It didn't occur to me that making my editor sift through my online dating profile might trigger years of therapy for us both, until she delivered her first criticism:
From across the heavy conference room table, Jennifer Bardoner briefly examined me, eyebrow arched, before turning back down again to scroll through my phone.
"So" I wondered aloud, desperate to quell the anxiety-induced hurricane brewing in my gut. "Was that a good 'hmm' or a bad 'hmm'?"
She didn't answer. The stomach storm grew to Category 4.
For the next two minutes, I waited, becoming intensely aware that the room was soundproof and wondering if the local Radio Shack was still hiring. When JB finally looked up at me, however, her face was bright with amusement.
Sensing my nerves, she let out a chuckle, and I finally felt my muscles relax.
"Now I know why your profile isn't getting any responses!" she laughed. My smile faded. "This comes off like you're being a jackass."
The Online Safari
On paper, the process of building a profile sounds simple: Toss up your best pic, plug in a few adjectives and wait for hundreds of admirers to message you. But creating a profile that compels other people to respond to it — and, more importantly, the type of people you'd want to date to respond to it — is an art form only few have mastered.
To fill in the gaps for those of us whose relationship status reads "hopelessly single," researchers have begun to break down the techniques for attracting attention online, turning the hunt into a science.
"It's just fascinating that we're trying to come up with some algorithm for how to get people to notice you so that you even get a shot at getting in front of them," says Stoney, who gives lectures on dating and long-term relationship health. "That tells me that people really want to connect, and they're trying to find ways to do that and be successful."
Of course, even with all the tools at our disposal, that success does not come easy.
In the real world, men might stand taller and puff out their chests to attract the attention of the beauty by the water cooler, Stoney says. And women might flock to the bar in groups to give off the appearance of likability.
But in the digital safari, those norms go out the window.
Online, men who come across as less confident in their outgoing messages, using words like "sorry," "awkward" and "kinda," are more likely to receive continued responses, dating site OkCupid found. And Zoosk, another dating platform, warns that having more than one person in a profile picture can result in 42 percent less incoming messages.
The most difficult part of the whole experience for some is crafting a bio, those crucial 100-125 words that Stoney compares to a "mannequin in the window" of your personality, expressing just enough to entice browsers to step in and learn a little more.
With that in mind, we set out to discover how one can use the data at their disposal to build a better bio.
The Magic Words
The study also revealed that naming certain foods could also boost the number of messages Zoosk's users received, with the words "chocolate" and "potato" racking up about 100 percent more messages, and the word "guacamole," surprisingly, bringing in 144 percent more messages.
Curious, we decided to experiment. Using the site OkCupid, which promises its members a chance to "get noticed for who you are, not what you look like," we created two separate dating profiles for yours truly, as I'm lucky enough to be the only single male on staff.
The first profile was created using a bio I had painstakingly composed only a month earlier after consulting no less than four colleagues long past business hours. It included a photo of me in graduation regalia — a plus considering suitors with at least a college-level education receive more responses, according to Zoosk's data. We named this young heart-breaker Myron.
“I won't lie: I'm a little nerdy. Ask me anything sci-fi related and we'll be best friends. I'm always down for deep conversations about everything and nothing — or just for masking the the agony of adulting with mildly irreverent humor.”
For the second profile, we used the same photo but wrote an entirely new bio incorporating five of the key words: polite, listener, honest, potato and knight in shining armor. Bachelor #2 had the honor of brandishing my middle name, Omar.
“No one's ever called me their knight in shining armor, but that isn't for lack of trying ;) My potato salad recipe has been known to sweep the occasional damsel off her feet, and I can ward off any danger with a smile (don't quote me on that). If you're looking for chivalry, I'm polite, a great listener, and super modest (obviously). But to be honest, I'm just looking for someone to laugh with while we ride into the sunset.”
To maximize the number of age-appropriate matches for my 24-year-old avatars, we stationed each one next to a university campus in two separate cities of fairly similar size, Atlanta and Nashville. Since January is considered "peak season" for online dating — with activity skyrocketing from Dec. 26 to Feb. 14, according to Match.com — we then chose Jan. 1 as the start date for our test run.
After five days of nail biting, the results were in. Much to our surprise, Myron's profile had gotten 32 likes while Omar's only got 12.
Wondering if Omar truly was the jackass JB made him out to be, we put our heads together to give his profile a facelift. Thus, Omar 2.0 was born.
“If you're looking for chivalry, I'm polite, a great listener, and I still open doors. I pride myself on being honest and I hope for the same. Plus my potato salad recipe has been known to sweep the occasional damsel off her feet. Just call me your knight in shining armor.”
