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The Data-ing Game

August 16, 2003

In the late '90s, when America Online took off, a momentous change occurred. Suddenly, even geeks could talk to that unattainable babe. No need to work on a swagger or fix a squeaky voice to woo the date beyond your reach -- now only limber fingers for smooth typing were needed. No need to wink or put a twinkle in your eye; mischievous flirting now occurred via emoticon, a la >:-) or ;-).

Yes, the Internet, with e-mail and instant messaging, was the great equalizer, making everyone a keyboarding hottie. No more fretting about looks, fashion or slick chatter and patter. Long derided for attracting the antisocial, the Net was now its own social scene. Voila, chat rooms, especially for the reticent.

Too shy to even try for that e-mail date? No problem! Fill out a simple, automated personality profile and let the machine match you with your "soul mate" -- no mixers or bar-lurking required. How could you lose? Forty million visits to dating sites just in June, experts say. Perfect for a summer romance.

Ah, but as the Wall Street Journal noted recently, then came the cyber-dating sites full of sign-up tests and pre-love-match interrogations: Are you bold? Do you startle easily? Are you quarrelsome? Introverted? Clever? How important is sex to you? (Really. Be honest.)

One site, WeAttract.com, promises to find "someone who considers your quirks adorable!" Another warns, "Chemistry is not enough," but then offers pity: "Getting to know someone deeply is tough, especially on your own." EHarmony.com coos: "But what if you had some help, from an expert?"

Four out of five EHarmony.com users, the company says, find their special someone. This it attributes to its "scientific matching" model, based on data from thousands of couples with compatible personality profiles. For that fifth applicant, there's another cyber-development, the site advises, as it launches a message that says, "We hope that you understand our regret. ... "

Rejection! By a computer! Turned into a toad, electronically, before even entering any of the serious matchmaking areas. Egads, even your college application was looked over by some human eyes.

But that's not all. This computer, like its twisted ancestor HAL, will pile it on, allegedly peering into your psyche to detail your emotional wants. As one visitor to the site discovered, you too may be in need of: Activities involving contact with many people. Others to adhere to your high standards. Popularity.

How prescient. Hey, someone pretty cute just went around the corner at the bar. Later.

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