Computers Can’t Actually Determine Who’s Compatible With You

Reading between the lines.
Feb. 1 2013 11:14 PM

Love Bytes

A veteran of online dating finds he’s somewhat compatible with Dan Slater’s new book.

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Illustration by Mike Norton

Dan Slater boasts a relatively rare —for now—perspective on computer dating. Without it, he wouldn’t exist.

Seth Stevenson Seth Stevenson

Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.

Slater’s parents met through Contact, Inc., a matchmaking service that debuted in 1965 and went defunct soon after—though not before the two college students paid $4 each and filled out Contact’s 100-question personality test. A rented mainframe computer nicknamed Eros tallied up their responses and concluded they were well-suited. And thus a Harvard boy got introduced to a Mount Holyoke girl.

Their union would eventually produce the author of Love in the Time of Algorithms. Subtitle: “What technology does to meeting and mating.” Slater’s book is partly a history of the many efforts to quantify courtship—beginning with a low-tech, punch-card battle between Contact (created by an MIT guy) and its mid-‘60s rival Operation Match (created by a Harvard guy) and carrying through to modern counterparts like OkCupid (created by a quartet of Harvard guys) and its parent company, Match.com (created by a Stanford MBA guy). Over the decades, a slew of brainy, entrepreneurial types have attempted to profit from our fear of dying alone.  (Perhaps our elite universities need smokier music and moodier lighting at their mixers?)

The summer after I graduated from high school, I worked as a telemarketer for a pre-Internet matchmaking service called Successful Singles. We would cold-call unsuspecting folks at dinnertime, reaching them on their kitchen landlines as they ate what we presumed to be bleak microwave meals for one. We’d promise we could pair them with a perfect mate by employing intricate compatibility metrics. I still remember the opening of my script: “Hi, our research suggests that you’re one of the Boston area’s successful singles!”

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This chipper pitch was occasionally met with interest. (And once in a while, inappropriate interest. “Well, you sure sound nice, are you single?” one woman purred to me through my headset. “I’m 17, ma’am,” I replied. I think the “ma’am” cooled her jets.) But more often I encountered silent hang-ups or pissed-off dismissals along the lines of: “What makes you think I need help getting dates? I get plenty of dates.” The prevailing notion held that dating services were a last resort catering to lonely hearted losers.

That social stigma has evaporated. Third-party, for-profit matchmaking is a booming sector these days—a $2 billion business in North America. Every unmarried person under 40 I know has at least dabbled in online dating. According to Slater, Match.com alone has around 1.5 million paying subscribers, with revenue of nearly $350 million a year. In 2011, it bought OkCupid for a cool $90 million.

Many current dating sites claim they can identify your future life-partner with computational precision. There are the “29 dimensions of compatibility” used by eHarmony in its “scientific approach to matching.” OKCupid profiles include stats such as “93% match” and “81% friend” and “17% enemy”—based on a patent-pending method that purports to be “a mathematical expression of how happy you’d be with each other.” One married, tech-fetishist pal of mine almost laments the fact that he met his wife in grad school the boring, old-fashioned way. “I sort of wish I’d put my fate in the hands of a robot,” he once said to me, regretfully, as I was describing my own online dating adventures. “I think it would be cool to know that an algorithm determined this was the absolute best person for you.”

Is the search for an ideal match truly less about poetry than equations? When we say that we seek a soul mate, are we talking about an empirical concept? Slater notes that several psychology professors—led by Northwestern’s Eli Finkel—have published a paper arguing it is “virtually impossible” for dating sites to “identify potential mates who are uniquely compatible.” The evidence simply isn’t there. It actually is possible to analyze an existing couple and, using various methods, predict whether the relationship will last. But, according to Finkel, there is basically no way to foresee the compatibility of two total strangers.

Which is sort of beside the point, in my experience. Online dating, in its most satisfying moments, isn’t about the idea of letting a computer algorithm locate the perfect person for you. (Sorry, tech-fetishist friend—you’ll just need to be satisfied with your awesome wife.) It’s about taking control, shopping around, and having more options. When you sign on to a dating site, you’re suddenly presented with many more potential mates than you could ever hope to find in traditional hunting grounds—your workplace, your circles of friends, closing time at that dive bar across the street. The real power of Internet matching is the scale.

Of course, single people have always had means to boost their odds. You can move to a city, where the population of as-yet-unclaimed hearts will be larger. You can lower your standards to broaden the radius of your dating pool. You can also just toss out game 24-7 with utter indiscretion. One acquaintance likes to tell random women on the street that he thinks they’re beautiful. “Like 1 in 5 will slow their roll a little and give me a smile,” he says. “And like 1 in 5 of those stop and talk to me and let me hand them my business card. And like 1 in 5 of those actually call me.” I would assume that at least 2 in 5 women he approaches think him a frightening skeezball. And I think, for better or worse, he’s OK with that ratio.

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