In mid-March, Olivia Atwood half-jokingly put out a call on her Instagram Story to matchmake pairs via blind date phone calls, Love Is Blind-style. She clearly hit a nerve: Since then, the demand has become significant, her success rate steady and impressive, and her algorithm-less matchmaking has taken off. Atwood measures her success by evaluating how many people continue to talk to at least one of their matches for some time or continue to talk to this day, putting her at an 85% success rate. Online, her audience remains invested in the stories of the couples and their phone calls, which she conveys with pseudonymous cartoons she hand draws.
Atwood’s in the process of formalizing her service. This means graduating from the Google Form: Soon, there will be a new, clean website for people to easily submit online and via mobile. Presently, when Atwood moves you off of the waitlist and texts to inform you that she has matches ready for you, it will cost a one-time fee of $10, with all proceeds going to Justice for Breonna Taylor.
We caught up with Atwood to hear about what she’s learned about love, from the vantage point of a virtual matchmaker, over the past five months.
Would you walk me through sort of how this matchmaking project has evolved since the beginning of quarantine?
Olivia Atwood: So when this started, it began as mostly a joke because my friend reached out to me in March: We were laughing and complaining about how it’s really hard to go out right now. She really wanted to get her flirt on, and I was like, “I know what you mean. It’s so hard to do that right now.” She was sick of using dating apps and messaging people endlessly and not creating any kind of deeper connection.
So, as a joke, I said, “Oh, well, what if I posted something on my Instagram and maybe started matching people for blind phone calls?” She said, “Oh, that’d be so funny.” So I threw something on my Instagram, walked away from my phone, came back a couple hours later, and I had 90 DMs in my inbox.
What have I done? I’ve created a monster. So from there, I started matching people. I’ve been organizing it with Google spreadsheets, and it’s really blown up at this point. I’ve now matched about 450 people for these blind phone call dates. It’s become way bigger than I ever intended when I started this back in March. I’m getting submissions from all over the place. I’ve matched people on different continents and across the U.S. Now, in August, it’s still going strong: I just checked this morning, and I have ten new entries.
A locked-down lifestyle facilitates more people being comfortable with talking to prospects that would otherwise make no geographical sense, right?
Yeah, definitely. A lot of people have asked me about the regional niche: If I take you off my waitlist, you’re probably going to get assigned at least three phone calls. One or two of those is going to be someone who’s in your region, but if there’s someone that I really think you might get along with and have a great conversation with, and they’re not in your region, I’m probably still going to toss that phone call in your direction because anything can happen right now.
We’re all pretty much stuck at home, so why not have a conversation with someone across the globe? In one of my most popular couples I post about Instagram, one of them is in Austria and the other one is in Minnesota, and they’ve been talking every single day. They’re basically dating. I think they have plans to meet up. There is talk of plane tickets. I just thought they would really get along. If it’s meant to be, it will be, even though one of them is literally across an ocean.
Wow. Have you learned anything new about chemistry, from your experience matchmaking? Clearly you had sort of a knack for it to begin with, but do you feel like you’ve honed your sense of chemistry in the last couple of months?
I definitely think I’ve gotten a lot better at it, as I’ve gone along. I’ve learned a lot about what’s important from somebody’s submission because I just ask people for three facts about themselves. I’ve learned how to read between lines on the submissions, really deduce people’s tone and what their personalities might be like beyond just what they’ve written for me.
I think the most important thing is that you’re not just texting somebody endlessly. My whole business is based on phone calls: I think that allows you to forge a deeper connection with the person that you’re talking to. In this specific pandemic time, phone calls have become so important and come back as a way to connect with people. I think it really allows for the chemistry to flow in a different way than it would on dating apps where you’re sort of texting endlessly.
It does seem to remove some of the awkwardness of Zoom. There’s something kind of ’90s about talking on the phone.
On a video call, I know that I would just be looking at myself on the video screen and being like, “Oh my God, does my hair look weird? Is my lipstick smudged? Is there something in my teeth?” Whereas this phone call takes it back to the basics and back to the way dating you used to be, just getting to know somebody.
