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Inside The Game: How Online Pickup Artists Work

A new kind of pickup artist is creeping on your wall and your OKCupid profile.

Posted on April 23, 2012, at 12:51 p.m. ET

“You look really spontaneous.”

A couple of years ago, I was casually browsing the magazine rack at Barnes & Noble when a strange guy sidled up next to me. What was I reading? Did I live in New York? Did I go there often? All standard fare. But then, out of the blue, he said I looked really spontaneous. Like, the kind of person who would go skydiving or ski down a mountain strapped to a pair of naked ninja turtles. I brushed the comment, and the guy, off. But then it happened again. And again. The exact same line about spontaneity, all from different guys.

It turns out that inceptioning the idea of “spontaneity” into a woman’s mind is a common tactic used by pickup artists to encourage her to take a chance on him — or at least casual sex with him — outlined in Neil Stauss’ widely read 2005 book The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists, which garnered significant criticism for shedding light onto the sometimes-manipulative tactics employed by pickup artists. A “pickup artist” is basically a guy who feeds you a line but supposedly it’s such a good line that you don’t notice.

Strauss's book focused on the "art" of real-life pickups. But thanks to the ubiquity of Facebook and Twitter, combined with the mainstreaming of online dating sites, there's now a new genre of online pickup artistry. It’s a new world to exploit — with fresh eBooks, video tutorials, and interminable website copy interspersed with plenty of cleavage — all dedicated to figuring out the intricacies of online attraction and seduction.

Online pick-up artistry has taken the original aims of IRL pick-up — to develop general tactics and techniques for attracting and bedding women— one step further. One dehumanizing step further. Now, instead of “peacocking” (wearing gaudy outfits to demonstrate Alpha status) in bars and using tired negs, we have them deconstructing every aspect of online persona and communication to create sleek, marketing packages of human beings to sell to one another. All of this wouldn’t seem so sinister — just some helpful advice on talking to girls! — if it appeared that the aim of online pick-up artists was to encourage real relationships. But the message of all their websites is pretty consistent, even if the sites' creators claim otherwise: There are rules and techniques and data to use to have sex with anyone you want to.

My conversations with three online pickup artists, who told me how they became experts in the game of attracting women online and how anyone (regardless of attractiveness, financial situation, and past romantic failures) can use Facebook and online dating sites to find “quality” women, were rife with terms like “value” and “negging.” The underlying message is that all men want, or implicitly deserve, “high-value” or “hot” women. But online pickup artistry is often essentially a script for how to convince a woman that you’re good enough for her — often by making her feel like she’s worth less than you.

The pickup artist theory is that women wield all the power. Or at least that’s what I was assured by every single PUA I talked to. The hot girls get all the messages. The hot girls call all the shots. They claim that “quality,” “hot” women receive between twenty and fifty messages per day, and put their reply rate somewhere between two and five-percent. Forum after forum dedicated to online pick-up acknowledges this fact, and there’s a certain underlying hysteria in this realization. If women supposedly have all the power in this one, limited realm, then there must be some way to wrest it back from them.

When I interviewed Maurice Jackson of Supernatural Seduction Secrets over IM, we exchanged links throughout our conversation. Out of nowhere, he sent me a link to an old picture, and asked if it was me. It was. He replied:

Ok... I think we have to stop this interview now.
Just kidding.
But interesting photo.

I’d just been negged.

Both Jackson and Derek Lamont, of Online Pickup Secrets, told me about the online version of “negging.” (Negging being the most infamous pickup artist technique, in which you draw negative attention to some aspect of a woman’s appearance.) Jackson explains, “Poking fun at attractive girls prompts a defensive response in women. It triggers her to want to message you back to set things straight in her mind. I mean 99 percent of the guys are like ‘OMFG YOU'RE SO HOT’ and they worship the woman.”

Jozzar Kimba is a pick-up artist who works exclusively online. He’s sent over 15,000 messages to women on Facebook and online dating sites, and claims he’s cracked the “code” to what makes women take notice. For him, the benefits of an online pickup are in its specificity. More and more dating sites, mostly notably OKcupid, are releasing data on their users’ different preferences and their correlations. Pore over this data and you can gain the upper hand in online communiqué. Do you want to specifically attract an Asian woman? There are keywords you can add to your profile that will make an Asian woman more likely to contact you, according to Kimba. Or, if you’re browsing women’s profiles, there are keywords that can tip you off to those who are into casual, rough sex. If she’s a beer drinker poet with piercings and a penchant for grammar, chances are she is.

