Streams

The Art of Online Dating

From 'Booger' in Staten Island to 'PMS' in the Bronx, an intriguing new Chelsea exhibit maps the words New Yorkers use in searching for a mate.

Monday, January 24, 2011 - 12:00 AM

WNYC
DuBois's pieces overlay maps with frequently used words in online dating profiles. Staten Island's north shore provides an electic selection that includes 'Erasmus,' 'Booger,' 'Meatballs' and 'Goo.' (Courtesy of R. Luke DuBois and Bitforms Gallery)

In 2008, Manhattan-based artist and programmer R. Luke DuBois set up an account at Match.com. As a dating venture, the effort was a bit of a bust. "I didn't end up really meeting anybody," he explains. But DuBois was fascinated by the way people presented themselves online and quickly discovered that by manipulating small details in his own profile (such as listing the zip code of a neighborhood one over from his own), a completely different set of possible matches would emerge. “I started playing it like a video game,” he says of the process, “where I would change things in my profile to see how it affected things.”

This exercise led DuBois to sign up for 21 different dating sites—including the hook-up service AdultFriendFinder.com—so that he could quantitatively analyze the most commonly used words in dating profiles. He used the data to create a series of maps that showcase the most frequently used words by geography. New York City’s most frequently used online dating word, for example, is 'Now'—confirming just about every Type A stereotype of our town's inhabitants. (In Chicago, incidentally, it’s 'Always'. And in L.A., 'Acting.') For big cities, DuBois was able to break the data down further, narrowing down the most frequently used online dating words to individual zip codes. (He analyzed more than 410,000 profiles for New York City alone.) The maps are now on view at the Bitforms Gallery in Chelsea.

So what does all of this reveal about New York? Well, it seems we are quite colorful when it comes to describing ourselves. 'Meatballs', 'Booger' and 'Erasmus' are big in Staten Island. 'Sexist' pops up in Queens (in Breezy Point, to be exact)—as does 'Atonement,' 'PhD' and 'XXX.' In some cases, neighborhoods fit their stereotypes ('Publishing,' 'Obnoxious' and 'Baby' all appear for Park Slope); other times they do not ('Yeats' is popular in the vicinity of Sheepshead Bay). The bizarre trifecta of 'Hustler,' 'PMS' and 'Swelling' is in the Bronx—while Manhattan is home to high-end living words such as 'Finance,' 'Luxury' and 'Brunch.' Most interestingly, the word 'Ganja' is popular in WNYC’s West SoHo zip code (leading me to wonder what the heck is going on at the office after hours).

Last week, I spoke with DuBois, who explained his fascination with online dating and how New York is different from the rest of the country in it’s choice of words.

Why this obsession with people’s online dating profiles? Online dating is this weird thing. You put up this profile, with a photo and you have to say who you are and what kind of person you want to be with. And the part where you say who you are, you kind of fudge it—you lie. It’s a highly idealized version of yourself you’re putting out there. I’ve seen the profiles of friends of mine and I’m like, 'Really, that’s you? You’re not funny or outgoing.'

You surveyed the entire country, what popped out at you from the initial results? The only places where people will use negative adjectives about themselves are New York and Chicago. I think it’s because those are the only places that the singles communities are cynical enough to get away with that kind of honesty. Where people will say things like ‘I’m a micromanaging bitch’ or ‘I’m a workaholic jerk.’ In smaller communities people are more idealistic and romantic.

What does the popularity of the word 'now' in New York profiles say about the city’s culture? It’s probably because we’re all A.D.D. (Attention Deficit Disorder) I’d say that the funniest thing about New York is that people are very specific about name-checking their day. They like to name what neighborhood they work in and what restaurants they ate at. People in Phoenix won’t do that. But in New York, a woman might write: 'My day is crazy because I work in Gramercy and I live in Brooklyn and I want a guy who takes me to Pastis.'

What other elements set New York apart? Big cities like Chicago and New York have a broader range of vocabulary that people use. It was really interesting to see it. On Manhattan’s Upper East Side, for example, you get words like 'transcendent.' I mean, who uses 'transcendent' in a dating profile? The whole DUMBO/Brooklyn Heights area is pretty funny, too. You get works like 'dick' and 'graphic' and 'artisanal,' as well as 'postmodernism' and 'cheese.'

Was there one word that stood out to you above all others? My favorite one is in the Bronx, and it’s 'ex.' It’s right in the middle [in the Belmont, East Tremont area]. I always wonder, is it 'ex' for 'ex-wife' or 'ex-convict' or 'ex-novelist'? It could be anything. You can sort of dream it and imagine the context in which it has been said.

Given what you've learned about online dating profiles, if you had to write one today, what would it say? 'Artist seeks muse.'

Find detailed maps from around the city and the U.S. at DuBois’s project website. His exhibit, A More Perfect Union, will be at Bitforms Gallery in Chelsea through Feb. 19.

