Sep 2, 2022 7:00 AM
‘Date Me’ Google Docs and the Hyper-Optimized Quest for Love
The tweet landed like a burp on a first date: a little awkward, potentially endearing, maybe a good story to tell later. Chris Olah, a neural network engineer for a company called AnthropicAI and a former Thiel Foundation fellow, observed out loud on Wednesday, “Normal online dating seems pretty suboptimal. Recently, I’ve seen several people experiment with public ‘date me’ docs—I think this is a really interesting experiment in alternatives, enabling long-form, earnest dating profiles.” Olah linked to his own Date Me doc in his tweet.
Olah is 29, with the grin and just-finished-hiking complexion of someone even younger. The title of his Google Doc gets right to the point: “Male, Straight, 5'7", Monogamous, Wants Kids.” His photos draw the eye, but it’s the sidebar that’s remarkable: Olah’s Date Me doc has four “chapters,” and 15 subcategories. This is where he lays it all out. He says he’s “dedicated to doing what he believes is morally right.” He’s politically moderate and geographically agnostic. He finds math deeply beautiful. He’s into being vegan, but not into kink. In his own words, he’s anxious. And he emphasizes that he really wants biological kids, with the vigor of someone whose peer group is still full of strong swimmers and fresh eggs.
Olah declined to give an interview, saying he’s been caught off-guard by the amount of attention his Date Me doc has received. He’s not alone, though, in his decision to ditch dating apps and publish a public-facing document about his search for love instead. Proponents of the Date Me doc spurn Bumble, Hinge, and Tinder and lay themselves bare in Dropbox Paper, Google Docs, or personal websites built on WordPress and SquareSpace.
Not all Date Me docs are as long as Olah’s. A few are designed to be hyper-efficient. The writer and rationalist Jacob Falkovich has a Meet up/Date me page on his blog, which links to Google Forms for each category, so you can sign up to meet platonically or, you know, go on a date. Damon Sasi, a therapist and, like Falkovich, a rationalist, has even shared a link to a page with testimonials from past partners. No need to wait till date six to hear the dirt.
What do we talk about when we talk about Date Me docs, a kind of wiki to the human soul? On the one hand, none of this is new. The desire to find a mate, or just fornicate, has launched a thousand apps over the past two decades. Both Facebook and YouTube started out as versions of “Hot or Not.” But Date Me docs are uniquely paradoxical. For one, they’re not apps. The whole idea gestures towards a post-dating-app future. But the tech itself is basic. Put another way, the authors of the Date Me docs are optimizing for partnership, but some of the docs themselves feel more akin to a Craigslist post than the whiz-bang future of, I don’t know, sex in VR.
“Optimizing for partnership” is the phrase of Catherine Olsson, who happens to work with Olah at AnthropicAI. Last spring, Olsson quietly added a link to a Date Me doc in her Twitter bio. (As of August 2022, the top of that doc says she’s taking a break from dating.) Olsson’s doc is less text-heavy, more photo-friendly than Olah’s tome. The 32-year-old writes that kids and monogamy are “preferred in the long run”; that she values close friends, playfulness, and emotional fluency; and that a friend describes her as an “overly-systematizing maternal Aragorn.”
Olsson didn’t really promote her Date Me doc, but Chana Messinger, a teacher and blogger, tweeted it out in March 2021, saying, “I love this genre of thing: people putting themselves out there, saying clearly and publicly that they want a partner, and knowing who they are and what they're looking for.” Messinger went on to share a thread of some of her favorite Date Me docs, a celebration of the subculture. It’s fascinating to browse through them, and a little voyeuristic. They also require a much longer attention span than Tinder.
I reached out to Olsson to ask her what inspired her to put out a Date Me doc. The pandemic is part of this story, because of course it is. “For obvious reasons, I was not going to house parties, group events, or meeting friends-of-friends very often,” Catherine Olsson told me over Twitter DM. “I wanted something to enable friend-of-friend intros in the pandemic world.”
Mostly, though, Olsson just wanted to filter out people who aren’t into this style of dating, and stop relying on happenstance to find the right match. “If spontaneity hasn’t worked yet, why not help it along?” she wrote to me.
All of this is deeply rational. You might also say practical, except the distinction between practical and rational is an important one to make in Silicon Valley these days, because rationalism is now its own influential subculture. Almost all the people cited in this story identify as rationalists or, as Olah put it, hold values associated with effective altruism. Olsson said she doesn’t think the dating doc is a widely adopted format outside of these circles: “This was always(?) meant as something to pass around within our subcultural communities. It’s a ‘by nerds, for nerds’ format!”
But of course, dating, and love, aren’t always optimizable. We think we know what we want, but we’re actually quite crappy at assessing what will make us happy. Or, as WIRED previously explained, “Good romantic partners are difficult to predict with data. Desired romantic partners are easy to predict with data. And that suggests that many of us are dating all wrong.”
Like a lot of people, I’ve used dating apps on and off, and my most profound realization, which is not very profound, is that the people I find myself completely drawn to in real-life conversations are often people I might have passed on in an app. Also, I’ve never done a Date Me doc, because it sounds mortifying, but I did once publish a 5,000-word feature that practically shouted my singleness, so same difference.
Date Me docs do seem to be a natural next step in the evolution of online dating, not because the outcomes are necessarily better, but because the docs themselves feel at least like an effective form of self-expression. They are the anti-app, in that they embrace the vastness of the open web and shirk the ideals, dodgy algorithms, and templates of containerized dating apps. Apps and web, web and apps, and on and on we go. In a way, this is the natural ebb and flow of dating, too. We alternately broaden our dating pools and shrink them, depending on our needs and desires. Or, we verticalize—narrowing our options because of religion or culture or age—and when that doesn’t work, we go horizontal again. (And I don’t mean that as a euphemism, although, sure, why not.)
At the same time, the verbosity encouraged by Date Me docs could quickly devolve into fan fiction, in which a person describes all their hopes, dreams and desires with such specificity that it’s unlikely such a partner exists. After perusing a multi-page dating doc—as with a 5,000-word magazine story—a person can think they know a heck of a lot about you, before they even get the chance to like you. Which is pretty much what it means to live online today.
On Wednesday, the same day that Olah tweeted his Date Me doc, Olsson tweeted “a few brief thoughts on dating docs after a year.” She is still unsure if they really help people find love in the time of the internet. Writing a thorough profile is clarifying for some people, she says, but most docs can be a lot shorter. Anecdotally, Olsson has noticed that Date Me docs lead to more secondhand matches—i.e., my friend should date this person—than direct connections. And, she writes, “bystanders react with ‘More people should do this!’ much more than they respond with interest!”
When I asked Olsson if she had found love herself in the past year, she declined to answer. One of her tweets, though, might best sum up the experiment: “There’s something incredibly freeing about being able to say ‘Well, at least I gave optimizing directly for partnership a serious try.’”
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