Smart. Funny. Must not smoke. Must insist that I stop smoking. Must weigh at least 20 pounds more than me at all times! Must be willing to listen to George Michael. Attend concerts. Be totally devoted to me.
Just like the Mary Poppins children advertising for a wart-free nanny who plays "games, all sorts," journalist Amy Webb drafted her own "husband list" – 72 traits for an ideal partner. She used her list – and other tricks – to narrow the field on JDate, an online dating site for Jewish users. Only one man, Brian, scored above her minimum threshold of 700 points: He was her first and last date on the site. Webb describes her success in the new book, Data, A Love Story: How I Gamed Online Dating to Meet My Match, a shamelessly nerdy, algorithm-loaded tome in which she argues that anyone can stack the romantic odds in their favour using the Internet.
"What I'm doing is taking control of the situation and determining my own outcome," said Webb, a digital strategist. "You can go in and pinpoint who you want and then market yourself to that person. It's easy."
But while Webb's brains and tenacity landed her a husband, what about the rest of us? Chronic users of online sites are counting on increasingly tailor-made partners materializing at the other end of their searches. Yet critics are beginning to question what long-term effects such expectations have on the values we've traditionally held dear. Will users negate potential matches over piddly details, or use pickiness as a crutch when they're actually commitment-phobes? Does being exceedingly specific mean less compromise in our relationships, and is compromise worth losing in the modern age?
Journalist Dan Slater has been stirring debate with his new book, Love in the Time of Algorithms, in which he argues that online dating may be corroding commitment, a spin on the popular concept of "the tyranny of choice." Interviewing 100 online-dating users, Slater found that the new availability of dates means many people are now less likely to put in the effort once a relationship starts to flounder: "What if the prospect of finding an ever-more-compatible mate with the click of a mouse means a future of relationship instability, in which we keep chasing the elusive rabbit around the dating track?" he writes.
In an interview, Slater describes the predominant, hyper-selective mentality: "The computer keeps learning more about me and I keep learning more about myself as I have these experiences one after the other. The next relationship will be a little bit better, if I can just go back into the online dating pool, without this little flaw that the person I'm with right now has that really annoys me."
With the endless tweaking of variables, online daters can get the sense that someone more compatible is always out there – a potentially narcissistic exercise. Webb stresses that users should treat online-dating sites like manoeuvrable catalogues: "How do I reverse-engineer the process so that I can get the person that I want?" In looking for a husband, she also created 10 fake male profiles to find out how the most popular women on JDate were commanding most of the attention, going so far as to track their vocabulary using word clouds – "love," "girl" and "fun" were some saccharine favourites. Indeed, the most coveted women generally minimized themselves, shaving inches off their height and keeping bios crisp and short, with little or no mention of work.
Webb denies it's a retrograde pattern, but rather, deft avoidance of the dreaded overshare: "This is like writing the perfect blurb," she said. "This is about grabbing somebody's attention so you can get to the next step."
Laurie Davis, author of the new book Love @ First Click: The Ultimate Guide to Online Dating, says the fixation on bios is harming potential connections: "My concern for online dating in our society is that we'll begin to overprioritize perfection on paper at the expense of real relationships." Working as an "online-dating coach" in New York and Boston, Davis has seen a lot of frustrated clients obsessively searching for the perfect person. "They ditch too soon," said Davis, recalling one client who passed over a potential match the moment the woman made a passing mention of ski trips.
"People are just getting too exclusive about who they're looking for and too picky. The truth is when you take a 2D item and bring it into 3D, it's much more dynamic," says Davis, recommending particularly fervent but perpetually dissatisfied users take a breather offline to gain some perspective.
Ultimately, Davis is of two minds about digital dating. While she believes esoteric personal filters constrain users' love lives, the online medium is "definitely a less random way of dating," says Davis, who met her fiancé on Twitter.
After half a dozen dates, Webb hazarded showing Brian her charts, graphs and Mary Poppins husband lists. He says that it felt "as though I conjured him up," she remembers. "It was a really strange and bizarre experience to have some other person who didn't know you suddenly be able to list everything about you."
She kept scoring Brian a year and a half into the relationship, but stopped counting after he hit 1,500 points. Brian wasn't miffed: His wife-to-be was "not standing for things as they are, and instead using your brains to reshape the world into what you want."