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Sexual Lab Rats
Rachel Swan | Photo: Margo Moritz | September 27, 2013
To the creators of the newest wave of dating and hookup apps, San Francisco's singles aren't just willing customers—they're walking science experiments.
For some people, dating is a labor of love. For others, it's just a labor. Helen might put herself in the latter camp. A 26-year-old with a decent job in healthcare and an apartment on Nob Hill, she knows the dos and don’ts of dating. In fact, she wrote about them for a year and a half on her blog, Single/(Almost) White/Female, chronicling the adventures of a young, stylish, Asian bachelorette navigating a crowded city.
In May, when her blogging began interfering with her actual love life, Helen stopped doing it. But blog or no, Helen has digital street cred. After graduating from college, she briefly served as a freelance writer in Boston for the site HowAboutWe, tasked with conceiving cute date ideas for would-be daters—like stargazing at the local planetarium or riding bikes along the Charles River—and describing them in posts larded with perky advice: “Send a personalized message.” “Ask a question.” “(Maybe) Temper the honesty?” By many measures, she has become an authority on web-driven romance. And yet, she still can’t find a man.
Sitting in a Russian Hill café over an iced coffee and a half-eaten croissant, Helen explains her current situation: Over the last couple of months, she’s shifted from desktop dating sites to mobile apps that distill everything to a picture and (an optional) tagline. Her personal favorite is Tinder, the hookup app du jour that merges the age-old game of Hot or Not with the free-swinging mentality of Grindr. Users swipe through a series of profile pictures of singles within a 100-mile radius and pick the ones that they “like.” When two people “like” each other, the app lets them chat. Helen started using it on a friend’s recommendation and liked its ephemeral quality: It doesn’t require any real thought or time investment.
“Sometimes I just go through if I’m sitting in bed and I want to know who’s out there,” she says. “Or I use it while I’m watching TV.” Shallow? Sure. Convenient? Definitely. At your fingertips is a list of the city’s eligible bachelors, from which you can pick and choose and potentially make a connection—all during the Bachelorette commercial break. It’s a style of dating that’s perfectly tailored to gadget-happy professionals who grew up in an age of technological innovation. If the product isn’t perfect, it’s at least expedient—and instantly disposable. As Helen puts it: “I prefer calculated risks.”
Dating apps thrive in San Francisco, and not just because the city has an endless supply of overeducated, dissatisfied singles with disposable incomes and smartphones. They also appeal because this is a place of uncertainty and instability where many young people aren’t even sure where they’ll be living next month, much less whom they’ll be dating. And of course, the rules of dating have changed since the days of “going steady.” Now young singles don’t even know how to ask each other out, says Jessica Massa, the 30-year-old cofounder of the dating site The Gaggle. “What I hear all the time is, ‘This guy friended me on Facebook; he’s liking all my Instagram photos; is he into me or not?’” she says. Dating apps promise less ambiguity than day-to-day social media: Every user’s romantic availability is clearly stated, and they provide a platform to begin a conversation and a potentially lasting connection. But there’s also a disconnect with real-world emotions and consequences. He may never “like” you back. Your next message could end up unanswered, floating alone in cyberspace. She may flake out on the plans you made to meet in the real world. While the apps help cut through the red tape, they also add to the endemic angsty confusion of dating.
App or no, Helen knows what she wants. “I believe very strongly in physical attraction,” she confesses, rattling off a description of her ideal male: a Mr. America–esque guy who looks “like he just walked out of a J. Crew catalog,” but isn’t a total bro. Fortunately, there’s no dearth of such men in San Francisco, and Tinder offers a voluminous selection. Helen could have a date every night if she wanted to. But the prospects aren’t that appealing to her.
“I’m looking for a man, and they’re all boys,” she asserts. According to Helen, man-children—men unsuitable for a lasting, committed relationship—are a scourge both on Tinder and in San Francisco at large. There was the guy who didn’t buy sheets for his bed. Or the guy who texted her at 3 a.m. after she had canceled their date earlier that evening. Or the AWOLs, guys who suddenly disappeared off the face of the planet just when everything seemed to be going well.
And the immaturity problem isn’t unique to men. Lucas, who is 28 and works at a marketing research firm in the financial district, says that he used to go on OkCupid dates with women who would get drunk to calm their nerves. “And then,” he says, “maybe you’d make out, and you’d part extremely awkwardly.” Ben (not his real name), a tech research analyst in his mid-20s, is pretty sure that after he lent a date his jacket, she wore it to go sleep with another guy across town. “And I think she used his jacket to come hang out with me the next day,” he says.
