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How Hackers Are Helping Dating Site Users Find True Love

"I've had a surprising number of women ask me if they can weed out guys whose profiles show them holding up fish."

This story appeared in the February Issue of VICE magazine. Click HERE to subscribe.

Justin Long had reached his breaking point with Tinder. A 28-year-old computer programmer based in Vancouver, Long was sitting in the bar with his friends a few years ago when he decided he was sick of getting sucked into hours of endless swiping, and was tired of watching everyone open up the app and tune one another out. Long joked about automating the process, but when he realized how simple it would be, he went ahead and did it.

Long is not the only tech-savvy man to write an algorithm to hack his online-dating experience. The web is full of tutorials on how to game the scene—mostly by automating Tinder to swipe right on every woman—but Long refined his hack much further.

First, he dug up an algorithm that could build facial-recognition technology into the process: The computer swiped right or left for him as it "learned" which women Long thought were attractive based on his previous preferences. Then, once Long matched with a woman, a chatbot would automatically strike up a conversation with her using a simple pickup line: "Are you a fan of avocados?" Women who responded favorably—declaring themselves fans of avocados—were automatically sent another question, like, "So if I asked you to have a guacamole party with me, would you do it?"

Of course, the danger is, if every heterosexual guy spammed women in pursuit of a match, it would only serve to increase the overload of disturbing and "sup?" messages that straight women already go through. 

"Who doesn't like avocados?" Long said when I asked why he chose that line. "I'm not sure I could trust someone who didn't."

But the pickup line was not the point. "So many women you match with don't reply to messages, so this was just a way to focus my time on women who were genuinely interested in having a conversation in the first place," said Long. If a woman responded twice to Long's chatbot, he would manually take over the conversation. "I didn't find the love of my life, but I did end up seeing one of the women I met this way for a couple of months," Long said. "I'd say it was fairly successful." (He has since found love through a hack.)

***

Tinder, OkCupid, and a profusion of other dating apps and sites have brought casual encounters with potential love interests into our phones and laptops. One in ten Americans are using online-dating apps or sites—chatting, swiping, looking, liking—but many people still fail to make the meaningful digital connections that lead to actual dates. Enterprising techies like Long have developed their own ways to optimize this process, and now, some of them are selling these hacks to the less technologically inclined.

During the summer of 2016, Long launched an app called Bernie, available for about $2 a month, that executes a more advanced version of his hack for Tinder or Happn users. I tried it myself: Sure enough, it swiped through Tinder on my behalf and sent out canned lines to a number of men. Users can come up with their own pickup lines—and personalize the app in other ways, like by modifying their level of swiping "pickiness"—but I chose to go with the wisdom of default settings.

Once a match was made, the chatbot automatically sent the message: "Coffee or red wine?" Those who responded then received a canned reply: "Anyone who can function without caffeine or alcohol can't be trusted." This repartee received mostly positive responses, although one Australian did mention that alcohol abuse was something he was trying to leave in his past. The bot sent out a different series of pickup lines to other guys. "Which concert costs 45 cents?" it asked. If my match replied, the bot shot back: "Fifty cent and Nickelback…"

That pickup line was—believe it or not—better received than the first. One man even complimented me on my witty icebreaker. 

At this point, I still hadn't actually interacted with anyone. I felt conflicted about tricking men into conversations with a chatbot, and remained skeptical that the algorithm would be able to determine whom I'd like—but the app certainly worked in that it increased the odds I'd engage with someone.

On its face, manipulating the code of dating sites seems creepy or comical. It is almost exclusively a male phenomenon, and when I described it to other women, they stared at me in wide-eyed horror. Already bombarded with messages—many mundane, but many very crude—almost every straight, single woman I talked to said, despairingly, "Now I have to worry about robots on these apps, too?" 

But a closer look at how people already interact on dating apps revealed that the hacks aren't necessarily unjustified. 

