Love isn’t a bat­tle­field any­more. It’s a mar­ket­place.

Out­look’s Lisa Bonos says two books re­veal how dat­ing sites feed our need to com­pete

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - bonosl@wash­ Lisa Bonos is Out­look’s as­sis­tant ed­i­tor.

When a Har­vard stu­dent named Gerry filled out a ques­tion­naire for a new com­puter dat­ing ser­vice in 1965, he was matched with six young women. He went out with two who lived nearby but didn’t con­tact the oth­ers.

One of those oth­ers — Nancy, an English ma­jor at Mount Holyoke — sent him a post­card that read sim­ply: “Dear Gerry, Do you ex­ist?”

That note blos­somed into weeks of cor- re­spon­dence and even­tu­ally a re­la­tion­ship. Nancy and Gerry mar­ried two years later, had a son and even­tu­ally di­vorced.

Their child, Dan Slater, grew up to be­come a jour­nal­ist who, in his new book, “Love in the Time of Al­go­rithms,” traces the his­tory of com­puter-me­di­ated matches, from the clunky sys­tem that brought his par­ents to­gether to the so­phis­ti­cated models of to­day’s dat­ing Web sites.

Slater’s par­ents were ahead of their time; on­line dat­ing didn’t ex­plode as an in­dus­try un­til the 1990s and only re­cently shed its so­cial stigma. Now, with about a third of sin­gles dat­ing on­line, it’s pretty clear that th­ese daters do ex­ist — even if

they’re 20 pounds heav­ier or six years less ed­u­cated than their pro­files sug­gest.

So, as Valen­tine’s Day ap­proaches, an up­dated ver­sion of Nancy’s ques­tion might be: Are you the best I can get?

I hope daters aren’t di­rectly ask­ing this of their matches. But two new books, Slater’s “Al­go­rithms” and Amy Webb’s “Data, a Love Story,” sug­gest that suc­ceed­ing in on­line dat­ing, whether you’re the Web site mak­ing the matches or the per­son look­ing for them, is all about stay­ing com­pet­i­tive.

It’s a tough mar­ket­place out there. If you’re go­ing to com­pete with th­ese le­gions of sin­gles, you ought to do some re­search to un­der­stand how your com­peti­tors are mar­ket­ing them­selves. And if you’re not a great date, or if the spark of mar­riage is fad­ing, the Web prom­ises plenty more where you came from.

On the busi­ness side of things, if a par­tic­u­lar site doesn’t pro­vide an en­tic­ing se­lec­tion of sin­gles and a type of match­ing that’s unique — such as OkCupid’s match per­cent­ages or eHar­mony’s ar­du­ous screen­ing process — daters will quickly move on.

Slater ex­plains how com­pe­ti­tion af­fects dat­ing on a macro level — how, for ex­am­ple, on­line dat­ing com­pa­nies mar­ket them­selves and their al­go­rithms to at­tract dif­fer­ent kinds of daters. He delves into the world of niche sites, il­lus­trat­ing that, whether you’re an in­mate, in the mil­i­tary or treat­ing your sex­u­ally trans­mit­ted disease, there’s prob­a­bly a site specif­i­cally for you — such as Meet-An-In­mate, Mil­i­taryCupid or Pos­i­tiveSin­gles. Lo­cals, take note: The big­gest mar­ket for the site Ash­ley Madi­son (slo­gan: “Life is short. Have an af­fair.”) is Washington.

But are th­ese sites help­ing us set­tle down or keep­ing us un­com­mit­ted? The growth of sites promis­ing to help you find The One, Slater re­ports, can make it harder for peo­ple to get into — and stay in — re­la­tion­ships. Think about it: Dat­ing sites woo users by con­vinc­ing them that their data­bases hold thou­sands of de­sir­able peo­ple, and that courtship of the cus­tomer has a flip side, a ten­dency to make us won­der, “Hey, can I do bet­ter?”

Slater speaks with a young man in Port­land, Ore., who met his girl­friend on and con­fesses that he’s “95 per­cent cer­tain that if I’d met Rachel off­line, and if I’d never done on­line dat­ing, I would’ve mar­ried her.” He adds: “When I sensed the breakup coming, I was okay with it. . . . I was ea­ger to see what else was out there.”

An­other dater, whose OkCupid tra­vails in New York are in­ter­spersed through­out the book, ends up in a re­la­tion­ship with some­one she really likes, yet she some­times finds her­self “itching” to get on­line and browse through po­ten­tial boyfriends. “The thought/fear/cu­rios­ity of some­one bet­ter around the cor­ner is al­ways there, In­ter­net or not, es­pe­cially when you live in a big city,” she says.

How­ever, Erika Et­tin, an on­line dat­ing con­sul­tant based in Washington, doesn’t think the Web threat­ens our re­la­tion­ships. “If some­one is in­clined to set­tle down,” she told me, “they won’t be log­ging on to see what’s out there.”

Although he’s one of com­put­er­ized dat­ing’s first poster chil­dren, Slater stays al­most grat­ingly neu­tral on it. Is there a con­flict of in­ter­est be­tween sites that want us to keep paying dues and cus­tomers who want to pair up and log off ? Will our will­ing­ness to share ev­ery last de­tail of our lives on Face­book and Twit­ter lead to on­line dat­ing pro­files that are less anony­mous, with real names rather than screen names at­tached? Slater poses fas­ci­nat­ing ques­tions about how on­line dat­ing is trans­form­ing our pur­suit of love, sex and com­mit­ment, but he lets only his sources an­swer them. I of­ten found my­self think­ing: Smart ques­tion, but what do you, son of Gerry and Nancy, think?

