February 1, 2019

Dating apps - the beginning

(Part 1 of 2)

Dating apps. If you’ve been single for any period of time in the last 5 years, there is a good chance that you’ve tried one. The model makes sense.  They provide ease and security in the dating world that didn’t previously exist. And there are a lot of options, with offerings from industry giants to caterers to a small niche, each providing their own hook to appeal to users like yourself.

I’ve been married for over 15 years so I never needed to try any app for the goal of finding a partner — hence the exploration into each app was wholly a new experience to me.

Despite some variance in feature sets, the majority of the apps follow rather similar approaches to finding a match:

  • The question-heavy apps where you spend a long time setting up your profile to presumably let them search on your behalf to find the one.
  • The highly addictive swipe app which has you thumbing through tons of profiles and fulfilling the happy collector in all of us by allowing us to horde matches.

Both approaches are entertaining and can undoubtedly work – most of us have friends who have found love through online dating apps — but after playing with a couple dozen, I question whether these apps are effective in achieving the goal in finding the perfect partner and if that even is the goal. I’ve concluded the answer to be very few for either question.

So it is easy to understand why these apps have started a craze. It is difficult to understand what they’ve done since in light of the accessibility of modern advancements to help achieve the previously stated goal.

Trying to learn… something

Similar to online dating, the surge of Machine Learning in applications and software in the last 5 years is impossible to miss if you even have a passing interest in technology. Of course, learning models have been around for a long-long time. As a veteran of the game industry, there has been a lot of research and application of techniques used in Machine Learning and AI and have been for years. But it is the affordability and improved performance that has made it widespread available — Google, Amazon and Microsoft all provide powerful frameworks and algorithms to solve all sorts of problems.

Dating apps inherently collect a lot of information about you: your stated preferences at the beginning of the app and your learned preferences as you start interacting with the app. However, when running through these dating apps, it is difficult to ascertain what level of advanced learning is being done while using one of them.  These apps, at least the big ones, certainly must implement learning algorithms or are at least trying to, as is evident by the numerous job postings for Data Scientists and Engineers with Machine Learning backgrounds as well as the occasional blog post or small article. Yet still, from the outside looking in, it is challenging to evaluate how they are applying learning and whether it is for the purpose of helping the user date smarter.

For the question-heavy sites, such as Match, OKCupid or E-Harmony, you spend a lot of time to onboard, filling out multiple choice scruples, and that data is assumed to help find the best match. Are matching similarities a true indication that you’ve found somebody compatible? Is this machine learning or statistical matching based on pre-conceived notions?  When we’re talking about a swipe dating app, the model is normally all about volume: swipe a lot and then hopefully match a lot based on some basic preferences. The user is engaged in performing their own brute force algorithm, looking at many profiles that are clearly not going to be a match or suspicious attractive profiles that clearly won't match with you. Some apps will ask the odd question, but these apps are generally about making you, the user, continue the cycle of swipe/match/date without much insight into whether the effort is meaningful. And if you are using some of these apps to find your soul mate, the swipe mechanism is fun and the process could eventually work. Seeing that it is a strong model for entertainment, where’s the incentive for them to do better?

Of course, there is a contingency who prefer this approach. Swiping is, after all, fun and no variation of this model should discount that. But what about the people who are looking for genuine lasting connections and don't want to sift through endless profiles that are unappealing or clearly tailored to keep you swiping? The culture of online dating has changed dramatically with the swipe app. And with a younger demographic and a different goal in mind, many prefer casting a wide net and seeing what they can catch. And there’s nothing wrong with that — but knowing that, why would apps who support this need to invest the time and effort to change their model to support those who want to just find someone perfect?

Unlike other industries, there’s little publicly available about each company’s inner workings when it comes to their process so it is perhaps unfair to assume that not much is being done. But, for fun, take 5 minutes and start googling for Machine Learning and your favorite dating site.  There’s not a lot available. A lot of user speculation and not much affirmation from the company’s themselves.

Overcoming the short-comings

There is one other very popular result that comes up when doing these web searches about Machine Learning and dating apps: people interested in finding matches on these sites creating outside-the-box solutions to maximize their potential to do so.

A successful app like OKCupid will ask the user hundreds of questions up front to load their matching engine to try and find the most like-minded profiles. The wired article “How a Math Genius Hacked OKCupid to Find True Love” [3] relates a common problem with these sites — they generate an immutable score between users based on these questions. If there is a problem with the questions, as there are in the case of the article, then the user’s experience may be limited based on that first assessment.

Tinder, being the leader in the swipe dating app industry, has a large user base and an API that is possible to received access to. And as a swipe-based app, they require the user to swipe through as much as they can. There have been many attempts to create tinder bots that try to do all the heavy lifting, sifting through the numerous profiles on behalf of the user. These generally train a model on what they believe to be attractive and then root out all the attractive users for right swipes, occasionally starting the conversation immediately.

And yet, there are plenty of stories online of men and women trying to force Tinder to work for them based on this API. They want to find their match, but their only option is to run some automation based on a pre-defined ruleset. They need to play Tinder’s game.

In my next post in this series I will dive into greater detail about the learning aspect of our algorithm, and uncover some of our “how” behind our machine learning application!  In the meantime, we hope that you download Say Allo and start learning something new about yourself, and somebody new!

Written by:

Steve Shaw
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