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The Boston Globe

Magazine

The Dating Issue

Can GPS find you a mate?

Welcome to the brave new world of mobile dating, where your next match could be 50 yards away.

C.J. Burton

KRISTEN GIESSLER HAD JUST LEFT a party downtown at the Boston Society of Architects. It was 11 p.m. She had had a few beers and wanted to wait a while before driving home. So in a move as natural as applying lip gloss, she clicked on her iPhone and logged onto the dating app OkCupid Locals.

Using the GPS coordinates tracked by her smartphone, the app pinpointed Giessler’s exact location — 290 Congress Street — and then displayed a list of single men within several blocks who were also on their phones and looking to meet someone right that minute. OkCupid Locals is meant to follow you wherever you go and find you matches along the way. And these guys seemed promising. She’d never seen them while looking at OkCupid profiles from her Ashland condo.

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First, the 33-year-old Giessler clicked on the profile of a guy looking for someone to sing karaoke with, but he didn’t have a college degree, a deal breaker for her. Guy number two looked cute enough, but he was a Republican. “No way,” she said, laughing. The last guy was looking to see a movie and shared her interest in sailing. She messaged him: “Hi there : )” and he ping-ponged a message right back. Within minutes, standing several blocks away from each other, they were chatting about a possible date.

It was so immediate, it was intoxicating. In the past, Giessler had sat at home in front of her computer, sifting through an endless stream of profiles to figure out who was worth messaging. “Oh, the messaging,” she sighs. “It could take weeks before you even get a date, or you just realize you’ve been talking to someone who just wants to write and write. There’s a lot of that.” She uses location-based mobile dating apps for one reason: They’re efficient. In an age when we live and breathe by our cellphones and expect our every whim to be satisfied right that second, it’s only natural that online dating should migrate to mobile. Says Giessler, “It cuts to the chase and helps you meet people faster.” (Although she and bachelor number three never did meet up.)

Giessler planned to use the app again the next weekend. “I could see myself getting dressed up and spending my evening reading my next book club novel in some Starbucks downtown or in Cambridge and seeing what happens — either by responding to someone’s broadcast or making my own,” she says.

Whether you live in Davis Square in Somerville and head to the North End for dinner or have a place in Andover and travel to London on business, a big advantage of location-based dating is the ability to pull from a completely different pool of singles, a fresh sea of faces, depending on where you are. In theory, this gives you a greater chance of meeting someone. Forget the romance algorithms of online dating sites that promise they’ll find you a perfect match based on a list of personality traits. Many of these newer apps are designed to show you who else may be out there, perhaps waiting in line ahead of you at the Cambridge Whole Foods after work. And in doing so, some singles say, they’re bringing a layer of serendipity — and, dare I say, romance — back into online matchmaking. Not only can you find out who else is single in the Public Garden, some apps will also reveal how each person wants to spend his or her afternoon — and then you can propose joining in. How tantalizing is the thought that the person you’re destined to meet might actually be right there in front of you?

“With these apps, the security line at Logan can become a round of speed dating,” says Alex Harrington, CEO of MeetMoi, a mobile dating app that sends users alerts when other singles are nearby.

C.J. Burton

By tapping into the power of smartphones, location-based dating could revolutionize the way we meet people over the next few years. But if it’s so great, why are so many Boston singles, particularly women, wary of using it?

***

In recent years, online matchmaking has become a billion-dollar business, with one study showing 30 percent of the adult population using some form of online dating. While many report high numbers of young people on their online dating sites, baby boomers, as Time reported in 2010, are the fastest-growing age group looking for love online.

Online dating has come a long way since Match launched in 1995 and signed up 100,000 singles within a year. Eli Finkel, a professor of psychology at Illinois’s Northwestern University, has been studying the habits of single people and online dating sites for several years. As he sees it, there are three generations of online dating. He calls the first iterations the “supermarkets of love.” Think of Match in its earliest stages, when users could post and scan online personal ads, “check out the wares,” as Finkel says, and then decide who was worth their time. This led to the emergence of dating sites catering to groups of similar ethnicities, religions, or sexual preferences, like JDate and Asians Are Here.

“These dating sites offer access to new people, but they had a few problems,” says Finkel. “People realized that they don’t have much insight into their own romantic preferences, and profiles don’t tell people much about compatibility. They’d either get so overwhelmed that they’d shut down and not go out with anybody, or they’d make cavalier or absent-minded decisions, since they had trouble distilling down their choices.”

Which ushered in the second generation of dating sites, like eHarmony and OkCupid. In 2000, eHarmony was launched just as some people began to grow frustrated with online personals. The company’s founders decided that users would benefit from, probably even pay for, help navigating the dating process. Sites like OkCupid, founded by four Harvard grads with math degrees, and a new version of Match claimed they had an algorithm, a unique method of narrowing the choices and matching you with the perfect person — what eHarmony calls its “secret sauce.” Matching sites assert that if they learn enough about who you are, your likes and dislikes, they can cross-reference your answers with those of other users and find your soul mate.

Still, nobody really knew whether these compatibility-matching sites worked, and in 2011, Finkel and his colleagues set about trying to find out. Though eHarmony, PerfectMatch, and others did not release their scientific algorithms for study, the academics found a way around the lack of data. They identified the methods that inform these algorithms and compared them with 80 years of psychological findings about long-term compatibility. They quickly realized that many sites rely on an “intuitive but flawed principle” that psychological similarity promotes compatibility. Here’s the rub: Although the perception of similarity makes relationships successful, actual commonalities are largely irrelevant. For example, if you meet someone and think you’re similar to them, then you have a good chance at starting a relationship. But simply having things in common — boating, openness to new experiences, desire for a traditional family — does not give two people a greater chance of connecting. The distinction is critical. Says Finkel, “Their theory of relationship success is predicated on a house of cards.” 