The websites of the pickup artists I interviewed recited a common litany of the type of women that the author had bedded — and that, implicitly, you could also bed, if you utilize whatever system they’re selling. It generally includes: strippers, sexy co-eds, women of varying numerical values (9’s and 10’s), models, and actresses.

I ask Derek if the list that appears on his site is accurate. Has he really been with all these stereotypically “hot” women? He says yes, reluctantly. He told me he once scored 20 dates in one week from Facebook and online dating sites while he was researching and developing his pickup technique, though he seems coy, almost embarrassed, by his online pickup success. Although maybe that’s just part of his game.

You don’t want to be what is known as an AFC, an “Average Frustrated Chump.” Maurice Jackson stresses that you must “demonstrate that you are a man of high status.” Many suggest including pictures of yourself surrounded by beautiful women, because this induces a jealousy response in women’s brains — it makes them want you more. It’s an “ancient, primitive” response, and all women are simply wired like that. Also, don’t put your relationship status on Facebook. (Duh.)

Jackson advocates a technique involving flipping the script on women, while subtly bringing the idea of sex into a conversation — say, using a line like, “Hey, stop trying to have sex with me!” in a flirtatious message. This both flips the table on the woman and brings sex into the equation. Women are often so afraid that men are only after them for sex, that to use this rudimentary reverse psychology can supposedly put them at ease. They now feel in control of the sexual dialogue. And now you’re suddenly talking about sex.

The sites are filled with boobs and bling and quick fixes, but if you keep reading, or if you talk to the guys, it’s clear that they frame what they’re doing as a service to lonely and misguided men looking for love. All of the online attraction experts I spoke with seemed like decent guys. They assured me that their ultimate goal is to help guys have the confidence to be their “awesome selves” and that many men have found happiness in long-term relationships using their techniques. Although their sites often read like a woman’s worst nightmare, advertising services to help any man convince a woman to go straight to bed with him, the guys I spoke with claim that’s just the visual flash. Men are visual creatures — that’s why all the boobs are there. Supposedly, men think they want an easy way to get easy sex from the internet, but what they really want is a girlfriend.

But it doesn’t really matter whether pick-up artists emphasize their success at achieving casual sexual encounters or “meaningful” long-term relationships. The real objective isn’t the outcome; it’s the power dynamics. Pick-up artistry doesn’t necessarily claim its intention is to teach men how to bed as many hot women as they desire. Rather, it seems to claim that it provides men with the tools to dictate the terms of their relationships with women. It’s about convincing a woman that she wants you. Then you get to decide how you want her.

Jackson speaks of a friend who can routinely have sex with a woman once or twice, but can’t ever make the jump into a relationship. This, in Jackson’s eyes, isn’t true success, but exemplifies how a reliance on pickup tactics, without really understanding confidence or how to communicate with women, doesn’t get you very far.

There’s a human impulse to quantify that which intimidates us and to seek out a simpler pattern within complex interactions — if we can crack the code to romantic rejection, then we can stop being rejected. Pick up artistry, online or off, claims it holds the key: the key to the sex you want to have with the girl you want have it with. In this way, pickup artistry is no different than all other self-help media — from “The Secret” to “7 Habits of Highly Effective People” — all claiming to have distilled the essential elements of success, the secrets that can help you cast off everything you didn’t even know were holding you back.

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The funny thing about pickup techniques is that, despite how cheesy and contrived they may appear to be, they do seem to work. In my conversation with Maurice — the one where he negged me — I could understand the insidious logic at work. When he “jokingly” insulted my picture I did have the urge to defend myself. I did want to counter his insult with, “Oh, that’s a terrible picture of me.” And this was in a conversation about negging, one where his “game” was utterly transparent. Apparently, finding and exploiting a person’s psychological weaknesses can be successful whether they’re onto you or not. Even if the online pickup artists I spoke with were exaggerating their success rates, they did seem to have more sex and more dates than the "Average Frustrated Chump."

Whether pickup artistry works to facilitate real relationships isn’t even important, because what it does provide is the illusion of control. You want something from someone who doesn’t want you. If you can control your image and your interactions, then you can control your romantic outcomes. It's "science." Perhaps, if you can frame your profile picture just so and neg and “flip the script” on women, you can pull in the "high-quality" woman you deserve. This, in the pickup artist's world, is how men become men.

Kelly Bourdet writes about science, tech, love and sex.

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.