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‘Everyone is suffering with dating.’ Can this Provo-born matchmaking service help?

With 65 questions and 4 matches, Matchmaker University tries to be a force for good in the anxious world of dating

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Eliza Anderson, Deseret News

In January 2021, Chloë Vann was a senior at Brigham Young University and determined to get a head start on her career. She planned to graduate with a degree in advertising and pursue a job in the publishing or makeup industry, which would likely mean leaving Provo.

But as Vann was considering her options, her roommate suggested filling out a survey that brimmed with promise: Based on the answers, a new matchmaking algorithm would match Vann with four young men — the most suitable matches from BYU, selected specifically for her by the algorithm. “I was like, OK, fine,” Vann said. “What’s the worst that can happen?” 

In the past, Vann had tried dating apps, but she thought the online interactions and ensuing dates lacked depth and meaning. “You match with so many people, and you have a lot of conversations at the exact same time,” she said. “It’s all very repetitive, and it’s hard to make a deeper connection.”

Matchmaker University, the algorithm-driven service that’s taken off at BYU and Utah Valley University, was different. It promised relief from the slog of endless swiping and would take care of selecting and even vetting the matches for her. 

Sitting on a couch with their laptops, Vann and her sister embarked on a 65-question survey that seemed to span every aspect of sharing a life together, from big-life questions to seemingly absurd ones. Where do you lie on the political spectrum? How often do you bear your testimony? What drugs and other substances do you feel fine consuming? How many piercings are acceptable?

The survey and the matchmaking algorithm was the work of Chris Moffitt, a 25-year-old software engineer and Latter-day Saint, who says he really just wants to help people build relationships. “The dating apps out there are predominantly based on looks, which can be stressful for people, and it can lead to superficial connections. It’s also really time-consuming,” said Moffitt, who got his graduate and undergraduate degrees from Stanford and now lives in New York City. “We wanted to make something based on things that mattered in a relationship, and take some competitiveness and stress out of the process.” 

In the past year, users of dating apps and sites across the country have reported mixed experiences. According to 2023 Pew Research findings, nearly 54% of women using dating apps or websites in the U.S. feel overwhelmed by the amount of messages they receive, while the men report feeling insecure due to lack of messages. The divide between users reporting positive and negative experiences splits close to the middle, slightly skewed toward positive (53% positive and 46% negative). 

But Vann’s experience with Matchmaker University was ultimately positive.

In the first week of February 2021, her matches arrived in her inbox. The first man told Vann he’d just started dating someone in his Latter-Day Saint congregation. She heard nothing from the second match. The third one, however, a sophomore majoring in chemical engineering named Cameron, seemed quite sweet when he messaged her on Instagram: “Hey Chloë, I got the honor of being matched with you for the Provo Matchmaker thing. How are you?” 

How did Matchmaker University start?

After Stanford University shut down in the spring of 2020, Moffitt, who was a student there, went to Arizona and then Puerto Rico for a while before moving to Provo that fall with two other friends from school. Living in Provo for the first time, he was immediately struck by the different way people approached dating.

“The dating culture in Provo is unlike anywhere else, for sure,” he said. “People are looking to find someone to commit to, and I think that’s motivated by faith and culture.” Moffitt had heard of matchmaking services emerging across campuses — there was one at Stanford, even though nobody took it seriously, he said. ”We thought, what if we brought the matchmaking idea to Provo where dating is taken more seriously?” 

So as COVID-19 persisted, intensifying our natural longing for connection, Moffitt and his friends launched the first version of Matchmaker University in October 2020. To get out the word, they put up flyers and advertised the site on social media. The response surprised Moffitt. A thousand people filled out the survey on the first night; soon, 4,000 people had.

“People were excited to have this outlet during the pandemic and it really drove the interest,” said Moffitt. Since that first round, more than 10,000 people have filled out the survey and received their matches. The next round of matchmaking kicks off Nov. 15.

The way that the algorithm works, Moffitt explains, is by matching people based on two categories of questions. One is based on “preferred” personality traits — 22 of them are listed — and how much they matter to you. “When we match, it’s both: are you similar in these areas that matter? And do you have the things that people are looking for?” Moffitt says.

The other questions deal with compatibility when it comes to family and children, education, finances, political views, religious commitment and other values. Moffitt said his work was influenced by a research paper that explored how compatibility works; he modeled the list of similarity categories in the algorithm on the one in the study. “A lot of people think that opposites attract, but there is a lot of research out there that shows that the more similar you are, the better (it is) for a relationship,” Moffitt told me.

Up until recently, the algorithm didn’t take physical preferences into account, but Moffitt wanted to incorporate this preference without it being “demeaning or dehumanizing.” So the most recent survey includes the question: “What are your three top celebrity crushes?”

Moffitt, who has a “day” job in software engineering, works on Matchmaker University with his wife, a graphic designer, and a few friends from Stanford and BYU. Regardless of whether the matches result in lifelong love, Moffitt wants Matchmaker to be a builder of social connections and something fun that friends and roommates can do together. The survey itself is a light-hearted glimpse into Provo culture and may appear foreign to the uninitiated — think pickleball, Afuego Fridays and NCMOs, i.e., “noncommittal make-out.” Plus, participating is not going to break the bank: Everyone gets their first match free — the rest you can unlock for $3 each or four for $10. 

