Most of my friends know my husband, and I met over 18 years ago on a dating site. At the time, all my friends were in a relationship and not interested in going out much, plus the “bar scene” had failed to deliver anyone close to Mr. Right. The internet represented a great way to meet busy professionals looking for a relationship. Even then, of course, you had the odd fake profile or photoshopped picture, but by and large, people on the site were looking to meet someone they could date. If you equate online dating to online communication, I suppose, to today’s generation that has grown up on Tinder, Zoosk, and Grindr, what my husband and I used would look a lot like email: slower, more structured and not that different from the analog mail.
Technology is changing us
Technology changed us in many ways. Thanks to tech, our world got bigger and faster. Just think of how we shop and communicate with people. That fast and furious pace does not always do much for our social life, however. The app and service economy has impacted many aspects of our life from transportation to hospitality. So it should be no surprise that dating has been impacted by both the technology itself and how technology changed us. We want to meet someone fast, we might not necessarily be looking for a long-term relationship, and apparently, we are quite happy to outsource a lot of the work that goes into attracting and getting to know someone. It seems that our busy lives leave little time for trial and error. As much as I sometimes found it uninspiring to read profiles and exchange some initial chit-chat with people I quickly find out I was not interested in, I would never have thought to delegate the process to someone else. That process helped me find out more about myself and what I truly wanted.
Assistant get me a Date!
Over the weekend I came across a terrific article by Chloe Rose Stuart-Ulin (@chloerosewrites) on Quartz that talked about her experience as a “Closer” for the service Virtual Dating Assistant (ViDA). The idea behind it is quite simple. If you are busy but want a date, ViDA takes care of all the chit-chat in the middle to get you a phone number of the prospect you are interested in. This is not, however, the case of saying your human secretary sending roses or a bottle of wine on your behalf to the woman or man you are trying to go out on a date like in any good romantic movie. This is impersonating you on Tinder and getting $1.75 for any phone number they can secure. All, of course, without the other person knowing they are not chatting with you but with a professional.
We are relying more and more on assistants so why not? Right? Well, the article establishes that the practice is legal in the US but raises questions of ethics which I totally wonder about too. That said the existence of the service and its success is not really what got me thinking. As I was reading the article and the mention of the training manual that Mrs. Stuart-Ulin was given I thought, once again, at the danger of bias in AI.
What Women want
The manual written by the company founder calls for an alpha male attitude and states as rule number one:
“Don’t make her think too hard,” the manual says. “When writing sales copy…the goal is to reduce her ‘cognitive load’ so she’s more likely to reach the end and still have energy to write out a reply.”
The undercover reporter, in her role as Closer, was reminded that her approach was too female and she was encouraged to:
“use shorter sentences, ask fewer questions, use fewer smileys, wait longer to reply, and set up dates before even asking if the woman is interested. If a woman doesn’t respond to our cheesy pick-up lines or cough up her number by the third message.. move on, as the match is no longer cost-effective”
In the ViDA case, it was “just a manual” but you could certainly imagine, as we move more and more into a world driven by AI that ViDA could move part of the process if not all to a bot trained with all the misogynistic understanding of what a woman wants. How terrifying is that idea if you think more broadly and go from dating into a work environment and you imagine a bot sharing the same beliefs is your first exchange with HR for a job interview? We have started to talk about bias in AI, but I really would like to hear more companies focus on this topic and making eradicating it a priority.
Dating and AI
The other thought I had after reading the article was about how technology could help enhance online dating services in a meaningful way. What if these services could access the huge amount of data we currently share on social media, of course with our permission, and any other information we would feel comfortable sharing. Then use that data to create your profile as well as to come up with better matches. I realize that I am making the big assumption that our social persona is actually true to reality which is not often the case, but I give people the benefit of the doubt.
Interestingly as I was getting ready to queue up this column for publication, Facebook announced at F8 it will soon launch a Dating feature not quite as I suggest but more focused around local events and activities you participate in. A tricky time to launch a feature that apparently has been in the works for years, given the current scrutiny Facebook is under and the lack of trust that some consumers now have.
If you want to push my idea further without getting too “Black Mirror” (watch the episode “Be Right Back” and you know what I am talking about), you can even think about a bot with access to all that information standing in for you through the initial portion of the connection. While not the same as doing that yourself, I would find it more ethical than paying a writer to impersonate you.
The bottom line: the limit to how good technology can be is us, humans, with our understanding or lack of-of what is needed, our biases and our inherent desire to cut corners. Hence I remain optimistic about the power technology has to improve our lives, but I remain highly skeptical that we will use our best judgment in deploying it.