Current Affairs

Personalities For Sale

An investigation into VIDA Select and other dating services, which promise all the thrill of conquest without the mess of effort.

One evening, in observance of the timeless capitalist ritual of the job hunt, I found myself seeking some labor from which I could be alienated. For me, this usually consists of idly browsing Craigslist for copywriting opportunities while silently lamenting the dearth of career-track journalism jobs. I thought maybe I’d caught a small break when I came across an advertisement from a company called VIDA Select that was promising “flexible ghostwriting work.” At worst, I expected it to be yet another poorly compensated gig churning out sponsored content masquerading as blog posts. Instead, the ad described VIDA Select as “an online dating-management company,” with the acronym being short for Virtual Dating Assistants. As I read further, I realized with creeping horror that they were selling something much more insidious than the most shameless product placement. VIDA Select helps its clients realize a warped fantasy: the chance to exert undue, outsized power over real-world dates with real people. It’s a deal with a peculiarly modern kind of devil: a niche market catering to those who are cynical enough about the technological dating game that they’re willing to pay to rig it in their favor. 

Online dating has attained near-total cultural ubiquity, with social-romantic media such as Tinder, Bumble, Match.com, Plenty of Fish, Grindr, and OK Cupid promising unprecedented access to love and sex. Yet before any chemistry takes place, you must first allow your digital self-construct to be wrung through the all-powerful algorithm. A “dating profile” is a means of compressing and formalizing your quasi-intimate details into a kind of currency for the platform. The information itself is lossy—a few edited pictures with flattering framing, a few lines of humor or biographical information—leaving only a pastiche of authentic identity. Conveying much of one’s real personhood is almost impossible under these constraints. 

There’s already a faint sense of dehumanization that begins to gather force as you swipe unthinkingly through Tinder or the like. Faces flit by in mechanical procession, as if on a Taylorized assembly line. Potential matches appear in greater quantities than the most active social calendars could accommodate. However, this access to a functionally endless stream of potential pleasures is the chief selling point of digitized dating, whether the ultimate goal is love, sex, friendship, or pure ego gratification. 

Because host platforms determine a user’s “desirability” based on opaque, inherently flawed metrics engineered by fallible developers, they inevitably end up replicating all kinds of existing biases. There’s effectively no oversight in these spaces. Dating profiles could easily be written by anyone—like a bot, maybe, or an underemployed journalist. The partial anonymity and simplicity of profiles mean that the system can be gamed with relative ease. This has given rise to a secondary market, fed by a glut of personal data. The parasites that have latched onto the underbelly of the dating-tech industry have names like “Tawkify,” “ODately,” “Next Evolution Matchmaking” and the truly repugnant “Profile Pimpers.” All of them style themselves as “dating concierges,” “matchmaking services,” or similar euphemisms. Of this new crop of weird, amoral-at-best corporations, VIDA Select is the most successful. Geared toward men seeking women, it has attained profitability by leveraging loneliness, sexual frustration, and blatant misogyny. (There is a women’s section on the site, but it comes across largely as an afterthought, and the website’s default content is written from a heteronormative, male-centric angle). By dangling the lure of sex in front of a desperate or greedy clientele, VIDA functions like a kind of technological incubus. 

Here’s how VIDA and similar services work in practice: For a steep monthly fee, the company will delegate all your Internet dating to “ghostwriters” who will perform as you, remotely inhabiting your online personae, speaking in a voice, it’s promised, more practiced at digital wooing than yours.  In an extension of the “personal brand,” VIDA will furnish you with your very own team of clandestine P.R. reps, deputized to impersonate you in order to land you dates with women, and, implicitly, sex. As VIDA’s website touts, unironically, “we’ll attract her using your own ‘voice’ and personality so you don’t have to pretend to be someone you’re not.” It continues: “…We use a combination of math, science and psychology to ensure you get dates with your most compatible matches… So you can finally beat the odds when we stack them in your favor!” The site is also rife with assurances like: “Good news: you no longer have to fight an uphill battle to date high-quality women!” VIDA does not clarify how women’s quality is assessed.

If your primary interest lies in scoring with women—only the high quality ones, of course—then VIDA might work for you. But if you are seeking a long-term partnership or true love online, why would you ever found that relationship on a distasteful lie? VIDA’s FAQ shrugs off this concern: “It’s highly unlikely that a girl who is in love with you would leave you just because the first few messages she received before you’d even met in person weren’t sent by you.” Considering how staggeringly creepy that revelation would be, I somehow doubt you could avoid catastrophic blowback. And once again, VIDA does not exactly show their math for calculating the “high unlikelihood” that you’d get found out and summarily dumped.

Art by Skutch.

