When journalist and digital-strategy expert Amy Webb joined JDate and Match.com in 2005, her profiles didn’t achieve the desired results.
To attract a better crop of suitors, Webb — who later found a Jewish husband — put her professional skills to use, identifying the types of women most popular online so that she could reverse-engineer the system.
She shares the outcome of her journey in a new memoir, “Data, A Love Story: How I Gamed Online Dating To Meet My Match.”
After analyzing the most successful female profiles, Webb created her own “super profile,” as well as a method of evaluating potential dates. Her list of 72 characteristics covered a wide range: He needed to be smart, funny and “Jew-ish” (Jewish but “not religious”), as well as 20 pounds heavier than her and willing to listen to George Michael.
In the lead-up to Valentine’s Day, Webb spoke to The Times of Israel about whether online dating differs from more traditional forms of romance; the benefits and shortcomings of JDate; and what women should do if they’ve got curly hair.
In Webb‘s own life, the results speak for themselves. Following the creation of the “super profile,” dozens of respondents contacted her. The author had vowed not to go out with anyone who didn’t rake in at least 1,500 points according to her own scoring system; luckily, there was a 1,500-pointer among those who reached out.
His name was Brian. She responded only to him, and he was her “last first date.”
Your career is such a huge part of who you are. How did you feel once you decided not to mention it in your profile?
For me, work is a very, very important part of my life. It’s what I talk about all the time. But most people aren’t like that. And I can’t describe what I do in only a few words. I learned that online dating sites are really just catalogues. The purpose of the “About” section is really just to get people to notice you enough or to respond positively if you reach out to them. Then, on the first or second email, you can talk about what you do for a living, and that’s exactly what I did. The profile is just the marketing copy for you. You want to offer enough details that are tantalizing, that create a curiosity gap so that somebody really wants to contact you and learn more.
In the book, you argue that women with curly hair are at a distinct disadvantage in online dating. You recommend that they straighten their hair, but then chose not to do so for your own profile picture.
Statistically, women with long, healthy, straight hair are going to fare better both online and in general. I didn’t straighten my hair because it doesn’t fit my personality. I really like my curly hair, and work hard to make sure that it is frizz-free. But, if you’re able to straighten your hair and you feel like you look better with it that way, then you have a statistically higher chance of attracting someone . . . I also have contacts and glasses and think I look better with glasses, so some of my profile pictures had contacts; some of them had glasses.
Is it more important to look in your profile the way you do in the rest of your life?
Yes, absolutely. But there’s a difference here. It’s about looking your best possible self, which means that you have to put some serious effort into it. Get your makeup done so that it looks really good. Take photos specifically for the website, rather than just using the best of what you already have. And make sure that you also put an effort into the way you look going out on dates. I’ve lived in other places in the world, and I’ve notice that in many parts of the US, we’ve become really casual, and have forgotten to make the most of our assets. Again, this is about thinking of yourself as a product that you’re trying to market. You have to figure out a way to look better but still be you, which is exactly what I did.
How does this process of messaging online resemble or differ from meeting someone in a bar or at a party?
In a sense, they’re the same, but the way we behave is quite different. Just because you happen to be online and the person isn’t sitting right in front of you doesn’t mean you should abandon what you normally do in the real world. The process is greatly accelerated; there are very few barriers on the Internet, so our proclivity to send more messages than we probably should is higher. You’ll see a lot of people rapid-fire instant messaging someone or texting them inappropriately or typing too quickly, trying to be funny, and then realizing they’ve accidentally just offended somebody. But when you’re sitting face to face with somebody, you don’t tend to act as haphazardly, and potentially badly, as you would online.
Did Brian have a certain strategy for online dating?
He just got lucky?
He just got very, very lucky. And he’ll say the same thing.
There’s been a persistent argument in the media recently that online dating doesn’t make it easier to find a potential partner, because what you’re attracted to on paper doesn’t account for how chemistry really works.
