Why Online Dating Is Broken: And How We Can Fix It

I have a saying: pretty is ordinary, beauty is common, and true beauty can only be found in the heart. You see, Jennifer Aniston is pretty, Angelina Jolie is pretty. I’ll even say that Sofía Vergara is beautiful. But for a woman to attain true beauty in my eyes, she must have a radiant personality. True beauty transcends the physical.

My efforts to find love first started on Craigslist, where I met Malissa. I was intensely attracted to her immediately, without ever having seen her in person. Her personal ad was immensely evocative to me: it seemed to speak directly to my heart, to what I wanted out of love and life. In the end, it didn’t work out. But because I found my first love online, a love so pure and so intense, I imagined that I would be able to find it again.

I felt that dating websites would provide me with the best opportunity to find what I am looking for. After all, I could learn a little bit about a girl before I decided to even try to talk to her. In real life, I’d have nothing but physical attraction to go on; which is to say that I have nothing to go on at all: as I’ve said time and again, I’m indifferent to physical beauty. Thus there would be nothing to compel me to talk to a girl because I knew nothing about her except that she was objectively attractive by most of the world’s male population. But, depending on the website, I could see what a girl’s values are in general; I could see her general disposition and attitude towards important things. Essentially, I could get a sense of her value system before I even met her. And because I would only message girls whose value systems were similar to mine, I was excited about the prospect of meeting like-minded women. That is what drew me to online dating: personality. For what must have been five years of my young adult life, I have been searching for true beauty on online dating websites. From paid websites like eHarmony and Chemistry to free ones like OkCupid and PlentyOfFish, I have tried them all. For years, I followed the advice of dating profile experts and began my own investigation on how best to craft a profile when the so-called experts’ tips weren’t yielding any results. I learned how to take flattering yet representative photos. I examined the best way to initiate contact with women. But for the last two years, I’ve ignored what I’ve rapidly concluded in the first year: the harsh reality of online dating is that attraction is reduced to statistics.

Dollars and Inches

A dating profile is boiled down to a few static photos and some basic numerical data like how much money you earn and how tall you are. A man has no active way to attract a woman, no way to engage her in an emotional way. Men are reduced to dollars and inches (no penis jokes please).

A man who makes a six-figure salary and stands at over 5’10” will do fairly well. Big bonus points if you are white or if you have a very interesting or prestigious job (think lawyer, venture capitalist, doctor, etc.). But other people? According to statistics on OkCupid, it’s a pretty dismal dating scene if you don’t fit into this archetype of what females desire most. The funny thing is that the people who would do well online would probably do just as well in real life. In fact, men who are numerically attractive are likely to do even better online because their numbers do all the talking, leaving their social skills out of the equation.

However, if a man does not stand at five foot-ten inches, well, woe is he who engages in online dating. According to the HBO documentary When Strangers Click, every inch a man is under 5’10”, he must make an additional $140,000 a year to be considered equally attractive compared to their taller counterparts. Take Tom Cruise, who’s reportedly 5’7″. He’s got to make $420,000 a year just to measure up to a taller version of himself. That’s a pretty dismal fact of online dating life, wouldn’t you say? Lucky for him, he’s famous and makes beaucoup bucks. But can you imagine if there was a Tom Cruise lookalike who put himself online and had to make $450,000 just to get the same dating opportunities as a taller Tom Cruise lookalike who worked in retail making $30,000 a year? It doesn’t bode well for the human species to see that we’re so immensely superficial. As Sam Bicke said in The Assassination of Richard Nixon, it’s all about money, Dick, money!

The world is mine, chico, and everything in it

A woman receives many messages a day on any dating website if she is at least average looking. As such, with such a high volume of signs of interest, it isn’t unreasonable to conclude that this positively reinforces her self-perception that she is valued and sought after. If you have five to ten suitors messaging you every day, wouldn’t you feel like the world is yours?

When you dive into the online dating pool, you are exposed to an immense number of potential mates. Unless you are an attractive female in a club filled almost entirely with men, people realistically do not experience real-world romantic interactions in such a way. That is, nobody ever sees three girls or three guys at once and tries to choose the best amongst them. You come across one person at a time, and you judge them on their own merits as opposed to how they fare relative to the others.

But this bombardment is exactly what happens online. You are usually given three matches a day, and they are presented to you at one time. Because you are presented with them in such a fashion, you begin to feel that the world is yours, that there are so many opportunities for love. And as such, when opportunity is in such abundance, why “settle” for anything less than perfect? Why not choose to date only men who are six feet tall and make two hundred thousand dollars a year? Why not choose to date only women who have an ample bosom and a beautiful face? After all, the dating pool seems so limitless: sooner or later, that perfect person will come along. Why waste time on anything but the best? Women are the choosier sex, and they become even more so when faced with a seemingly limitless number of options.

