I Got Paid to Be an OKCupid Ghostwriter

May 20 at 6am

By Daniel Hirsch 

If you’re a straight woman who messaged a mustachioed software engineer from Mexico, or a straight guy who flirted online with a smiley elementary school teacher within the last year, there's a chance you were really aiming your digital pursuits at me. And if you're currently courting a professional, mid-30s Asian woman, read her witty quips carefully. They might come from a hired hand penning her responses. 

I have committed dating fraud, but I did it to find love – not for myself, but for other people. And I did it for the money. I was an online dater for-hire, a courtship ghostwriter, a digital Cyrano de Bergerac.

In some ways, this is the “sharing economy” taken to its logical extremes, proving that with a little bit of cash, the Internet lets you outsource everything, even the intimate act of asking someone out.

For me, a queer male, logging into someone else's OkCupid account and sending messages as them, be it a straight man or a straight woman, was oddly thrilling. But the experience also made me wonder if we are a generation for whom the mores of courtship, and, ultimately love, are completely and utterly out of whack.

One Enchanted Evening, You Will Meet a TaskRabbit

In the grand tradition of online-dating pseudonyms, I'm going to call my main client El_Zorro. We met in the fall of 2012through TaskRabbit after I came across a post looking for “a digital cupid.”

“I would like some help with the messaging part, so I can have fun with the actual date part,” he wrote.

I learned that El_Zorro had recently moved to San Francisco from Mexico City. His likes included espresso, comic books, and indie bands. He was looking for women aged 27–35. He needed me to message and set up dates with as many eligible bachelorettes as possible.

I asked El_Zorro if he had any moral qualms about this bargain, or if he feared that he'd meet the girl of his dreams only to have the relationship ruined when she discovered her pen pal’s identity (à la every high school romantic comedy).

“Online dating, all the messaging and stuff, takes a lot of time,” El_Zorro said over the phone. “I see this as a life hack,” he added, revealing a software engineer's logic that pervaded the whole endeavor.

Part of me agreed with him. My own experience with online dating taught me that the more people you contact, the more likely you are to hear something back. If I had a software engineer's salary, I'd probably hire some help too.

I asked El_Zorro if he had any moral qualms about this bargain, or if he feared that he'd meet the girl of his dreams only to have the relationship ruined when she discovered her pen pal’s identity (à la every high school romantic comedy).

“The right girl will understand,” he said.

Wooing Algorithm

So for a meager $55 a week, plus an invaluable party story and a $10 bonus for every woman I successfully got to agree to a date, I provided El_Zorro's wooing material. But, I was no Cyrano pouring my heart out into beautifully crafted missives – instead, I was an inbox-hack, strategically spamming a handful of Roxanes a minute.

While a touch of style, good grammar, and humor are important in online dating, effective messages are more formula than art. As OkCupid's blog points out, there's data to dating. The company has even calculated the words that are most successful in getting a response.

My own formula breaks down into roughly the following:

( reference to shared interest + measured compliment )^ fun greeting X ( PG innuendo/ delta of perceived attractiveness levels ) + 1/√pinache = Suggestion of Real Life Romance 

After one or two bantering messages, my conversations with these women would focus on an actual meet-up. Once the dates were set up, El_Zorro would review the message history and head to the appointed place at the appointed time. 

He liked my work, and told me he had fired another TaskRabbit who was managing his OkCupid account, so I should take over those duties as well. Not only was he outsourcing his dating on multiple platforms, he had been crowdsourcing it too.

In my first week working for El_Zorro, I'd log onto his HowAboutWe profile and message women who fit his broad preferences using the above formula. El_Zorro wasn't picky, so I cast a wide net. I quickly nabbed him a date at the de Young with a nice-seeming brunette.

He liked my work, and told me he had fired another TaskRabbit who was managing his OkCupid account, so I should take over those duties as well. Not only was he outsourcing his dating on multiple platforms, he had been crowdsourcing it too.

Don't Hate the Player

My job felt like a mix of playing video games and watching porn, demanding strategic thinking and satisfying voyeuristic impulses. I'd take on an identity that wasn't mine, earn points for every achievement unlocked, and turn the game off when I was ready for another activity. Suddenly, the slang “player” took on a very real, new meaning.

At times, I worried that I'd get something wrong about El_Zorro in my messages, that I’d mention he liked a band he didn't know, or say he’d traveled to a country he hadn't. But I quickly learned to fudge details, keeping things believably vague.

But also, there was the bigger lie: El_Zorro and I were willfully misleading dozens of women a week. We live in a culture that perpetually sells us products and narratives for men to trick women into sleeping with them – from The Taming of the Shrew to every Axe commercial ever dreamed up. I worried I was participating in a culture that objectifies, commodifies, and even gamifies the acquisition of dates with women.

