Have Silicon Valley singles given up on the algorithms of love?

 
 
Posted2/17/2018 1:00 AM
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  • Melissa Hobley, an executive at the dating app OkCupid, hears the complaints about the apps regularly and thinks they get a bad rap. Silicon Valley workers "are in the business of scalable, quick solutions" and love takes time, she said.

    Melissa Hobley, an executive at the dating app OkCupid, hears the complaints about the apps regularly and thinks they get a bad rap. Silicon Valley workers "are in the business of scalable, quick solutions" and love takes time, she said. Bloomberg photo by Andrew Harrer

PALO ALTO, Calif. -- Kate Chan, a 30-year-old digital marketer in Silicon Valley, first approached dating apps with a blend of curiosity and hope that they'd help her find a great guy.

But after six months of dead-end mismatches with guys she thought were boring or work-obsessed, she has gone back to what she called "meeting the old-fashioned way": without a screen. She now meets guys at do-it-yourself crafting meet-ups and her rock-climbing gym.

"I didn't want to rely on the algorithms anymore," she said. "When it comes down to it, I really have to see that person face to face, to get that intuition, that you don't get in a digital way."

The singles of Silicon Valley, the heart of America's technological ambition, spend much of their lives in quiet devotion to the power of the almighty algorithm, driven by belief that technology can solve the world's most troubling ills.

But when it comes to the algorithms of love, many say they are losing faith. They wonder whether the valley -- a place infamously inhospitable to romance and with the most lopsided gender imbalance in the country -- has proven too vexing for even its own dating apps. But they're also left with a more fundamental doubt: Maybe the human mysteries of chemistry and attraction aren't problems big data can solve.

Melissa Hobley, an executive at the dating app OkCupid, hears the complaints about the apps regularly and thinks they get a bad rap. Silicon Valley workers "are in the business of scalable, quick solutions. And that's not what love is," Hobley said. "You can't hurry love. It's reciprocal. You're not ordering an object. You're not getting a delivery in less than 7 minutes."

Finding love, she added, takes commitment and energy -- and, yes, time, no matter how inefficiently it's spent.

"You have a whole city obsessed with algorithms and data and they like to say dating apps aren't solving the problem," Hobley said. "But if a city is male dominant, if a city is known for 16-hour work days, those are issues that dating apps can't solve."

One thing distinguishes the Silicon Valley dating pool: The men-to-women ratio for employed, young singles in the San Jose metro area is higher here than any other major area. There were 150 men for every 100 women, compared to about 125 to 100 nationwide, of never-married young people between 25 and 34 in San Jose, U.S. Census data from 2016 show.

That ratio permeates the economy here, all the way to the valley's biggest employers, which have struggled for years to bring more women into their ranks. Men make up about 70 percent of the workforces of Apple, Facebook, and Google parent Alphabet, company filings show. The companies are also so big that different departments, with differing gender balances, barely mix.

When Jonathan Soma, a data-visualization professor at Columbia University's grad school, used Census numbers to map Silicon Valley's singles, he was astounded: There were entire ZIP codes around Palo Alto with 40 percent more single men than women. (He counseled viewers to follow the depressing results with "several cartons of ice cream" and a Netflix binge.)

Women here say they feel outnumbered, overworked and underwhelmed by the tech industry's egos and eccentricities: A koan of the local dating scene is, "The odds are good, but the goods are odd."

Men, in return, say they feel outmatched or overlooked. A 39-year-old San Francisco tech entrepreneur who's given up on dating apps said, "I have a higher confidence in making another million dollars than I do in finding a spouse."

The valley's solitude helps throw a spotlight onto the changing shape of American love. Men and women are getting married later, and less, but their ways to meet each other keep growing -- and they're still coupling up. The number of adults living together out of wedlock has climbed about 30 percent over the last decade, Census data show.

