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Sunday, 2 February 2014

Yes, It Really Is OK to Use Math to Get Dates

I was one of many lovelorn nerds who eagerly read Wired's article the other week about Christopher McKinley, the PhD student who used his math and programming skills to turn OKCupid's algorithms to his advantage. I've been on the site for a while, and I can candidly say it's never been my best source for dates - but figuring out a way to make it work better struck me as worth investigating. So after I read the article, I also picked up McKinley's e-book, Optimizing Cupid, to see what he had to say.

So naturally, I was interested to see dating coach Dr Nerdlove post about the article on his blog, as well as linking to an article on Buzzfeed that attacked the whole concept of what McKinley was doing.

Generally I don't really like Buzzfeed. It feels (is) a lot like a group of 24-year-olds loudly trumpeting their opinions as heaven-sent facts - if you subtracted 5-10 years from their ages they'd probably be Bieber fans, with all the hysteria and self-righteousness that entails. And this article didn't really change my opinion of them, for a number of reasons.

First, the author defaulted to the argument that McKinley was a creepy PUA type for what he did, the implication being that he was misrepresenting himself somehow. Admittedly, the thing about creating a bunch of bots to collect information about all of LA's female OKCupid profiles might give reasonable people pause. But the whole tone of the Buzzfeed article seems to be schoolmarmish horror that someone attempted to improve his odds of meeting someone on the site by means other than browsing at random, firing off a message and waiting in vain for a response.

Frankly, that can be soul-destroying - wading through ten or twenty profiles in one night that all talk about how much they love traveling, red wine and curling up on the sofa to watch a cheesy film (or insert your favorite cliches for male profiles). So figuring out a better way of putting people in front of each other who should click in real life according to OKCupid seems like common sense - why continue playing a game that's rigged against you?

The article also appears to misunderstand the difference between dating and meeting someone from the internet face to face. This is possibly because Wired's coverage ran with the headline that McKinley went on almost 90 "dates" in two months. McKinley himself characterizes those as "meetups" rather than dates, which seems logical to me, especially because very few, if any, of those meetups had a sequel. In the book McKinley is at pains to point out that the real test of whether you click is when you meet face to face - hardly the words of a PUA guru out to, essentially, hypnotize girls into blowing him.

But that's one of the other things that bothered me about Buzzfeed's response. It bespeaks some kind of visceral reaction of distaste to that headline (90 dates in two months! Sometimes, "classily", 2 dates per day!), but also no real effort to go beyond the headline and see what the real story is. Given that Buzzfeed appears to have set itself up as some kind of internet gadfly, did they really have to run a story within 48 hours of the Wired article? If you're going to comment on things happening on the internet, rather than just reporting on them, then find out what the real story is.

The other thing that bothered me about this response was how much it reminded me of that Gawker/Gizmodo article from a few years ago where one of the writers went on a date with someone who turned out to be a nerd. Specifically, a hardcore Magic: The Gathering player, which caused her to back away in horror (frankly, she'd have won my sympathy if she'd just talked about the awfulness of being taken to a stage play based on Jeffrey Dahmer's life).

What both articles seem to have in common is this idea that if you aren't "normal", and into "normal" things, like hedge funds and football and whatever else grown-ups are supposed to be into these days, or you try to find dates online in a non-traditional manner, then you're some kind of pariah. I'm not saying the woman from Gizmodo should have let the guy get into her pants - chemistry is chemistry, and if you're not feeling it, that's totally legitimate. And as I said above, the Buzzfeed writer's article read like an ex post facto justification why she felt such distaste for McKinley's story; I can't really argue with her gut reaction.

But, you know, seek first to understand, as Stephen Covey's 7 Habits of Highly Effective People recommends. Things that seem odd or distasteful at first glance aren't necessarily so once you've really looked into them. If Buzzfeed can't do that, then they should stick to making stupid lists of things people say on Twitter (and possibly informing the people being quoted).