By and large, when it comes to heterosexual matches—and this article deals only with that, as digital behavior changes drastically for the wide spectrum of other kinds of matching—women are less likely to start online conversations with men. On OkCupid, for example, men send almost four times as many first messages as women do. The dating app Bumble skirts these issues by putting the onus on women to start the conversations, but, for the most part, men are still expected to talk first, and some resort to putting out as many lines as they can to see what comes back to them—so in that way, the automated behavior isn't that different from how many men already behave on dating sites.

Generally, men also tend to be a little formulaic even in their most organic approach to chatting, said Christian Rudder, a co-founder of OkCupid, who analyzed and blogged about the data he gleaned from a number of dating sites. For example, he found that many OkCupid users were sending pickup lines that contained more characters than they typed. These individuals—he wrote in his book Dataclysm—"are the cut-and-pasters, and they are legion."

"It's not spam in the way we normally use that word," he wrote. "These are real people's attempts at contact, essentially memorized digital pickup lines. Many are about as lazy and mundane as you'd expect: 'Hey you're cute' or 'Wanna talk?'—simply digital equivalents of 'Come here often?'"

But some of the reused messages are "so idiosyncratic it's hard to believe they would even apply to multiple people," he wrote. In his book, he presented such an example, exactly as it was typed:

"I'm a smoker too. I picked it up when backpacking in May. It used to be a drinking thing, but now I wake up and fuck, I want a cigarette. I sometimes wish that I worked in a Mad Men office. Have you seen the Le Corbusier exhibit at MoMA? It sounds pretty interesting. I just saw a Frank Gehry (sp?) display last week in Montreal, and how he used computer modelling to design a crazy house in Ohio."

This same message was sent manually to 42 women.

When I asked Rudder about this phenomenon, he said it was only natural for people to find the copy-and-paste approach unnerving. But, he reasoned, "People repeat themselves on first dates all the time. That's been happening since before the internet."

"The copy-and-pasting approach really isn't for me," said Cole Burbidge, a 31-year-old doctor who is getting a business degree in New Orleans. "But I can understand the burnout and exhaustion from crafting so many messages that seemingly go nowhere." 

When single, Burbidge uses OkCupid to meet women. Online dating, he said, can be really time-consuming because "it's necessary to try to reach out to a wide number of women. For various reasons, the messages don't always lead to anything." Burbidge found that it was hard to sort through the digital crowds of those who were not interested—or were "not interested 'right now' but will message back in three weeks, or not really looking for a relationship—wink, wink—just browsing, or will deactivate right after she's done checking to see if her boyfriend has been on, or will just deactivate once the flood of messages from dudes overwhelms her with social anxiety…"

So, while in medical school in Portland, Oregon, he tried out Yaydating, a service that employs a more serendipitous approach to hacking the online-dating game.

Yaydating is best applied to OkCupid, which matches users based on compatibility that is determined by their answers to lengthy questionnaires. While Tinder forces users to make an instant decision on whether to "match" with a potential love interest based solely on a few pictures, OkCupid users can browse one another's detailed profiles without "matching" or sending a message.

Users can then see who has been browsing their profiles—it's a way to gauge potential love interests at a distance. Yaydating's creator, Sharif Corinaldi, described this OkCupid feature as the "equivalent of making eyes at someone across the bar, but not going so far as to buy them a drink."

In 2012, as a lonely graduate student studying theoretical physics at Berkeley, Corinaldi found he could program an algorithm to piggyback on this browsing feature: He set his computer to automatically scan thousands of women's profiles, increasing the likelihood that they would notice him—or, more specifically, that they would notice him noticing them.

As he wrote in a piece for the Guardian, this move proved to be explosive. Overnight, "twenty-three women had written messages to me unsolicited, and nearly a hundred had visited my profile," he wrote. "This was more than three months' worth of attention, concentrated into a single night."