Whether this kind of behavior means that we’re living in a city of childish, coddled millennials who don’t know how to behave for two hours at a bar and aren’t suitable for a long-term relationship—or that we’re surrounded by Helens whose dates never meet their expectations—is debatable. What is certain is that apps like Tinder allow users to indulge in such behavior. When Chuck (not his real name), a 30-year-old hedge fund analyst, tried to arrange a date on Tinder, the girl stood him up at the last minute—twice. “The day of the second date, I messaged her and she didn’t respond, and I never heard from her after that,” he recalls dispiritedly. That’s not to say that flaking is a new concept. But regardless of which came first— the app or the conduct—they aggravate one another. Because the apps don’t punish users for poor etiquette (for the most part, there’s no real way to monitor or review users) and there are no real-life consequences, they make it OK to stand up Chuck. The more that young people become accustomed to this behavior online, the less value they place on these romantic connections and the easier such behavior becomes. Even as this vicious cycle continues to spread, more apps are being created, each promising a new facet to the game, a new solution to the woes of dating. And San Francisco is where they’re tested first.
A few years ago, the website OkCupid and its older, mustier corporate cousin, Match.com, were considered the Pepsi and Coke of the dating world, facing very little mainstream competition (both are now owned by the media and Internet company IAC). Then, in 2009, the gay hookup app Grindr came along and popularized the concept of smartphone– and location–based courtship. Within two years it had spawned a straight counterpart, Blendr, which in turn inspired a slew of other emulators. Tinder appears to be the new gold standard, but it’s facing competition from the similarly themed Swoon (which caters to a slightly older market) and from Grouper, an app that positions itself as a “social club” for singles and non-singles alike, but is used primarily to set up group blind dates.
Last year, OkCupid opened its own laboratory in SoMa, staffed by twentysomethings who design and prototype meetup and hookup apps and sites for everything from finding a roommate to scoring a hot date. They have had no fewer than six on the market or in beta so far, from the site Kiss.com to Ravel, an Instagram-like app where users share photos that describe them and their interests. The app makers have adopted the old advertising MO of tapping into our desires and promising instant gratification—except that instead of diamonds, they’re selling Internet romance and friendships.
The funny thing is, most young people don’t need to find dates online. “The majority of heterosexual couples still meet in the real world, offline,” says Michael Rosenfeld, an associate professor of sociology at Stanford. “And twentysomethings don’t actually benefit much from the power of online search because they’re already around other single people all the time. Their chance of meeting a partner online is less than 20 percent.” In short, dating apps that market to a younger demographic are creating a need where none exists. Perhaps their creators are hoping that young consumers will treat the apps like toys, as Bloomberg News technology writer Douglas MacMillan suggested in May when he moderated a panel with the founders of Tinder and Swoon. His tagline for the panel was: “Dating Apps Are the New Angry Birds.”
OkCupid Labs former affiliate marketing manager Patrick McGrath says that he and other app makers are trying to tap into the psyche of the smartphone generation and create commodities that cater to their lifestyle. He notes that users spend about 80 percent of their time on the sites just scrolling through the pictures, which means that they devote very little attention to the carefully crafted, heartfelt personal essays that were the meat and potatoes of old-school dating sites. Consequently, developers want to avoid subjecting users to the rigmarole of reading and assessing profiles. On Tinder, they can swipe through 10 people in seconds and meet one of them within an hour.
There are, of course, drawbacks to fast-moving apps that treat the singles market like an outlet store. They offer hookups in abundance, but little promise of finding a permanent mate—in part as a consequence of that very abundance. “There’s a very interesting theory in psychology around comparison level of alternatives,” McGrath explains. “The more alternatives that you have available, the lower your satisfaction is with any one. It lowers aggregate satisfaction because you know there are so many other things available. That’s the thing with hookup culture.”
Given all this, it becomes apparent what the app makers are up to: They’re throwing things at the wall to see what sticks and using young San Franciscans as the volunteer lab rats in their grand social experiment. Some apps encourage consumers to browse through as many potential matches as possible (McGrath’s “many alternatives” theory), while others, like the site Coffee Meets Bagel, eliminate search functions and do the matchmaking for you. Many apps give users the illusion of intimacy by allowing two people to exchange messages only after they’ve “liked” each other. And others, like Crazy Blind Date and HowAboutWe, encourage users to meet in person on a date, the old-fashioned way. There is, thus far, no real consensus on the best way to help singles find a mate.
