28 dates on 28 different dating sites. What could go wrong?

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28 Dates Later by Willard Foxton: Part Twenty Three, The Data-driven Dater

In which Willard learns about numbers, graphs and dating systems.

New Statesman
The spreadsheet – a tool for successful dating? [Photograph: Getty Images]

So, I've left some of the bigger dating sites, the ones advertised on the telly, to near the end. I actually quite like E-Harmony's TV ad (I'm quite a fan of quirky brunettes in floral dresses), and it had a reputation for being the one people use when they were in the market to settle down. Seeing as that's what I'm after, it should have seemed like a logical choice for near the start, right?

Well, confession time, I actually thought I'd have girlfriend by now - and E-Harmony had never really appealed to me, quirky brunettes or no. It seemed like the most mechanical version of online dating. People told me the profile took forever to complete - one of my mates described it as "E-Self-Harmony". It's all based on one of these bizarre pseudoscientific personality tests - you know, the kind of thing your school made you do when you were thirteen, to tell you what career you were suited to. 

The ones that never told you you'd be a "motorcycle daredevil" like you hoped, but instead gave you something you definitely didn't want to do, like "Mainline railway station bootblack", "Piscine Agronomist" or "Council environmental waste management officer". I've always wondered if there are some people who come out of those tests with results like "Crimelord" or "Feckless Layabout" or "Tragic Date Blogger".

As I say, I'd heard the stories of how bad the profile was to fill out, but nothing had quite prepared me for the full horror of it. It's charmless and takes ages. No word of a lie, there must be over 300,000 questions to answer. Well, really about 300, but it feels ENDLESS. Each page of 20-30 questions ticks the profile completion up about 2% at a time. It took me about an hour of box checking to get about half-way through, I foolishly went and made a coffee, only to return to my computer and find the whole thing had crashed.

It's akin to applying for a job at a major corporation, or being asked about your personality and dating desires by a particularly rude and brusque Dalek. 

Also, some of the questions are very odd. For example, at one point, I was asked to rate my rationality on a scale of 1-7, from "not rational at all" to "I am very rational'. Another asks you to rate "how often you suspect you are being plotted against" from "always" to "never".

I mean, who ticks one out of seven for both of those? Presumably, if you're sitting there with borderline personality disorder, hallucinating unicorns that are scheming against you, online dating is probably not your bag.

I returned to the computer, and started again. Every now and again, it will flash up little messages, encouraging you to keep going. "This process may seem long, but I believe it will be so worthwhile for you--just as it has been for so many others before". Yeah, right.

By now, it was not unlike those grueling interrogations you see in films. You know the ones, where the Gestapo have tied the hero to a chair, are shining a bright light in his eyes and demanding to know where the resistance are hiding. Of course, the Gestapo aren't asking you to rate where the resistance are on a bloody scale of 1-7 from "almost never in caves" to "In the caves right now!".

Finally, I got to the end of the questionnaire, but before I could rise from my knees and call out "THERE.ARE.FOUR.LIGHTS!", I realised that I still had to go through all the normal rigmarole of uploading pictures and being charming and so on. And then they presented me with the bill for being interrogated and my jaw dropped.

E-Harmony is by far the most expensive dating site I have used. It's a quite astonishing £34.95 for a month. You can make it cheaper per month by forking over more cash - you can pay £75 for three months, £90 for six months, or £120 for a year. Of course, yes you are getting it cheaper by buying in bulk, but you are also effectively betting on yourself to fail. It's only good value to take out a year's membership if you think you're too much of a loser to find love in six months.

Of course, looking at my own success, or lack thereof, maybe that wasn't such a bad idea. Equally part of the appeal of the site is that it's for people who are really serious about dating. No-one is spending hours doing a psychological profile and then spending £35 a month if all they want is casual sex, when OK Cupid will give them that for free, and even classier places like Guardian Soulmates and My Single Friend will do it to a classier audience for £10 a month. No, if you go on E-Harmony, you are seven out of seven SERIOUSLY WORRIED ABOUT DYING ALONE.

Possibly somewhat cockily, I signed up for a month's membership, assuming I could find at least one person in my first month of trying. Of course, once again, E-harmony attempted to thwart me. As opposed to other sites, where you can browse the entire membership, E-harm only shows you your matches, and shows you them on a slow drip feed, maybe one or two a day. 

My first couple of weeks, I wasn't attracted to anyone. I started to wonder if maybe I should have shelled out more money on a longer subscription or maybe I had been overly liberal on clicking on boxes like "I don't care about the looks of my partner", which made me feel less like a Nazi while going through the interrogation, but presented me with a cavalcade of warty trouts to date.

I mean, we all sort of wish it wasn't true that we judge attractiveness at least partially on looks, but I was depressingly finding it to be quite true of myself. I mean, I'm not that picky, and I'm no oil painting myself, but Christ, some of these women all but had a calliope organ playing in the background while tophatted Victorian punters rolled up to leer at them. Even when you are offered a match who isn't some kind of ghastly curiosity, there's no way of telling if they're still on the site.

Finally, three weeks in, I got a date. Phew. We arranged to meet in a trendy bar in Camden; a place I rather like that does excellent craft beer (including the strongest beer in the world, which is served inside a taxidermied squirrel) and wonderful cheeseboards. The girl I was meeting worked locally, and she worked in "data analysis". We'd chatted a few times on the phone before I met her, which struck me as slightly odd.

She turned up, and was brilliantly geeky. Glasses, curly brown hair. A genuine quirky brunette, so it seems I can abandon that ASA complaint. She was really, really wonderfully quirky - it was like being on a date with a female Nate Silver. We chatted science, and numbers, and graphs. She explained the difference between an infographic and a diagram.  Normally, none of these topics are particularly exciting, but her obvious enthusiasm for the subject carried the conversation through.

Anyway, about twenty minutes into the date, she asks me about the blog, then asks me about my "system". I reply "I don't really have one, I just date people who seem cool". She looked at me like I'd said "I eat the hearts of my foes, to gain their delicious courage."

"YOU DON'T HAVE A SYSTEM?!" she replied, and bam, out comes her Macbook. She boots up a spreadsheet, and highlights my name on it. I realise I am looking at my entry in someone else's dating spreadsheet. There are multiple colours, multiple tabs. The data lass explains that she lists everyone who she has contacted; everyone who has contacted her; the progress of every conversation.

She responds to messages she likes, Googles you to find out what you do and if that accords with the profile you've written ("Photo analysis for height is quite hard; but doable"). Then, she calls a couple of times, to "have a real conversation, make sure you aren't weird". Then once you've been messaged, googled and called, she arranges a date with you. Apparently, she'd broken one of her rules by meeting me somewhere new, but "you seemed charming enough I felt you probably had good taste".

Only about one man in ten makes it through the "system" to get a date; oh, and of course, there's a tab for the men she's dating. Now, I suspect there are two camps on this sort of thing - the sort of person who says "OF COURSE YOU HAVE A SPREADSHEET FOR DATING! By Crom, you'll be telling me you don't itemise your receipts, next!".

And then there are people like me, who find the whole mechanisation of the process faintly terrifying. While I enjoyed my data-driven date - which included glasses of the world's second strongest beer, "Sink the Bismark" (which sadly isn't served out of a model Nazi Battleship), and a long discussion about the worst genre of music known to man (I hadn't even heard of Viking metal before - apparently it's "the worst of hero metal, black metal and folk metal combined") - I was pretty glad to escape back into the pre-industrial world of Artisanal Organic dating.

Or, at least as artisanal and homemade as online dating can ever be...