From the author: If Facebook can predict whom some users will marry, what does that mean for the rest of us...and for marriage?
Donna Bunch is a slim, 29-year-old pediatric nurse in Livingston, New Jersey. Last Valentine’s Day she had to the work a late shift, so Ben Sanderson, her boyfriend of two years, took her to brunch. They went to Lorena’s, a top-rated French restaurant in nearby Maplewood. Because the appetizers alone were beyond the budget of a 30-year-old freelance writer, Bunch divined what must be coming.
“I wondered how I’d react,” she said. “I loved Ben. I loved talking with him and being with him, but he wasn’t really husband material. The beard. The scarf. Sometimes I thought I stayed with him because his non-schedule fit my irregular one.” Nonetheless, she said, “I decided to let my heart respond.” Over carrot cake, the call came.
Sanderson held out his mother’s diamond engagement ring. Donna almost said yes, it had so much fire. Her heart said nothing. She told Sanderson she had to think about it.
While she did, they walked around the park at the heart of town. “I admired the consideration she gave my proposal,” Sanderson said, “while I tried not to vomit my Oeufs Forestier.”
On a scenic wooden bridge a newly wedded couple was having their picture taken. Something welled up inside Bunch while she watched, an “aching in her bones.” She dropped to a knee, took Sanderson's hands and proposed. "Yes," he said, “but who gets to wear the ring?” (Bunch.)
Then they turned on their phones to call their parents. Each found a Facebook status update from the other. Their engagement had been announced thirty minutes earlier. Their FaceMail already bulged with congratulations.
Confused, they soon discovered that the relationship statuses of a huge number of Americans had also been changed spontaneously to engaged. Because many mutually affected users didn’t know their mutuals, the consensus believed the updates were a glitch like that time the social network displayed memorial banners on the user profiles of people who were still alive, including that of Facebook’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg.
“Except ours wasn’t an error,” Sanderson told me. As he posted later that day to a forum on Jezebel, “Our status change was predictive. Facebook knew Donna’s heart before she did.”
Their story went viral. The consensus shifted. Few, however, considered the ramifications of what Jezebel dubbed FaceMatch. As Bunch told me recently after she returned from her honeymoon, “I’m glad I married Ben, but if didn’t really decide to marry him, if it was fate, then is it still love?”
For the past year, one woman has led the charge to answer that question, Yes.
“You’re a skeptic,” Angela Pollan said, “but every hair on my body stood up when I read Donna’s story, as if lightning had struck beside me."
We sat drinking tea in the living room of her two-bedroom ranch in Anamosa, Iowa, a half-hour northeast of Cedar Rapids. The room was as bright as her smile; the couch, as welcoming as the sound of a kettle whistling after a long flight. The room normally headquarters Pollan’s popular and controversial website, FateMatch.com, which has been called “the face of future love.” It's no shrine to love, though. There's no Kindle bursting with romance novels, no loving thoughts cross-stitched and framed, and not a single heart, only dozens of pictures of Pollan’s three sons and one of Bunch and Sanderson.
She moved closer and held it for us to look at. “The thing is, I want to be hit by the lightning bolt. When I read somewhere that you should date as many people as possible until you’re 29, then marry the next person who’s as good or better than the best person you’ve dated, I started crying. I don’t want to game my heart. I want it to know.”
For years her faith in love had suffered. Pollan got married her junior year at Iowa State, but after a decade she realized her heart hadn’t been sure about her husband. Six years ago she divorced him, then “wandered the desert.” She did dating sites. She went out as much as one could in a small town. By last February, Pollan was wracked with doubts. “I told myself the man destined for me would love me whether I washed my hair or wore the same ratty jeans every day. I was on the verge of asking my ex about getting back together when FaceMatch happened. It saved me.”
And yet, as Pollan highlights on her site, her status wasn’t changed.
