I play Cupid for a dating app
We met a real-life matchmaker for new dating app, Once
“It takes 30 seconds tops to match a couple,” says Amelie Geurard, scrolling down a pool of faces on her laptop screen. “I can tell a lot about a person just from their photos. Then I find them the perfect mach.”
While most of us pursue ‘matches’ for fun (though it rarely is), Geurard matches couples for a living. She is “Head of Human Matchmakers” at Once, a dating app that launched in the UK in November. Theoretically, it reintroduces the “human element” to dating, by using human matchmakers. It is an obvious, deliberate counter to apps like Tinder, Happn or Bumble. “Once is a different ball game to Tinder,” explains Geurard, 25. “The idea is to get rid of the ‘hook-up’ aspect that so many dating apps these days now have.”
It is certainly different. Instead of throwing at users an endless of string of profiles, with the choice of swiping left or right, Once presents its users with a single one match per day. An algorithm selects between 10 and 15 candidates for each profile according to age and interests, but the final decision, based on the photographs alone, is considered by a trained matchmaker.
The user receives a notification when the match has been made, and another when the match is looking at their profile. If the user accepts, they can chat. If not, they wait until tomorrow for a new match.
Its USP (or, gimmick) is that it mimics the analogue world – though a cynic would argue the rise and rise of dating apps suggests that no one of our generation much liked that system.
The app is still in its early stages, with 120,000 active users in the UK and 650,000 worldwide; it has also been launched in France, Brazil and Mexico. By contrast Tinder has 50 million active users, and OKCupid 30 million.
But it’s early days. The Shoreditch office is populated with marketing staff, while it 65 UK matchmakers work from home. Each is trained by Geurard before they’re let loose on your love life.
“I tell them to look at the face of the person, the clothes they are wearing, their attitude, what they are doing,” Geurard explains. “Usually users should be matched with someone with similar kinds of photos, for example a girl with lots of selfies will usually match with a guy who has selfies.”
If matchmakers don’t make enough successful matches, they must retake the training or risk losing their job. “We need to keep our success rates high,” she explains. Matchmakers are generally students, or professionals who do it alongside their day job. Geurard is the only matchmaker who works in the office.
She spends half of her time overseeing the other matchmakers and training new recruits, and the other half doing the matchmaking herself. “I used to play Cupid with my friends,” she says. “I’ve always been the one setting people up, or deciding people would be good together. Now that I’ve got a job in it, I’m pretty good. I spend 30 seconds tops on each match. It’s about that first feeling. My instinctive decision is usually the right one.”
So how does it work? There is a photo of a female user on the left of the screen, with a pool of male users going down the right-hand side. She clicks on them to get a better view.
“I look at the picture, the person, the face,” she explains. “But I also observe other elements of the picture. How they are dressed. Is she wearing make up? Jewellery? Does he have tattoos?
“I then observe what they are doing in the picture. If someone is out with friends, I will usually match them with someone who seems similarly sociable. If they have lots of travelling photos, they will usually suit someone who seems adventurous. Usually you can pretty much tell the personality of someone just by looking at the picture.”
I watch her work. The first profile on the left is a brown-haired girl with a pretty face whose photos mainly consisted of close up selfies.
“With this one it’s not that obvious because there’s not much else going on in the pictures,” she explains. “She obviously likes a selfie, and you can tell she likes to take care of herself.”
She scrolls through the pool of men. A rugged-looking guy with a backpack on appears. “Not this one, he’s more of a backpacker who likes to travel.” She clicks on another candidate. One photo shows him playing rugby and another with a snorkel on holding a large stingray. “Not this one either,” she says. In a second he is ruled out.
The third profile she selects on is a dark-haired guy: he smiles in his photos; in one he’s wearing sunglasses; in another, doing a selfie on a boat. “Could be this one, actually,” Amelie muses. “It’s the selfie – they both have selfies. And just from looking at the face. I think they would be a nice couple.”
She does another quick scroll of the list of candidates, but Cupid has spoken. “Yep, this one,” she says with certainty, and clicks a button that makes the pair disappear off the screen.
The next profile that appears is a topless guy taking a photo of himself in the mirror. The first two girls she clicks on – one with blonde hair stroking a horse, the other with hair dyed black and a lip piercing – are an immediate no. Then she comes across a girl posing in a tight dress.
“Ah ha,” she says with certainty. “This one is good. This is a good match.”
Then, she clicks on a tab and my Once profile appears. I watch myself being matched.
“Okay, let’s see if I get this right,” Amelie says. She starts scrolling down the guys. I observe attentively, keeping my judgements to myself, and see the guy I would choose. After 30 seconds, she has dwindled the selection down to two. One of them is definitely not my type; the other is the one I’d picked. How did she know?
“I can just see that you and that guy would be suited. He’s quite tall and so are you. You both smile in your photos. I can just sense it.”
It feels creepy to watch someone judge your type based merely on photographs – though, obviously, that’s what you do on Tinder – and I am, admittedly, captivated.
Obviously, it’s a crowded market. “It’s not matchmaking, says Caroline Brealey, an award-winning professional matchmaker in the UK. “Matchmaking is time intensive. It involves meeting the person you are matching, in person and spending time getting to know them.
“A huge amount of knowledge about a person can only come from meeting them – their body language, how they interact and communicate and hold themselves. I don’t see how anyone could possibly make a match just from seeing a photo.”
And Charly Lester, a dating blogger and founder of the UK Dating Awards, believes that the limit on the number of matches offered to the user will cause people to lose interest. “We all know too much choice can be bad, and can lead to the ‘Tinder effect’,” she says. “Where you don’t see the photos you’re swiping through as real people. But I don’t think one match a day is enough to keep you interested in the app. If you don’t get a good match in the first few days, you’re unlikely to return.”
The day after my visit I get a notification on my phone from Once about the guy Amelie set me up with. We match and start chatting.
The strange thing is, after a while I get bored. He looks fit, and seems nice – but in the end it’s just another face on the screen. I crave the option of swiping through hundreds.