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Can Data Make You Better At Text Messaging?

A newly single data wonk is trying to solve a modern dating conundrum: What’s the right way to keep in touch?

Can Data Make You Better At Text Messaging?
[Photo: Flickr user Alexandra E Rust]

When Lauren Talbot broke up with her long-term boyfriend last year, she entered an unfamiliar digital dating scene. Some parts of it were good: Dating apps made it easy to meet people, and Talbot–who is 27 and has jet-black hair, wide lips, and a tendency to giggle over anything–excelled on face-to-face dates.

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But texting seemed expected between dates, and the routine baffled her. There seemed to be a psychology to it–how long texts should be, how long you should wait before responding, whether to include a smiley at the end of a sentence and whether it should be winking or grinning. “I started getting burned a lot, and it all kind of came back to text messages,” said Talbot. “There was nothing I was doing wrong on the date, but sometimes it was really hard to handle the texting part.”

And that led Talbot, once the chief programmer for Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Office of Data Analytics, to wonder: Can data solve the riddle of early-romance texting?

Her new app, PVLL (pronounced “pull”), is her attempt to answer that question. It’s an Android app that can control, track, and analyze all text messages sent through the phone–essentially unleashing data science on our most casual communication medium. The app creates graphs that show which partner is initiating texts and who is taking longer to respond over a period of time. It also allows users to send entire text conversations to friends for their input, and recall or edit texts up to five seconds after they’ve been sent.

In the next few months the app will start using this information to predict how likely a relationship is to progress. “If they are taking longer and longer to respond that means the relationship is becoming less and less balanced and less and less engaged,” explains Talbot. It will also schedule texts to be sent at optimal times, and for those who don’t respond quickly enough, the app will send reminders. (Talbot is also hoping to have an iPhone version available, and to enable the app to monitor messages inside other platforms, like WhatsApp.)

Since launching this August, the app has gained only 2,000 users, but Talbot says her metrics show that those people enjoyed a 77 percent success rate. (The company contacted users to see how its predictions of relationship success matched up what actually happened.) And she has a large potential audience to draw from. A survey conducted by Spark Networks, the company that owns JDate and ChristianMingle, last year found that 50% of 20-somethings text a potential partner a few times a day before meeting them in person. “There are 20 billion texts sent a year within our target demographic, ” says Jonathan Axelrod, managing director of Manhattan-based Entrepreneur Roundtables Accelerator, which has invested in PVLL. “That’s an incredible number, and there is very little out there to teach us how to do it better.”

Users like 27-year-old Steven Joseph say they could use the help. He’s a single guy living in Brooklyn, and particularly likes the ability to share conversations. “If a girl is sending me mixed messages, I can share these 10 texts to a couple of my really good friends and say, ‘What do you guys think of this?’” he says. Another user, 30-year-old Daniel Lewis of Manhattan, just sees PVLL as one more tool in his dating arsenal. “It’s giving you information, and you can choose what you want to do with it,” he says.

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PVLL App

But if texting is supposed to be about two people communicating, does PVLL’s many layers of analysis just make the communication, well, forced? “I think this app has the potential to increase stress related to dating by encouraging more scrutiny and preoccupation with the nuts and bolts of texting,” says Dr. Lisa Morse, a clinical psychologist in New York City who works with many singles. After all, relationships are built upon communication and the ability to work out problems, she says. If two people’s phones are just texting each other on autopilot, that isn’t exactly a healthy start.

But Talbot says she’s trying to do the exact opposite. In her ideal world, the app will take all the stress out of the texting game–and then make texting extinct. “If everybody can schedule their texts, it becomes irrelevant,” she says. “You don’t think about whether they are trying to be cool or they are busy. You know a computer is doing it for you, and you don’t have to worry about it.”

So in that view, an app designed to win the dating game will . . . just beat the game? Talbot pauses to think, then concludes: “Once you acknowledge that there are games, and you understand them and you play them well, people play less games. Once you hack something, people kind of have to move on.”