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Matchmaker, Matchmaker … Run Your Algorithm

Filed by KOSU News in Art & Life.
June 29, 2011

New Yorker staff writer Nick Paumgarten has never tried online dating. He married the second woman he ever went out with, almost 25 years ago.

But he became interested in the multibillion-dollar Internet dating industry — which now accounts for one in every six new marriages — because of the way online dating has become entrenched in American culture. In his latest New Yorker piece, “Looking for Someone,” Paumgarten profiles several of the major online dating websites and explains what they’re doing to pair people with compatible romantic mates.

It’s Like College

Online dating, says Paumgarten, serves the same function for middle-aged adults as college does for younger people: It provides them with a plethora of mating options.

“What happens is, you run out of friends, and then you run out of friends of friends of friends, and suddenly you find yourself being introduced to the dregs,” he tells Fresh Air’s Terry Gross. “What Internet dating provides is a much bigger pool, and with that pool, theoretically, you have a better chance of meeting someone better. It also means it takes a lot of work to sort through all the possible mates that are there for you.”

Though there are thousands of online dating websites, Paumgarten examined several of the bigger ones: the fee-based sites Match.com and eHarmony.com, and OK Cupid — a free site that makes money on ad sales.

“If the dating sites had a mixer,” Paumgarten writes, “you might find OK Cupid by the bar, muttering factoids and jokes, and Match.com in the middle of the room, conspicuously dropping everyone’s first names into his sentences. The clean-shaven gentleman on the couch, with the excellent posture, the pastel golf shirt, and that strangely chaste yet fiery look in his eye? That would be eHarmony.”

All three sites rely on their own individual methods to predict a match — OK Cupid uses mathematical algorithms to analyze users’ responses to questions, Match.com compares users’ stated and unstated preferences for a mate, and eHarmony relies on comparing psychological traits its users share.

“All these sites — they all have an approach that they abide by, but the approach is also sort of their selling point,” he says. “But they are trying to find a secret sauce.”

The Steamier Side Of ‘The New York Review Of Books’

Though online dating is relatively new, the art of a well-crafted profile is not. Paumgarten points to The New York Review of Books and the London Review of Books, both of which have personal sections filled with witty ads designed specifically to attract a mate.

“If you were going to do a straight history of Internet dating, you’d have to go back and look at The New York Review of Books and their personals, because they took [personal ads] out of the back alley and they made it into an art form,” he says. “The idea of the clever, well-curated personal profile — which is very much a part of it — was always important.”

Nick Paumgarten has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 2005. He was the deputy editor of the Talk of the Town section from 2000 to 2005. He has also contributed to The New York Observer. [Copyright 2011 National Public Radio]

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