It’s Valentine’s Day. With that declaration comes a slew of reactions. For the lucky ones in relationships, a day dedicated to romance promises nothing but delight. For others, the opportunity to commiserate with friends over a day serving the capitalist machine thinly veiled under a layer of sentimentality — because love is dead, to hell with romance! — will be one more reason to let loose for the day.
Whether the names of Pal-entine’s or Single’s Awareness Day strikes a chord or a nerve, there are plenty in Oxford who are single and, perhaps despite a streak of cynicism, wanting to change that. Even if you don’t believe in love, you can believe in companionship. Finding someone out there that understands you on a multitude of levels is a deeply attractive concept. Even for those who scrunch their nose at the idea of romantic love, being understood by a like-minded soul is a much more fundamental craving. Someone who you don’t need to explain and qualify your every viewpoint to. A person who just gets it.
And even if it isn’t that deep, who wouldn’t like a back-up marriage option some decades down the line?
Enter: the Oxford Marriage Pact. Bringing to mind time-killing quizzes of Buzzfeed renown, the Oxford Marriage Pact adds the goal of finding the most like-minded match to be your back-up spouse for willing participants within Oxford University. All you need is to supply your email and ten to fifteen minutes of your day. Unless, of course, you get your friends and have a group-think on the Pact’s questions.
The Oxford Marriage Pact, though kicking up dust this Hilary, is not gracing the university’s singles for the first time. Introduced last year in 2019, the Oxford Marriage Pact was the brainchild of Magdalen undergraduate Oz Myerson, who established the Marriage Pact from its original parents in Stanford.
“They made a Stanford Marriage Pact a couple years ago, and I knew the person that ran it,” he says.
As a friend who had asked him plenty of questions last year when he similarly holed up in his room to get the Marriage Pact up and running, it’s easy to get Oz’s audience. We settle in his college room overlooking St. Swithun’s quad after dinner. with the romantic holiday looming over the horizon, I steadily work through his proffered Lotus biscuits as we chat about the Oxford Marriage Pact.
“I just basically asked to bring it over here, pitched it to them saying that I think Oxford is the best place for it. Lots of lonely people. People that don’t really leave their college environment very often.”
I don’t know if it’s my sense of humour, but Oz’s depiction of the Oxford populace as a promising lonesome market has me holding back a chuckle. But there’s not a hint of malice in his remark; for him, it’s a simple observation from which he saw opportunity for students to connect with others. With Stanford deciding to expand the Marriage Pact as a business in the US, the Oxford Marriage Pact in the UK has fallen off of the original founders’ consideration. This leaves Oz heading Oxford’s own version with a thoughtful goal.
“So as a way to meet like-minded people from other colleges, I thought it’d be a really fun thing to do, and that might get lots of traction.”
Might translated into did for Oz’s idea. Around 2200 students signed up for the Oxford Marriage Pact last year. Considering that Oxford University offers ~3300 undergraduate places and ~5500 graduate places each year, the number makes up a significant fraction of the student population.
It’s a high standard to pass for this year’s turnout, but Oz is determined for the Pact to do better than last year. With that in mind, I ask him more about the content of the Marriage Pact and what about it has changed from last year.
“The questions have been updated and revamped. So has the algorithm. It’s been updated to be better and more efficient than last year. But that’s all done by Ioan, my partner.”
Ioan Vevera, a computer scientist from Magdalen as well, is in charge of the algorithm this year. Where last year saw more of a port from the Stanford Marriage Pact’s algorithm, Ioan is writing a new and improved one for this year’s rollout. My curiosity gets piqued by the questions being updated and the overall workings of the Marriage Pact.
“The questions are basically made to be as divisive as possible. You can click anywhere from a one-to-six scale of how much you agree or disagree with a statement. The idea is that you only have six options and therefore you have to swing more towards one side of the other, necessarily.
But beyond that, they’re designed to encourage people to actually go to extremes — to either totally agree or disagree with something. So a lot of focus goes into making sure that those questions achieve that.”
All in all, though, it’s a matter of matching numbers across participants as closely as possible.
“If you put a four down for something, it’ll ideally match you with someone who also puts a four down for that question. And if you can’t do that, it’ll look for someone who puts either a five or three. And if you can’t do that, it’ll go six or two. And finally, one. It’s all about optimising for that ‘perfect match’.”
Oz makes a point of the air quotation marks he adds around the phrase. Because in comes the disclaimer straight from the horse’s mouth: the Oxford Marriage Pact is specifically not for romance.