She asked me, “Was yours?” No. “Which could mean,” she said, “that either we weren’t affected or we’ll never get engaged. Which do you think it is?” I said that one can’t prove a negative. Her green eyes shone. She brushed aside a strand of her thick dark hair. “It’s actually a trick question. The unaffected have still been getting married. The real question is, Is there someone out there for each of us? And that’s why I started FateMatch. To help prove there is. Because FaceMatch showed a heart can be known.”
Her website started auspiciously. In its first three days, the site’s adherents, who call themselves The Fates, found thirty-two more couples whose engagements FaceMatch had predicted. Within the week, as the site got press coverage and more FaceMatch success stories went viral, another 103 couples came forward. “Who doesn’t want to believe they’re destined for one another?” Pollan said.
2.5 million Facebook users change their status to engaged each year, with February the fourth most popular month for doing so, so 270 people out of the roughly 270,000 who would have changed their statuses anyway hardly constituted proof. Pollan said, “Yes, but each couple considers itself a miracle, and that’s worth more than a million data points.”
Facebook would disagree with her mathiness. It doesn’t believe in fate. Or love. Or marriage. It believes only in data. And in profits. Facebook plumbs our posts and pictures, analyzes our likes and ignores, and tracks our click-thrus and cookies. It sees through our lies. It organizes the chaos of our decisions and interactions. Thus it determines what we should buy.
Facebook knows when we need a new job and shows us ads for FaceWorks. It knows when we’re sluggish and shows us ads for FaceFit. It knows our dating history, as well as those of everyone we’ve dated, so it predicts the arc of a relationship and shows us ads for either FaceAllurez with its wide selection of rings or--
When Facebook failed to buy Match.com, Wall Street believed it would develop its own dating app. After all, what is a spouse but another consumer good? What is a marriage but the ultimate purchasing decision? According to Wall Street’s moles, the status changes were either an accidental leak of test data or a deliberate leak to test the public’s reactions. Facebook played coy. Its stock shot up. Then the troubling aspects of FaceMatch became clear.
Couples who were already engaged become engaged to different people: old flames, close friends, their future spouse’s siblings. Married women were engaged to married men, married men to other married men, bosses to their reports and adults to minors.
Some were amused by the what ifs of FaceMatch. Dozens of sites charted the celebrities affected. An app was developed that turned FaceMatch into a hookup game, but Facebook blocked its sale. Many tweeted that Facebook would soon offer suggestions for Screw and Kill.
Others were far from amused. Mutuals with restraining orders received visits from the police. Bosses faced harassment suits. FaceMatch’s “outings” caused mental distress, acute embarrassment and several firings from companies of faith. One man was beaten to death because his mutual, a policeman, felt threatened, and children were disturbed by the strangers contacting them, however innocently.
The next day, as lawyers across America researched internet libel laws and probed the borders of Facebook’s corporate sovereignty, Facebook spoke. It apologized to the 1.6 million users affected. It didn’t explain why or how, only that the pairings were random, which would allow, statistically, for the occasional accuracy, such as Donna and Ben’s engagement. Twenty-four hours after FaceMatch, Facebook reverted all but one of the changed statuses to their previous states. In the rare gesture suggesting a human might still be running Facebook, Donna and Ben remained engaged.
People don’t like randomness, though. We strain to hear a signal in the noise. We see faces in the Moon. We need explanations. And if Facebook wouldn’t provide them, thousands would try themselves. Led by Pollan, the search for future Donna and Bens became a calling.
“Fortunately,” Pollan said, “tens of thousands of affected users were curious enough to contact their mysterious mutuals. That really helped.” Most had nothing else in common and didn’t sustain contact. Many became friends. Some got together for a while, usually because geography permitted it. “Within six months, though,” Pollan reported, “a surprisingly large number, nearly 3%, got engaged.” One newlywed, a geometry professor, posted in a forum, “After spending years being jerked around in romantic circles, I was relieved to have a tangent to go off on. It had to be the right angle.”