Millions across the U.S. have made the apps a key element of their love lives, according to Pew Research Center surveys, which found that a quarter of Americans between 18 and 34 had used an online dating service by 2015. But it's unclear how successful those apps are for lifelong romance: Among couples who had been together for five years or less, 88 percent said they had met their partner offline -- no dating app required.

In the San Francisco and San Jose areas, home to dating apps like Coffee Meets Bagel, Zoosk and The League, the marriage rate for adults ages 18 to 49 fell about 6 percent between 2005 and 2016, Census data show. Just one in four here are married by age 30.

But the area's gender imbalance has dampened even the act of finding a match. When Facebook in 2014 crunched its own data for a ranking of major cities where users went from "single" to "in a relationship," it found that San Francisco had the lowest rate of new couples, with San Jose not far behind.

These were problems the dating apps offered an ability to fix, with technologies ranging from brute-force mass attraction to personalized profile matching. OkCupid users refine their interests by answering up to 3,000 questions, including "Should a country always need the UN's approval before declaring war?"

Many of the most popular have the feel of a slot machine, including Tinder (swipe right on someone you like, and you chat if there's a match); Bumble (swiping, but only women can initiate) and Coffee Meets Bagel (swiping, but with only a handful of matches a day).

In this city of digital natives and first adopters, the apps were successful at attracting users: Many singles here say they cling to the apps, even though they doubt they'll help, because they're effectively a requirement for the dating scene -- and because they think everyone else is addicted to them, too.

"It's almost like Stockholm syndrome," one male software engineer said. "No one likes the situation, but everyone accepts these are the rules of the game."

Bumble, whose 400,000 users in Silicon Valley have matched up 20 million times since 2014, says users here have a "lower-than-average right-swipe proportion" than other large metro areas. In other words, they typically like what they see a bit less.

"You should Bumble with the intent to connect, not people-watch," said Alexandra Williamson, Bumble's head of brand. "Once you start taking an Instagram approach to the swiping experience, fatigue is only a matter of time."

One 22-year-old graduate student at Stanford University says she used Bumble to go on more than 10 first dates in the last few months -- including, she said, to virtually every bar and restaurant seen in the backdrop of the HBO tech satire "Silicon Valley." The dates were so disappointing that she decided to leave her love life to a matchmaker instead. "I just don't have that much time to be on disappointing apps," she said.

Silicon Valley's sweeping expanse of drab office parks was never known as a lovers' paradise. But random, serendipitous meetings at a bar or party seem increasingly rare, several singles complained, and virtually every introduction, first sight and flirtation plays out first on screen.

"When you go talk to a stranger and they say no, they've rejected you. You know they've rejected you," said Mc Kenna Walsh, a 29-year-old start-up consultant. "On Tinder, if someone doesn't swipe on you, you don't get a notification. You don't remember. You don't even really know."

The apps' dominant hold on the dating scene has fueled its own cottage industry of valley types hoping to optimize their chances. GetSetDate, a San Francisco-based "dating consultancy" that sells app-ready self-portrait shoots starting at $500, assures buyers: "You are not a collection of facts. We are not an algorithm."

Some local singles turn to valley matchmakers such as Amy Andersen, the founder of Linx Dating, who says many clients tried the apps first but ditched them because they felt like "searching for the impossible."

Tech-industry professionals, Andersen said, are often some of the least comfortable pouring their personal desires into a dating app. Some are also staggeringly hyper-selective: When some singles come in to tell Andersen about their type, "their list is so exaggerated: They're looking for this 6-foot-tall Adonis who also happens to be a billionaire. And I tell them: What you are looking for does not exist. It's a unicorn," Andersen said. "It's like an invincible mentality: I've achieved all these things in my life and career. Why can't I have this, too?"

Her services are pricey: Getting in the door costs $2,500; "basic premium" matchmaking memberships start at $35,000; and VIP packages, featuring wardrobe consultations, date planning and "romantic concierge" services, can extend into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. To those who balk at the price, she offers an alternative: "Swipe, swipe, swipe away."

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The Washington Post's Christopher Ingraham contributed to this report.

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