It's 5PM on a Friday. I pour myself a glass of three-day-old white wine and wait for my wing woman to call. Her name is Ally. She has a soothing voice and a gentle demeanor. She lives in Temecula, California, somewhere between Los Angeles and the hyper-conservative, bleach-blonde beaches of San Diego. Over the course of our near-two-hour phone call she will grill me on everything from my favorite dishes to dating deal-breakers, from the time I was held at gunpoint in Mexico to my affinity for gin martinis.
This is the first time I've spoken with Ally and, aside from the small thumbnail in her Gmail account, I have little concept of who she is or what she looks like. By the time we hang up, though, she'll know more about me than many of my friends, family and co-workers do. Ally will then take what she's learned along with a zip file full of selfies and, with the help of a team of writers and consultants, create a better, more desirable version of me.
Alexandra Saunders is a professional online dating consultant for TinderDoneForYou.com. The site promises to let users "skip the endless swiping and messaging, and instantly fast-forward to a calendar that's jam-packed with attractive women looking for a good time with a great guy."
TinderDoneForYou is part of a growing industry of third-party apps and services that promise to take the work out of online dating. Today, you can outsource nearly every part of your love life. From finding the perfect mate to splitting assets after a divorce, our most intimate relationships have -- like much more mundane, less nuanced undertakings -- become a part of the on-demand economy. This is dating as a service.
Peruse TinderDoneForYou or its precursor, Virtual Dating Assistants (ViDA), and you'll find the same sort of player's club self-help jargon that pervades the male-driven dating-advice industry. The sites' founder, Scott Valdez, paints a picture of his followers as wealthy, overworked young professionals who don't have the time or game to land "high-quality" women. With the help of his team of data scientists, "wingwomen" (aka project managers) and ghostwriters, he promises immediate returns and eventual long-term happiness with women way out of his users' league.
In addition to profile-writing and photo selection, the team at TinderDoneForYou will do some light photo retouching, provide cut-and-paste conversation starters and responses and arrange dates around your schedule. It will do just about everything short of open the door, pull out her chair and pay the bill for a monthly fee. Packages range from $450 to $1,320, based on the number of hours the team spends swiping and messaging those "high-quality" women.
TinderDoneForYou sells itself as a skeleton key for the emotionally lazy and socially inept that can open the door to any woman's heart in six easy steps.
The vast majority of on-demand dating services cater solely to men seeking women. Valdez says his clients skew 20 percent female with only one gay male and one lesbian client in his history running ViDA and its millennial spinoff. Which, given the tenor of the service's marketing copy, stands to reason. TinderDoneForYou sells itself as a skeleton key for the emotionally lazy and socially inept that can open the door to any woman's heart in six easy steps.
"You'll be sitting across the table from your ideal woman as early as this weekend ... and you won't have to do a thing to get these kinds of results because we've got you covered!
"So if you're ready to finally get Tinder working for you to fill in your calendar with a steady supply of dates on demand, and do it completely on autopilot, then you owe it to yourself to fill out the form below for your 100% Free Consultation."
After a 90-minute screening call, clients are ranked on a scale of one to 10 measuring their willingness to commit. "One being one-night stands only, 10 being get married as soon as possible," with most coming in at a 7½ or 8, according to Valdez. He says the majority of his clients are looking for slim, fit or athletic women -- they also tend to prefer brunettes to blondes.
"Beauty in general, obviously, is important for most of our clients," Valdez says. Female clients, meanwhile, are more likely to list career, education and income as top priorities.
"If a guy makes a grammar mistake or a spelling error in a profile, like, they immediately get weeded out," Valdez says. "Men never care about that."
Being a gay man who cares more for brains than bodies, I am, admittedly, not the typical TinderDoneForYou client. But Ally promised to do her best. One week after our conversation, I received a handful of custom-made personas, catering to both straight women and gay men and optimized for both OkCupid and Tinder.
The following week, Ally sent over a collection of five headshots, one of which didn't make the cut even after a round of retouching and high marks from a panel of 12 female judges. In all, a team of nearly 20 people worked on my profile. It's an absurd contradiction. Apps like Grindr, Tinder and OkCupid use algorithms to take the work out of matchmaking. Meanwhile, services like TinderDoneForYou put the work back in, relying on sizable teams and large sums of money to find you a date.
The profiles they created position me as a cocky, hard-drinking sex columnist who loves his dogs, gin martinis and Italian leather, all of which is true. But nearly every new version of me just wasn't me. TinderDoneForYou offered to work with me on my profile, but I passed. I'm perfectly happy with the results I've received being my authentic self.
If I'd been a paying customer, Ally and her matchmaking minions would then get to work, swiping right, sending canned responses that apparently "work like crack to get women addicted to messaging you," and setting up dates. Valdez says the ultimate goal is to get his clients off the service and into committed relationships; a process that he estimates takes about 12 dates in total.
One week prior to meeting Ally, I was on a Skype call with Leslie Moniz, founder of Swagoo, a woman-run online dating consultancy. The San Francisco-based startup shares its name with a Beyoncé lyric and bills itself as "The Gentleman's Ultimate Dating Guide." Like TinderDoneForYou, Swagoo starts with a consultation followed by profile writing and photo-consulting. The similarities largely end there.
Services like Swagoo and TinderDoneForYou treat people like products, commodifying style, humor and relatability at the expense of individuality.
