“You can imagine the look on the poor lawyer’s face who first worked on this with us. Bless you, Jason. You deserved every penny.”
Jade Young was a problem solver.
Her joke, for example, the one people remember. She did not stumble upon it organically. She was not a natural comedian. But when faced with hostile or indifferent crowds, before her money and success made every crowd attentive if still at times hostile, she learned to open with a laugh.
“Three people look at a glass of water,” she’d begin.
“An optimist. A pessimist. And an engineer.”
Knowing smiles. Soft laughter. Pleased, she continues.
“The optimist looks at the glass and says, ‘Wonderful! It’s half full.’
“The pessimist looks at the glass and says, ‘Not at all! It’s half empty.’
And the engineer just shrugs and says, ‘The glass is twice as big as it needs to be.”
As an engineer, I liked this joke. All of us did. It reassured us that we saw clarity and elegance where others saw emotions and argument. It also served to humanize Jade, who was all clarity and elegance, sometimes to a fault.
So she jokes. We laugh. We’re reminded of our genius. She’s transformed into someone manageable. Ha. Ha. Ha. What a cool girl. Like I said, Jade was a problem solver. But I digress:
“What is the biggest issue with dating?” she’d say after the half-laughter, half-applause of the crowd’s delighted agreement died down. “Not meeting people. We’ve solved that. Anyone can open up their phone and talk to 20 different strangers at once. Not finding people who share your interests. We’ve solved that too. The space is almost too granular, too diversified in where our users can go.
“The issue, I believe, is that everything we’ve done up until now more or less replicates how we’d meet people anyway. No one’s adding any value because they’re not solving the real problem.
“So,” she’d say. “What is the real problem?”
She’d pause here, and take a deep breath. I’ve watched one video of her delivering this talk a lot. She’s at a big conference, and the room is bathed in banks of dim spotlights the day-glo green of cartoon aliens. And at this moment, the-pause-and-take-a-deep-breath-moment, the camera cuts to the crowd.
I am in that audience, although you only see me for a second and then only from a distance, and even then you can’t really tell it’s me, so completely am I camouflaged by the surrounding crowd of other soft young men.
But my presence in it aside, it’s this single flickering shot that I love best. I can see, in the looks on our neon-shadowed faces, the prior moment’s smug, invincible geniuses fade away. And left behind are not engineers but people, men, soft young men, whose clarity has failed to quell their anger, whose hopes have fallen on deaf hearts, who have looked at their proverbial glasses of water and wondered, in their most private moments, why their own seemed so empty, and others’ so full.
Then they cut back to Jade and — not every time she gave the talk, but in this first recorded version of it — she smiles. She is right to. She has us.
I am proud of her anew every time I watch it. It reduces me to cliché. I feel that I am there. I feel that she is still here. I feel that it is ten years ago and I am holding my breath, praying the next slide works, digesting that morning’s breakfast we had all shared, the whole team, of cold coffee and Clif Bars, and still feeling in my arms the tensed tendons of her shoulders when I had hugged her earlier that day and told her she would be great. She was. She is. Great.
“The real problem,” she says, “is honesty.”
The Truly logo glows into being behind her and I close the video before anyone (though who would care?) can see what I’m watching.
Here is what Jade actually saw as our real problem: Cowardice.
Any miscommunication between partners or prospective partners was borne, in Jade’s eyes, out of fear. If you say you want kids when you really don’t? Fear. If you say you’ll text when you never will? Fear. To lie and boast on your dating profile or in your love life or even (especially) during sex turns out to be the most normal, most human thing imaginable. So to Jade, the solution was clear: Eliminate the human.
Truly is – and we fought about this in the early days – a game of emotional chicken. Users have to give it everything. Truly (ha ha) everything. We suck up your Amazon receipts. Your Instagram feed. Your profile and posts on every other inferior app you’d ever used. Then all of your emails. And your chats. And your texts. The more you give, the better it works. (You can imagine the look on the poor lawyer’s face who first worked on this with us. Bless you, Jason. You deserved every penny.)
Everyone assumed, at first, that users would be reluctant to do this but the opposite turned out to be true. Here, finally, was something that did more than match you with mates or fuck buddies or bad dates. It told you who you were. It was the Sorting Hat. It was Excalibur. It was right there in the name. It told the truth.
