serious one, even—he’d have to score a minimum of 1,000 points. That would mean he’d met at least seven of the top-tier traits and most of the second-tier list.

I resolved to honor my list and scoring system from that point forward. I grabbed my phone and called Hilary. I knew it was late. I didn’t care.

“Hello?” she said. I expected her to be at home in bed, but she was still at the dinner party. I could hear just a few men talking, laughing a little.

“I did it,” I said, nearly shouting. “I made the list!”

“What list?” Hilary asked.

“The Mary Poppins husband list you told me to make!”

“No ... ,” she started.

I started rattling off each data point. “One ... smart. Because, you know, he has to be brilliant. Two ... funny. He has to completely crack me up ...”

“Wait a minute,” she sighed, exasperated. “Let me get somewhere quiet.” During the short pause, I imagined her excitedly scurrying to the bathroom again, as giddy as I was about what I’d just created. In reality, she was probably rolling her eyes at her friends and making that pointed-finger crazy gesture at her head. “Oh, it’s Hilary’s poor deranged sister again,” fabulous Eric was saying from his charming black leather sofa.

“OK,” she said. “I’m in the bathroom. Go ahead.”

I read Hilary the entire list, all the way down to number 72. Then I explained how I’d prioritized and color-coded it, assigning numerical values to each trait. I told her that I would refuse to go out with someone until he reached a minimum score of 700, and how any future husband had to score at least 1,000 points.

“It’s a flawless plan!” I concluded, waiting for a response. A few seconds went by. “Are you still there?”

“Amy, you need to destroy that list,” Hilary said. “Or fold it up and put it somewhere where no one will find it.”

“But don’t you see the beauty in what we did?”

We didn’t make a list with 72 different things you’re demanding in a husband,” she reminded me. “I was just trying to make you feel better.”

“But the reason I’m going on all these bad dates is precisely because I didn’t have a detailed list of what I need to make me happy,” I said. “It all makes perfect, logical sense now. It’s just math. I can see it!”

“There’s no way you’re going to find someone who scores—what was it?—like 2,000 points on your scale. This is just going to make things harder for you,” she said. “Trying to find a husband who fits the exact list of what you want is going to be like looking for a needle in a haystack. You’re never going to find him.”

“That’s where you’re wrong,” I said. “It’s dead easy to find the needle. You hack the haystack. Knock it over, scan it with a metal detector, find your needle.”

Amy Webb writes a column about data for Slate. She's the head of Webbmedia Group, a digital strategy agency, the author of Data, A Love Story and the co-founder of Spark Camp.

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