If this kind of romantic-epistolary duplicity sounds familiar, that’s because writers of heightened comic satire have built plots around it for centuries, from the classic play Cyrano de Bergerac (1897) to the 2013 film Her. But only in our lonely era of neoliberal excess and unfettered techno-capitalism could a real-world market for the boutique services offered by VIDA Select arise. And it works! Or so they claim—as to how many clients actually get dates, VIDA cites the suspiciously high rate of 99.6 percent. Regardless, in the past few years, the company has expanded rapidly. Along with a purported seven figures in revenue, VIDA boasts dozens of employees: from ghostwriters to “matchmakers,” “account managers,” “photo analysts,” “stylists,” and “relationship managers.” In a damning tell-all published in Quartz, former ghostwriter Chloe Rose Stuart-Ulin revealed that touching up photos, adding inches to clients’ height, and lying about age were all common practices. Now of course, regular users do this kind of thing all the time; the difference is that VIDA has systematized the deception to an unsettling degree. They’ve created an entire ecosystem of professionalized romantic deceitfulness, with their sights trained on unsuspecting targets.

At more expensive tiers of the service, once phone numbers have been exchanged and flirtation moves out of the app, VIDA operators will actually take over a client’s text messages and continue attempting to facilitate a real-world meetup. (How far could they possibly take this? Body doubles and actors? Full-scale theatrical sets?) Naturally, the women on the other side of the conversation are supposed to be kept in the dark about all this, as the company itself makes clear. (“Will my date know I hired a matchmaking service? Not unless you tell her,” promises the FAQ with a conspiratorial wink.) Elsewhere, VIDA’s founder and CEO Scott Valdez puts it more bluntly: “We advise our clients to take it to your grave.” So much for the “high likelihood” of your girlfriend still sticking around after she finds out!

From the innocent date’s point of view, the scenario reads like a paranoiac’s delusion. Instead of texting, sharing intimate details or photos, and maybe finally meeting up with an attractive stranger, you’re actually talking to a whole team of paid manipulators, a Truman Show of “artists” both touch-up and pick-up. This introduces a new dimension of frightening possibilities into the already anxiety-laden business of texting and meeting up with strangers. How horrifying to discover that any fears you may have had about your date misrepresenting themselves actually vastly underestimated the extent of their dishonesty. How scary to discover you’re a mark—the target of a scam intended to mislead you into sleeping with the con artist. 

Who would use a service like this? You might envision the stereotypical unemployed, basement-dwelling nerd, but Valdez told GQ magazine that most of their clients work in tech, finance, and law. He may be lying, but on the other hand it takes a decent salary to retain VIDA’s dubious expertise: Their prices range from $495 to $1,695 a month. Meanwhile, the company’s freelancers—the romantic Mechanical Turks who perform all the actual work—are paid a pittance. Wages start at $12 an hour, plus a $1.75 commission per phone number obtained. (Out of all the salacious details I’ve learned about this corner of the market, the least surprising is that a corporate writing job pays abysmal wages.) Meanwhile Valdez, as CEO and self-described “Head Honcho,” reaps the bounty of those sizeable profit margins while seeming to personally embody the sleaziness of his creation. GQ reports that on “Valdez’s personal desktop are hundreds of Excel spreadsheets, each one meticulously documenting and ranking every single online message he has sent to women of romantic interest,” stretching back 15 years. While it’s hardly unheard of to catalogue relationship metrics using spreadsheets, the magnitude of Valdez’s collection suggests a distressingly reductive view of relationships as quantifiable transactions. 

The problem with VIDA isn’t the concept of sex as a quantifiable transaction or paying for pleasure per se; a “dating concierge service” is not really comparable to consensual sex work. This is something else entirely: a systematic method of impersonation, the chief purpose of which is to allow clients to circumvent context and deprive their dates of informed consent. Valdez acknowledged to a reporter at Inquisitr that his work exists in “an ethical gray area,” but was quick to add that, “overall, our service does a lot more good than it does bad.” I’m pretty curious as to how he’s defining those value judgments—what does this “good” actually entail, and which instances of “bad” went unreported on in the press coverage? What we do know is that sexual deceit—rape by deception—is recognized as a criminal offense. Even if VIDA’s services doesn’t run afoul of any laws, their judgment as to ethical matters is, at the very least, severely miscalibrated.

More than anything, I’m surprised the service works at all. Though the initial ad I saw promised the chance to exercise one’s “wit” and “creativity,” the work of performative flirting itself amounts to little more than copying and pasting canned responses. A training manual provides a sample opening line: “A beautiful seaplane. A suitcase full of cash. And a dashing co-pilot. Whereto?” Speaking to VICE, Valdez cited another opener, this one of his own creation: “Why don’t we go halfsies on a bottle of Jack and create a bastard child before next weekend?” That’s the caliber of searing wit and devilish charm VIDA will deploy on your behalf, for a monthly cost that may rival most people’s rent.

Given these execrable lines, the 99.6 percent success rate touted by VIDA seems overstated at best. The service’s promotional materials claim that “VIDA’s unique, scientific approach to dating has helped thousands of singles find true love.” Of course, from a financial standpoint, the company is incentivized more than anything to retain users—as a result, they have a vested interest in not facilitating steady relationships. VIDA’s business model would probably yield higher profits by providing a stream of Tinder matches that lead nowhere, or, at least, nowhere beyond a one-night stand. Is that maybe the point? “Our clients tend to date beautiful women who are more physically attractive than they are,” the site insists. Is VIDA Select really just geared towards ordinary brief hookups? Or is it a platform for something more sinister?