Were these couples responding less to fate than to confirmation bias, that is, accepting their supposed fate because it was the one they wanted? Pollan didn’t see any difference. “Fate is fate, and love is love, whether you accept it,” she said. She feels sorry for, even angry at those who have refused to see FaceMatch as a chance to consider what their hearts really want, regardless of the effect on their lives. "How could someone throw away such an opportunity?" Her eyes fell to the cold leaves spattering the bottom of her cup. “Don’t they realize how many people wish they’d had it too?”
Half The Fates, by Pollan’s estimation. They verify, tag, track, sort and otherwise analyze every story. Any post about an engagement becomes the week’s most popular. Non-engagements are picked over to find out what went wrong and to see if there’s any future for the relationship; they are tagged as Yets. The Fates don’t break the site's Prime Directive, though: “Thou shalt not trespass in other peoples’ lives.” If affected users don’t want to be counted, they aren’t. Enough are willing, though, that in August Facebook teased Wall Street with the idea that it might resurrect FaceMatch.
Because her NDA had expired, Pollan could reveal that Facebook had offered to buy her site and all its data. “They were especially keen on the tools we set up for The Fates to meet one another,” Pollan said. “I didn’t set out to be a matchmaker, but after meeting in the site’s forums, then taking our various FateMatch tests together, people connected. It’s much less pressure, what we do, and, at the same, more intimate than your usual dating sites. This appeals to both women and men.” The Fates are split 60/40 with the usual percentages of straight and quilt. “The Fates don’t want finding love to be a series of best practices anymore.”
Some also don’t want love to lead to marriage if it hadn’t been predicted by FaceMatch. Otherwise, how could the couple be sure they were hit by the lightning bolt? They usually point to Nate Silver’s distinction between “small data romance,” the slow exchange and sorting of limited and likely biased information on which a series of temporary conclusions are based; and “big data romance” such as FaceMatch, the decisive conclusion resulting from a large amount of information analyzed without any romantic notions.
A small faction believes that those who are unaffected shouldn’t consider loving at all until another FaceMatch event. If the unaffected were destined for singlehood, why bother with doomed relationships? Most Fates consider them spoilsports, and no one knows if FaceMatch will come again.
Pollan has banned a few of these dissenters for being disruptive, which, naturally, has opened her up to accusations that she’s ruining the community by restricting FateMatch to those who agree that there’s someone out there for each of us.
The community, however, is why Pollan dithered when it came to selling FateMatch. She didn’t know what Facebook would do to it. “I pictured FateMatch drowning in the great sea of sponsored friends and autofeeds,” Pollan said. “Sharks would game our tools. AboutFace would clog the site with crummy essays like ‘5 Hidden Ways to Find Your Mate on FateMatch.’ Of course, I wish I’d taken the money when I’d had the chance.”
Pollan looked around the room at the pictures of her boys. “It would have sent them to college. It would have sent my grandkids to college. But who’d have thought FaceMatch would go south the way it did? Goddamn Aaron Sebring. The end started with him.”
Actually, it started with a regular FateMatch contributor who called herself BotanHime. Her marriage was failing because she still loved a man who’d left her when she was younger. Had FaceMatch paired her with him or her husband, she might have been mollified. It gave her nobody. Over time BotanHime became convinced that she would’ve been paired with the earlier man, but wasn’t because he must have died. Increasingly depressed she declared that if her lost love couldn’t rescue her, she’d rescue herself by “falling.” That was her last post.
Alarmed, Pollan and other Fates reached out to her. They got no response. Pollan called the National Suicide Hotline, who tried to find her, but failed.
Her disappearance scared the community. When two other Fates discussed committing suicide because they had no mutuals, and Pollan discovered, to her horror, that two more already had, she worked with the NSH to set up a hotline and forum with 24/7 monitors. In her introductory post she noted what she would have told BotanHime:
“I know that loneliness. I know that desolation. I want to hear the song that others do. Just because you haven't heard it yet, doesn’t mean you stop listening. You still might."
She would have said the same to the thirty-seven known non-Fates who blamed FaceMatch in their suicides notes. Several blamed FateMatch too.