What are the odds of finding love on an app?

As Vann and her match Cameron began chatting on Instagram, they made plans to meet in real life. Vann sent Cameron a list of date ideas: soap making, cake decorating, an art night, a pickleball game. Although Cameron wasn’t artsy, he picked the art night. “I was impressed that he wanted to try something that he wasn’t good at, but I was good at,” she said.

When Vann mentioned she didn’t like being up late, Cameron suggested a Saturday afternoon date. For their first date, they made paintings on 3x3-inch canvases using Bob Ross’s “Joy of Painting” YouTube videos. As they chatted, they found they both loved playing Super Smash Bros. “I felt like this person understood me right off the bat,” Vann said. Two weeks later, they had a “defining the relationship talk” and officially confirmed their girlfriend-boyfriend status. Later, Vann was able to get a remote job based in Missouri. The two got married in April 2022 and now live in American Fork.

Moffitt says he knows of about 20 couples that got married or engaged to someone they met through Matchmaker University, and says about one-third of all the participants went on a date with a match.

So numerically, those aren’t the greatest odds, but they worked for Vann. “We’re actually building something that’s impacting people’s lives in the biggest way possible,” Moffitt told me. “The biggest choice you’re ever going to make is who you’re going to marry — that’s just the truth.”

But the gravity of this decision has also created a lot of anxiety around dating, says Tom Robinson, an advertising professor at BYU. He has heard over and over from his students that they were staying home on Friday nights. “What I found out was that everybody was afraid of the word dating,” Robinson told me. “Nobody’s doing it, because they’re scared to death of it.” And this stress is not exclusive to Latter-day Saints, Robinson added. “Everyone is suffering from dating.”

His advice to young people can sound counterintuitive: “Quit thinking about marriage —dating is not about marriage.” To help students, Robinson launched a podcast, “Dating Made Simple,” where along with a co-host, he interviews relationship experts, evangelizing with a simple message — just go out to dinner and get to know each other, without “futurizing” the encounter, as one of Robinson’s podcast guests said.

‘Anyone can serve up an ideal match’

Now that they’re married, Vann sees the benefit of being on the same page with Cameron on big things, as well as small. “We still have disagreements, but on key things like religion and future plans, we are very similar, which I didn’t feel with people I met on dating apps,” she said.

Eventually, she also began to see their differences as complementary: she’s more driven by intuition and emotion, while Cameron is analytical, often probing her to question her assumptions. “It wasn’t what I was looking for when I was dating, but it helps me grow in that way and see things from a different perspective,” she said. 

This kind of willingness to adapt and learn in a relationship is just as important as having the “right” match, said Amy Seal of Latter-Day Matchmaker, a boutique professional matchmaking service, which works like a “dating consulting firm,” according to the company’s website.

Just finding a seemingly perfect match is only the starting point. “Anyone can serve up an ideal match, but it’s not going to get my clients married,” said Seal, who has a database of about 8,000 Latter-Day Saint singles. In any successful relationship, both parties need to put in the work, she says, which is why she requires her clients to work with a dating coach to help understand the client’s attachment style, learn about their background and behavior patterns, and understand how to build a healthy relationship. 

Unlike Matchmaker University, the barrier to entry for Seal’s services is high: the paid services start at $3,500 and VIP male clients pay $10,000, while women can sign up for free. The package involves Seal fully taking a client under her wing: She’ll even go through her client’s wardrobe and take them to the mall for a make-over. “I love helping people understand their worth because a lot of times they’re beaten down and they don’t see it themselves,” Seal said. She recently started a new service, Matchmaking Saints, to help friends and family members become matchmakers on behalf of someone they know well. “People say they hate online dating, but if there was someone who could do it for me, I would love that,” she said.

In addition to matchmaking, other alternatives are popping up for people looking for love.

Ditto, a video speed-dating app, offers a series of four-minute dates for people from the same geographic area who will log on at the same time for a speed-dating event. “The modern dating apps aren’t able to capture who a human being is because of the way they’re constructed,” said Greg Wheeler, a co-founder and CEO of Ditto, which was launched during the pandemic. The static-based profile model is limiting and it sets up people for disappointment, he says.

“When you’re swiping there could be that one tiny thing in their profile — maybe a picture of them catching a fish. It’s so miniscule, but can lead to the person being disregarded,” Wheeler said. A brief video call is more effective in establishing mutual attraction, and, ideally, you only need one before going on a date. So far, Ditto has done speed dating with a range of religious and ethnic communities in large cities: Jewish, Sikh, Hindu, South Asian. Latter-Day Saint singles are next. And on Nov. 30, Ditto and Matchmaker University will join forces to host a joint virtual speed-dating event for BYU, UVU and BYU-Idaho students. 

Vann acknowledges that the Matchmaker algorithm didn’t work as well for her roommates and sister. One roommate’s matches didn’t reach out to her at all. Vann’s sister started chatting with a match, but he eventually ghosted her. “It’s tough, because it really worked for me,” Vann said.

Her co-workers, too, talk about their frustration with dating apps all the time, she says. “They would prefer to meet someone in a different way or in person,” she says. “But how do you go about doing that?”