The Lie Hollywood Loves to Tell

Let's start at the beginning

I launched CupidWithFriends two weeks ago on Hacker News, having no idea what people would think about it. So far so good, we've got 7,000 profiles on there. Before you keep reading, you should stop and sign up.

Did you sign up? Good. I am probably ahead of my time on this one: I'm building something that simplifies my life because I've been using online dating for the past 6 months. The state of online dating--for the uninformed--is shit, at best. And a lot of us have tried it, so we know. We just don't talk about it, because society (Hollywood) told us it's wasted effort. Let me draw a picture for you:

Rewind a bit: my girlfriend dumped me 6 months ago because her parents wanted a Jewish boyfriend and she was conflicted. And because I'm doing a startup. She eventually admitted she wanted me to get a job, and I'm just not ready for that. So naturally, I updated this section on my OkCupid profile, considering she was showing up in my "matches":

HN was overwhelmingly supportive of what I'm doing, while /r/startups just didn't get it. The top-voted comment is still "Not the greatest idea ever." Thanks, /r/startups, its been real. There are days when I think HN comments couldn't be worse, but /r/startups takes the cake for absolute lowest quality.

Joking aside, I found this to be the most interesting response at the #3 spot:

My biggest problems with this is that while most people are internet dating, they don't want their friends to know they are. For whatever reason, there's still a bit of stigma attached to it. So getting your friends to create your profile is going to be a huge barrier to entry. 

I keep hearing about this "stigma"

I spent a week in San Francisco's Marina District to promote Flock. I asked girls who were in groups whether they've tried online dating, and everyone unanimously told me "no." One said "I'll never in a million years do online dating!" My immediate thought after talking to that girl was: "Wow, you're the one girl in this entire bar that's going to go back home and login to OkCupid."

With fireplaces like these, who needs OkCupid?

So this seemed odd to me. I've met interesting and attractive girls online. Some of the girls I talked to at bars weren't as interesting or attractive. Did these girls in their groups of friends think they were too good for online dating, like I had once arrogantly thought myself? One of the girls came back to me as her friends were leaving. She told me she lied because she didn't want her friends knowing she was doing it. She just wasn't comfortable talking about it around them.

One reason people are afraid to talk about online dating around their friends is they don't want to be judged. This problem is skewed for age groups too. People in their 20s don't want to talk about it, but it's more acceptable for people in their 30s and 40s. Everyone wants to look cool in front of their friends, but the reality is nobody cares. A majority (61%) of surveyed single adults don't think those who use online dating are desperate.

Most of us are doing it. Of the 54 million single Americans, 40 million of us have tried online dating. That's 75% of the single population in the United States. If you're single, you're in the minority if you haven't tried it. 10 years ago, online dating wasn't even mainstream, but now it's the second most common way people meet. Online dating is a bigger industry than porn. The porn industry even blamed online dating for $113 million in declining revenues over a year. I think they should be more worried about this fancy contraption. What happens when someone decides to create an online marketplace of... well, you know where I'm going with this.

Online dating. I use it. My brother who has always been the life of the party uses it. My roommates use it. I've seen other Y Combinator alumni using it. I see people I know all the time on OkCupid. My ex started using it 3 days after we split. That's just cold.

Hollywood's lie

The real problem is not that people think their friends will judge them. The real problem is this thing called predestined love. Basically it says that you have zero control over who you end up with in life, and any attempt you make at dating is futile. All the forces of the universe are secretly conspiring against you because you have only one soul mate out there, and they're the only person that you'll ever be with. The problem is, that's bullshit. All of this has roots in personality psychology and if you hold an internal belief in the locus of control, then you're inclined not to believe in predestination and the likes.

People are buying into the idea of predestined love and there's some cognitive dissonance being created. On one hand, we want to put in the deserved effort. On the other hand, somebody told us that it's all a waste of time. So here is where the problem presents itself: the cognitive dissonance drives us into dating isolation, where none of our friends are involved. We don't want to be seen as having incongruent beliefs, and that causes us to not talk about it.

So who or what is the root cause of this type of thinking? In this case, it's Hollywood's fault. The scripts all follow a predictable story of predestined love where two couples either fall instantly in love or leave it to fate to decide who they end up with.

The real question is: was this belief always around and was it being reinforced, or did Hollywood instill it? The Heriot-Watt University conducted a study where they placed 130 students in a room to watch the romantic comedy Serendipity, a movie where John Cusack leaves it to fate to determine if Kate Beckinsale is the woman intended for him. 100 students in the control group watched a David Lynch drama. The students who watched the romantic comedy were far more likely to believe in fate and destiny. The studies show that a belief in predestined love can be instilled by watching a single romantic comedy. Studies conducted at The University of Arizona have found similar results.