"It’s devastating," Pollan told me. "I want people to dream. To love." She spun her cup on its saucer. Her face, plump and pretty, withered like a peony. "I didn't do anything wrong."
Perhaps, but the lawyers who got nowhere trying to sue Facebook for including their clients in FaceMatch, trained their sights on her.
Pollan got up to boil more water. I followed her into the kitchen. "It was tough, after my divorce, to afford even this small place. Ad revenue has given us security for once. Those jackals want to take it away just to make an example of me." The lawyers hope that by beating her in court they’ll set a precedent that will help them take on Facebook. "So Facebook pulled its offer in order to distance itself from me."
Pollan made things worse for herself. As she put the kettle on, I had to ask her what would she would have said to Aaron Sebring.
When Sebring was a child, his father moved the family from one dying Rust Belt town to another, looking for work. As their finances worsened, so did Sebring’s home life. Because he had no friends--why make them when he’d lose them with the inevitable move?--he fled into the Bible. At 12 he went to the local Methodist church his parents never attended. At 15 he tried other churches. At 17 he began constructing his own faith. "Jefferson made his own Bible," he told his mother, Jean. "Why shouldn't I?"
At 18 he left his parents in search of what God wanted for him. At some point, he discovered the concept of the basherte or divinely ordained wife. The term comes from the Yiddish for “destiny.” Today it describes someone who completes another. Sebring took it literally. For ten years he crisscrossed America, his eyes open.
Because his parents hadn’t opted out, Facebook had created a profile for Sebring at birth. Having no friends, Sebring never thought about the social utility until, six months after FaceMatch, notification of his status change found its way, thanks to FaceForward, into his phonemail. Sebring logged in and learned that his mutual, Sara Lina, was a 23-year-old poet from rural Pennsylvania getting her MFA at the University of Florida. He sent her a friend request, then drove to Gainesville.
Lina ignored his request. “My affected friends googled their mutuals,” she told me. "I wasn't interested. I don't date. A few days later, he showed up outside my apartment."
Sebring didn’t approach Lina. He followed. He stared. She told the UFPD, who questioned him. When they told her who he was, she got scared. So did her mother, who FedExed Lina a pistol.
She showed me the little Ruger. “It’s a five-shot, which is cool.” She added, “I may be petite and progressive, but I could kick your butt.”
Sebring had no history of violence. He’d never been arrested. He was, according to his mother, gracious and peaceful, if a bit weird. “Quoting frequently from your homemade bible will do that,” she told me. She’s told this to others in the media, but “they weren't interested.”
What they were interested in was the “lonely fanatic with a pawn shop ring who’d banged on Lina’s door” and was fatally shot through it. The UFPD declared Lina had stood her ground and filed no charges. She became the Six-Gun Sweetheart. Sebring, as a result of Pollan’s subsequent comments, became the Mr. Hyde of FateMatch.
"What gets lost," Pollan told me in her kitchen, "is that Sebring didn't do anything except knock."
True, but what she posted at the time was, "Sebring was right to confront Lina about facing their destinies together. He had to save her. If someone was walking blindly toward a pit of despair, wouldn't you reach out to stop them? If you were walking towards the pit, wouldn’t you hold out a hand for help?"
Don’t you have to let go afterwards? I asked her. Otherwise, wouldn’t that attitude justify forced marriage? Bondage more than a bond?
Wiping her hands on a dish towel, Pollan faced me. "That's not what I meant. I know now the people have forced themselves on their mutuals.” She knows because defense lawyers and civil attorneys subpoenaed her logs to see if their respective perpetrators had been influenced by her site, the former seeking a means of exculpation, the latter a means of redress. Pollan wrung the towel and repeated, “That's not what I meant. Mutuals should feel, well, mutually."
She's written, though, that fate has no timeframe. So why shouldn't people marry, knowing their fate, and learn to love one another over time? Wasn’t FateMatch romanticizing arranged marriages?
“You’re putting words in my mouth,” Pollan said. The kettle started to boil. “I thought you were different. Skeptical...but open.”
