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A newly surfaced Microsoft patent filing proposes an online matchmaking service that would have users confidentially tell the system about their “private affinities” — stuff that might cause them shame if listed on their public profiles. An algorithm would then analyze that secret information and quietly match people with similar “fringe interests.”

And what do the Microsoft researchers use to illustrate their idea? Extreme political beliefs? The kind of stuff you might read about in a Dan Savage column? No, the example they use is an affinity for comic books.

Here’s an excerpt from the filing …

Most users of such conventional systems understand that any affinity (or other information) included in an associated profile or space can be viewed by any third party who accesses that profile. This situation can substantially serve as a chilling effect on self expression or at least result in a profile that is a less accurate or less comprehensive representation of the associated user. For example, an ambitious professional is not likely to divulge that he likes, say, comic books, even though quite true. Appreciably, certain affinities especially those relating to fringe interests, eccentricities, or topics about which there is a common misconception or very little mainstream familiarity or understanding are generally omitted rather than included in conventional descriptions.

Typically, this is so because these affinities might be a source of shame or embarrassment or incur undue explanation. Thus, certain cautious or prudent users may forego detailing an affinity that is not politically correct or one that might easily be taken out of context by others or virtually any affinity that can be the source of the slightest bit of embarrassment or conflict with a desired image.

Later, the filing goes into more detail …

For example, suppose two users, Ashley and Ross, are both young professionals and both like a specific series of comic books. However, both parties understand that comic books are often viewed as fanciful or juvenile, and, as such, to indicate an interest in comic books in one’s profile might lead to embarrassment or inappropriate characterizations. Accordingly, it is very likely that neither Ashley nor Ross will know of their common affinity, except by chance. …

Once (the) matching component identifies the matching affinity, (the) notification component can provide Ashley (a) message indicating, e.g. “We’ve located someone who shares your affinity for comic books. The two of you might have a lot in common.”

Finally, some dating relief for closeted comic book nuts around the world!

The patent application was originally filed in June 2009, and made public last week. The comic book example aside, the proposed system does make some sense. But as with most of these things, there’s no indication that Microsoft actually will be bringing this “innovation” to market, and the filing will no doubt stir the usual debate over what deserves to be patented.

Interesting side note: According to the patent application, one of the researchers on the project was Gary Flake, the former Microsoft Live Labs chief — who once told me in an interview that he met his wife on

[“Comic Book Guy” via Wikipedia. With apologies to the Simpsons. Thanks, anonymous tipster!]

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