Surprisingly, over their three-day face off, the new and improved Omar pulled in three likes while the original gained another five. Myron, over the same period of time, accumulated another 17 likes, placing our tenacious underdog's grand total at 49.
After analyzing the profiles, the California-based romance consultant highlighted the one trait Myron and Omar had that Omar 2.0 was lacking: humor.
"It makes someone reading it laugh," she says, pointing to Myron's bio. "Humor is one of the most important personality traits that singles desire while dating, and including that word in a profile will catch someone's eye."
But would that humor catch everyone's eye? Or would only a select few be made weak-kneed by whimsy? We had to know more.
We quickly got to work on an informal poll that pitted Omar and his successor against each other. After cornering just over 15 co-workers in their cubicles, we began to notice a pattern in their answers.
Most of the respondents in their 20s and early 30s said they preferred Omar for his seeming wit. Those in their late 30s or locked into serious relationships, however, perceived his flirty quips as arrogant and threw their support behind Omar 2.0, calling him "sweet."
Interestingly, the data backs up our findings. When Zoosk asked women ages 30-50 to describe their perfect match, the word they used most often was "honest." When the site posed the same question to women in their 20s, however, the top three words used were "laugh," "fun" and "funny."
Based on these observations, we hypothesized that younger users were likely looking for matches whose tone indicated they were hoping to start off casual, while their older, more experienced counterparts had come to value sincerity above all.
This suggested that we needed to tailor our message to the demographic we wanted our profile to attract, instead of inserting key words blindly. And since we (or, more accurately, I) were aiming for a more millennial crowd, the first step would be to keep the profile humorous for the sake of scientific integrity.
The Final Showdown
In order to select the key words most likely to draw in our fun-loving target audience, we realized we'd have to learn more about what made each one appealing. So we turned again to our experts.
After mulling over the list of words in our edible category, Stoney discerned that each food had an emotional association that singles might find desirable in a potential partner.
Words like "guacamole" and "sushi," she explains, invoke feelings of fun, as readers associate them with parties and going out with friends to eat. Words like "chocolate," she continues, invoke feelings of comfort and warmth.
"When you are drawn to someone, it's because of an emotion, not a fact," the marriage counselor says. "So when a profile invokes an emotion in somebody else, they're going to be drawn in."
Food usage in bios is also a way people make assumptions about the profile owner's lifestyle, Stoney adds. Mentioning "salad" will lead others to presume an individual is healthy and active, while mentioning foods like "fried chicken," which the data show decreases inbound messages by 15 percent, is telltale of unhealthy habits.
As for the more abstract words, like "polite" and "listener," Spira had a theory.
Through her own research with the clients she coaches, the online dating expert has found that even though these words describe desirable traits, their popularity on dating sites has become their downfall.
"Singles want to be with someone who's a great listener just as much as they want to take a romantic beach walk and watch sunsets together [but] these words are too common," Spira explains. "A big complaint I get is that too many profiles look the same, resulting in people moving on to read a captivating profile that appears unique."
Our challenge, Spira indicated, would therefore be to characterize those qualities in a way that was "sexy and unique enough" to stand out. Essentially, we had to show daters I was fun and polite and a knight in shining armor, not just tell them. And we had to do it in a way that highlighted something tangible about my personality — like the word "sci-fi" in the Myron profile had, she said.
So we went back to the drawing board one more time to inject humor, emotion and sex appeal into my online persona. We called our final suitor Nathan, borrowing the name of one of our co-conspiring writer's husband.
“Top 6 reasons you'd totally pick me as your plus one if you were banished to a deserted island: 1) I can teach you to juggle coconuts. Get ready for hours of entertainment, 2) I recite poetry on command. You won't even miss Game of Thrones, 3) I always (always!) have chocolate or guacamole on hand, 4) I'm a true gentleman – so when my stash runs out, we can eat my arm first, 5) I'm quiet – which means I was practically designed to be the perfect listener, and 6) No matter where we are, I can always find half a dozen ways to make you smile.”
For the final showdown, we based Myron's and Nathan's profiles near two separate college campuses in my hometown of New York City, which has a large enough population to prevent too much overlap for our identical-twin suitors. Though Myron took an early lead, it was clear after only a few hours which profile would be named champion.
While learning to build a profile that collects 10 responses a day is rewarding (and incredibly flattering), that doesn't have to be where the education ends. By studying the types of profiles extroverts or bookworms or business owners respond to, for example, you can determine how to create a profile most likely to attract the type of person you're attracted to.
Obviously, it's not a perfect science, but as Stoney points out, dating is an act of tenacity and trying again. And I do intend to try again. Right here in Chattanooga. Preferably before Valentine's Day.
All in the name of science, of course.