In her most popular post she wrote, “You never know when the lightning will strike. FaceMatch has let us know whom it will strike eventually.” If that’s true, why didn’t she stay with her husband, just in case?
Pollan said, “You have to become the person who’s struck first. The people who contacted their mutuals, but there was no connection, they weren’t ready yet. I think we’ll see those people getting together as time goes on.”
Where does that leave the unaffected?
“Waiting,” Pollan said.
Unloved, I said. I meant this as a question. It came out as a statement.
“That attitude,” Pollan said, “not BotanHime or Seabring, not the lawyers and press, that is why I’ve almost shut FateMatch down a half-dozen times. I don’t want people to hurt.”
The kettle screamed. She grabbed at the handle, missed, and slapped her palm flat on the kettle. Pollan swore as it burned her, kept her hand on the kettle longer than I’d have expected, then tucked her hand against her midriff and turned away.
I asked to see it; I didn’t stop being human when I graduated from Medill. She let me, and I turned her hand over in mine. Half her palm was bright red and ready to blister. I opened the tap and held it under cold water.
I do have that journalism degree, though. I asked Pollan, So why didn’t she shut FateMatch down, if only to stave off the lawyers?
"Because," she said, nearly drowned out by the rushing water, "because you called. Because maybe this was my last chance to say, It is worth hoping. It is worth believing there’s someone out there for you. And I think I’ve blown it. You’ll make me look foolish for wanting the birds in the bush.”
I assured her that I hadn’t written the article yet. I wasn’t looking for quotes to fill prefab holes in a story.
After a long pause, she said, “Why are you writing the story?”
As I’d said when I’d first contacted her, it was for the paper anniversary of FaceMatch.
“No,” she said. “Why are you writing it?”
I told her that after FaceMatch, a thought experiment nagged at me: What if there were an unrequited FaceMatch? That is, what if an affected user were engaged to someone who was paired with no one at all? If the unrequited contacted the unmutual, what should the latter do? Give the person a chance or put him off?
Pollan hadn’t heard of someone for whom this had been the case, but she was willing to speculate, if only to take the conversation in a different direction. “I suppose,” she said, “this is a situation where good old-fashioned wooing might come into play. The future still seems fuzzy.”
I reached for a fresh dish towel hanging on the oven handle and swaddled her shivering hand. The blisters had been minimized. She said it didn’t hurt anymore.
What effect this article will have on the future of FateMatch, I don’t know, but Pollan has stuck with it, and her beliefs, for better or for worse.
The better is that increased traffic, thanks to the controversies, and additional ad revenue, plus a new subscription matchmaking service have enabled Pollan to move to a larger house. “If the lawyers take it all away, it might as well be something worth taking,” she said, and that looks less likely now that several Fates are representing her pro bono.
The even better is that Pollan met someone while promoting her site who pretty quickly asked her to marry him. She told me she loves him, she thinks the lightning struck, and, more importantly, her boys like him. They share many interests. They have differing, but not opposed outlooks on life--“he’s the sour to her sweet,” Pollan actually said--and that makes conversations more interesting than if they agreed about everything. He isn’t geographically desirable, but he has reasonable plans to resolve that issue, and until then he’s willing to fly to Iowa frequently to see her. And he claims he knows for sure that she’s the one, although he told her he wasn’t affected by FaceMatch.
The worse is that Pollan’s heart isn’t sure. What if it’s too soon to be thinking about marriage? What if she’s biased by her own feelings? What if she’s not the right person for him? What if the lightning bolt didn’t really strike her? What if a bigger one hits her tomorrow--or hits him? What if there’s another FaceMatch event and others are assigned to them? What if, what if, what if.
Her heart can’t be sure, either. After all, how can we trust our own judgment when some greater data could one day tell us we’re wrong? How can we have faith in each other once we’ve put our faith in something else? That’s the tragedy of FaceMatch. Being told there’s someone waiting for you in the future makes you incapable of recognizing him unless you’re formally introduced.