In a tipsy fit of inspiration, I logged onto her account and composed her entire profile for her. To my relief, she was thrilled by my work. Weeks later, when ReginaGeorge123 had dates lined up every night of the week, she was ecstatic.

In other ways, though, it was easy to justify the ethics of my work because I’d helped a woman out too. A friend of mine, I'll call her ReginaGeorge123, who after breaking up with her boyfriend of seven years, had near panic attacks just visiting OkCupid's homepage. In a tipsy fit of inspiration, I logged onto her account and composed her entire profile for her. To my relief, she was thrilled by my work. Weeks later, when ReginaGeorge123 had dates lined up every night of the week, she was ecstatic. I helped her out of friendship, but she gave me a $20 gratuity, putting our transaction nearly on par with my work for El_Zorro – or so I told myself.

Love Business

I'm not the only one out there making a buck as a digital Cyrano. Scores of companies have formed in recent years that will do everything short of showing up for an actual date on your behalf. Professional matchmaking services have existed for a while, centuries even, but these new companies focus exclusively on doing all the time-consuming work of online dating for you.

After an initial interview and assessment, digital dating businesses will compose a client's profile, help select profile photos, send messages, flirt, and arrange meet-ups. One company called ViDA (Virtual Dating Assistants) claims it A/B tests messages to guarantee results. Another called iDating Assistant offers a premium package with date-logistics planning and a post-date consultation afterwards. Services like these two charge anywhere from a couple hundred to a couple thousand dollars a month.

If I was interested in assuming the voice of a 30-something Asian female looking for a husband, she had a client for me and I could start right away.

ReginaGeorge123 referred me to all her single lady friends, including a woman who is the CEO of  an online-dating agency. Her company is based in London and currently trying to make inroads into the Bay Area's upmarket dating game. She called to recruit me as a personal dating agent for her company, which I'll leave unnamed for my friend's sake.

“We have a 50% success rate, which I think is pretty good,” the CEO told me, adding that the company’s work had recently resulted in its first marriage.

If I was interested in assuming the voice of a 30-something Asian female looking for a husband, she had a client for me and I could start right away. She then made some vast, pretty distasteful, generalizations about various ethnic groups and how easy or challenging it was for each to find its match.

After getting off the call, I felt more fully aware of the crass, calculating, capitalist impulses driving our new online-dating industrial complex – and felt newly uneasy about my connections to it. Despite these mounting scruples, I still would have taken on a new client (I could play a 30-something Asian professional!) but I never got the chance. Much like a potential Tinder hookup, the dating CEO flaked on me and never responded to subsequent messages after our initial encounter.

Meant to Be

Due to scheduling complications, my working relationship with El_Zorro lasted little more than a month, but in that time I got him half a dozen dates. With the exception of a recent phone call, we had barely communicated in over a year when I recently ran into him at a coffee shop. Although we’d only spoken on the phone before, I recognized him from the profile pictures of the guy I had pretended to be. Seeing him in person was like going on your first online date with someone – there was something very awkward, yet strangely familiar about talking to him face-to-face.

El_Zorro told me that his experiment with outsourcing dating occurred during a time in his life when he was feeling particularly vulnerable. He had just gone through a rough breakup and was nervous about how to move on. Having a digital stand-in allowed El_Zorro to go on as many dates as possible before figuring out what kind of woman he was looking for. He said he learned a lot from being set up with so many different people.

Once he dropped the online charade, El_Zorro's love life experienced a reversal of fortune. He messaged a woman who seemed like a good match and she agreed to meet for a date. Immediately, El_Zorro felt something different about her. A year and a half later, they're living together, and El_Zorro speaks about her with the sighing tones of a man completely smitten.

Once he dropped the online charade, El_Zorro's love life experienced a reversal of fortune. He messaged a woman who seemed like a good match and she agreed to meet for a date. Immediately, El_Zorro felt something different about her. 

After I told him I was working on a story about our business arrangement, he decided to confess to his girlfriend about his online-dating hack. He told me afterwards that although he was done with the charade by the time he met her, his girlfriend was mad about his old scam at first. “But then she wasn’t really that surprised, she just said: 'Oh, that’s so you,'” El_Zorro told me. “It’s funny when it works out, how it works out.”

I'm happy to have played a tangential role in El_Zorro's finding a meaningful connection, although part of me still worries about this new, weird economy of dating. It's not like paid matchmaking help is anything new, but the number of opportunities out there for digital wingmen suggests that finding love should be as easy as buying a pair of running shoes. But it’s not that simple, and it never will be. If you truly value being in a meaningful, loving relationship, you ought to put in the time it takes to find one.

With all that said, time is money. For every overworked, and persistently single, VP or software engineer out there, there's somebody like me. We Cyranos are ready with our digital quills, eager to get that small, strange high from crafting words of woo for a dime. Our minor masterpieces are probably waiting for you in your inbox right now. We longingly await your swift reply.

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