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Thursday, August 14, 2008

The algorithm method

The romantic matching service eHarmony hasn’t exactly cornered the market on online relationship services, but the company — with its silver-haired Christian self-help founder and pitchman CEO, its exhaustive questionnaire, its algorithmically-derived pairing decisions, its glowing customer testimonials — has cemented itself in the American consciousness.

A new eHarmony ad capitalizes on love's evolving dimensions in a way that’s startlingly different from other mainstream relationship Web sites. As far as it goes.

The new ad shows a glowing couple, giddy with the PDAs of blooming love. Chris and Maggie reflect the wonders of finding the right match. The words go up on the screen: “Chris and Maggie, matched July 30, 2004.”

Chris is a white man, Maggie an Asian woman.

Later in the same ad, we’re introduced to Farren and Travis — similarly caught up in the throes of true love, and just as compelling a visible testimonial to the power of love (and eHarmony). We get their back story too: “Farren and Travis, matched March 18, 2006.”

Farren is a white woman, Travis is an African American man.

The “so what?” you’re barely able to suppress right now is exactly the point. Interracial love is and has been a part of the American experience from the beginning; the number of interracial couples continues to grow; the power and potential of the presidential campaign of Barack Obama is part of their legacy.

◊ ◊ ◊

So what took mainstream relationship services so long? eHarmony, which started in 2000, has come to the necessary (and welcome) recognition that not all couples are the same race; that the demographic of the United States in the 21st century no longer fits the usual, comfortable categories.

But you have to wonder why it took eight years for eHarmony and founder Dr. Neil Clark Warren, a friend of Focus on the Family founder and devoted political conservative Dr. James Dobson, to make the minor pivot to recognition of interracial love.

And despite its latest not-quite-groundbreaking campaign, don’t bestow on eHarmony anything like enlightenment. The company, which has reportedly had some 20 million users since it launched, is the target of a class-action sex discrimination lawsuit filed in California in May, for its refusal to include gays or lesbians in its subscriber base.

All of which suggests double-talk from eHarmony and a willingness to erect another firewall of the heart where none really exists. eHarmony’s opposition to these couples outside the mainstream led to eHarmony’s nimble competitor, Chemistry.com, to make a point of that exclusion in its own advertising.

Newsweek’s Lisa Miller reported on eHarmony’s weak defense in May: “A company lawyer explains that eHarmony makes matches based on unique scientific research into what makes heterosexual unions work; it hasn't done the same kind of work on gay unions, though it doesn't rule out such research in the future.”

Algorithms don’t make racial distinctions or ignore people on the basis of sexual preference. They’re funny like that. But when you combine algorithms with an agenda, you’ve got trouble, or at least problems. eHarmony’s made one mathematical breakthrough: the discovery that persons inclined to interracial relationships actually exist and thrive in our culture, just like those inclined to single-race relationships.

Maybe the math whizzes at eHarmony will crack another code and discover what we already know: love = equal opportunity employer.
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Image credits: Hands: www.afroromance.com. Couple kiss: Public domain. William Cohen and Janet Langhart: © 2006 David Shankbone, republished under Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 license.

11 comments:

Interracialmatch said...

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eHarmony Blog said...

I wrote about eHarmony's interracial matching here

http://www.pinoy.ca/eharmony/707

and this was before the present batch of Chris/Maggie and Travis/Farren ads. I took a moment tonight to find out the earliest published record of an eHarmony interracial matchup, and what I found is APRIL 2006 as per Idahoan Statesman for Travis and Farren.

So yeah, some of their MEMBERS discriminate on race, but clearly eHarmony doesn’t.

(Don't you, please, bring up HEIGHT matching, though. That's a more touchy, debateable subject!)

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