Webb, on the other hand, has very strong con­clu­sions about on­line dat­ing. Her success story is a lit­tle unortho­dox — and since it’s been all over Web and print me­dia in the past month, you may be fa­mil­iar with it.

Af­ter more than a dozen bad dates — which she cat­a­logues in de­tailed spread­sheets tal­ly­ing the men’s high-fives, stupid sex­ual re­marks, mis­used vo­cab­u­lary words and other of­fenses — Webb sits down and lists the 72 at­tributes she’s look­ing for in a mate.

Some are broad (smart, funny, suc­cess­ful); oth­ers are laugh­ably spe­cific (“must weigh at least twenty pounds my­self on­line.”

Her re­tooled pro­file has more re­laxed and re­veal­ing pho­tos. She swaps out the re­sume-speak — ear­lier, she re­ferred to her­self as a “fu­ture thinker” who adapts “cur­rent and emerg­ing tech­nolo­gies for use in com­mu­ni­ca­tions” — for lan­guage that’s fun, sassy and a lit­tle generic: “My friends would de­scribe me as an out­go­ing and so­cial world trav­eler, who’s equally com­fort­able in blue jeans and lit­tle black dresses. I’d say they’re right.”

Then she starts to score the men with whom she in­ter­acts on the site, giv­ing them points based on how many of those 72 at­tributes they pos­sess. As a jour­nal­ist turned man­age­ment con­sul­tant, she writes that “data was what I knew. It wasn’t emo­tional.”

Spoiler alert: Ad­her­ing to her self-tai­lored al­go­rithm, Webb meets her fu­ture hus­band.

The story of her jour­ney cer­tainly sells well in a big-data, Nate Sil­ver world. But I’m not sure she needed to “hack the haystack,” as she puts it, to find her soul mate. A lit­tle self-aware­ness, and some edit­ing help from a trusted friend or two, might have helped her mold that “fu­ture thinker” into a more de­sir­able dater with­out spend­ing a month stalk­ing the com­pe­ti­tion.

Ad­di­tion­ally, her be­lief that women should barely men­tion their jobs in their pro­files — it isn’t LinkedIn, af­ter all — will be tough for Wash­ing­to­ni­ans to swal­low. Still, Webb’s will­ing­ness to ex­pose how she trans­formed from clue­less to keyed-in shows just how man­u­fac­tured and un­nat­u­ral it can feel to look for a mate the way we shop for shoes or elec­tron­ics.

Com­pe­ti­tion has al­ways been part of the mat­ing game, says Glenn Ge­her, a psychology pro­fes­sor and co-au­thor of “Mat­ing In­tel­li­gence Un­leashed: The Role of the Mind in Sex, Dat­ing, and Love.” But in on­line dat­ing, “the bar is much higher,” he says, than when first im­pres­sions are forged in real life.

“De­cep­tion de­tec­tion” is height­ened, Ge­her says, when peo­ple meet on­line. Ev­ery­one is putting forth a pol­ished, as­pi­ra­tional ver­sion of them­selves, push­ing daters to think: “I have to dig deep to find out what this per­son is really like.”

In that con­text, Webb’s in­stincts, while a lit­tle creepy, make per­fect sense. more than me at all times,” “likes jazz only from the 1920s to the late 1940s” and “ap­pre­ci­ates the beauty of a well­crafted spread­sheet”). It makes you won­der if Webb’s real soul mate might not be a man but Excel.

Af­ter fig­ur­ing out just who she’s seek­ing, Webb re­joins JDate, the Jewish dat­ing site, as a man — cre­at­ing 10 pro­files for men she would want to date, with stock im­ages and char­ac­ter sketches so elab­o­rate you’d think she were out­lin­ing a novel. For ex­am­ple, we learn from the spread­sheet she makes for LawMan2346 that he and his younger brother, Mark, “didn’t get along great as kids, but they’re best friends now. Mark is the to­tal op­po­site of him — plays sports, drinks beer. Typ­i­cal man’s man kind of guy.”

But she’s not Cat­fish­ing, she’s do­ing op­po­si­tion re­search. For a month, she cor­re­sponds with 96 fe­male JDaters through th­ese fake pro­files, never meet­ing th­ese women but in­ter­act­ing just enough to col­lect data (more spread­sheets!) on how they present them­selves. Then, she can mimic her com­peti­tors and hopefully snag a bet­ter catch.

“My goal in this ex­per­i­ment wasn’t just to ob­serve other women on JDate. It was to un­der­stand them deeply enough so I could model their be­hav­ior,” Webb writes. “I didn’t want to try to hide who I was or to pre­tend to be some­one else — I just needed to learn from the masters and present the best pos­si­ble ver­sion of


LOVE IN THE TIME OF AL­GO­RITHMS What Tech­nol­ogy Does to Meet­ing and Mat­ing By Dan Slater Cur­rent. 272 pp. $25.95

DATA, A LOVE STORY How I Gamed On­line Dat­ing to Meet My Match By Amy Webb Dut­ton. 304 pp. $25.95

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