Whaling also said that many of the company’s apps ask users to take profile photos within the app itself, so that automated tools can compare the images with the person’s already-uploaded photos. In theory, this provides evidence that a person is who they say they are. But this Photo Verification feature isn’t yet available on Hinge.
Match Group’s communications staff being little help, I decided to try conversing with the bots instead, hoping to understand how they work and what they’re supposed to accomplish.
A friend who works in machine learning suggested I lob random but highly specific questions at them, something like “What’s your favorite dinosaur?”, to try to trip up the chatbots. The first “man” I tried it on unmatched me soon after. Clearly I had caught a bot. Or maybe when you’re a grown woman you’re not supposed to ask potential dates “What’s your favorite dinosaur?”
Similarly, a Startup editor suggested I try questions like those researchers had used to challenge the chatbot Mitsuku: “If we shake hands, whose hand am I holding?” and “If London is south of Oxford, is Oxford north of London?” After trying this on a few of my Hinge matches, however, I began to suspect that these were not algorithmic bots, but real people hiding behind stock photos and language translation apps.
I started chatting with Liwei, a 45-year-old lounging shirtless in a hammock, beer in hand, staring forlornly at the ocean. “Where are you from?” I asked. Your heart, he replied. “Are you a bot?” I asked. Do I look like a robot to you?
I immediately asked if he wanted to meet for coffee in San Francisco, knowing the chance of ever meeting this person in person was less than zero. He immediately suggested I share my number: Beautiful, you and I are not usually here. If you can leave your contact information, OK, so that we can get to know each other better…I’m not here often. I’m sorry. There’s no beep. I asked him what he meant by that, and then took a leap: “Who do you work for? Do you work alone, or are you part of a larger organization?” Liwei said he had to go meet friends for coffee. Three days later, I got a notification that Liwei had been kicked off of Hinge.
Three days after that, as if on cue, Paul appeared on Hinge. He had blonde hair, blue eyes, and large ears. He wore bright, colorblocked sweaters and stood in flower fields with equally impressive color palettes. He went right in for the kill when he “liked” my profile: Your profile attracts me, but I hardly use Hinges. I don’t want to miss you. So please give me your number. He signed the message with three emoji roses. Reader, I gave Paulbot my number.
We first texted via SMS—he had a 415 number, indicating San Francisco—and then moved to Telegram at Paulbot’s request. (“Welcome to the dark side,” a real-life friend texted me when he saw that I’d joined Telegram.) Paulbot was a busy guy. He ran a financial trading company, and was, he claimed, “trading a second contract in cryptocurrency futures.” (I have no idea what this means.) Originally from Germany, he now lived in Pacifica, a beach town south of San Francisco, only he spelled it Persfika, which is how a translation app might spit it out if it misinterpreted your words.