Online dating is a $4 billion business. Companies like OkCupid, Match.com, and Howaboutwe use collaborative filtering and crunch big data to help you present yourself in the best light online, find the person who's just right for you, and even figure out what to do on your date. But where is all that technology to help you when you are actually sitting in the bar, sweating your way through an awkward silence with your algorithmically perfect match?
Lauren McCarthy, an artist and programmer who's worked on installations for clients including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, US Holocaust Memorial Museum, and IBM, is currently beta-testing a solution that seems ripped from Cyrano de Bergerac. It's called Social Turkers.
It starts like any other online date. When she meets up with the stranger, she props her iPhone on the table, presses the record button, and begins broadcasting a video and audio stream of the date in real time. Some of her dates had no idea what was going on until afterward.
"One question I wanted to raise with this was, are you aware that nearly everyone with a smartphone is really carrying an always connected camera device? My phone was always in plain sight, but few thought twice about this."
The video stream is viewed by the task-rabbits who take part in Amazon's Mechanical Turk, the crowdsourcing service where you can post small tasks requiring human intelligence that people around the world complete for just a few cents.
Turkers have been asked to transcribe podcasts, search satellite maps to find missing persons, or to rate the emotions expressed in Tweets—but probably never before to help someone's date go better. For each of McCarthy's dates, over the course of January, Turkers could earn up to $0.25 for tuning into the live video and audio stream. Throughout the date, the "social Turkers" answered polls, wrote reviews of what they are seeing, and sent text messages to her iPhone suggesting what to say or do next—advice came quick enough for McCarthy to actually put it into action.
"Meeting new people is the #1 thing that terrifies me, which is one reason I wanted to do this project and one reason why I felt like I really wanted to vomit on my walk over," she wrote after her first date. "Oddly, knowing that the workers are watching me made feel a sense of reassurance, like I’m not all alone in this situation."
While the potential for pranking seems high, the Turks watching her dates came through with some helpful comments and suggestions. "I was really amazed by how much the workers were able to notice from such low quality audio and video," she tells Fast Company. "They picked up on the times when I was nervous, uncomfortable, bored, interested, engaged with stunning accuracy. Sometimes the feedback would tell me to relax or smile and I would read the responses afterward and they’d mention I seemed really nervous. I’d watch the footage and realize they were right." The best part, McCarthy said, was the way that the strangers' feedback nudged her out of her comfort zone.
"The man seems pretty relaxed and comfortable. He seems to be interested and is asking good questions to show he’s paying attention to her," wrote one Turk on January 20 a little before 8pm. During that date, a total of 60 Turks tuned in for an average of just under 5 minutes each, earning $0.25 each for their help. The workers' suggested lines texted to McCarthy that night ranged from the banal "It's chilly today," "Why did you move to Portland?" to the bizarre: "You remind me of my father. Wanna make out?" And, "All the creatures of the sea love you Charlie."
Sitting across from someone who is constantly checking their phone is a ubiquitous hazard of the dating game these days. And there's enough reality dating shows that even the concept of dating on camera is not so foreign. How did McCarthy's dates react to her both broadcasting their encounters, and taking notes from the audience?
"One told me he felt very uneasy because he was never sure when I said something if I had chosen to say it or I was being
directed at that moment," she said—an understandable concern. "On the other hand, some were happy to pour out the secrets even knowing they were live."
Several of her dates even decided to get some notes themselves. "In this case, the tables were turned, and it felt almost as if they had a wingman and I wasn't privy to their conversation."
McCarthy is currently working on an easy-to-use app version (iWingman?) of her experiment so that you, too can experience the enhanced social ease of having dozens of people watch, review, and comment on your date in real time. She envisions something like this coming to the future of wearable computing.
"I am excited about technologies being developed like Google Glass, that offer an opportunity to augment our experience in new ways. How can this experience be more than just having your Twitter feed pasted over your eyeballs? How do these tools fundamentally change the way we interact? Are we looking at potential breakthroughs in our ability to connect, or are we headed for dystopia?"