"Relationship counselors often face common misconceptions in their clients — that if your partner truly loves you they'd know what you need without you communicating it, that your soul mate is predestined. We did a rigorous content analysis of romantic comedies and found that the same issues were being portrayed in these films." Dr. Bjarne Holmes, Heriot-Watt University

Predestined love is what Hollywood writes about because it sells. It makes us feel good. We like it because it provides hope and rationalizes laziness. We tell ourselves "my life is too busy, it'll happen when I'm least expecting it, and it won't take any effort." Love, Hollywood tells us, just happens to you. The right person is out there somewhere, just focus on your career, and you'll serendipitously find them.

Except that we're all busy. And sure, you might get lucky. But the stats are interesting: one in three women aged 30-34 have no partner, a number that has doubled since the 80s. Economist Sylvia Hewlett in 2002 found that 55% of 35-year-old career women were childless, while 19% of male corporate executives were, and concluded that "the rule of thumb seems to be that the more successful the woman, the less likely it is she will find a husband or bear a child."

Online dating suffers from lack of identity

Here's what I'm getting at: if we were all more social about online dating, it'd suck a lot less. I remember talking to some friends a few weeks ago, and I asked a girl if she had tried online dating, out of curiosity. She said she didn't because that's "trying too hard to find love." She actually believes that the act of seeking love somehow causes her to be more prone to meet bad guys. That might be partially true, but that's like deciding not to swing for fear of getting a strike.

Why should dating be more social? A majority of problems go away with online dating sites when you make it social. But Hollywood is telling us to just wait and let the right person come along at the exact right moment, so we buy it. And there's nothing social about it, it's even difficult to bring up in conversations. I'm not saying we need to go back to the way things were with transactional pre-arranged marriages, but eventually we'll get over this stigma, whether it's our generation or the next one. We all want love--nobody wants to admit they're looking for it under a certain age--and we want to put in the effort to make it happen. Why should anyone feel bad about that?

Having tried a lot of dating apps out there, it's still an unsolved problem space. I would be totally happy if the solution existed now, and I'd go get a regular job or figure out something else to fix. But the solution doesn't exist and I doubt anyone will build it anytime soon.

Online dating: the reason for my drinking problems.

Allow me to explain. Here is my "Top 7" list of why all online dating sites suck:

Filling out profiles - the act of filling out a profile involves answering lots of questions and writing the equivalent of a lengthy essay. The problem is men don't read online dating profiles, they only look at the pictures. It's not just a difficult and repetitive task, but it's wasted time.

Hey girl, I heard you like reading essays.

The stand out paradox - We all love to travel, we're all hardworking yet easygoing at the same time. The stuff that makes you stand out is going beyond the cliche profile material. In order to stand out on a dating site, you need to say something interesting about yourself. But in order to stand out, you'll probably end up bragging, which becomes unattractive.

No, really, it was nothing. Let me send the Amazon URL and if our first date goes bad you can go post a negative review.

Back and forth messaging - We're living in an age of Tweets, Facebook likes, and SMS messaging. How many phone calls have you had over the past week? Compare that to how many SMS messages you've sent or received. It's no wonder that messaging on dating sites is exhausting. We don't write lengthy e-mails to people we're close to for weeks or months at a time, so why should we be expected to do it online with strangers? Messaging works more like a filter because women are scared of meeting strangers from online dating sites. You know nothing about them, and you don't want to meet somebody crazy off the Internet. Better talk to them for a while first.

Can we shorten these messages?

Message overload for women - Women I've talked to have complained about being overloaded with messages. I wanted to understand for myself, so I setup a fake profile on OkCupid. I received 43 messages on the first day. That's absurd. Most of them were creepers with one-liners: "Hey, sup girl?" OkCupid should charge women for the equivalent of a spam filter, because that's what you're signing up for when you use their service. It's like Gmail without the spam folder.

And I thought it was bad being a guy on OkCupid.

Message send overload for men - I've run my own experiments on this. I wanted to find out if there was a simple, short message I could send everyone and get a predictable response. I found one after talking to Kong, who runs SimplePickup, a popular YouTube channel on picking up women. The messages he told me to use worked and I consistently received responses 10% of the time. Here's what I found interesting: this was about the same rate I was getting before when I tried to write out long form messages. So basically that proves the message doesn't matter. Short messages receive responses at the same rate of longer ones when following three rules: don't be creepy, it should be at least a few sentences, and it has to make mention of something in the person's profile.

Going out alone - Say you meet someone and go out for drinks with them. Right off the bat, the profile pictures are always more appealing. This has been documented extensively, and both guys and girls are guilty of overselling. Once you meet the other person, you might find the connection or chemistry just isn't there. How do you cut the date short if that happens? It can be awkward. And if you drove to meet somebody, you now have to drive back and your night is over because the odds of getting a few friends together on such short notice is low.