He met his girlfriend, Rosie, as a result of this hack, and now keeps the Yaydating servers running as a kind of service for the dating inept. The boosting feature is free to try, but afterward, it costs $2 for a 24-hour browsing blast.

Sharif Corinaldi created Yaydating, an algorithm that automatically scans profiles on OkCupid in order to optimize users' matches. Apps like his can be especially effective for racial and other minorities that statistics show are disproportionately overlooked on dating sites.

Setting these programs to crawl thousands of profiles is effective and can be especially helpful for those who truly have a harder time making digital connections. Black men and women and Asian men, for example, are the most routinely overlooked groups in online dating. Users are 25 percent less likely to engage by matches and messages with black people in particular, according to OkCupid's Christian Rudder. 

"It is not an asset to be black on dating sites, and coming to grips with that information is kind of weird and hard," said Corinaldi, who is black. He now lives with Rosie in Brooklyn. "I fought the idea, because I do not want to think about things I can't change as being a disadvantage, but in terms of mainstream appeal, it affects how busy you could be on a Saturday night.

"Self-esteem stuff happens when you think of your own race or things you can't change as dating liabilities," he said. "So it is great to have this system where you can still find the folks that are interested in you."

He went on to tell me about a friend of his from the Bay Area who is Asian American, soft featured, and 5'2". "He wasn't getting any kind of response on OkCupid and was all mopey about dating," Corinaldi said. "So we ran the service for him the first time, and he got two messages. It was validating—the women who wrote to him were not trolling. He was in line with what they were looking for."

***

"One person's superpower is another person's curse," Corinaldi told me. Women, he said, often express to him that they're "interested in a more defensive product" when it comes to online dating. Generally, single women have almost too much to sort through, and many of the messages are sleazy, vile, or otherwise indistinguishable from one another. Justin Long reported similar but perhaps less serious feedback about his Bernie app. "I've had a surprising number of women ask me if they can weed out guys whose profiles show them holding up fish."

Just as men built most of the dating apps on the market, hacks that supercharge the algorithms are also built by, and often work best for, men. But there are exceptions to this rule. 

One female reddit user who stumbled on Yaydating reported that it worked "frighteningly well." On an OkCupid subreddit, she wrote, "Probably should mention I'm one of those dreaded single mothers. 40 yo, divorced, two kids and primary custody. Nobody wants to date that." But when she applied Corinaldi's hack to her profile, so that it would visit hundreds of other profiles in a short amount of time, "this caused at least a dozen top-quality candidates to actually read my profile and send a thoughtful, enthusiastic message. That's not counting the couple hundred who were not good fits for me."

Of course, the danger is, if every heterosexual guy spammed women in pursuit of a match, it would only serve to increase the overload of disturbing and "sup?" messages that straight women already go through. 

"The avalanche-of-messages phenomenon is real and does seem to drive some women from these sites pretty quickly," said Corinaldi. But, generally, the most attention is "highly focused on a relatively small number of women that the average guy decides is the most attractive." (OkCupid actively buries the profiles of the most popular users for this very reason.) 

"Auto-browsers are less picky and spread the attention around more, which can sometimes lead to good things," Corinaldi said. "I like to believe that if men got a bit less 'tunnel-vision' in how they search for women to date, everyone would win out." 

Even if this technology became widespread, it likely wouldn't benefit the guys who are already reeling in matches. Both for the most conventionally attractive—and for those predatory creeps who might use the technology to seduce a new girl each night—there are still only seven days in a week. There is only so much dating each person can do, and those with questionable objectives can already accomplish them without a hack.

"I really believe that these hacks" benefit the men "who most women aren't attracted to, or who wouldn't be noticed otherwise," Corinaldi said. Even if everyone started using dating hacks tomorrow, "the Tom Bradys of the world would still be able to meet the Giseles IRL. We'd just have a lot more happy, average-looking people who gave one another a chance." 

This article has been updated to reflect Justin Long's current relationship status.