How would you describe the instincts that you have for matchmaking?
The more that friends and family have learned about this, no one is really surprised—I am obsessed with relationships and love and I always have been. I always want to hear about your entire romantic history and your first kiss, and I want to know the whole story and I’m obsessed with matching people up. I guess I didn’t realize that that was so deeply a part of me until now.
I think I learned a lot about people from just how they write their facts. Some are just giving me one word, while others are writing a couple of sentences that are really funny or really seriously telling me about themselves and their passions, or I can learn about them from their use of punctuation. There’s so much information I get from this one submission.
On my submission form, I don’t ask what people are looking for and that’s become important to me. People have asked me why I don’t have people write in what they’re looking for, who they’re attracted to, or the kinds of people they dated in the past. I’ve left that off because, in my own case, I think I’d get in my own way a lot of the time.
Things that you might not think you’re looking for, things you think you’re looking for, I don’t really care. I’m matching you with someone I think you’re going to get along with. Maybe you will, maybe you won’t, but I want you to try to talk to this person without a preconceived idea of whether or not you’re going to get along with them. I think that’s been important with some of the couples that I’ve matched. I mean, I’ve matched a lot of real, live couples.
It’s so smart to un-train people from that robotic way that they use the apps.
Totally. This is removing that tyranny of choice that we’ve all gotten so stuck in with apps of limitless options, so you can keep swiping until you find the exact right person. For me, it’s like, “I’m going to give you a couple of calls and I think one of those probably going to be pretty good and it may not be with someone that you would have expected to talk to, but I think you’re going to have a good conversation.”
I also am kind of relentless about setting my friends up, and I was wondering if you have any advice for the layperson setting up their friends, anything you’ve learned from this experience or your prior experience setting people up?
Your friends don’t really know what they’re looking for. Not to make it too much about me and my personal experience, but my boyfriend that I’m currently dating is not someone I ever have dated in the past. He’s completely different than who I’ve dated before. I think being open to that is huge, because you don’t know, there could be someone out there that you would never expect to be with and you just hit it off with them.
I was talking to a couple of different friends of mine who have matches in more regional-proximity, but also a match who’s across the country. One friend in particular has a match who’s located out west and she’s on the East Coast—I don’t know romantically if there’s much of a spark. I think there was a spark initially and they continued talking. But she’s considering moving out west, and her match was like, “Hey, well, when you’re out here, definitely come crash on my couch, I’ll show you around.” She feels like she has a friend now, across the country. It’s not something you would have seen coming. You might not have thought that you would swipe on someone who’s in a different place than you, but now she has. At best, it’s a romantic connection. At worst, it’s a cool new friend in a different place. I don’t think anyone who originally joined my pool was really expecting to find someone through a random girl’s matchmaking service, and yet people have really connected.
Any funny anecdotes or success stories from recent pairings?
I mean, I’m actually in the process now of going back through all of my pools and counting exactly how many first dates I’ve initiated. It’s a pandemic, so it’s really hard, though people have been meeting up in safe, distant ways: taking walks or hikes in masks, etc. At least a couple of times a week, I get a text or a photograph of a couple that finally met up, at a distance. It’s funny because they’re all wearing masks in the selfies. It makes my day to such an extreme degree when I see these pictures or texts from people.
I had a guy out in Walla Walla, Washington, who was sending care packages of white onions and other Walla Walla produce to one of his matches in New York. That was incredible. There’s a couple doing family game nights with each other’s families over Zoom which I think is really beautiful. I have two couples who are doing the crossword together almost every day.
I’m glad that we did this interview over the phone, so we could get the real sense of what it’s like to be in your pool.
I’ve had people say to me, “Oh, it’s so hard trying to flirt with someone over the phone.” I have never done that. I don’t know what it would be like to be in my own pool. I have no idea. [Ed. note: Olivia did not try to flirt with me!]
This interview was condensed and edited for clarity.
Illustrations by Olivia Atwood.