Personality traits were graded like a GPA on a 4.0 scale (Funny – 3.4, Smart – 3.9, Easy-Going 2.1). This system wasn’t a deliberate choice, which was unusual for Jade. She set it up that way because she’d designed the earliest version of Truly while we were still in college, when she attempted to run her roommate’s ex’s texts through a lexical analysis program she was writing. She considered changing it when we got to beta testing, but it turned out to be one of the platform’s most beloved quirks. It felt kinder than the conventional scale of ten.
Beauty still counted, of course. However photos were selected not for attractiveness but for consistency. Truly would not post five pictures of you looking substantially worse or substantially better than you did in every other photo ever taken of you. It would post five pictures where you looked the way you did in most pictures. It would post pictures where you looked like yourself.
Jade thought this would be enough: Pictures and numbers, black and white, ones and zeroes, elegance and clarity. I was the one who pushed for the personal narratives.
They read like mad-libs, like:
Alex has a co-dependent relationship with his parents, who are both living and still married. He is kinder to others than most people his age, but less forgiving of himself. He does not want to have children before the age of 40 and is less likely to want a serious romantic relationship (>6 months) than most people his age.
You could self-moderate it all of course. Go into your profile settings and exclude it from using “emails with parents” or “Gchats sent after midnight that contain the word ‘stress’” in the hopes of presenting a more varnished version of yourself. It was hard to predict, though, what would alter what traits; the connections could be surprising. (We found, for example, a strong negative correlation between the average number of browser tabs open and time to orgasm in women.)
Any withholding would lower your honesty rating, but that wasn’t inherently a bad thing. People with totally transparent ratings looked like lunatics, it gave them the air of flashers and borderline personality sufferers. High ratings had the perverse effect of making them appear less desirable, less honest, the opposite intention of the platform. Jade found that the optimal rating was a conservative 3.6.
Personally, I graduated college with a 2.9, not in transparency but in good old-fashioned computer engineering. Jade and everyone else only listened to me because I was considered “the literary one,” “the good communicator.” I was a terrible student. The only thing I ever won in undergrad was the Engineering Department’s English award, the only award I know of that’s more humiliating than winning nothing at all. My friends never let me live it down. I remember my academic advisor actually sighed in disappointment upon seeing
“Well,” she said, her unhappy exhalation still fresh in the air. “It’s something.”
After that meeting, she assigned me a peer tutor, over my objections.
“She’s very good,” she said. “Jade Young, she’s a junior.”
Just saying her name seemed to calm my advisor. She sighed, again, but in satisfaction this time, pleased at the match of failure and solution that she had made. Jade, the problem solver, and I, the problem. This was a dynamic we would repeat after she transitioned from tutor to friend.
“You’re always complaining about people playing games,” Jade told me one night. “But you’re worse than anyone I know.”
I had come home, very drunk, from a party, and was lying on her floor. A girl from my Orwell and American Political Thought seminar with whom I’d had sloppy, uninspiring sex the week prior had invited, then ignored me, as revenge, I believed, for fucking, then ignoring her. I was depressed. Jade was unmoved.
“Did you even really like her?” she asked.
I looked up at Jade. She had stayed in to work, but had let me distract her for the better part of an hour. She didn’t seem to mind though. As with everything she did, she had listened to me with total attention and infinite patience. She was, in matters both professional and personal, efficient and undistractable.
“It’s like her body naturally produces Adderall,” John, our former classmate and future co-founder, said once. We had just dragged ourselves into the common room one bilious Sunday morning to find Jade, her hair roughened by lack of care, her eyes darkened by lack of sleep, at the other end of an all-nighter, still at work, without so much as a cup of coffee.
Her weary eyes now crinkled down at me, smiling but disapproving.
“No,” I said. “But that’s not the point.”
She shook her head, uncomprehending. “But that’s exactly the point, Alex. Neither of you know what the other one really wants. If you just cut out all of this subterfuge and were honest with each other, maybe you could have kept sleeping together.”
“What you call ‘subterfuge’ is what most people call ‘flirting,’” I said.
She waved her hand, as if clearing away the cobwebbed idiocy of my argument.
I watched the smooth planes of her face, blown out and glowing in the light of her desk lamp. “You flirt sometimes, Jade.”
“No, I don’t,” she said, then inhaled sharply as if she were about to elaborate.
I grinned up at her from the floor, then promptly passed out, before she could tell me what she meant.