“The questions themselves are chosen on topics that we think will create a good match, but not a good romantic match. It currently isn’t for love. This is for a marriage pact.” The way Oz states it is very matter-of-fact. “We’re here finding your backup plan for 20 years from now, and you’re single. Alone, still — like I expect to be — and are desperate to just find someone who vaguely agrees with you on various things that can, you know, raise kids with you.”
The sardonic tone remains consistent for Oz’s humour and the aims of the Oxford Marriage Pact. Though I can guess what he has to say, I ask about how the Marriage Pact differentiates itself from digital dating apps like Tinder despite the run-up to Valentine’s Day. It’s what a computer decides who you would get along with, and maybe not want to kill, or vague about on social media.
“Love is kind of disgusting, in my opinion. I don’t believe in the concept.” Oz pulls off cynicism well, and it’s lighthearted enough to have me burst out laughing. “That’s mostly a joke, but I definitely think that the Marriage Pact is not about love.”
In its initial usage in Stanford, out of a sample size of 4000, a quarter ended up going on their first date. But with dates and romantic matchmaking out of the official picture, Oz’s vision has the Pact’s purpose as more free-for-all.
“People get a match who is hopefully eerily similar to them in their values. Specifically not in their looks or height or anything like that,” he says, which casts aside any comparison to every photo-dependent dating app students can get their hands on. “It’s purely based on their political views, their views on family, their views on relationships, and things like that. What they do with that information is up to them.
“All joking aside, it really is about just making those connections with people you might not meet, but who are similar to you. And often people say that likes attract. That might lead to something, and might not. You have a Facebook friend; might meet them. And hopefully it’s a fun process in the first place anyway.”
The lack of love might help one of the biggest draws of the Oxford Marriage Pact, in that friends can get in on it in a single sitting.
“What’s nice about the Marriage Pact is that it’s just fun to do, even if you remove the whole finding-a-match bit. If this is just a Buzzfeed quiz, that’d be interesting. Questions about your views of the world, and what you think, and everything from kinky sex to abortion to Brexit. And not necessarily in that order.
“It’s really just about getting you to think about yourself and your priorities, and I think people enjoy doing it by themselves or with friends. I was speaking to someone today who was saying how they had a blast yesterday with their whole friend group. About six people sat around a table over dinner and did it altogether. Apparently they got quite heated discussion over various divisive topics, which is exactly the purpose.”
It’s funny to consider how the Pact can bring out a hidden side to people in Oz’s experience. “You will discover things that you never thought you could about some of your closest friends and their various, slightly terrifying opinions.”
“I think it’s a fun process, and then you have the nice little bonus at the end of finding someone like-minded.”
Whether it’s a person’s antidote for loneliness or an excuse to liven up a dinner, the Oxford Marriage Pact ought to promise entertainment and food for thought like its previous iteration. Despite the Pact’s success, though, the nature of the numbers translated into some problems for Oz’s algorithmic matchmaker the year before.
“We ended up with about 1000 matches because we had an imbalance of genders. We had a couple hundred of people who were on a waiting list at the end, unfortunately.”
The gender imbalance took into account the stated romantic and sexual preferences of the participants of the Marriage Pact. I’d heard and seen plenty of Oz’s advertising efforts to get people to join the Marriage Pact, and it seems that serves a practical purpose as well.
“The more people you have, the better matches you can make,” he confirms. “Ultimately, and beyond that, we do try to encourage gender balance as much as possible. Although our power in that regard is unfortunately limited. It’s kind of up to the participants.
“Last year, for the waiting lists, we had more women than men who signed up, and therefore the last hundreds of women who signed up were unable to find a match. Which is unfortunate, but you can only do so much; it’s about having a balance.”
It makes all the more sense to get as many people on the Marriage Pact bandwagon as possible, which he is still encouraging people to do. Ultimately, Oz envisages the Pact to be the perfect, post-Valentine’s activity for those afraid of being alone on the future (and yes, I was allowed to quote him on this).
“I think that Valentine’s Day — much like New Year’s Day — is one of the roughest days of the year for many people, and the Marriage Pact is actually just quite a fun way to get your mind off things. To give you a bit of hope, a bit of enjoyment.
“We’re explicitly not here for the love. We’re here for the fun, enjoyment, and getting through this bizarre experience of Oxford together.”
The Oxford Marriage Pact is releasing match results early in Week 5, which promises a quick turnaround for those filling out the quiz on the 15th. For the inquisitive that want a link, you can fill out the quiz here at bit.ly/TheMarriagePactHype.
Quotes from the interview have been lightly edited for clarity.