**WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD**
If you’ve ever downloaded a dating app, chances are someone has already told you that you need to see the Black Mirror episode, “Hang the DJ,” which takes the idea of algorithm-driven dating to a whole other level.
For the uninitiated, Black Mirror is a sci-fi series of standalone stories about mysterious, alternative worlds, that double as critiques on society, like a modern-day Twilight Zone. And if you really haven’t seen any of it yet, DID YOU NOT SEE THE SPOILER ALERT ABOVE? STOP READING ALREADY!
Call it professional bias, but I loved “Hang the DJ,” which was released on Netflix a few months ago. The episode was both strange and a grotesquely familiar interpretation of the direction our romantic futures are headed—as in, straight into an AI-powered supercomputer compiling data about our entire lives.
What passes for artificial intelligence today isn’t yet sophisticated enough to listen in on our dates and turn that information into standardized data to link us up with our “perfect match” the way it works in the episode. But Charlie Brooker, who wrote the Black Mirror episode, may have been onto a few things that real-life dating sites can consider as features in the near or distant-future. I list them below, along with feedback I got from Jonny Beber, senior research scientist at dating service eHarmony (a.k.a. an actual data expert).
1. Bring back blind dates
Though the episode seemed very futuristic, the general idea was pretty close to the pre-Internet custom of going on blind dates.
So WHY, in an age where a person’s photo and life history are a click away on social media, would we want to revisit blind dating? Because it forces us to spend time with people before we judge them. It eliminates the risk that our preconceptions of what short people, people of certain races or religions, or people who live in New Jersey, are like before even giving them a chance. (N-e-w Jerz: I’m kidding.)
“There’s been a lot of research in the academic realm [saying] what people idealize in a partner doesn’t necessarily translate to who they’re going to fit and who they’re going to be happy with,” Jonny said. Until recently, eHarmony didn’t tell people why they matched up or what made them compatible.
Meanwhile, mismatches can also happen because of the biases we have when describing ourselves to others. Dating services are well aware that building an accurate profile of a person is hard to do based on asking direct questions, Jonny says. EHarmony addresses this issue by asking indirect questions, for example to try and figure out whether you’re extroverted.
It seems to me blind dates could solve a lot of these problems…if people would go on them. But because they probably won’t, the closest we can get for now is meeting online matches, in-person, as soon as possible.
Jonny recommends this. “With as much research as we do, there’s just something unique about in-person meeting for the first time. Your body just knows if you’re going to click or not within a couple of minutes of interacting, he says. “That’s why we encourage people to get off our site and meet someone in person.”
2. Take away the power of choice
Along the same lines, users of the dating service in “Hang the DJ” not only have to meet with blind dates, but they have to stay in relationships with those people for as long as YEARS, whether they like it or not, relinquishing almost all power of choice. They don’t get to ghost a person because he/she wore the wrong color, or told a bad joke. It’s like arranged marriage, except you don’t have to date forever, and the goal is still to find a good match.
This is the complete opposite of today’s online dating world, where options are king. If you go onto a site and there aren’t plenty of fish (which is the name of an actual dating service), the site is as good as useless.
But options are seductive. No matter how great a match you get, you know a better match could be right around the corner. How are you supposed to know when to stop looking? This dilemma also makes it pretty hard to give the person in front of you a chance, because he/she is competing against a better, more attractive, unknown.
“With our technology evolving the way it has, we’re kind of burdened with an overload of choice,” Jonny said. “I do think algorithms help us make sense of an infinite-option world.”
Some dating sites actually try to limit our choices, including eHarmony and Coffee Meets Bagel, which offers only 6 matches per day. The logic is, with fewer choices, people have to give the best chance possible to what’s offered to them.
“We only send a few matches to users per day so they really take the time to evaluate 7 to 14 matches without getting swipe happy and seeing people as commodities,” Jonny said. “We’re trying to reinforce there’s an actual person on the other side of this profile photo, and we want you to take the time to get to know them.”
The problem is, in real life, no dating site can guarantee you a 99.8% chance of meeting your “perfect match,” like in “Hang the DJ.” Without the promise of a perfect match, it’s pretty hard to convince anyone to give up their power of choice. So when you run out of options on one dating app, you’ll probably just go back to Tinder.
3. Make dates fail-proof
There are many things that need to come together for a first date, from choosing a place and time to ordering the right food and paying the check. Every step along the way is an opportunity for things to go wrong.
