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Sexual Lab Rats

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.

A few years ago, the website OkCupid and its older, mustier corporate cousin,, 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 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.

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