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Photos, not phone numbers: How to date in a digital age

Maria Avgitidis — aka Matchmaker Maria — tells us all her favorite tips.

Maria Avgitidis

Matchmaker Maria is TikTok's favorite dating coach.

Screenshots: TikTok

You may know Maria Avgitidis as “@realmatchmakermaria,” TikTok’s favorite reviewer of dating profiles. She’ll tell you which pictures need to be swapped out, why putting your Instagram handle in your profile is a red flag and whether you’re sharing too much or too little before you get swiped.

Avgitidis is also the owner of Agape Match, a high-end matchmaking company in New York City. For more than a decade, she’s been working with clients to help them find love in an increasingly digital, app-centric world. It’s harder than ever to just meet someone in a bar, she said — and not just when a pandemic makes bars impossible.

For our second episode in a monthlong series about how tech is changing dating, love, relationships, sex and what it means to be a human in a world filled with other humans, Avgitidis told us about what it takes to make a perfect dating profile, how she helps her clients get off dating apps and into the real world, why swapping Instagram handles is more of a second-date thing and much more.

You can hear our full conversation on the latest episode of the Source Code podcast, or by clicking on the player above. Below are excerpts from our conversation, edited for length and clarity.

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You started your matchmaking business in 2008, which was right at the beginning of social life becoming an internet-mediated thing.

What’s crazy to me is I had a BlackBerry when I started this. And I remember the day I went full time was the day I bought an iPhone. My BlackBerry had Twitter, but now that I had the iPhone, I had Foursquare. And that was the moment everything changed.

Why?

You know how on Facebook, it's a relationship on both sides? We both have to find each other to be friends? On Twitter, it was very one-sided, and suddenly having an iPhone, that one-sidedness was just compounded across different apps.

It was a very social time in New York City at that time. And it was different. It was so different compared to what it’s like now. Now it's like, everyone’s just thumbing. Before, it was like, “I'm going to look at the app to see what I can do here.” Do you remember the app Urbanspoon? You would use the phone as a tool to get somewhere or to talk to someone. And now the phone people have a very different relationship with their phone: It's no longer a tool to get outside or do something, it's a tool to be distracted by, and that distractions spills over in how present you are as a friend, as a spouse, as a partner, as a parent.

How has tech changed the way you think about the matchmaking process? Because it feels like this is such a different world even from two years ago, like when your grandparents were matchmakers.

I started my business in 2008, 2009. And since then, I feel like there's been like five waves of dating. The current one, right now, it’s intense. You have this one portion of singles, who are under the age of 26, who have never not had a smartphone in their hand. They have never participated in analog dating, ever. So to them, online dating is normal. And not only normal — online dating is rough, right? There's a reason why people would hire expensive matchmakers like me, because they want to avoid all that.

So you have this population that doesn't know that dating doesn't have to necessarily always suck, that not every guy is meant to juggle eight women. Or ghosting: There was a time when ghosting meant you dated a guy for five years, and then he just up and left and you never heard from him again. And now ghosting is a term that people use for a guy who did not call you to have a second date. Which is … dating! That's what happens in dating!

Before, because they met through friends, or they met at work, or they met at a barbecue, they weren't online dating, so maybe they also made the phone call ahead of time because they still have to show face to the people that are accountable for the introduction. Now, because of online dating, you're not accountable to this person; you don't know them. You don't owe them anything. So you're just like, “I'm not interested, I'm not going to contact them.” So you have this population that just does not know a world of analog.

They also don't know a world without thumbing. I remember when I was in my early 20s, if one of my girlfriends went to the bar, especially being tall, I always stood out in a venue or whatever — I could guarantee a guy would come up, talk to me, offer me a drink. When my friend would come out, he’d buy her a drink, too. I couldn't wait for my friend to go to the bathroom for three minutes!

And now what does everyone do when their friend goes to the bar or goes to the bathroom?

You look at your phone.

You look at your phone. You look immediately down, and what is that guy or that woman doing that could be coming up to you? They're looking at their phone. So suddenly, there is not even this analog social discovery. It's all digital social discovery.

And then you have this other population of singles, who remembers that way and still has these expectations of that old way to be in this new way when online dating has certainly changed the game. How people swipe, so much of this faux validation rather than someone actually seriously looking for a relationship. There's extreme dating fatigue among all singles. I read the comments that people leave on my stuff, like, “Oh, you're making it seem like it's a full-time job.” And, well, yeah.

So for you as a matchmaker, I could see it going one of two ways: Your job is either to teach people how to embrace and make the best of all that, or to create a world for them outside of that, where dating can feel maybe more like it used to. Do you lean one way or the other?

I think both have to work simultaneously. A lot of the people that hire us tend to be, like, C-level executives. We have busy entrepreneurs who are just not focused on this — so much of fundraising and investment in a company is dating professionally, right? So it's like, well, how do I find the bandwidth to also do this on an emotional level? And then other people that hire us are people that just cannot use online dating for privacy reasons. We have had celebrities, professional athletes, politicians, those people will come to us as well. LeBron, if he were single, you're just not going to see him on a dating app.

So yes, there's a world where it's analog. It’s like I'm their friend: “Hey, I'm setting you up with my friends.” That sort of environment. And then of course, as a dating company, I think so much of what I like to provide as Matchmaker Maria is helping people date better. And sometimes it's not matchmaking.

We've worked really hard to have really great relationships with some online dating sites, who will give us information like, “Hey, if your people did this, they would get more swipes.” We do our own studies as well. For instance, if you disconnect your Instagram, you have a higher probability of meeting someone in a physical first date than if you connected it. And if people say something like, “Well, no, I want to see that person,” we say yeah, but when people look at people's Instagrams, they're just looking for any photo not to go out with someone. It just takes one.

