Stretching the Truth to Find Love Online

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For Scott Birnbaum, finding Tracy Podell was akin to solving a complex math problem.

Mr. Birnbaum, a data-mad web executive looking for love, found himself taking deep dives into the algorithms and user behaviors that drive some of the largest dating websites. He emerged with a solution for gaming the system to his advantage, creating a profile that attracted Ms. Podell, even if it wasn’t entirely accurate.

Mr. Birnbaum, now 39, considers himself to be “a first-adopter” and a life hacker, whose pursuit of an efficient existence through apps and other gizmos can sometimes infect him with paralysis by analysis. “It took me six months to switch phone plans because I was like, which one is the best?” he said.

He readily admits that his initial forays into online dating were lackluster. While living in Seattle, he found that his friends were getting a lot more hits than he was. So he investigated how he could improve his profile and began tinkering with multiple accounts.

“I started noticing that everybody said the same thing in their bio,” he said. “And I was like, well, I’m not going to stand out very much if I do that. I should write profiles that — while they, you know, weren’t necessarily lying — accentuated different parts of things I was interested in.”
This led him to experiment with various personalities on Match.com. In one account, he was a “geek,” selling his interest in computers and reading. In another he was a “hipster,” playing off his encyclopedic knowledge of film and indie rock music.

For another profile, he wondered: “What if I just put out there that I’m like the most successful I’ve ever been? Would I attract a real Type A person?”

“I thought it was a great idea and encouraged it,” said Michael Blend, with whom Mr. Birnbaum had been working at Demand Media, and for whom he now works as a vice president for operations at OpenMail, an email data company in Los Angeles. “Our shared colleague had a saying: ‘Sometimes the best strategy is all strategies.’”

And still, when it came to increasing his page views and dates — whether on Match.com or sites he used to a much lesser degree, like eHarmony and JDate — he remained relatively unsuccessful. But he kept at it.

Mr. Birnbaum, who stands 5 feet 5 inches tall, ultimately determined that the key issue was his height.

“I was working at this company that at its core was all about S.E.O. — search engine optimization,” said Mr. Birnbaum, a native of Austin, Tex. “Thinking about online dating from a search perspective, I’m like, ‘What are people searching for and why am I not showing up in their searches?’ And so one of the filters was this height thing. Women generally want a guy that is taller than them in heels,” he said. “I was getting weeded out by that.”

Inch by inch, he began raising his stature in his profiles until he discovered that 5 feet 8 inches was the search parameter under which even the shortest women were reluctant to dip their glass slippers.
So Mr. Birnbaum continued tweaking his profile on OkCupid, figuring that the height increase was so minimal that people would give him the benefit of the doubt. Of the handful of dates he had using his false stats, he said he never was called out.
As his fake body grew, so did Mr. Birnbaum’s page views. “Fundamentally, people exaggerate all of the time,” he said, “and they present an idealized version of what they think they are.”

That’s when Ms. Podell, an online content marketer and sometime actress in Los Angeles, who is 4 feet 11 inches, reached out to him in 2012 on OkCupid, ostensibly wanting restaurant suggestions for a trip she had planned.

Ms. Podell, now 32, sensed Mr. Birnbaum was different. For one, she liked his profile.

“He had longish hair at that point, so there was this lovely combination of like, ‘I have a great job and also I look a little bit like I’d be at a concert with you,’” she said. Of his thoughtfully rendered reply and its spot-on restaurant picks, she said, “I was like, ‘ahhmazing.’ He did it the way I do. I have my New York restaurant email that I send to people.”

Mr. Birnbaum said, “I probably overwhelmed her because that’s just sort of my nature.”

A first date soon followed at the Churchill, a gastropub in Los Angeles. Mr. Birnbaum was sitting on a bar stool and stood up to greet Ms. Podell when she walked in. Even from her diminutive perspective, she was quite sure Mr. Birnbaum was shorter than advertised, but she waited until a couple of dates later to press him on the topic. She focused instead on his personality.

Scanning the menu, she said: “He was like, ‘All right, I would have this, this, this, this, this. Which ones do you want? And I was like, ‘Fantastic — someone who’s decisive.’”

Considering the misses she had experienced in her own extensive online dating, Ms. Podell had the capacity to be forgiving with Mr. Birnbaum. She recalled how one of her online dates had made a wayward joke about Asperger’s Syndrome after learning that one of her sisters had it, and another went off to Spain for a couple of months after spending a blissful time with her, and she never heard from him again.