Attraction Towards Pixels

However, there are presumably idealists who don’t believe that attraction is a matter of dollars and inches. After all, the big draw of eHarmony and Chemistry is their focus on the personality. Rather than wasting time with people who would not be compatible with you, these dating sites screen your potential dates to maximize the use of your time. The principle behind personality-oriented dating is that people should choose their romantic partners based primarily on compatibility. eHarmony seems to understand this the best: they allow for an option to automatically allow photos of yourself to be shown once a person has decided to go forward with communicating with you based on your profile alone. This, ideally, would ensure that a potential suitor is attracted to one’s personality first and foremost.

The only problem is that online dating only works under ideal conditions. The flawed common wisdom of online dating is that those who do not show their pictures must be ugly. In fact, any non-disclosures are automatically judged as negative. For Internet dating to work, prospects must learn to focus primarily on emotional and psychological compatibility. Under ideal circumstances, I’d have a long-term romantic partner by now: I’ve been matched with so many women based on said compatibility; and on OkCupid, I’ve messaged a fair number of women who have over a 90% match rating with me.

Alas, it would appear that attraction is highly reductionistic and coldly calculated in the virtual realm. The first thing that is filtered for is race. Many people will, upon seeing that someone is black (or any other non-white ethnicity, really), exclude that person based strictly on their race. Secondly, someone’s physical attractiveness is registered: is this person hot or not?

At this point, most men would fail. Considering that most people are not willing to settle for less when there are so many options available, people are far likelier to reach higher than they would in real life. What this means is that only 16.1% (around one in six) of the male population are “hot enough” under a bell curve. And then, even if you get past the physical attractiveness selection process, your height and salary then comes into play. Height is desirable in men, so the shorter you are, the worse your chances are. Of course, money is good to have too, and the same goes for that as it does height: the less you have, the worse off you are.

Again, if you are not white, are shorter than 5’10”, or do not make six figures, online dating brings out the worst qualities about yourself and thus becomes rather difficult to find success as a man. The online dating profile is a system of black and white where there is little room for those who are not exceptionally attractive: attraction is based on nothing more than numbers and pixels.

Online Dating: Window Shopping For Love

Online dating is essentially nothing more than window shopping: you look around for something that visually catches your attention. Then, and only then, would you dig a little deeper. There is no sense of spontaneity, and there is no room for emotion: everything is a calculated move online. Dating websites are like a website where you shop for your ideal mate. You can filter out everything but the best of the best in your preferences. Andy, one of the men whose stories was told in the HBO documentary, is a great example of this “shopping” mentality that one engages in when doing online dating.

“The first few times I went online, I was just like a voyeur. These women had these websites for you, you could go shopping, and go trolling: I was trolling for women!” he explains. And what was Andy searching for? He was, essentially, shopping for widowed Jewish women in the tri-state area.

And so to its credit, online dating is very good for finding the exact person you think you’d love to spend the rest of your life with. You log on, and you filter out everything but the most desired of traits. Because profiles are full of filterable data, finding that perfectly short and curvy bisexual Russian Jewish woman that I seem to be so attracted to (I kid, of course) is a matter of checking the right checkboxes and clicking the search button. It’s kind of like searching for the perfect pair of shoes on Endless.com. You filter for your favorite brands and colors and sizes, and then you can pare down that filtered selection to the ones that you think are the best looking.

The caveat, of course, is that when those shoes come in, they’re sometimes not as pictured, and upon closer examination, you discover that you might not actually like this pair of shoes all that much after all. Maybe the stitching is too thick, or maybe they actually don’t look as good as you thought they did with your gray trousers or your black skirt. There are all these tiny details that you can only pick up on when you see and handle them in person. And then it’s a pain in the ass when you have to ship them back. Oh, wait. I forgot I was talking about people for a second.

You’re Cramping My Style

When you go on an online dating website, the first thing you do is fill out your profile; the more you have to tell about yourself, the better. OKCupid does its best to get you to be as detailed as possible; they encourage this by subtly pushing you to achieve the 100% completion mark by fulfilling a word count and a picture count, amongst other metrics. Some other websites won’t even give you the option to forgo an answer, forcing you to provide information you might not wish to for whatever reason.

