Justin Saglio/Harvard Staff

Campus & Community

Matchmaker, matchmaker put me in your algorithm

4 min read

Datamatch celebrates its 25th Valentine’s Day and its expansion to two dozen colleges nationwide

Some say the food of love is, well, actual food. The free kind, to be exact.

Teddy Liu and Ryan Lee have heard this a lot. They share the title of Supreme Cupid at Datamatch, a student-run online matchmaking service, which pairs Harvard students for a date and hooks them up with freebies at a participating local restaurant on their special day.

“People claim they do it for the free food, but I’m very certain it’s the excuse they give people for the connection,” said Lee, a senior concentrating in computer science who lives in Eliot House. “Deep down everyone is looking for that connection, and our participation rate across Harvard, which is about 80 percent, proves that.”

And it’s not just Harvard anymore. This Valentine’s Day, Datamatch will celebrate its 25th running as well as a nationwide expansion to more than two dozen colleges and universities. From its beginnings in 1994 as a side project of the Harvard Computer Society, armed with a paper questionnaire, the matchmaking service now has a staff of 30 with the love connections made by a complex algorithm that looks at personal profiles and answers to 20 multiple-choice questions.

Vice Cupid Catherine Tu, whose responsibilities include overseeing the question writing, said they must strike a humorous tone, and are meant to explore different parts of students’ personality. Among favorite past questions: If your flirting style is an app, what would it be? and I scream. You scream. We all scream for [fill in the blank].

“My favorite question in recent memory is: Which is your favorite whale noise? And it was followed with five different ‘Wooooh!’ sounds,” Lee said. “So that’s kind of the vein of the questions — quirky, fun.”

Two men sitting on stools.
Woman sitting on stool in front of computer screen.

Ryan Lee and Teddy Liu share the title of Supreme Cupid at Datamatch, with Catherine Tu holding the title of Vice Cupid.

As anticipated and beloved as Girl Scout cookies (which also appear only once a year for a short time), Datamatch works like this: A week before Valentine’s Day, the site launches with questions customized for each school. Students can opt for romantic or platonic matches, and have a week to complete the survey. The site closes at midnight Feb. 14, and a few hours later 10 matches arrive in participants’ inboxes.

At Harvard up to three top matches for a student are considered “dates of destiny,” and, as such, eligible for a free date at a sponsoring restaurant in Harvard Square.

“When you think about what makes students want to do things, some might think, ‘Why do it?’” Tu said. “ I think the free food gets people in, especially if they’re a little embarrassed. The fact that we have an incentive is one of the most important parts of bringing people together.”

“My favorite question in recent memory is: Which is your favorite whale noise? And it was followed with five different ‘Wooooh!’ sounds.”

Ryan Lee ’20, Supreme Cupid

Added Lee: “Everyone has that secret crush on campus, and they have fingers crossed when results come out that that certain person pops up.”

Liu, who lives in Pforzheimer House, hopes the participant rate hits six figures this year, a milestone that seem a suitable reward for all of the computer science concentrator’s lost sleep.

“At Harvard, about 5,000 students will participate,” he said. “There’s a lot of buildup and hype to it, aura and mystique.”

At the heart (pun intended) of Datamatch is the secret algorithm, which is overseen by senior Daniel Qu, who serves as Algorithm Cupid.

“I’m not sure about the previous algorithm, but we pretty much rewrote it from scratch last year,” said the Mather House resident concentrating in mathematics and statistics. “I’ve always been interested in this type of work. These ideas come grounded in theory, and then you can apply it in real life. People think it’s highly random, but I can assure you that’s not the case.”

Success stories are anecdotal — Tu said she knows a couple who are seriously dating after meeting on Datamatch, and reportedly two engagements have come from the site — but Lee knows how well it works firsthand.

“I was into this girl, and on Datamatch we both matched for each other,” said the self-described hopeless romantic. “Our first date was Valentine’s Day at Russell House Tavern, and we’ve been dating ever since. I owe a lot to this club.”