Some sites use algorithms to match people looking for love – “metadating” goes a step further and lets you pore over a potential date’s data
ONE Saturday night last year, 11 people went looking for love. Like countless speed daters before them, they met in a room draped with curtains, the lights on low. In one hand they held traditional glasses of bubbly, but in the other were sheets of paper they had filled with their personal data.
This twist on speed-dating was part of an experiment run by a team at Newcastle University in the UK. They wanted to know what would happen in a world where instead of vetting potential dates by their artfully posed selfies or carefully crafted dating-site profiles, we looked at data gathered by their computers and phones. As use of data-gathering devices increases, it’s a world that’s just round the corner. The team calls it “metadating”.
“There’s a bit of a mismatch between a data led view of the world – which is very dry and mechanical – and how we view ourselves,” says Chris Elsden, who headed up the project. Elsden and his colleagues want to explore other ways we can use data that gets collected as we go about our modern lives. “Can we give people more control over it, make it more ambiguous or playful?”
The team recruited their speed daters on social media and via posters around their university campus. A week before the event, the participants were sent a form to fill out. It asked for a host of specific numbers: shoe size, the farthest distance they had travelled from home, the earliest and latest times of day they had sent an email in the past month, their heart rate as they filled out the form. It also left blank spaces for people to add whatever data they wanted.
“One dater graphed their Fitbit steps, another
drew a pie chart of the furniture in their house”
Seven men and four women took part. To kick off the evening, they spent time looking over one another’s anonymised data profiles, discussing who they might like in groups. The event then took the form of traditional speed-dating, with four minutes for pairs to get to know each other.
The researchers listened as people described themselves using the “language of data”. They read out their numbers, compared stats and even complimented one another on their data. Where people had been allowed to list whatever they liked, they had picked very different types of information to portray themselves.
One scrupulously graphed their Fitbit steps. Another recorded what they ate for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Others chose to be playful. One drew a pie chart of the different types of furniture in their house. Someone added: “Miles run this week: 0”. The team will present a review of the project next month at the Computer-Human Interaction conference in San Jose, California.
So much of our data is in the hands of large companies that it can make people feel powerless, says Jessa Lingel at the University of Pennsylvania. Elsden’s event flips that on its head. “Offering a way for people to feel like they have some control, or can be creative or thoughtful about the data they’re producing, is really important,” Lingel says.
She also thinks metadating plays with an idea we have about what romance in the future might be like. Data-driven algorithms already match people on dating sites like OkCupid. Other dating start-ups like Genepartner try to push the envelope by matching people according to genetics.
It’s not hard to envision a site that digests numbers from your self-tracking apps and search history, then spits out people it thinks you might be attracted to.
But Elsden doesn’t think metadating should replace popular dating apps. “We’re not suggesting your ideal match would be somebody who gets up at the same time,” he says. He thinks it might open the door to a new sort of social media – an “Instagram for data” that lets you collect your stats, manage them with editing tools or filters and share them with your friends.
Still, at least one couple hit it off swapping stats that Saturday in Newcastle. As far as Elsden is aware, they’re still together.
This article appeared in print under the headline “Dating by numbers”