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LIVE LOCAL, LIVE SMALL: Technology and debt merge to dictate a user’s relationship with money

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How an online site attempts to detect our personality types and relationships to money.

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Cucalorus added Connect to its 2015 film festival, which took place last week. The tech innovation conference featured many panels of business leaders to help build stronger connections between film and entrepreneurship. Friday morning “Data: It’s Hyper Personal” featured Galen Buckwalter, the mastermind behind the metrics of eHarmony. 

payoffI feel I am constantly bombarded by people telling me that tech innovation and information is the future and that as a business owner I must get on board. So in search of some understanding of this brave new world, I grabbed a life-sustaining cup of coffee and sallied forth to the balcony of Thalian Hall to find enlightenment. It was much more conference-y and much less presentation-oriented than I expected. Nonetheless, it was interesting in a terrifying way. 

Joining Dr. Buckwalter onstage were Juddy Arnold (founder/CEO of Insight Profiling, who’s introduction was described as “The Diviner”), and George Taylor III (founder/CEO of the Likeli). Apparently, Buckwalter and Arnold are involved in Taylor’s dating app startup, Likeli, based in Wilmington on Sir Tyler Drive at Tek Mountain. Now, I say “interesting” in a terrifying way, because Taylor was prepared to admit that they can (and do) measure just how long you look at a picture online, how often you read a profile, if you use the same response to multiple messages, etc.

I have to be honest: I have never tried online dating, having been in a committed relationship for almost two decades. But it is interesting listening to three men explain the complexities of using computers to create happiness and deeper meaning for couples. Clearly, it is an engineering problem that can be massaged with the right wording to not be a scary control game at all. The deference paid to Buckwalter by the other two was palpable, and understandably so as the real mastermind behind this human metrics pairing, it is his work which is key to what the other two want to do.

If anything, by watching and listening to Buckwalter, I came to suspect that to him this all seemed to be just the latest, interesting theoretical question he had to answer. Does he have a burning desire to be an online matchmaker? No. But solving a problem in front of him and watching a great human experiment play out fascinates him.

I spent some time looking around at Buckwalter’s other projects, which of course include Tide Pool—a program for building harmonious and productive office work environments. The one I found most interesting is called “Payoff” —basically a credit-card payoff program that claims to use personality profiles to help reduce debt and change a user’s relationship with money. Essentially, it is a debt consolidation service offering a short-term loan to pay off $5,000 to $25,000 of credit card debt. However, they have an online personality profile users must fill out as part of the process, so they can provide a tailored counselor for specific financial behavior. In the name of journalistic research, I decided to try the personality profile questionnaire.

It opens with a question: “What’s your dream? Writing down your dream is the first step to financial success.”

Then a suggestion appears: something similar to take my family to Disney World. 

OK, so for this one, I decided to be honest. I put down the hope to one day have a NY Times Bestseller. That’s not really something a credit score impacts all that much, but it is true. 

Next came five hourglass shapes that are continuums about how I see myself: Am I warm and loving or reserved? I had to click wherever I thought I was on the hourglass. 

From those six exercises, Payoff generates a profile. The first time I was told I was a storyteller. Really? Payoff figured that out? Well done. Maybe the answer to the question tipped them off. Financial advice to the storyteller personality included a discussion about the problem of getting sucked into appearances and buying designer things because of their perceived value.

I read this aloud to Jock who looked at me in confusion. I mean, I dress like a homeless person. I don’t currently own a single shirt that doesn’t have paint stains on it.

“Yes, but there is a pattern to your paint stains,” Jock commented.

“Really?” I asked.

“Yes, ‘renovation chic,’” he quipped. “It’s the new thing. Soon, all the hipsters will be doing it.”

I laughed and cracked a joke about the seemingly endless renovations that consume our world. 

“Well, it is honest,” I conceded. “But Versace it’s not.”

Jock commented about how crushed we all were by Versace’s death. When I looked at him clearly confused he explained (rather patiently) that apparently Versace is not only dead but was shot by his lover, and that it was a big deal in the tabs.

Yes, clearly my closet is full of designer clothing, as is my McMansion with furniture out of a catalog, and a car with payments left on it—it’s all about impressing other people. Oh, no, wait—they must mean the crazy rabbit-warn Appalachian shack, decorated by a mad scientist and a book hoarder, with a paid-for ’65 VW bug parked in front? Yes, the one that needs a paint job and an engine lid; that’s what the Payoff financial questionnaire got so right. Yep.

I tried the questionnaire again, and answered the questions with the same dream and clicking in roughly the same places. The next time it told me I was a Free Spirit. The third time I was a Spark.

It was starting to feel like roulette.

The tools, tips and advice are all basically sound financial advice: pay yourself first, pay down your debts, don’t accrue more debt, etc. Sure, they’re good reminders, no matter the form of the message.

And, no,  I am not applying for a payoff loan through them or anyone else at this moment.  I have succeeded in paying down a tremendous amount of debt this year. One of my Live Local resolutions was to finish work on the second floor of the bookstore, thereby putting local tradesmen to work. I am pleased to say that has been a major focus—all paid for as it goes.

So, in spite of Buckwalter saying I’m a “Free Spirit” (among other things), I would say I’ve made a pretty conservative financial move. Actually, aside from the bills of daily life and running a business, I am at zero. I’m not going to borrow money any time soon, and I am just going to keep chipping away at my financial goals of finishing the second floor, keeping the house on Market Street from falling over, and eventually getting things sorted out so that I have time to stay at home and write more.

In about 10 years I’ll probably start saving for old age—if I live that long. I haven’t quite made up my mind about that yet. I guess I need to start learning about fashion designers and name brand clothing though, right?

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