That question of how much information to share and when feels like a hard one in the dating world. Like, my wife claims — and I’m convinced it’s not true — that when we met, I gave her a fake last name. So she didn’t know my actual last name for like two weeks! And that worked out really well for me, because it’s not hard to find me on the internet, and she would have been like, “This is a gigantic nerd, I’m not going to date this guy.”

Even as people fill out profiles, you can put in as much or as little as you want, you can share tons of information about yourself or play it sort of coy. Managing all that seems complicated to me.

It's a lot. On TikTok, I review people's online dating profiles. And I'll open up people's profiles, and I'm really shocked by the level of detail that these apps ask for! I've had people that are executives at Facebook get a profile review from me — with their permission — and it says right there on the Hinge profile, “I’m this and this at Facebook,” and I'm like, wow, that is public!

I could see a way where that person's like, “Oh, you know, on dates, guys ask me about my job, and they're trying to hit me up for job advice.” And I'm like, yeah, of course they are! Because that's being publicized. And that does not have to be on your profile.

What do you tell people to do?

You should know their first name and their last initial. I don't think you should be exchanging phone numbers with any stranger. If you feel it’s necessary to exchange a phone number just for emergencies, make that a Google Voice number. But I really don't think that communication should ever leave the app.

The moment you start texting, that is the end of you going on a first date. I'm telling you, we have an entire team on our staff that does online dating management. And we've seen it time and time again: The moment a phone number is exchanged, the probability of you meeting in a physical capacity, it just plummets. Because, again, people will find any reason not to go out. “Oh, I'm tired, but I have the phone number so I can just be like, ‘Hey, do you mind if we reschedule?’’’

In my office, we like to do the 48-hour rule — that's what we call it. So if we're going to [look for a] date on your behalf, we need you to be available in the next 48 hours to go on a date. And maybe that's a FaceTime date in an hour, or it’s to meet in person the next two days. And we only want a few messages back and forth before we start setting up the date. And that helps people get on dates.

The whole point of online dating is to get offline. That's it. It's not to make pen pals. Right now, as we’re speaking, there are currently thousands upon thousands of women falling in love with a guy they've never met, who they've become pen pals with via text. Just initiate. Ask out, get out.

Going through your TikTok, it jumped out to me that like we've now sort of turned everything about dating into a science. Everything is kind of a numbers game, it's all algorithmically based, and the advice you give to people is so almost infuriatingly consistent: Here is the game, and here’s what it looks like to win. And, OK, that's interesting and helpful and useful. But the other part of me wonders, does it suck that this is what dating has been reduced to?

So for people who don’t know what the hell we’re talking about: People submit their online dating profiles for me, and I will review them. As of today, I’ve posted 170 episodes of that.

And I always like to see the comments. I put a lot of time in reading the comments, because you can learn a lot about how the dating scene is shifting as we speak. When I give people a critique, it's not for them to be attractive to everyone. I know that you're trying to attract a certain person. What I'm trying to do is make your profile more optimal, so that that person you're looking for also swipes on you. In the comments, some people get confused by this. And they'll say, “Oh, he eats meat? Next.” Or “Oh, he's a liberal? Next.” And they'll say stuff like, “He should remove this, otherwise, I'm not interested.” It's like, no, no, he should keep that, because he doesn't want to date you.

That’s an interesting way of thinking about profiles in general: Part of the job is to attract the people you want to attract, and maybe part of the job is also to repel the people you'd rather repel. It's easy to think of these things as just, get as many matches and as much incoming as you can and then weed it out, but maybe what you should be doing is trying to, as quickly as you can, get rid of people.

Repel! Repel away! It's kind of like photos: I always say your second photo should be a full body shot, because it's the photo of clarity and transparency. And people might think, well, you just want to show if you’re fat. And I say, well, fat’s not a negative word. It's just an adjective of someone's body type. And yes, you should show what your body type is. Because that same person who’s attracted to what you look like right now, that would have met you at a friend's wedding’s open bar? He wants to meet you online.

But what happens when you put a profile photo of yourself from 15 pounds ago, he's expecting her. So when you meet in person, it's like, oh, that lie. And men do this too, right? I've heard it from so many women: “Oh, he clearly put on some old photos.” You might have met him at your friend's wedding and had no issue, but because he showed a different photo, now you're wondering, what else is he lying about? Your photos just have to be so recent, and so transparent, so that you know that anyone who’s swiping on you, they're definitely physically attracted to you based on who you are now.

I was talking to Justin McLeod, the CEO of Hinge, on the episode before this. And one thing he and I spent some time talking about was the new Voice Prompts.

Oh, I love them.

That’s what I was going to ask! With these questions about how much you share and when, how do video and voice fit into that?

I think if you're extroverted, do it, but otherwise, don't do it.

You can't come out guns blazing on a Hinge audio. Hinge audio is just supposed to give me a glimpse of your voice, and that you're a real person. This one woman, she did a scene from “The Incredibles,” and to me it's so funny. Who wouldn't want to have fun with her?

But keep it light. Don't play music. I hate it when people play music, like, “here's some background music.” Don't do that.

But if you’re going to do that, here’s the hack. Look up the kind of person you’re trying to attract — and what year they were 12. Whatever the number one song or Top 5 song was that year, that's the song you're gonna put in. Because that just puts people instantly in a good mood.

But ultimately, people just want to know that you're real, not a bot. And a voice is a really great way to do that.

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