Amy Webb’s Ted Talk about hacking online dating

I’ve mentioned Amy Webb before, and her book Data: A Love Story. She recently gave a TED Talk on the same subject, which is pretty darn entertaining. But of course, being an online dating coach with lots of experience and strong opinions, I have to pick apart her approach and warn you away from the aspects I think might harm you more than they help you. So go have a watch, and then let’s discuss!

I  appreciate that Amy likens online dating to the traditional Schadchen, or Jewish matchmaker. The idea of making matches based on practical compatibility components has been around for generations. However, traditional matchmaking also evolved in a world when marriage was vitally important to society in a way that it no longer is. In that vein, I think it’s important to keep in mind that a list of your Perfect Mate Metadata demands can exist, sure, but it has to be a list that can flex and get reexamined in a less obsessively data-driven lens, because we live in a world that’s far more subtle and nuanced than a Mensch spreadsheet.

I don’t think Amy would agree with me here; her spreadsheet approached worked great for her. And if it works for you, too, then hooray! But I’ve met and worked with oh so many singles for whom a list of qualifications has continually backfired. At the end of her love story, Amy made this meticulous complicated number threshold and exactly ONE guy met her bar. This one worked for her, which is fantastic, but I can tell you from experience (as a dater AND an online dating coach) that setting complicated requirement bars is often NOT the path to a data-driven happy ending. Your mileage may vary, like, a LOT.

Amy sharply noted that online dating success is dependent on both great qualitative and great quantitative data. This means your actual content must be fantastic, but that factors such as content length and frequency of optimistic words and placement of humor snippets are also crucial. I agree wholeheartedly; however, that doesn’t mean you can rely on a tag cloud of positive terms like she showed. (That makes for a good slideshow, but not a good profile!) You’ve got to find non-clichéd ways to sound optimistic, funny, and charming in order to stand out; this is especially true for all guys and for older women. I hate to make generalizations, but it’s true demographically speaking. I know; being this damn charming is harder than it sounds! (Why do you think I have a job? Note that I write waaaay more in my blog and newsletter than I do in my clients’ profiles.)

Amy also states that “non-specific language” is a hallmark of solid online daters, but I utterly disagree here! In most cases, specific details are the best way to stand out from other profiles, to seem more like a human than just a profile URL, and to reach users who are astute enough to tinker around with manual searches on specific terms or titles. Yes, it’s possible someone might be dismissive about your love of The English Patient (her example), but generally, if you annotate your media passions with something that shows a little wit or self-deprecation, or provides a window into your thought process, then you’re going to be able to win over those few skeptics, and your writing style will be a breath of fresh air compared to the many boring and boilerplate profiles out there. The devil really is in the details; referencing specifics paints an emotional picture for the reader; it humanizes you; it makes strangers want to get to know you better. This “don’t use specifics” element was the part of Amy’s presentation I found the most surprising and with which I most strongly disagree.

In the beginning of her talk, Amy characterizes the algorithmic matching of online dating sites as working well; she states that it fails largely because of user-generated input. I just don’t think that’s true. Even when you input excellent data, I don’t think leaning on an algorithm to do the matching part for you is the recipe for romantic success. Neither does Amy to my mind, if you read her full book and watch her full talk; instead of leaning on the system to match her up, she put in a WHOLE LOT of very human effort, even if she did so in the framework a data visualizer. Making spreadsheets and crunching compatibility scores and creating fake profiles to meticulously study market behavior is hardly just letting the algorithm do its thing, you know? But Amy doesn’t reframe her approach to draw the same conclusion that I do, which is that less data-y and more human behaviors are what usually leads you to online dating success. Amy behaved like a human who happens to have a penchant for data, but she didn’t behave like the kind of algorithm sites like eHarmony and OkCupid are using to suggest potential dates to you.

At the end of her TED talk, Amy concludes that “There is an algorithm for love, it’s just not the ones we’re being presented with.” This is obviously a fantastic sound bite, but I think it creates a false sense of reliance on algorithms. Amy’s own personal algorithm worked for Amy specifically, but its primary characteristic was a ton of effort on her part. Most of my clients wouldn’t do well to mimic her approach, but they WOULD do well to put out the same amount of energy in different ways than Amy did. And hey, there are going to be a handful of people for whom Amy’s Way is a total home run. But for the others, here’s a strategy for online dating success, combining Amy Elements and Virginia Advice:

1) Reflect on yourself and what you want out of a life partner, but don’t let those metrics take over your search for love completely.

2) Put a lot of effort into making your profile fantastic and intelligent and snappy, yet keep it brief.

3) Communicate with potential love interests in a friendly, proactive, practical, yet never excessive manner; this will naturally optimize responses from potential matches.

4) Make sure every single damn photo of you is fantastically flattering yet realistic, and especially pay attention to the main one.

5) Go on a lot of different dates, including with people you don’t think you’ll necessarily end up in a relationship with.

6) Eventually fall in love with someone who seemingly meets and then ultimately exceeds your criteria—BECAUSE YOU CLICK IN PERSON, and because you’ve had enough data-driven analysis and measured exposure to lesser candidates that you recognize what value this person brings to the table, even if they weren’t someone you would have picked out of a lineup.

11 Responses to "Amy Webb’s Ted Talk about hacking online dating"

  1. We watched this and loved it. A well thought out and delivered talk about online dating – and it had some interesting facts. The key point – Be Picky – it works!

    1. Virginia says:

      I think we have different takeaways; I think the pickiness angle can really harm you. But I can’t deny that Amy totally made it work for her!

  2. katildablog says:

    I love this! I think her TED Talk was hilarious but I totally wondered if it would work for everyone. I like your analysis of it. Thanks for the comment on my blog and for sharing this post!

  3. Sites allow you so many options when searching I can see why being picky might work – however this is a great breakdown and a fantastic post. For anyone who’s not watched this TED talk do it – you’ll love it.

  4. Chaya Miriam says:

    “traditional Schadchen, or Jewish matchmaker” — I only understood you were talking about a shadchan when I got to the English translation.

  5. Virginia says:

    Ah, I used the same term Amy did in her presentation, but it’s possible there are multiple spellings. I’m used to the same concept being referred to as a “yenta;” perhaps I incorrectly assumed the two are synonymous?

  6. Hailey. says:

    I really like your analysis of this. It’s nice to see a differing opinion presented respectfully without tearing the person apart. I loved Amy’s video and I loved your analysis! Thanks!

  7. Alan says:

    How did she learn about male responses by creating fake male profiles?? That doesn’t make sense.

  8. Virginia says:

    Alan, she learns about male responses by creating fake female profiles. She gets into this in more detail in the book itself. :)

    1. Alan says:

      I have listened to the talk twice and found the transcript with google.
      All of the accounts I have found online state that she created fake males.

      The transcript of the TED talk says:

      So I created 10 fake male profiles.

      So which is it? Did she create fake males or fake females?

  9. Virginia says:

    She created both. Fake males so she could see what kinds of women were responding to the type of men she thought she wanted, and fake women of different heights and attractiveness levels and hair colors and education levels. She really dug in deep with the fake profile making. Personally, I find that both off-putting (so much dishonesty out there) and exhausting (for such a boring payoff), but it’s what worked for her!

    It sounds like you’ve been scouring all the free versions of her talk, when what you really want is to read the whole deep dive of the book. It’s pretty darn entertaining. Just buy a copy! Here, I’ll even make you a new affiliate link, haha: Data: A Love Story. Silly title, good read!

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