Love in the Time of Data

Spend enough time eavesdropping on bleary-eyed undergrads nursing Powerades at Sunday brunch, and you may hear some variation of an archetypal joke. At Yale, they say, first base is fucking, second base is texting, third base is smiling at each other on the street, and a home run is eating with your hookup in their residential college’s dining hall. Many students make it to first base, but a rarefied few, I anecdotally report, score a home run. This base system, of course, is no law of nature, no more an inevitable path than the teenage mantra of french-feel-finger-fuck, and everyone from Yale Daily News op-ed writers to the Office of Gender and Campus Culture have tried their hands at dethroning casual, anonymous sex. Rarely have computers been involved in this effort, but, considering the times, it was perhaps inevitable that a technological solution to our collective dearth of dates would arrive on campus last spring. 

“Have you been single for a while and are trying to get back into the dating scene?” began the Facebook post. “Are you trying to get over your commitment issues and want to test the waters of having an actual relationship? Sign up for Yale’s first three-day relationship program from Apr. 29–May 1, where we match pairs together for three-day committed relationships!” 

Interested students would simply have to fill out a questionnaire, answering open-ended prompts like “Describe yourself in 100 words or less!” and “What is the most interesting thing you have done at Yale?” A team of students would sort, by hand, the compatible pairs, with an eye toward similarity of responses. Couples who were matched would commit to each other as significant others for the duration of the program, receive dating tasks like reading through the New York Times’s “The 36 Questions That Lead to Love,” and generally be free to proceed as they wished. The organizers appended just one caveat to their advertisement: “We discourage sexual engagements during the three day period, and instead suggest a more wholesome dating experience.” 

The brainchild of Barkley Dai, MY ’20, and the production of a seven-student team, the Three-Day Relationship Program attracted about 180 students during its first operational semester last spring. Shunhe Wang, MC ’20, who worked on the program, told me that Dai approached him with the idea that semester, selling him on the opportunity to develop “ways to make people stay in longer-term relationships.” 

The following fall, when the team reprised the program, freshly-equipped with an algorithm that would do the pairing for them, nearly 900 students signed up.  

Though the Three-Day Relationship is not returning to campus this semester—Dai is out of the country, and other organizers are busy—students can welcome a host of other services that promise to harness the power of data and technology in the service of love. In addition to the crown jewel of dating apps, Tinder, and gender- and sexuality-specific platforms like Grindr and Bumble, student-run services like Datamatch and Orbit are following in the data-driven footsteps of the Three-Day Relationship.

Datamatch, an implant from Harvard, functions like the Three-Day Relationship, except with flashier graphics and more data collection. During the week leading up to Valentine’s Day this year, over 1,300 Yale students filled out a survey that promised to collect the data to feed the algorithm to produce their perfect match just in time for the holiday. Questions like “Which campus building best describes you?” and “What’s the naughtiest thing you have done?” combined with biographical information like face, name, residential college, and top Spotify artists, drew in a full quarter of the student body.

“I did it because I feel it was like a meme,” said S., a junior who asked to keep her name anonymous. “I wasn’t doing it for real.” She was in fact turned off, she said, when she saw that some of her five matches were taking the game seriously, decking out their bios with full punctuated sentences and sleek pictures. “My bio was ‘I love food’ and five emojis.”

Her friend D., a junior who also asked to remain anonymous, added that he was drawn to Datamatch by “the unrealistic hope that you get paired with the person you’re kind of thinking about.” S. agreed. Datamatch was not the place for people looking to find romance, but for students who wanted to scratch a romantic itch while maintaining ironic, meme-y distance from the whole project. 

“If you got something funny, it’s funny to tell people,” she said.

D. agreed; he had, in fact, been laughing about his top match—the person with whom he was supposedly 100% compatible. The algorithm did not work for him (nor did it work for S.), and he was paired with someone who reminded him of “just grime. And not the singer. Someone I look at and shudder.” 

The school-specific data provided by Datamatch seems to point to a systemic discord between matches, at least at Yale: in its bar chart of “school thirstiness,” determined by the rate at which students messaged a match, Yale ranks low compared to the 26 other schools in the Datamatch universe. Yale seniors were the third-least-thirsty demographic, behind just Wellesley seniors and Columbia juniors. Whether this is a function of algorithmic failures or an intrinsic quality of Yale students is hard to say, though S. and D. identified a main disappointment in the process.

“I was hoping to get attractive people,” she said, annoyed.

“Someone to fuck,” said D. 

There are, of course, apps for finding people to fuck, but Datamatch, like Three-Day Relationship, seemed to offer the promise of a more personalized, human experience. After submitting their data to the system and having it run through a secret algorithm, the hope of finding a human being on the other side of the screen was strong for S. and D.

“The only good thing in this kind of stuff is to meet someone else,” S. said. “It was fun. Another social thing. It felt like a game.” 

Neither met with any one of their matches. 

Soon after I spoke with S. and D., a Gmail notification pinged on my phone. “Someone just added you to their Yale Orbit,” read the subject line. Orbit is a new website that allows Yale students to upload lists of their crushes and receive a notification every Friday if any of their crushes put them on their list, too, like a drawn-out Tinder match. I opened the email, and my eyes fell immediately upon the fat blue box dominating the center of the screen: Get Started, it prompted. I pressed the button, and massive bubble letters appeared, white on a navy blue background. FIND YOUR MATCH, it told me, and in that moment I was tempted, as S. and D. had been, by the game. Maybe, yes, against all odds, that one person I had been sort-of-somewhat thinking about had placed me in their Orbit and I now had the chance to do the same and find out on Friday night that we had, in fact, matched, and wouldn’t I then be happy that I had decided to Get Started? Wouldn’t it be a shame not even to try? I imagined myself sucked into another website, finding another platform that stirred just enough hope to keep me hooked and just enough disappointment to keep me sad. And I, of course, did not want that outcome, but I wondered how I would feel if more people around me started using the platform, first, of course, as a joke, but then in earnest. Could I resist Orbit even if it soon became yet another social world churning subterranean beneath the physical one, and if all I had to do to participate was to spend a little more time on my phone, to tell this website just a little bit each day about my crushes, my preferences, my habits, myself?

 I then got a text from my friend.

“Btw did you get an email saying I chose you for Orbit”

“Ya”

“Jeje,” she said. “It worked.”

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