In “Hang the DJ,” everything down to the food choice was handled, leaving participants to focus on talking to each other. This, in my opinion, can be a great thing. It eliminates distractions. It also takes focus away from things that don’t really matter—because being a great “date,” who knows all the right moves to make during those first few encounters, doesn’t really have much to do with being a great life partner.
It would be “interesting to go on a date where everything is selected for you. I’m obvious a big fan of recommendation systems and trying to help people narrow down their choices,” Jonny says. “They never ordered anything at that restaurant. This whole colony knows exactly what you like. It takes that possibility of a bad experience out of that first date. I don’t know how accepted that would be in society [but] I think that would be interesting.”
4. Base “matches” on how dates actually go
It’s true that algorithms are only as good as the data they’re crunching. And the reality today is, dating sites create our profiles and produce matches based on information we give them, which isn’t very much at all. At eHarmony, the only way to know if matchups are successful is to poll members when they leave the site.
“It’s kind of hard to follow up with all the couples once they leave our platform,” Jonny says. “So we have to go out and get a sample of the general population in the U.S., and we’ll ask every single couple, ‘how did you meet?’ In that way, we see how many couples of every couple in the U.S. are meeting on eHarmony.”
The last time eHarmony conducted such a survey, he says one in five respondents said their relationships started online, and of that group, 25% met on eHarmony. But that was back in 2012, and doesn’t directly help tweak the algorithm.
In “Hang the DJ,” the suggestion is that the “coach,” that little device the characters held in their pockets, was listening in and learning about them through the entire process. It was collecting information to help flesh out a more accurate profile to find a better match.
With the increased use of wearables like smart watches, and home assistants listening (and apparently, laughing randomly) while we Netflix and chill, it’s not inconceivable that some of these devices can be used to monitor heart rates, laughter, or even conversation while we’re on dates, just like in the show.
If machine learning could be used to figure out when we are enjoying ourselves with a person, and when we aren’t, and if people allowed their profiles to be tagged and tracked for successful and unsuccessful matchups, it would gradually improve matches over time based on actual performance, or based on our similarities to other people who got along with similar personality types.
Too bad that would be creepy af.
5. Take all the data
The fact is, all recommendation engines, whether for the best date or best paper towel, get better the more information they have. In addition to monitoring heart rate, software could also analyze your conversations with different people to see how they go, picking up linguistic cues to guess if you are excited, angry or bored. Companies are already experimenting with this for customer service bots.
Jonny says that something as simple as mining a person’s Facebook profile for interests, using natural language processing to look at the sentiment in all of your social media posts, could help with more accurate matching. He even thinks people may one day be comfortable enough to share more of this data.
“The way I see technology evolving and becoming more and more accepted in our day-to-day lives, it’s entirely possible that someone would be comfortable having their conversation looked into but having an algorithm decipher how things are going on a date,” he says.
Still, collecting data on “successful” vs. “unsuccessful” dates begs the question: how do we define success? There is no consensus on the way we’re even supposed to measure success. Is it multiple dates? Is it great sex? Is it marriage? If so, how many years of marriage before an initial match can actually be deemed a success? Some might argue that a date that leads to marriage, that ends in divorce, is an UNsuccessful date.
6. Wear us down
Amy, played by Georgina Campbell in “Hang the DJ,” actually called this one. She guessed at one point that the “algorithm” might be complete bullshit. She theorized it was setting people up with random matches, while dangling the promise of perfection before them, just to wear them down until they settled out of desperation.
There’s something pretty bleak about the thought of using virtual reality simulations to undergo monogamy training. But it’s conceivable that for some, simulating years of bad relationships may be just the thing to help people appreciate good ones.
7. Make us fight for what we want
There’s a more positive way to look at it: The simulation made dating so tedious and did so much to limit the characters’ power of choice, that it forced them to be decisive.
People in “Hang the DJ” ended up in those simulations because they couldn’t figure out how to find the right partners. If you remember at the beginning of the episode, Amy and Frank have a light-hearted conversation about how horrible dating must have been before the system, because people had to make hard decisions like when to break up.
By putting them through all their simulated trials, the system wore down their spirit. But instead of making them to give up and settle, it helped them make a choice, and to fight for it.
So how crazy is all of this high tech stuff? “When I watched [Hang the DJ] I didn’t think it was all that far off,” Jonny said. “Essentially, the whole colony was really just a bunch of simulations, trying to see if these two people would rebel or forego the system and leave with one another.”
“It’s really just about how tech progresses and how accepting people are of it,” he said. “If you would have told me ten years ago that you were going to call some stranger to pick you up in their car and take you somewhere, I would have thought you were mad. Now it’s an every day occurrence because of Uber.”