It sounds like something your mum or an overly concerned friend would say: “You never know who you’re speaking to online.” You know they’re technically right, yet you carry on typing away to Rob, 32, anyway because he seems nice and he’s got a dog in his third picture. After a couple of days of back-and-forth messaging, you give him your phone number so you can chat before your date next week. As a direct consequence, a woman is paid $1.75. Because, in reality, she’s the one you’ve been speaking to.
Freelance writer Chloe Rose Stuart-Ulin has exposed the world of dating impersonators, hired by men to secure women’s numbers and dates on dating apps like Tinder and Bumble. Writing in Quartz, Stuart-Ulin goes into great detail about how she used to be part of this system and was paid to impersonate men online by ViDA – a matchmaking company specialising in virtual dating assistants. “We've Made The Process Of Finding And Meeting High Quality Women Online Effortless” reads a headline on their website.
There are a number of careers at ViDA: profile writers, responsible for making a client’s profile seem attractive; matchmakers, who are responsible for sending out enticing opening lines to matches; and closers, whose job it is to secure a match’s number or, better, a date. Stuart-Ulin, who worked as a closer, explains that most of the employees are professional writers, though most interactions are copied and pasted from “manuals” provided by ViDA. “If a client has a dog (jackpot!), all the Profile Writer needs to do is search for the word “dog” in their manual and choose from a list of dog-related one-liners,” writes Stuart-Ulin, “like this one: ‘Hey. As an animal lover, I want to find out your opinion… dressing up your dog: yes or no?’”
According to the website and ViDA’s founder, Scott Valdez, the need for a virtual dating assistant service is down to the lack of time busy, successful men have. “Online dating takes effort, and effort equals time,” he tells Stuart-Ulin. “With [dating apps’] explosion in popularity, it means that you have a huge dating pool at your fingertips, but you’re also in direct competition with everyone else in your area. So, if you want to have a chance at meeting your most intriguing matches, you need to have the best-possible profile, photos and messages.”
Opening up such a personal, potentially embarrassing process to third parties with damaging views of women takes finding love to a dark place
Valdez also thinks women are most attracted to an alpha male, so men who don’t fit this stereotype can be helped by an assistant to make finding a partner easier. “The alpha male is the selector, he chooses… he is not chosen,” he writes in one of the manuals. “Never compliment her without a qualification,” he writes. “Let her know what you want in a woman and make her explain why she fits those criteria.” Despite the obvious sexism in Valdez’s dating narrative, ViDa claims that 2,389 “Smart, Successful Men” have signed up to their services since 2009.
The Quartz article states that impersonating someone on a dating app is perfectly legal in the States. But, of course, that doesn’t mean employing virtual dating assistants is an ethically sound practice – instead, it lies in a murky, morally questionable space. Because of this, Stuart-Ulin has now left the company, interestingly, shortly after she was assigned her first female client.
Apparently, one-third of ViDA’s clients are women – dating is hard for us too, guys – though assistants are directed to adopt a much more “feminine” approach in their writing, which apparently means “soft, warm, delicious, flowing, focusing on how she feels about things”. “I had to 'focus less on her career and more on her outside life… write longer sentences, more emoticons, and be more playful',” writes Stuart-Ulin. Once again, Valdez’s sexist, stereotypical view of men’s and women’s roles in dating permeates.
Hiring someone to help you find love is nothing new or particularly controversial – Match.com was first created in 1995 and, last week, 1.93 million of us tuned in to watch Channel 4’s First Dates. But opening up such a personal, potentially embarrassing process to third parties with damaging views of women takes finding love to a dark place. This is where dating crosses over into dangerous territory, where companies like ViDA and services provided by so-called pick-up artists are allowed to not only exist, but to thrive.
And, once again, it’s the women on the other side of the phone who face the consequences. One of Stuart-Ulin’s co-workers, afforded the pseudonym “Doug”, told her that hardly any of their male clients actually call the numbers they get from their assistant. If you’ve ever been ghosted by someone on Tinder, you’ll understand how heart-wrenching it can be to be seemingly ignored by someone you thought had potential for a date, or more. It might just be a bit of fun for the client, and a way to make money for the assistants, but for the real women looking for love, it’s nothing more than a con.