Recently, on a blind date arranged by the matchmaking service Tawkify, I blurted out the last thing any sane man in his twenties wants to hear, gesturing to the bald ball of joy in a high chair a yard away as we approached our table:
"I'm going to sit on this side, so I can stare at that baby!"
To be clear, I am a decade away from even beginning to consider having children, and I often maintain I don't want kids at all. This announcement had less to do with my motherly urges and more to do with my foggy tendency to say exactly the wrong thing. Recently I greeted a good friend at her birthday party with a hug and an inexplicable "Nice to meet you!," flummoxing everyone within earshot.
All I could think was how disappointed my matchmaker, A. M. Charlee Ziegler, would be when my date reported back my strange penchant for infants. After all, she'd slipped me a free Tawkify membership specifically to set me up with this man, who was likely paying at least a hundred dollars a month for her services, and here I was acting like a doofus.
Started in January 2012, Tawkify combines the start-up savvy of a Standford-educated engineer with the sassy expertise of an eccentric grande dame who writes the longest-running advice column in America. After establishing a series of now-forgotten social-networking sites, Elle magazine's E. Jean Carroll, 69, approached Kenneth Shaw, a former Microsoft employee and Facebook app inventor, about collaborating. Together, they've created a product that appeals to any single person who doesn't want to waste hours combing through profiles and messages, wondering whether it really matters that she checked a box indicating she brushes her teeth only once a day or that he wrote "there" instead of "their" in an e-mail.
A spate of new dating sites skip the messaging phase and jumpstart real-life interactions. Many are inspired by the success of How About We, where users meet by suggesting potential activities to do together. But even How About We cannot combat the tyranny of choice and the deluge of love-spam facing the average online dater.
Some sites employ pseudoscientific algorithms to help you narrow down your options, but Tawkify neatly solves the Internet's overwhelming abundance problem with an old-world solution: human matchmakers who paddle through the sludge, filter for what you like and make each match feel special.
The site offers three types of blind dates: the Tawkify, a 15-minute phone call; the Walkify, a 30-minute stroll; and the Mystery Date, a treasure hunt that begins on a street corner and ends with your potential paramour. About ten matchmakers nationwide personally fix up clients, who provide a photo and details about deal-breakers and desires. (Ziegler is in charge of matches in Los Angeles).
So how can ten people handle the glut of desperate singles? The site's home page mentions a waiting list, but matchmakers keep some people out and let others in at their own discretion. Anyone halfway slimy who manages to seem normal in a profile gets eliminated within a date or so; Ziegler says the most valuable information about a client comes when matches provide feedback about each other. One guy in his 50s was swiftly kicked off the site after making an untoward comment to a woman about her age.
But don't worry, creepers: Tawkify refunds rejects' money. How much does the service cost? That's a tricky one to pin down.
By the time I signed up in early November, the site had evolved -- past a few previous sets of cheaper rates, which some clients remain grandfathered into, and on to four official per-month options: $9 to be considered for dates but not guaranteed to receive matches (this choice has since vanished); $49 for two guaranteed matches per month; $99 for matches and increased scheduling flexibility; and $149 for matches, flexibility and date counseling from your matchmaker.
I balked at the prices after filling out a profile, but a week later Ziegler e-mails me offering a free month "because you're really adorable."
Later, when I ask her directly why she let me in for free when she had no idea I was planning to write about the site, she laughs and says "It's a little bit unfair, I have to say," before explaining that she'd thought I'd be good for Ben, which is what I'm going to call the guy bombarded by my baby ogling.
For those of you who aren't "adorable," though, is it worth it to pay more? "We try to keep people who pay for the extra stuff feeling as pampered as possible," Ziegler says, but she admits she counsels lots of clients over the phone, regardless of how much they are paying.
Because that's the thing about a dating site run by humans: inconsistencies abound. I spent days puzzling over why one date merited two reminder phone calls and the other only one. And when I was asked to confirm a match with Ben, I noticed I could see his last name above a short description of his interests.
This was a mistake, of course, and his last name was deleted from my dashboard within hours, but it was too late -- I found him in one Google. I scrolled through photos, career accomplishments and a fawning profile in his college newspaper, which quoted him as saying, "I love going out on dates." No last name trickled out for my second match, but his first name and career were unique enough that I found him in one Google as well.
As difficult as it may be to have a mystery date in the Internet age, Carroll does her best to turn the romance up to 11. Missives from your matchmaker sound like they were written by your fabulous, drunk aunt -- "Amanda! You Marvel!" -- and the electronic system ("Mr. Brooks") that calls to remind you about your dates assures you in his robotic voice, "Don't worry, you look hotsie-totsie!"
Up next: a "Walkify" with Ben
To create some fairy-tale intrigue on my Walkify with Ben, I was told to wear something blue, and he was told to wear something red and carry "a camera phone or camera," which, in 2013, is the equivalent of being told to have hair.
And here I'd been thinking that the strict orders on how to dress would allow us to bypass the standing-around-looking-for-each-other phase and bring us straight into recognizing each other like old friends! Instead, I lingered uncomfortably for about ten minutes looking in vain for a man wearing red.
Finally, Ben approached and we went inside the café. It was raining; no walking on this Walkify.
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Of course, after I shared aloud my need to put the live equivalent of "Charlie Bit My Finger" on repeat in the corner of my field of vision, the date went progressively downhill. We had an unexpectedly tense discussion dissecting why he dislikes the city Phnom Penh, in Cambodia. I discovered he's one of these former grad students who took a class with James Franco (I swear there are thousands), so we had that same conversation everyone's been having about him since 2007. And so on.
Oh well. At least now Ziegler probably knows to set me up with someone who won't mind my inapt outbursts, or at least someone who thinks it's cute when I bid the mailman good evening at 8 a.m.
Did I mention I'm still on the site for free? Don't hate. All's fair in 21st century matchmaking.