James Bewley sat in the dank, halogen-illuminated subterranean cafeteria of his suburban Philadelphia high school. It was Valentine’s Day 1991, and the 15-year-old’s hands, clammy and shaking, held onto a red envelope containing the results of a test that threatened to direct the rest of his young life. “I can distinctly remember opening the results, the paper was red with hearts and had that just-out-of-a-dot-matrix-printer quality,” recalls Bewley, now 46 and living in Brooklyn.
The heart-stamped paper Bewley was about to unfurl presented results from a personality test that determined the romantic compatibility between him and his fellow classmates. “We had to fill out the questionnaire on some old computers, and then they told you the matches would be ready in a few weeks,” he tells me. “It took forever, just long enough to have totally forgotten about it.”
To be sure, this early version of a dating app wasn’t unique to Bewley’s high school. Thanks to Twitter, it’s become abundantly clear that high school kids across the country were beholden to newfangled matchmaking software throughout the early 1990s and 2000s.
There were a few companies that provided similar programs, but one worth highlighting is Computer-Fun.com, a prehistoric website that remains active today. Though I was unable to reach anyone who could provide insight into the company’s operation, it’s relatively easy to see why those who engaged in Computer Fun’s matchmaking program have vivid memories of sweating out the test in their school computer lab.
Beyond typical questions about being an introvert or extrovert, some questions posed to students include, “DO YOU BELIEVE THAT WOMEN SHOULD WORK (OUTSIDE THE HOME) AFTER THEY ARE MARRIED?”; and “IF THIS COUNTRY WERE TO SUFFER AN UNPROVOKED NUCLEAR ATTACK AND WOULD BE TOTALLY OBLITERATED IN A MATTER OF MINUTES, WOULD YOU FAVOR UNLEASHING THE U.S. NUCLEAR ARSENAL UPON THE ATTACKERS?”
To get a better idea of the test’s caps-locked, staunchly heteronormative and sometimes off-putting questions, feel free to peruse this questionnaire, made from 33 real questions handpicked from Computer Fun’s question depository. Moreover, Computer Fun’s website also includes instructions for organizers to “decide if teachers can participate with students or only other teachers,” adding that sometimes teachers use “fake names such as Donald Duck.”
Thankfully, nobody I talked to recalls that happening at their high school, but that didn’t make things any easier on them. “I remember having a lot of anxiety about what the test results would be. It made some friendships awkward because it was like someone saying to both of you, ‘You should be dating!’” adds Emily Nissen, who graduated high school in 2005. “Why were they encouraging these relationships in high school anyway?”
Posited as a fundraising tool, Computer Fun advised school administrators and teachers to enlist students to take their quizzes, and then have them pay for the results to see who they “matched” with. According to Sam Posnick, who recalls taking the matchmaking test several times throughout her high school career in Canada, the tests were always a hit with students. “It was very clever because this was also the era of teen magazines and their personality quizzes were so hot,” she explains. “I think we paid $5 for the results, but my graduating class was several hundred people. And if most students within all grades take it, that’s a lot of money.”
“You had students who earnestly filled it out, and then you had people like my boyfriend, who was a year above me at my high school, and just told me he ‘filled it out randomly to screw with people,’” explains Hannah Dellabella, who graduated high school in 2010. “My graduating class was only 150 students, and you knew everyone who showed up on your matchmaker list, so things got pretty awkward.”
“There’s no way they were doing anything more complex than matching people who answered the same,” says Posnick. “I always just pictured them feeding the questionnaire into those giant IBM computers in a warehouse, and when mine went in, the machine started smoking and a blinking ‘NERD — NO COMPATIBILITY’ alarm went off.”
“I knew that I didn’t ‘like’ anybody the way everyone around me did, but I didn’t know the word ‘asexual’ until at least senior year,” says Carly, who graduated high school in Pennsylvania in 2010. “So those compatibility tests were extra weird because I had absolutely no frame of reference for them. And not really knowing or understanding that I was aromantic and asexual, there was always this sort of anxiety with these things that somebody might see it as an invitation to talk to me.”
As for Bewley, the day he picked up that red envelope in his cafeteria is one he’ll never forget. “I had just started dating my high school girlfriend, so this seemed like a fun/potentially dangerous Valentine’s Day activity,” he says.
Bewley’s girlfriend joined him at the lunch table that fateful day, but when he opened his results, she wasn’t his number-one match. “I don’t think she even made the list, which became a whole separate issue,” he says. But it got even worse when he saw that his top match was his “arch-nemesis,” who Bewley describes as “a girl I loathed, and who loathed me right back.”
Somehow, though, Computer Fun gave them a 91-percent match. “I couldn’t stand her; I’m honestly getting irritated just thinking about her now,” Bewley continues. “It’s hard to describe that feeling of being matched with your complete opposite. For a minute you think, Wait, could the test have been right? Would my nemesis and I have been well suited for one another?” he says. “But as it turns out, per social media, she’s someone I still disagree with on almost everything, so the answer was clearly no. The test was garbage.”
Bewley and his girlfriend continued dating into college, but broke up soon thereafter. Notably, however, Bewley’s second highest compatibility match that day was someone who continues to be his best friend. “She’s still one of my closest friends, but there was never any spark there romantically,” he says. “So I’m not sure what exactly the test was working from. If anything, it all goes to show that no matter how good the algorithms get, there’s still no substitute for meeting someone in real life — because that chemical charge between two people can’t really be captured by a dot-matrix printer.”