Online dating: Who are you really talking to?
It can be daunting to take the leap of faith into the world of online dating, not really knowing who is on the other end of your messages. How would you feel knowing that you may not even be talking to the same person throughout your entire correspondence?
One day when I was trawling through writing jobs on LinkedIn, I stumbled across an interesting-looking role as a creative writer with what appeared to be a dating company called Vida (Virtual Dating Agency) Select. As the position looked vaguely interesting, I sent off an application and was pleased to receive further details of the role and a link to a writing test. But when I looked at the job specification I became a little uncomfortable.
Where I had expected that the role to mainly consist of spicing up and correcting clients' profiles, it wanted me to do much more. They wanted me to create a range of ice-breaker messages for client correspondence alongside communicating with matches until a date was set or a phone number was provided. It was made clear that, after this hurdle had been reached, the client would then take over the communication with the match.
As someone not particularly familiar with the world of online dating, my moral alarm bells began to ring. The wage was fairly good so I decided to do a bit more digging and. As far as I could tell, everything they were doing was legal. However, I still felt very uncomfortable at the idea of, as far as I was concerned, withholding information from potential love-seekers and decided that I would not proceed with the application process.
This whole experience left me with a lot of questions: why were people doing this? Was their work/life balance so consuming that they were unable to set aside the time to use dating apps? And, if this was the case, what did this say about our society? Did I really live in a world where everything had been commercialised to the degree that people were outsourcing themselves as products to be sold?
Fast forward a lot of research and an interview with the founder of Vida Select, Scott Valdez, I found out what I wanted to know.
It all began back in 2004...
Back in 2004, Valdez used the new platform, Facebook, to send one of five chat-up lines to dozens of women and recorded the response data in a spreadsheet.
He then applied the findings from this research to the dating app, Plenty of Fish (POF), and outsourced a writer on Craigslist to run his POF profile for him. This experiment laid the foundations for Vida Select.
Now a highly successful business, Vida Select claims to be a service for people who want to meet “higher quality” matches and to “say goodbye to online dating forever”. According to their website, Vida Select uses a mixture of science and skill to find someone’s perfect match, the bedrock of which relies on Valdez’s dating algorithm.
Valdez lays a lot of faith in his system and even found his wife through the service in 2016.
“You can’t compare Vida Select to Tinder or Bumble, because we aren’t a dating platform. That would be like comparing Uber to Ford or another car manufacturer. Uber drivers provide a service using many different types of cars, just like Vida’s dating experts help singles navigate many different dating platforms successfully,” he says.
Apparently, finding true love is pricey
Vida Select charges anywhere between $695- $1695 per month for 2-12 dates. The more you pay, the more dates you get.
Depending on the package selected, a vast team of people from ghostwriters, stylists, and photographers help to create a version of yourself which is likely to get a positive online response. The client oversees the process right from the first meeting with a ghostwriter, where the writer is able to get a sense of the client’s personality in order to mimic them in future correspondence.
Valdez explains, “We get to know our client during a 90-minute conversation, select the best platforms for their search, send a photographer out to meet them if needed, write their dating profiles, select the most optimal photo lineup, touch up their pics, and get their accounts fully configured. Our matchmaking team then identifies promising potential matches who meet the client’s ‘must-have’ criteria”.
From this meeting, the client must approve the presented dating profiles before they are posted on major dating websites like Tinder, OkCupid, and Bumble. Then, the client need only sit back and watch as the writer takes over to begin the introductory process with witty open-ended banter. Clients are able to view and contribute to the conversation as well – and this has apparently only led to a couple of close shaves where both the ghostwriter and the client have simultaneously sent messages about entirely different subjects.
Clients are free to take over correspondence at any time but, as said, it is automatically passed over once the match provides their phone number or a date is made (and the writer received their $1.75 commission). Obviously, with such a degree of effort constituted, clients generally have multiple matches each week and have the luxury of being very picky.
For me, this highlighted a number of problematic aspects of the service...
Though the writers are meant to keep topics general and flirty, the client’s choice may mean invested matches may end up being ghosted or ignored if not selected by the client. This appears to be adding to the very problems that the clients paying for this service may have suffered in their previous dating experience. This dilemma could also allow for the vaguely comedic circumstance that two ghostwriters may end up communicating with each other if said clients were both signed up to Vida Select.
Another point to consider is also whether the women (or men) who are being matched to these clients ever find out that they weren’t initially speaking to their ‘true love’ (if we’re assuming the best case scenario).
“We generally recommend disclosing it when the time is right, but that’s a personal decision for each client. Many do let their matches know - in fact, a handful of our matchmakers have been invited to a former client’s wedding with a match they selected,” says Valdez. Understandably, this moral ‘grey-area’ is not the most romantic topic for a first date.
Some dating apps appear to share this concern about the morality of third party companies like Vida Select.
As Louise Troen, VP of marketing at Bumble, said in a GQ magazine article, “These companies are essentially leveraging and capitalising on people’s vulnerability and that’s something Bumble will address accordingly. Being held accountable for the things you say and the actions you take is Bumble’s number one [priority] and if the messages aren’t from you, then you can’t be held accountable.”
Slightly hypocritically, Ms. Troen does not seem averse to offering ghostwriting services to clients, though “it would have to be regulated and done in-house [rather than outsourced to a company such as Vida].”
Despite this, Vida Select appears far more successful than other online dating services
The option to date online rather than face to face is becoming ever more popular, and this has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. According to a Pew Research Center survey conducted in October 2019, 30% of US adults have used dating sites or apps with varying degrees of success. The study showed that 54% of the surveyed people said that relationships begun through a dating site or app were as successful as those that started out in person; 38% believed their relationships were less successful, and 5% deemed them more successful.
Meanwhile, Vida Select appears to have much more successful results with “reportedly 99.6% of Vida clients get(ting) dates and 78 percent turn(ing) those dates into serious relationships within 3 and a half months”.
Vida Select is also highly rated by customers and sites such as datezie, whose main qualms appear to concern the cost of the service; that “Daters (would) never really learn how to date” when using Vida Select, and that Vida Select is “deceiving to future matches”.
The world of online dating is a difficult, time-consuming, and potentially upsetting place where no one is exactly who they say they are. My real question is, in a world where the majority of people already have a curated and edited digital-self, is this service really any worse than the airbrushed reality that we create ourselves?