So profiles are naturally detailed and quite telling. But really, the whole idea of a profile is immensely restrictive and artificial. In the search for a romantic partner, there are certain things that are deal breakers. For example, someone may definitely want children in the future, but their match’s profile says that they hate kids. These are, of course, good things to know ahead of time so that you do not waste time with each other. But there are certain things that are less polarizing. Speaking from personal experience, I state in my profile that I only want to meet women with a strong sense of self. That is to say that she should know with great certainty who she is and why she believes in the things that she does. The truth though is that I may end up falling for a woman who is a little less sure of herself. The truth is that it really just depends. I may be able to look over a potential romantic partner’s lack of table manners if she makes up for it in other ways (say, by being funny or sweet). I imagine that many people are the same way: they do not have a strict archetype that their heart is restricted to falling in love with. Rather, they do have a strict archetype of their imagined perfect ideal mate. But without other mitigating factors that are incapable of being captured online, factors like the way someone smiles or the timbre and pitch of their voice, one’s profile serves only to become a laundry list of factors for potential suitors to judge you on.

Finally, there is the idea that profiles inherently try to fit people into boxes. Like the pixels that define a computer screen’s resolution, profiles are blunt objects that are not nearly high enough a resolution to convey the complexities and nuances of a person accurately. They also end up putting people in stereotypes. Profiles are an attempt to display one’s value system by answering yes/no questions: they are inherently static with little to no explanatory context. This is a big problem because many of our values usually exist on a spectrum rather than a binary scale.

It’s All About The Timing

When you go on a first date, do your conversations sound like this?

“Hey, my name is Peter.”

“Hey Peter. I’m objectively rated a 6.5, and you’re an 8, so I’ll introduce myself to you. I’m Mary. Nice to meet you!”

“Nice to meet you too Mary. Just in case you couldn’t tell by looking at my face, I’m white! I just wanted to let you know that I’m also precisely five-foot seven and three quarters inches tall. I wanted to put down five-foot eleven, but I didn’t want to lie. I also work at a retail store, and I make $30,000 a year. I live with my mom and dad. I’m politically liberal, I like children, and I like dogs but hate cats. I also speak English fluently and Spanish poorly.”

“Oh…you know what? I don’t date guys who live with their mom and dad, and I don’t date guys who work in retail, and I definitely don’t go out with guys who make only thirty grand. Bye!”

“But wait Mary! I’m a really good lover! And I’m only living with my parents because my father suffered a stroke and my mother has been in a wheel chair since I was in high school, somebody needs to take care of them! And I lost my six-figure job because my boss was looking for an excuse to fire me, so when I decided to take a week off to take care of my parents, he took that opportunity! Wait, come back! Aw shit…she’s in a cab already, what am I doing…”

No? I didn’t think so. See, things that are usually disclosed in a dating profile are not necessarily things that would be disclosed on a first date. In real life, Peter doesn’t wear a sign advertising his meager salary and unsexy living situation. Yet that’s exactly what happens online. There’s just too much information in any profile worth looking at. Profiles are, after all, mostly an attempt to represent you accurately. But the biggest issue of online dating lies in the extremely flawed foundation of the interactions themselves. Online dating revolves around the profile, and profile-oriented interactions are inherently flawed because of the disclosure of so much detailed information in so little time, and all of it revealed entirely out of context (not to mention discord between your self-description and the perceived realities of others).

In the real world though, the topic of a man’s salary wouldn’t come up until there’s really been enough attraction and trust built between two people. One’s race wouldn’t play as big a deal because our internal ideas of what someone’s race indicates about them is offset by the reality of the real person in front of you. For example, a white girl might think all Hispanic guys are, say, womanizing thugs who chase every piece of tail on the street. But the reality of this Puerto Rican fellow who happens to be a well-dressed gentleman would serve to move him past the stereotypes and prejudices that preceded him in her mind. And when confronted with unflattering questions, people are more or less afforded the chance to explain themselves. In the virtual realm, people are not afforded the chance or even the time of day based on information that would never be disclosed in a reasonable first encounter.

Compare this profile-oriented interaction to a real-life interaction. Peter goes up to Mary in a coffee shop and they start chatting. There are no other men competing for her attention. This allows them to engage in a delicate dance, but one that’s far more complex than what happens online. Body language, tone of voice, eye contact, amongst many other things, all culminate into a mating ritual that can happen only in the real world. For example, one thing that attracts a woman to a man is confidence. Confidence can be conveyed in the way a man moves and talks, and in the way others respond to him. A confident man, dressed simply in a T-shirt and jeans, can engage a woman’s romantic mind more easily than a meek man dressed in a thousand dollar suit. But confidence is much harder to convey in photos and text. Conversely, one attractive attribute of women is how their hips sway when they walk (as opposed to a man’s shoulder swagger). These things are simply lost in the translation from flesh and blood interaction to digital interaction.

Put most concisely, the problem with online dating boils down to an excessive amount of information delivered out of context, too clinical a measure of attraction, and a loss of very important intangibles that are observable in real-life interaction. Online dating’s only advantage kicks in only when one concentrates on information that is derived strictly from the personality of a person, forgoing all other distractions like height, salary, and occupation. Unless you’re a tall white male, online dating is going to be a rough place for you, even rougher than it would be in the real world.