In the East Tremont/Belmont area of the Bronx, 'Ex' makes its appearance. To the right, in Pelham/Morris Park, 'PMS' looms large in the vicinity of 'Swelling' and 'Mortality.' Makes you wonder...
Courtesy R. Luke DuBois and Bitforms Gallery
In the East Tremont/Belmont area of the Bronx, 'Ex' makes its appearance. To the right, in Pelham/Morris Park, 'PMS' looms large in the vicinity of 'Swelling' and 'Mortality.' Makes you wonder...
Woody Allen-land produces references to 'Philharmonic,' 'Doormen,' 'Finance' and 'Brilliant.' Playing against stereotype, however, 'Therapy' is nowhere to be seen.
Courtesy R. Luke DuBois and Bitforms Gallery
Woody Allen-land produces references to 'Philharmonic,' 'Doormen,' 'Finance' and 'Brilliant.' Playing against stereotype, however, 'Therapy' is nowhere to be seen.
In the vicinity of Coney Island and Sheepshead Bay, the melting pot that is New York delivers with 'Calamari' and 'Yeshiva,' as well as, curiously, the words 'Appalling' and 'Bombastic.'
Courtesy R. Luke DuBois and Bitforms Gallery
In the vicinity of Coney Island and Sheepshead Bay, the melting pot that is New York delivers with 'Calamari' and 'Yeshiva,' as well as, curiously, the words 'Appalling' and 'Bombastic.'
Sometimes word combinations can be somewhat disconcerting, such as in the Glen Oaks/Floral Park section of Queens — which turned up 'Arsenic,' 'Tigress,' 'Lateness' and 'Hamster.'
Courtesy R. Luke DuBois and Bitforms Gallery
Sometimes word combinations can be somewhat disconcerting, such as in the Glen Oaks/Floral Park section of Queens — which turned up 'Arsenic,' 'Tigress,' 'Lateness' and 'Hamster.'
Downtown Manhattan and Brooklyn produce words that are true to type ('Hipster' in Williamsburg and 'Eateries' on the Lower East Side). But there are surprises, too. Such as 'Ganja' in West SoHo.
Courtesy R. Luke DuBois and Bitforms Gallery
Downtown Manhattan and Brooklyn produce words that are true to type ('Hipster' in Williamsburg and 'Eateries' on the Lower East Side). But there are surprises, too. Such as 'Ganja' in West SoHo.

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Comments [10]

Verdopple Deine Dates from Nevada

You have come up with a very good way to brief us with such a useful content.

Oct. 13 2011 04:43 AM
Paul Moon from Washington, D.C.

The documentary:

http://vimeo.com/hpmoon/perfect

Feb. 13 2011 11:51 PM
Dave Evans from Boston, MA

Absolutely brilliant, Like OKCupid blog with extra dose of creativity. Could layer on some census data as well too. Is there a video of this somewhere I'd love to post to my dating industry blog.

Feb. 08 2011 10:33 AM

@Matt: It can be a little complicated. (I compared it to an existing map of NYC online to make sure I had my neighborhoods and zip codes right.) But I think that is a little bit of the point: to identify the place we live purely by these words... It's less about being a literal map (as in a guide) and more of a data visualization technique.

As for Kinky States of America, I'm not sure on that one...

Feb. 04 2011 07:09 PM
Matt Cornell

Fascinating project, but the presentation is not very user friendly. I would like to be able to see the actual zip codes and neighborhoods mapped along with the words. Most of us don't recognize the shape of our cities w/o such markers.

Also, the Kinky States of America map seems confusing. It just looks like a lot of shades of purple and blue. Anyone know how to make more sense of this data?

Feb. 03 2011 05:05 PM
Beata

Very interesting visualization of the city's subcutaneous layer: intriguing clusters of meaningful characteristics (real or perceived) of oneself and the ones sought after.

Heading to Bitforms asap, before Valentine's rush!

P.S. Please correct the typos:
...it’s choice of words
You get works like ...

Jan. 26 2011 11:37 PM

@chris: good question. would be difficult to weed out duplicates. though i have a feeling that what you'd find on AdultFriendFinder versus what you see on e-Harmony probably doesn't have an overwhelming amount of overlap.

@David: if someone could figure that out, they'd be *golden*

Jan. 25 2011 06:57 PM
Chris from San Luis Obispo, CA

I wonder how much of his results are duplicates, from people registered on multiple sites copy-pasting their profiles. It could be part of the reason for the prominence of some of these words.

Jan. 25 2011 06:00 PM
Apos from Washington D.C.

Fascinating.

Jan. 25 2011 05:16 PM
David from Brooklyn, NY

This is great. Much more fun than the census and perhaps more enlightening. How long until someone takes the data and comes up with a numeric, statistically sound strategy for hooking up/finding love in the on-line world?

Jan. 24 2011 08:59 PM

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About Gallerina

Carolina A. Miranda is a regular contributor to WNYC and blogs about the arts for the station as "Gallerina." In addition to that, she contributes articles on culture, travel and the arts to a variety of national and regional media, including Time, ArtNews, Travel + Leisure and Budget Travel and Florida Travel + Life. She has reported on the burgeoning industry of skatepark design, architectural pedagogy in Southern California, the presence of street art in museums and Lima's burgeoning food scene, among many other subjects. In 2008, she was named one of eight fellows in the USC Annenberg/Getty Arts Journalism Program for her arts and architecture blog C-Monster.net, which has received mentions in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. In January of 2010, the Times named her one of nine people to follow on Twitter. Got a tip? E-mail her at c [@] c-monster [dot] net

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