Swagoo.co reads like a luxury lifestyle blog and looks nearly identical to fancy flash-sale retailer Gilt. Blog-style posts suggest getting her a box of portable wine vials, growing a beard and ditching your board shorts. A guide to beachwear titled "Short Trunks Are the New Black" reads:
"Here's the long and not-so-long of it: Gone are the days of knee-grazing board shorts. European trends continue to catch fire on this side of the pond, and here at Swagoo, we're not complaining, and neither should you."
The tips are free but the services come at a cost. Consultations range from $175 for one hour to $1,000 for 10 hours with the option of an in-person meeting. After a phone call that covers your likes, dislikes and dating pain-points, your Swagoo Girl -- experienced but not slutty, according to Moniz -- will select photos and create a bio that plays to a woman's true desires (as determined by a market-research survey). She'll then enlist an app like Bonfire that swipes right on any and all profiles, maximizing your potential matches; help you turn those matches into dates; and offer advice on where to go and what to wear.
"I wanted to start a service where I would FaceTime with the guy, look in their closet and if I saw nothing, I'd send a TaskRabbit to go to Nordstrom to pick up an outfit to wear on their dates," Moniz says. "But that's not a scalable solution."
Again, Moniz recognized that I, a gay man with no desire to dress like a J. Crew catalog model and even less desire to rush into an LTR, was not the right fit for the company's services. She did, however, agree to give my profile and photos the Swagoo treatment. Four days after our call, the new me had arrived. The results were far less aggressive, but still just as unrepresentative as the profiles Valdez's team created for me.
A wordsmith who writes about tech and current trends of the hookup culture. My two roommates are my beloved pit bulls. Looking for a girl who appreciates the timeless things, a well-made martini (easy on the vermouth) and nights in the kitchen.
I would never refer to myself as a wordsmith and I actually like vermouth in my martinis. The thing is, while all of these things (save for the part about looking for a girl) could be said about me, they'd never be said by me. Services like Swagoo and TinderDoneForYou treat people like products, commodifying style, humor and relatability at the expense of individuality. They attempt to take the best parts of you and magnify them while sweeping the worst parts of you under the rug. That's certainly nothing new, but coming from someone else, even someone seemingly kind and friendly, it just feels disingenuous.
While both of these services are all about image, photos are the real currency on Tinder. And, yes, there are now Tinder photographers. I stopped short of having Tinder headshots taken, but I did exchange a few emails with a New York City photographer who does just that. Charlie Grosso, an advertising veteran, is also a writer, gallery director and owner of TinderPhotography.com.
"Like it or not, we live in an increasingly visual world -- first impression is everything," Grosso says. And those first impressions aren't cheap. For $650 Grosso promises a two- to three-hour session and selection of six to eight unique portraits "suitable for online dating, social-media and professional profiles." The photographs are taken in unique settings around New York to avoid repetition. She refers to the sessions as bespoke mini-narratives about her clients, who she says are more interested in long-term results than just "getting laid."
But a $650 headshot and a $1,000 profile can take you only so far. What happens when all of someone else's hard work pays off? The love-on-demand economy doesn't end at finding a mate. Earlier this year, Nellie Bowles reported for The Guardian on a gift site called BetterBoyfriend.me, which, for $70, would send its subscribers, the implied not-so-great boyfriends, unmarked packages with gifts for their girlfriends. There are even apps that will not only remind you to tell the person you love that you care but provide canned text messages to do so.
When all is said and done, when you've fully optimized the supply chain of love without lifting an emotional finger, the internet will attempt to fix it for you.
Should you begin to feel hollow from a lack of genuine emotion or find that it's just not working out, the internet has you covered there too. Late last year, Emanuel Maiberg enlisted the help of The Breakup Shop to dump his girlfriend over the phone for a $30 fee. The call was a stunt for a Motherboard article, but the site's founders swore by its validity and viability. Its service ranges from a $10 breakup text to an $80 breakup gift bag that includes Chips Ahoy, a Netflix gift certificate and either a Blu-ray of The Notebook or a copy of Call of Duty: Ghosts.
Whether The Breakup Shop is legit or not, it underlines how impersonal, not to mention comical, all of these services can be. Taken individually, they're either a meet-cute plot point or a sad attempt at gaming human emotion, but combined they're a slop bucket of a rom-com meltdown not even Matthew McConaughey could overcome.
And that is where DivorceForce comes in. When all is said and done, when you've fully optimized the supply chain of love without lifting an emotional finger, the internet will attempt to fix it for you. The site's founder, Gregory Frank, describes it as a sort of one-stop shop for "anyone affected by divorce." Users can post Yelp-style reviews of family lawyers; contribute to forum discussions about alimony, custody and starting over; create and maintain a shared-custody calendar with their ex; get advice from experts; or meet other recently divorced singles for friendship or dates.
"It's got a little Facebook, it's got a little LinkedIn, it's got a little Foursquare, it's got a little Reddit. You know, it's got your content, it's got your activities, it's got your social aspect, and it's got a little bit of Tinder." Frank says.
While the message behind DivorceForce is significantly less superficial than that of other players in the love-on-demand economy, it's no less unsettling to hear complex human relationships boiled down to Silicon Valley-style demo-day comparisons. As emotional beings, we like to think of our relationships as sacred, heartfelt and personal. When a third-party benefits from the success or failure of those bonds, it cheapens the experience.
But is love any less valuable when an app or a team of "experts" facilitates it? Is a bond created over a fabricated profile any less real? Valdez acknowledges the gray area that services like TinderDoneForYou occupy, but, he says, "this is online dating."
"It's super superficial and it's a bit of a numbers game. To be able to get in front of the right people, and to have a little extra help, I don't see how you could possibly say this is totally wrong."