On the other hand, when going out in a group, you always have your group to fall back on if things go bad. I've been on 3 Groupers, and the model where you're with your friends is definitely better. A friend of mine tried it and he wrote about his experience in excruciating detail, which is an entertaining read. Unfortunately, the path Grouper has taken involves sending people on a blind date with their friends, which makes it risky.

True story.

Rejection - Did you know our bodies actually feel physical pain when we get rejected? The same areas of your brain that light up on an fMRI when you spill hot coffee on yourself are the same areas that light up when you go through a painful rejection, such as a breakup. Joining a site like OkCupid is basically accepting that you'll go through a lot of social rejection. True, it's online, but it it shifts the mentality for the guy. Guys basically go in with the expectation that it's a numbers game and they treat it that way. I know, it sounds anticlimactic, but it does explain the volume of messages women receive.

Shameless plug time. Here's what the solution looks like.

What would a blog post be without some type of self promotion? Persuade xor discover, so I'm here to persuade you to try an online dating site that doesn't suck.

Instead of editing your own profile like every dating site out there, your friends set yours up for you and you have no control over it except for deleting comments. Usually this will be done without your knowledge. You might even have a profile up right now and your friends are commenting on it, getting ready to set you up with someone.

The best analogy of what we're really doing was written by aggronn:

Consider two scenarios. A) You go out to a party, by yourself, with the sole intention of meeting someone you can take home, or ask on a date. or B) your friends think you need a girlfriend or boyfriend, and drag you out to a party and try to get you to meet people and facilitate it that.

Scenario (A) is a relatively uncommon occurrence with, what I assume to be, a lower success rate than (B). Unfortunately, all successful dating sites thus far are almost perfectly analogous to (A).

The differences between the two situations are pretty big because of the countless nuances that make people just generally seem more sociable when they're being social compared to when they're sort of trying to be social.

In a sense, this introduces the concept of a good wingman into the online dating scene.

This person got it. I'll be clear: the purpose of the site is to turn everyone into a wingman or matchmaker. When I write comments on my friends' profiles, they write comments on mine. When I introduce them to people, they do the same. Simple reciprocity.

Here's how we address the problems above:

Filling out profiles - your friends are doing this for you. No essays. We restrict comments to 140 characters. It's either an opportunity to embarrass someone or make them look good. Either way, they both make for great conversational starters.

Meet my friend Eric, the AOL squatter.

The stand out paradox - It's obviously not bragging when your friends do it for you. They're just talking you up, and that comes off much better. This comes out in the comments that your friends write on your profile.

Ladies, I got those Starcraft 2 macro skills. I'm going places in life. Just FYI.

Messaging - The conversations are started by your friends, who know you better than anyone else. Better than any other matchmaker out there, better than your parents, and maybe better than yourself. Here's an example: I wrote a comment on Hani's wall talking about that time we dressed up as bananas and crowd surfed at Outside Lands (true story). When I see a girl on the site who I think is good for him, I start the conversation by referencing that comment. "You should ask Hani about that time we went to Outside Lands" and if she responds, Hani gets notified, you're out of the picture, and it takes off from there. If she never responds, Hani never finds out.

In my case, where some of my friends legitimately suck and aren't trying to help me, you can talk about things I spend most of my time doing. Now I have a good reason to implement flagging.

Message overload for women - Women are the ones usually receiving the bulk of the messages, so we can keep track of response rates guys are receiving and limit the number of outgoing messages they send (or make it cost more points to send to people who receive the most interest). Of course, the recipient can always flag or block a user. And not that weak OkCupid type of block where someone can keep creeping your profile. We've got a serious Facebook type of block where you won't even show up in searches to that person.

Message overload for men - You start a conversation between your friend and someone else by selecting on one of the comments that you wrote on their profile. Easy enough. The trick is to find good, interesting comments that will spark someone else's curiosity. Same rule here: messages are 140 characters or less. We know who people are because they're connected with Facebook and we require 100+ friends to join, which turns out to be a really effective filter. If we notice bad behavior, we can ban, and it's hard to evade that.

Going out alone - Going out alone isn't that bad, but it's a lot more fun in groups. If you really want this, check out our other dating startup Flock. It's apparently so good that we've got half the Grouper team on it (including the CEO) and all of OkCupid's engineers on it. We don't have group support on CWF yet, but we're happy to add it if people want it.

Rejection - Nobody ever feels rejected because when a friend wings you, you'll never find out unless the other person responds. No more spilling hot coffee on each other.

Try it out, we're early enough that you'll get to influence how this works

This is a new idea, but we're excited to be working on it. Try it out, and if you don't like it, you can simply delete your account. The worst that happens is you meet your future husband, wife, boyfriend, girlfriend, or one night stand on it. Who are we to say?

Discuss this on Hacker News.

Special thanks to the following people for reading copies of this essay: Teng Siong Ong, Ben Angel, Dave Paola, Roshan Choxi, Hani Sharabash, Eric Simons, Zachary Tratar.