I think everybody’s looking for the spark, the chemistry. The problem is that you have to have a good foundation to go along with that spark and that chemistry, because once that initial phase of the relationship transitions into something else, you have to have enough of the other stuff left. And that’s the trap that most everybody falls into: You rely on that initial chemistry and assume that everything else will fall into place. But I knew from past relationships that it doesn’t.
That was the case with your last boyfriend. You discuss how you let him bring a Christmas tree into your home, because you thought celebrating his holiday would help help bring you closer together.
It was just a Christmas tree, but I felt awful having it in our house. I felt like I was betraying my family. I kept thinking this giant, gaping hole in our religion and our family histories would just not be important, but that’s ridiculous. So I think the key here is to flip the process. Rather than looking for the chemistry first, do the same thing the algorithms do: Find yourself a probable match, where you align exactly on all of the things that really matter, and then hope that you also have chemistry. It’s about putting your priority in a slightly different place and making sure that you’re playing the long-game first.
How did your being Jewish play into your online dating experience? An how did JDate compare to other sites?
JDate played a huge rule, and I am totally grateful it existed so I could meet Brian. That said, again, it comes down to algorithms. JDate never asked me what I was looking for in someone else. Instead, it asked questions about me. And we know it’s very hard for us to be objective when entering information about ourselves. So I think there is this nugget that is the same across all websites that hasn’t been solved for. That said, I wanted someone who was Jewish and was the flavor of Jewish that I am. There’s the “Culturally Jewish” category on JDate, and I think there’s room for other categories that better describe secular Jews. But JDate was going to have the highest concentration of Jewish people, and I figured that was the right place to go.
‘Women and men should feel empowered. Regardless of who you are, it’s perfectly fine to make a list and demand what you want’
There’s also a lot of criticism in the media of how online dating lessens people’s interest in commitment by making it so easy to meet new people, and by promoting the idea that there’s always someone better out there.
That’s something that is generally referred to as “the tyranny of choice,” and I don’t buy that. I think the people that get stuck in that cycle are people who are not seriously ready to settle down and get married. I was not interested in dating — I cannot be more clear about that. I just wanted to find the right guy. So people in that situation don’t have to worry about “the tyranny of choice.” I had a scoring system — I knew that I had landed on the right guy, and that was it. I think people who get stuck in the bigger-better-deal hunt are people who are not really serious about settling down, plain and simple.
How might everything you discovered apply to sites like OkCupid and to a younger generation of online daters who are not, most likely, looking to get married yet?
I think a lot of the same rules apply. In my 20s, I was having a grand old time. I went out with a ton of people, and it was about exploration: Who am I? Who is the person I’m becoming? Part of that learning comes from going out with a bunch of different people, and meeting different friends, and having new experiences. And I think that if you are not yet ready to settle down, but you are dating, the most important thing is to be self-aware and to start making that list. And you may not have the final list until you’re really ready to settle down, but it’s good to start thinking about it and planning ahead.
Do you see the book as more than a memoir? Would you like to revolutionize the world of online dating?
I run a company that advises other companies on digital strategies. One of the fallacies, at least on the business side, is that a lot of these companies just want a software tool, or a line of code, or an algorithm that will solve their problems. We always say that’s a really bad idea — in almost every case, you still need human intervention, and the same thing is true for online dating. Happening upon the right partner is ostensibly the most important thing that you’ll do in your life. You shouldn’t allow that to be outsourced to somebody else’s algorithm alone. So I think that the most important thing about the book is that women and men should feel empowered. Regardless of who you are, it’s perfectly fine to make a list and demand what you want and then figure out the best way to get there.
How would someone less numbers-oriented approach the process?
You still need to make a list. And you have to come up with some framework for evaluating who you meet. I used math, but you could color-code things or use emoticons or doodles. But you have to keep track somehow. As I was falling deeply and madly in love with Brian, I knew that was the time when the important stuff goes by the wayside for a lot of people. But I had the list by my side as this objective third party that’s maybe kind of mean to me, and maybe I don’t like it, but it’s a constant reminder that, “Hey, yes, he’s wonderful, he’s so good-looking, he’s so romantic, but you gotta make sure that these things that really matter to you are still being met.” That’s something that anybody can do, regardless of math.