Anyone who’s read one of any of those dumb trend pieces on “dating in the post-Truly era” could tell you that Jade was as private about her own feelings as she was public about those of her users. My generous interpretation is that she preferred the aggregate to the specific. It was always more interesting to her. She could talk for hours about Truly’s data points — she once devoted twenty-two minutes of a half-hour TV interview to dissecting how email response time predicted the likelihood that a straight man under 30 would cheat — but couldn’t offer two words about her own experiences with sex and relationships.
“The irony that the creator of the most radical (and radically transparent) dating app of all time won’t talk about her love life is lost on no one” was the opening line to the first profile ever written of her. It would reappear, with minimal variation, as the opening of all those that came after. Her reaction, of course, made this standard lead untrue, as the irony of Jade’s guardedness was completely lost on her.
“I don’t get it,” she’d say, every time. “Who cares about me?”
“Do you remember in college,” I asked after she’d sat fuming over one of these pieces, “when you told me you never flirted?”
“No,” she said, alarmed. “Did I really say that?”
I laughed. “Don’t look so worried. You only told me.”
We were having lunch, just the two of us, in Justice after a meeting. (At Truly, each of our conference rooms was named after a Cardinal Virtue, in accordance with our corporate culture of moral clarity. Temperance was where we had the monthly happy hour.) Jade looked down at her salad and drummed her fingers on the glass of the table.
She would often get like this when confronted with a past inconsistency or error, however minor, and she was accordingly careful with her words and her actions. Some self-declared honest people pride themselves on their unfiltered stream of unfettered opinions. Not Jade. Her fixation on the truth turned inward; it could sometimes render her near-mute. She’d often stay silent rather than say something she’d later have to recant or correct.
“Well,” she said at last, and started picking once more at her lunch. “I’m sorry.”
She smiled. “I flirt sometimes.”
I smiled back. “I know.”
After Jade died, I finally set up a Truly profile. John convinced me to try it. We met up several months after the funeral. We had barely talked the actual day of the service. But I had barely talked at all, to anyone, so it was nothing personal.
We went to a bar by my apartment, somewhere we used to go in the early days of Truly, before John had a baby and a reason to go home. We got as drunk as I had been the night I had laid on Jade’s floor, the night she would later recount, names thankfully omitted, as the moment she came up with Truly.
“She’d want you to do it,” he said.
“No,” I said. “She wouldn’t.”
John shook his head and whiskey wafted off his skin. His eyes were red and watery. “I guess it doesn’t matter what she wants anymore. Wanted.” He paused. “Would have wanted?”
“Would have wanted,” I agreed.
He squeezed my shoulder — “There’s that English award.” — and gestured for more drinks.
I initially set my honesty rating to 4.0. I wanted everything. Or at least something. I hadn’t dated anyone seriously since Truly had been acquired and had barely dated anyone at all in the year since Jade’s accident. (Her death was so protracted, so inelegant. A car crash. A coma. A drawn out DNR battle that brought her family’s dormant Catholicism roaring back to life and that proved irrelevant when nothing could revive her anyway. I often thought about how much she would have disapproved of it all on principle, her problem with the form of her death rather than the content of actually dying.) I thought the extreme openness setting would honor the platform and my friends and her, of course. Always her.
I watched my data upload approach completion. I knew how it worked, intimately so, version to version, bug to bug. But alone among my teammates, I was just untalented enough that Truly still felt, at times, like magic. I understood on a more visceral level than they ever could why it left our users grasping for the language of Hogwarts and Camelot, all the enchanted English castles of our collective imaginations, where wizards and curses and fate could see through armor to a man’s soul. I’d never have admitted it in a meeting or to John or certainly to Jade. But now, at the moment of my own reckoning, I held my breath in wonder.
Our crisp, delicate interface guided me to the next screen and I felt a receptive, buzzing calm, as though I were being led by the hand to a safe, new place, by someone wiser and more trustworthy than myself. By someone like Jade, I suppose.
The first line of my personal narrative read:
Alex is still in love with his best friend. His best friend has been deceased for eight months.
I left my honesty rating at 4.0, up there with the flashers and the crazies. I only ever got messages from fellow flashers and crazies, but I found that it was worth it. I’d open my profile just to read that first sentence. Nothing in my life has ever made me sadder or more glad. In part because it meant that Truly worked, and that had made me pleased, and pleased for Jade. But mostly because it was confirmation at last, like a prophecy revealed too late, of what I had always hoped was true. That we had been best friends. And that I had been in love.
Art by Yvonne Martinez