Among the many issues posed by VIDA is the fact that a ghostwriter could easily mask warning signs that potential dates would otherwise find alarming. This is especially concerning given that dangerous men might be drawn to the service to inflate their odds of in-person contact. The VIDA site is careful to note: “You should not use our service if: You don’t respect women. If you’re looking to cheat on your partner or see how many notches you can put under your belt, this service is not for you. We’re here to help ethical, all-around good guys meet similarly amazing women. […] If you’re the ‘player’ or cheating type, we’ll need to respectfully decline your business.” But Valdez has admitted that past clients were later found to have domestic violence charges. (Not that this problem is exclusive to VIDA: Tinder, OK Cupid, Plenty of Fish, and others have repeatedly allowed minors, domestic abusers, and convicted sex offenders onto their platforms and, conveniently, managed to dodge anything resembling accountability.

It’s hard to say how VIDA could ever determine that a client is a “player” who doesn’t respect women. It’s harder still to imagine that they’re so categorically opposed to “players” that they’d turn down $1,695 a month if a client was flagged. After all, this is a company whose training manual is called Women On Demand. Their entire business model is pay-to-play. 

A closer look at certain pages on the site really gives the game away. No matter how much hedging VIDA does around words like “ethics” and “true love,” it’s clear that manipulative pick-up “artistry” is engrained in its ethos. A list of photo tips contains the following: “The secret lies in evolution—that’s right, we’re talking Darwin, survival of the fittest, alpha male theory. Biologically speaking, alpha males are desirable mates, so you want to subconsciously convey your alpha status in your photos.”  

The Darwinian “alpha male” framework alluded to here is a core tenet of evolutionary psychology, an infamously sophistic school of thought that purports to explain disparate realms of human behavior through a reductionist evolutionary lens, down to an impossibly granular level of detail. There may indeed be valid evolutionary explanations for plenty of human behaviors, but the field traffics in reactionary fallacies about women’s supposed inferiority, racial IQ differences, the injustice of age of consent laws, bigoted xenophobia, transphobia, and a lionization of vicious interpersonal competition as an immutable part of human nature. These features have attracted charlatans and armchair evolutionary psychologists who push unfounded, fallacious theories with little to no scientific basis. Their conclusions conveniently align with the interests of patriarchy and capitalism—almost like a lot of these beliefs were reverse-engineered and data contorted to fit existing predilections for laissez-faire economics, structural racism and sexism, murderous foreign policy, and other treasured pastimes of right-wing authoritarians.

This underlying ideology is visible underneath the marketing veneer of the VIDA website, its company training manuals, and Scott Valdez’s bloviations. Taken together, they maintain that women are categorically drawn to hypermasculine caricatures, and that any man who doesn’t display a cartoonish degree of machismo will fail to measure up. (From the website: “’Manly’ men build things. They go camping. They go hunting and fishing. They own the dance floor.”) Pick-up artists and incels (self-described “involuntary celibates” of the internet) share a lot of the same ideas and use similar terminology, finding value and intense envy in the mythological hypermasculine practice of sleeping with as many “high-quality” women as possible. In this way, VIDA Select’s model maps seamlessly into the logic of internet misogynists, those woman-hating reactionaries who have enthusiastically made common cause with neofascists. 

Such a repellent enterprise as VIDA is made possible by the convergence of a number of pernicious and dehumanizing modern forces. VIDA thrives in the space where capitalist exploitation and patriarchy reinforce each other, where manipulation and outright lying become acceptable tactics, where the ends of accumulation—sex, money, or social capital—are held up as the ultimate metric of success. The egoistic process that drives the rich to so shamelessly flaunt their wealth is also present in the mindless pursuit of endless sexual conquest: both fetishize accumulation for its own sake. But VIDA Select is also a natural extension of the false meritocracy, in that it weaponizes capital to confer unfair advantages in the dating game. All of it encourages dishonesty and the active denial of human feeling in service of mercenary ends.

Exploitative companies like VIDA Select can only exist in the gap made by alienation; the distance between self and other, men and women, employees and bosses. The cultural superstructure peddles fantasies of unlimited validation, pleasure, and self-indulgence, in which some of the most intimate and joyful functions of human life—sex and love—are outsourced to unpaid, unseen workers. Formerly organic social relations are objectified and quantified while skeevy elites turn a profit. And it’s all for a fantasy—not of romantic happiness, or sexual satisfaction, but of accumulation, women assigned to numbers and tallied up on a spreadsheet. Alienation is an inexorable product of capitalist society, one that walls us off from the value of our labor, from solidarity and communality, from a true understanding of ourselves. But the inherent desire for genuine human connection remains. It may not be easy these days, given exploitative tech companies’ dominance of so many parts of our lives, to achieve real connections with each other. One of the best ways, however, is to put our actual selves out there: not as market commodities, or manipulative tricks, but as real people looking for a little sincere reciprocal attention. 

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