What there is consensus on is that San Francisco is an ideal testing ground, or “laboratory,” as Swoon’s 34-year-old founder, Greg Tseng, puts it, for any company trying to establish a vertical market in online dating. “It’s a strategy of prototyping quickly and market-testing on real users,” he says. He and Tinder cofounder and CEO Sean Rad have a name for these types of experiments. The apps are not just about hooking up, says Rad. They’re about the ability to instantly connect with interesting people nearby, anytime, anywhere. It’s called “social discovery.”
Jenn Shimer, a 25-year-old consultant who works in the financial district, learned the meaning of social discovery when she tried Grouper at a friend’s behest. The two signed up with one of Shimer’s coworkers, and they agreed to meet a trio of guys at a bar on Potrero Hill. The meeting only resulted in one exchange of numbers, Shimer says, but the two parties managed to fill three hours, and the guys, who worked together in an IT department, gave Shimer and her friends a good rating on the site afterward.
But Shimer’s next Grouper date was disastrous. “It was really awkward,” she says. “The bar we went to was in North Beach, and it was all other Groupers who were there.” Her experience illustrates a major pitfall for apps that partner with local businesses to create the old-school experience of meeting in real life. “When the guys we were meeting with came in, they couldn’t figure out which one of the trios we were,” Shimer says. After they found their designated Grouper girls, Shimer recalls, one aspirant was so uncomfortable that he just trained his eyes on one of the bar TVs for the whole night.
Still, Shimer didn’t particularly mind wasting a few hours on a date that didn’t result in a love connection. She knows what the expectations are for this type of experience. “They don’t really call themselves a dating site,” she points out. “It’s just an experiment.” She notes that while most of her friends are hooking up with people online in one form or another, few use the apps as a vehicle to start something permanent. “Most people don’t want to be in a serious relationship until they’re, like, 28,” she says.
There are still some twentysomethings who harbor romantic ideals about serendipity and fate and spontaneity—qualities that you just can’t bake into an app, no matter how well it’s engineered. Edwin (not his real name), a 24-year-old who works in advertising technology, says that he eschewed online dating for years because of his old-fashioned gentility. “I didn’t want to tell that story, you know? Like someone asks, ‘How did you two meet?’ and you have to say ‘the Internet.’” He pauses a beat, as though the thought makes him dyspeptic. “It’s a cringe moment. It’s not like, ‘Oh, we met at a bus stop and we looked into each other’s eyes.’"
But while app makers can’t conjure fate or serendipity to satisfy the Edwins of the world, they continue to target the young demographic, sometimes with apps that may have nothing to do with dating. OkCupid Labs’ list of products includes several that aren’t focused on romantic relations, but are still aimed at twentysomethings with finicky tastes and transient lifestyles. An app called Crashpad assists users in finding new roommates. Another, Tallygram, helps people find new friends. Some, like Combosaurus and Opal, seem to have no clear purpose at all. Still, they all coalesce around the idea of forming fast, fleeting connections.
Stanford’s Rosenfeld believes that most of these apps will have a limited shelf life for their users because they aren’t really geared toward lasting relationships. Users are just temporarily infatuated— more so with the new technology than with its matchmaking potential. Chuck says that he’s beginning to understand that concept. He still uses Tinder but feels like it’s a waste of time. However, he has had better luck with Coffee Meets Bagel, which recently launched in app form. Only a couple of months into it, he’s gone out with 10 to 12 women and has a few more dates already lined up. “I kind of want to stay single for now so I can keep taking advantage of these technological advances,” he says. “Maybe by the time I’m 35, they’ll have an app for finding the love of your life.”
McGrath isn’t sure whether the technology is changing the psychology or vice versa. But he does know that an app won’t be successful unless it appeals to its users’ mentality. Tinder, Swoon, Blendr, and Grouper all view dating as a numbers game: They encourage users to meet more people overall and to place less value on each one individually. They’ve tapped into the hyper-accelerated, reward-oriented culture in which most twentysomethings immerse themselves, particularly in tech-savvy San Francisco. Whether or not these apps encourage healthy behavior doesn’t seem to top their makers’ list of concerns.
Helen, who has spent the last few months suffering from “dating fatigue,” insists that she’s no longer actively using dating sites to meet someone. But when a new Tinder message lights up her iPhone, she clicks a button and inspects the photo, bunching her mouth studiously. She must have “liked” the guy at some point, but now she’s realizing that he’s not her type—at 34, he’s a little too old. She lingers over his picture anyway, evidently most interested in the golden retriever sitting beside him. Then she clicks to the next user.
Originally published in the October 2013 issue of San Francisco