On their third date, Mr. Birnbaum invited her for a swim at the Hollywood Hills bachelor pad he shared with a bunch of guys. Unbeknown to her, it was his birthday.

At one point she teasingly asked him, “You’re not 5-foot- 8, are you?”

He got quiet, and then came clean.

She let it go. “I think I just enjoyed making him squirm a little bit,” said Ms. Podell, a native of Short Hills, N.J., and an N.Y.U. graduate who had moved to Los Angeles in 2010 to pursue acting.

For her, the height requirement she had set on OkCupid represented nothing more than her desire to be with someone taller. “Many of the guys I had dated prior were rather tall,” she said. “My two-year ex out of college was 6-foot-5.”

As for Mr. Birnbaum’s own tall tale, she said: “I understood the reasoning and I thought it was funny. It’s not like he was doing something bad or wrong. If anything, it probably made me more attracted to him, because it was smart and it worked. It showed he was pretty capable.”
For Ms. Podell, a child of musical theater who studied at an early age under Juilliard graduates, inhabiting other personalities is not a foreign concept. “When I was 9, my favorite musical was ‘Falsettos,’” she said. “I saw ‘Rent’ on my 13th birthday, in previews, and then I saw it like 12 times.”
“Having had to lie about my age for acting for so many years, and understanding what it means to hustle and to work every angle, I don’t think there’s anything immoral about it,” she said, referring to Mr. Birnbaum’s conceit.

Later that afternoon in the pool, they shared their first kiss.

As Ms. Podell transitioned from acting to becoming a marketing director at the streaming network Pluto TV, she and Mr. Birnbaum bonded over digital culture. They discovered a mutual affinity for podcasts like “WTF With Marc Maron” and “99% Invisible,” and the comedians Amy Schumer and Louis C.K. They like to travel, venturing to Nicaragua and Cuba, with a honeymoon planned in South Africa and Botswana.

The couple discovered that they have overlaps in their family histories; both come from Jewish families with Texas roots.

Upon hearing about Mr. Birnbaum, Ms. Podell’s mother, Patricia Podell, a Dallas native now living with her husband in Morristown, N.J., immediately called her Texas cousins and said: “Tracy met this guy and this is his name and he’s from Austin. And my first cousin said: ‘Oh no, the Birnbaums aren’t from Austin, they’re from San Antonio. I know all of them. They were in my fraternity at the University of Texas and this and that.’ He goes on and on.”

Both Ms. Podell and Mr. Birnbaum consider the same moment in 2013, about seven months into their relationship, a defining point in their development, but for different reasons.

They attended a concert at the Hollywood Palladium celebrating the release of Dave Grohl’s “Sound City” documentary. Mr. Birnbaum, a die-hard music fan with a Pitchfork sensibility, discovered to his dismay that Ms. Podell had never heard of one of the night’s performers, John Fogerty, nor his former band, Creedence Clearwater Revival.

Ms. Podell remembered this disconnect leading to an argument shortly before they left the venue. “In the middle of fighting, he was like, ‘You know I love you, right?’ And I was like, ‘Oh, I love you, too.’” It was then that Mr. Birnbaum had an epiphany: his future wife didn’t need to share his appetite for music.

They moved in together six months later.

This past Valentine’s Day, they congregated under a canopy in front of the Barr Mansion, an old Victorian house on the northeastern outskirts of Austin, where, per Jewish tradition, Ms. Podell approached Mr. Birnbaum and circled him.

Jeffrey Yoskowitz, Ms. Podell’s childhood friend who became a Universal Life minister for the occasion, welcomed the “small and loyal clan of Texas Jews” and performed what the bride described as a “Jew-ish” ceremony.

During the ceremony he acknowledged that Ms. Podell, his theater-loving friend, had taught him “more about ‘Rent’ than any middle schoolboy should know.” He then touched upon the humility of the bride and the groom, conceding, “You even joke together about being short.”
Later that evening, Mr. Birnbaum and Ms. Podell participated in the hora, seated for a moment high above everyone else during the dance.

The groom’s father, Robert Birnbaum, a lawyer in San Antonio, explained their matrimony like this: “It took creative marketing on my son’s part in order to get there. But you’ve got to get them in the door to make the sale.”

By MICHAEL HOINSKI

Source New York Times

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