If you’re not already in a relationship, the roses, chocolates, and oversize cards of Valentine’s Day can be a heart-shaped reality check: it’s time to get back in the game.
And if you’re one of the 90 million singles in America, you can do it online. Just in time, there's a whole bunch of new research on the topic, from Amy Webb’s Data, a Love Story, in which the author games the system to find her match, to Dan Slater’s Love in the Time of Algorithms, a naked account of the pluses and pitfalls of online dating.
To save you time (you've got a profile to make!), we perused the latest manuals and lovingly present this roadmap to the world of e-romance.
1. Stay Weird (In Other Words, ‘Do You’)
Online dating sites thrive on individuality—specifically, yours. In Algorithms, Slater discusses the shift from the “bookend theory” initially used by pioneer sites like Match.com (aiming to win over every “book” on the shelf) to the prevailing “niche” dating sites that now dominate the market. With an estimated 15 million users in North America by 2011 alone, niche dating sites have proved triumphantly effective. Not simply because they create “culturally relevant communities,” Slater writes. More importantly, sites like Urbancougar.com and Large and Lovely Connections create “judgment-free zones where the like-minded can mingle freely and furtively.” Convinced you’re a vampire? Same. Living the single-farmer life? So are we. Sci-fi’s your name, geek your game? Ditto.
From goth dating to plus-size, prisoners to gold diggers, these sites revolve around one thing: honesty. Slater contends that it’s partly this trait, the cornerstone of any relationship, that has made the world of online dating so successful. “It doesn’t matter who you are ... there is bound to be someone in the cloud of faces who’s interested in whatever it is that you’ve got.”
2. Fake It Till You Make It
Online dating takes guts, so the more you have (or can feign), the better you’ll do. In Slater’s book, he sits down with the man many refer to as the Ray Kroc of dating, Ross Williams. Williams, CEO of WhiteLabelDating.com—a platform that helps companies to build new dating websites—says the key to online dating begins with recognizing that everyone else you’re interacting with is in the same boat. “We’re all a bit nervous. We’re all a bit shy,” he says. The goal, then, is to rise above the insecurity and present the best version of yourself. It’s not easy. “Some are better actors than others,” Williams admits.
Textbook example: Andrew, a 31-year-old architect bruised from an eight-year relationship that went sour, gained confidence after more than 1,000 women looked at his profile. Mojo restored, he added a witty ultimatum to his OkCupid profile: “Contact me if you can ride a horse.” Sure enough, Jennifer, a 30-year-old horse trainer, sent him a message. After their first date, she asked if Andrew wanted to come see her barn and her apartment. “You had me at barn,” he said. Six months into their relationship, Andrew is proof that a little moxie goes a long way.
3. If You Got It, Flaunt It
Christian Rudder, co-founder OkCupid.com, is brutally honest. The cardinal rule of online dating, he says, is to be “really, really hot.” In fairness, “hot” is subjective. But it’s likely you know your own hottest look, so use it. OkTrends, a complementary blog to OkCupid that explores the data of online dating, presents powerful evidence to back up Rudder’s “hot” rule: a woman deemed hot by one study received four times as many messages as an average one—and 25 times as many as an ugly one. Of course, Rudder admits there are more pieces to the puzzle. “The more of your personality you show, the more there is for someone to grab onto and get excited about ... Describe yourself in as much quirky detail as possible.” (Match.com and OkCupid are owned by IAC, the parent company of The Daily Beast.)
To be sure, men put more emphasis on looks. “For them, pictures come first, because they’re so visual, and for good adaptive reason,” says Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist and Match.com’s chief scientific adviser. “For millions of years, a man needed to size up a woman to see if she could give him healthy babies. Women could see if a man was a good hunter, but she had to do more than look to see whether he would hunt for her.”
4. If You Get Stuck, Game the System
To play the field, you’ve got to understand what you’re up against. Webb, author of book Data, a Love Story, is a self-declared expert. After a series of “comically bad” dates, she felt defeated, as though online dating “only made it easier to meet a whole bunch of wrong men, the kind who lied in their profiles or who had major character faults.”
But instead of giving up, she got mathematical. Webb developed a detailed rating system, awarding points for each criterion that a prospective date fulfilled. Then, she crafted 10 distinct online male personae to understand the dos and don’ts of the digital dating game—in this case, that of JDate, which caters to Jewish singles. She switched teams, allowing herself to study her female competitors through the eyes of a man. Webb studied 96 women in all, an experiment that allowed her to unearth “a trove of insights.” Some statistics were less insightful than others—for example, Webb found that half the women she observed used the word “fun” in their opening sentence. But one universal goal of every online dater emerged: to “get offline as quickly as possible.”
In other words, online dating is survival of the fittest. Webb’s takeaway was that you need to “look as good as you can, be relatable to the widest possible audience, and then throw in a memorable point or two that distinguishes you from the rest of the crowd.” Read between the lines: be aggressive.
5. Beware the Business Scams
Remember, there’s a reason online dating sites exist, and it’s not to find you true love and perfect happiness. These are businesses designed to make money, and dating sites lose when you take yourself out of the game; ethics can get muddied when users are also paying subscribers. For instance, a new user may receive emails from a site indicating men are interested in her profile when, in fact, no one has even looked at it. Sites like Match benefit from users who aren’t active on the site but still have a profile (think about it, you might be one of them). In online-dating speak, these inactive users are known as “date bait.” Their presence on the site inflates the number of messages sent. It’s a fine line, one that users should continue to question: “What’s fair in love and business?”
6. Get Your Hand Out of the Cookie Jar
It’s one of the biggest pitfalls Slater warns of in the e-dating field: choice overload. You’re dating five people and sleeping with three of them, until a sixth enters the mix who happens to tickle your fancy more than the others. Then, all at once, your heart literally aches when you don’t see her for, like, a day. You want to spend every waking and sleeping moment with her. As the relationship takes its natural course and dopamine levels come back down to earth, she says something that makes her look different to you. She seems less ideal, more needy, more like that girl—what was her name, Kate?—who gave great hand jobs. Suddenly you find yourself nonchalantly checking your OkCupid profile, and there she is—hand-job girl—along with a thousand of others, just as pretty, just as promising, just as available as when you left.
“Online dating is, at its core, a litany of alternatives,” Slater writes. “And evidence shows that the perception that one has appealing alternatives to a current romantic partner is a strong predictor of low commitment to that partner.”
The key then, is to know when to leave it all behind—the endless databases, the date bait, those “fun” opening sentences—and learn to love the one you’re with.
Editor's Note: A previous version of this article incorrectly cited Ross Williams as the CEO and Chairman of Dating Factory. Williams is the CEO of WhiteLabelDating.com.