One Way To Fix Online Dating

Really, for online dating to be effective for those who wish to find a long-term romantic partner, distractions like salary, height, and living situation need to be done away with. They shouldn’t even be a part of a profile. There is usually an option along the lines of “I prefer not to say”, but like I said before, non-disclosure may as well be a big neon sign saying, “I am ashamed of this aspect of myself and am not going to share it with you.”

I propose that a more “fuzzy” profile would more closely emulate a real life initial contact. If the focus of a dating website is personality and things like emotional and psychological compatibility, someone’s salary should be omitted altogether, while height should be defined within a range. For example, John Smith is between 5’6″ and 5’8″. Because really, when you’re talking with a woman, can she really tell if you’re five-foot eight or five-foot nine? As for photos, perhaps a blurred photo should suffice: it should be just enough to tell the general shape and configuration of someone’s face. This way, someone’s attractiveness is rendered “fuzzy”. That is, if you prefer square jawed men, you can tell immediately whether this person has a square jaw. You can also tell what color their hair is and all the general things that you may prefer (though ideally, silly things like hair and eye color really wouldn’t matter at all).

This fuzzy mode of building a profile is more realistic. Really, I don’t think that there are many women out there who would stop talking to a man suddenly because she found out that he was actually five-foot eight and not five-foot ten. I mean, with shoes and hair, someone’s real height is a best guess within two or three inches anyway. In real life, all you’re really thinking when you talk to someone is, “Okay, they’re tall enough.” And when you’re talking with a woman and engaging her emotionally and intellectually, can she really tell that your face isn’t perfectly symmetrical? She’s not going to have time to focus on your face the same way she can if she were looking at a photo of you: there’s just too much going on at once.

Fixing online dating is really a simple matter of hooking people up based on whether or not they’d get along and doing away with the distractions like photos and personal essays. Not everybody photographs well, and not everybody writes or self-describes well. Most of the time, people are either tall enough or good-looking enough or they’re not. Nailing down all the particulars of a yourself in a profile is basically shooting yourself in the foot. Chances are, the photos and profile aren’t actually representative of the real you, and by misrepresenting yourself, you’re just going to end up getting with the wrong people. Simple is best, as Canadian chef Michael Smith says. And that’s where online dating has screwed up: it’s turned into a crazy morass of irrelevant and unflattering information.


Ultimately, there just is no proper digital approximation for the weird realm of romance and attraction in the real world. There are things about people that we just can’t put into words and numbers, things that can’t be captured in a single snapshot. Even if video clips were to be used, there are other things to call into question like lighting and whether or not the video is representative of the person. The bottom line is that unless people are willing to put away their superficial preferences in an online setting, it’s very difficult to overcome a digital environment that reduces people into bits and bytes that are barely representative of the vast complexities of human personality.

And isn’t that really what we end up falling in love with? We fall in love with the complexities of the person…what they want out of life, what they want from you and how they make you feel. It isn’t a six-figure salary or a glimpse of cleavage. No, it’s the way she curls her lips when she smiles, the way his infectious laugh makes you feel. We don’t fall in love with one woman over another because one’s got a bigger cup size. We don’t fall in love with one man over another because he’s two inches taller than the other. When you meet people in the real world, you’re more inclined to give them a chance, to get to know them, even if they aren’t what you imagined your Prince Charming would look like. You move forward because of emotions, not a hard objective look at this person’s statistical attractiveness. You get caught up in the moment, and there’s that spark of chemistry that tells you that there just might be something going on in this here moment, on this line at Starbucks or between two bookshelves at Barnes & Noble. Love is strange, as Mickey & Sylvia said, and computers aren’t a place where the strange can be dealt with…love belongs in the human realm, where things never really make much sense anyway.¶

Last updated: 21 Feb 2010
Point of Interest: Take the Data out of Dating by Alexis Madrigal in The Atlantic.
  • Larry Word

    Blurry photos seem like a really good look, actually. Also, what about okcupid's question/answer thing? I was thinking about how a lot of those make it easy to stereotype people. Why filter out ANYONE who drinks? etc.

    • Profiles are indeed stereotypical and to be honest, I've always held that it's immensely difficult to capture a person in the two dimensions (or is it just one?) of an online profile. And anybody who can be captured in a profile isn't really worth getting to know.

      Alas, I was stubborn and idealistic and forged ahead anyway, regardless of my intellectual acknowledgment of the very deep flaws of online dating. Anybody remember my essay, "The System is Flawed"? Well, this system is flawed. The premise behind it is good, but as we all know, an ideal utopia is always bungled up when humans are involved (a la Matrix 1.0).

      In sum: people are stupid. Stupid as the day is bright.