 When the iTunes app store launched in July 2008, online dating seemed once again to be morphing: Singles wanted to date on the go, and technology was making it possible. And thus began the third generation of dating sites and the new era of mobile dating. “Mobile dating has created a new promise, an enticing one,” says Aaron Schildkrout, who grew up in Newton and cofounded HowAboutWe, which has a location-based dating app. “When you see these people on your phone, you think, ‘This person is real, they’re near me, and I may actually be able to encounter them in the real world.’ ”

 In 2009, Grindr, a location-based dating app catering to gay men, exploded onto the dating scene everywhere from Province-town to the West Village. Grindr was the first app of its kind to get traction — a real-time dating app that allowed people to meet up instantaneously based on proximity. Suddenly it became easy to find out who else was gay, single, and steps from your front door. By March 2012, Grindr had 4 million users in 192 countries.

“It was so wildly popular,” says Serge Gojkovich, who helped launch Grindr, that “everyone was asking us why don’t we have a similar site for straight people?” In 2011, he helped launch Blendr, an online dating site and mobile app designed to help people of all sexual orientations find the same spontaneous trysts as Grindr offers. Several other location-based mobile apps catering to straight singles launched around the same time. MeetMoi, which came online as an iPhone and Android app in 2010, alerts users when another MeetMoi user is nearby. SinglesAroundMe, also released in 2010, features a singles-locator map of sorts; when you open the app, multiple pins drop onto the map, each indicating another single nearby. OkCupid launched its Locals app in 2011, giving users the chance to meet up with singles close by, and HowAboutWe’s location-based app, which came on the scene in 2011, shows date suggestions from people within several blocks of you if you’re accessing the app from a major city like Boston.

Here’s what we know today about mobile dating — many of the largest dating sites are seeing a huge uptick in singles logging onto their mobile sites, with 40 to 60 percent of each site’s users accessing dating sites from their mobile phones, whether the app uses location as a tool in matching or not. Sam Yagan, founder of OkCupid, says two-thirds of its mobile users activate the GPS-positioning info; he expected mostly younger people to use the app, but says it’s been popular across all age groups.

Mark Brooks, a consultant to Internet dating sites, points out that men tend to use location-based dating features more than women, and that location-based dating apps are most often used by singles in big cities, such as Boston and New York. What’s more, the singles that use them are using them all the time. “People don’t view as many pages on their mobile dating apps as they do when they’re looking at profiles at home, but they’re logging in as many as eight times a day,” says Brooks. Singles are checking their phones at the office, waiting in line at the Registry of Motor Vehicles, riding the bus. Kevin Cassidy, a 43-year-old straight single male living in New Hampshire, says he was recently at the Downtown Lounge in Portland, Maine, grabbing a drink after leaving a friend’s house. “I didn’t talk to anyone at the bar. I pulled out my phone and began scanning through OkCupid Locals,” he says. “It’s become habit.”

The science suggests that users of location-based dating apps may improve their chances of finding a compatible partner, says Northwestern’s Finkel. Research shows that people can glean more about compatibility from a five-minute meeting than by reading dozens of two-dimensional profiles. (Remember, those studies that show it’s perceived similarities that predict relationship success, not actual similarities?) Which means the faster you get face to face with someone, the faster you can decide whether you might be a match. And that’s exactly what these apps aim to help you do.

***

Though location-based dating apps have their devotees, they haven’t caught fire in the straight community quite like Grindr has among gay men. Many industry executives admit that they can’t seem to clear one major hurdle: The GPS function in the apps makes some women nervous.

Women, it turns out, are just not as comfortable revealing their location as men are. Call it the stalker syndrome. They worry that someone will figure out where they live or follow them home. Even Foursquare, the wildly popular app that allows people to “check in” to their location, doesn’t attract as many women as men. Women may have reason to be nervous. In June, Skout, a flirting app that is a huge hit among young people, put a ban on teenage users after three cases of sexual assault were reported earlier this year — in each case, children met adult males posing as teenagers. Skout just reopened the site to teens after putting new safety measures in place. 

Another app, called Girls Around Me, accessed Foursquare location data to show where single women were checking in, and then offered up a link to each woman’s Facebook page. When Foursquare realized how its data were being used, it cut off the app’s access.

Dating industry executives say they have safeguards in place to protect users. Many apps allow you to control how much information others can see about you, including how specific your location information is, and even let you turn off the GPS entirely. But some apps, like SinglesAroundMe, can pinpoint your location down to the street you’re standing on, if you choose. Others, like OkCupid, give you a ballpark idea of how close someone is to you. “It startled me at first,” says Keyse Angelo, a 32-year-old woman in Jamaica Plain who has used OkCupid Locals. “I quickly turned the GPS off.”

In response, some apps have blurred location information altogether. It’s why Angelo likes HowAboutWe’s dating app. If you live in Newton but you’re in the South End and want to suggest a date, other singles in the South End will know you’re there, but your location will be listed as “Newton.” The app also discourages people from listing times that they’ll be places, such as “Im heading to Minibar in Back Bay at 7pm. Martini?” HowAboutWe’s Schildkrout thinks that level of detail is “scary.”

Jackie Benowitz, 22, used MeetMoi in the months after she graduated from Brandeis University and plans to use it when she moves to New York in the fall. “I was looking for an edgy dating app,” she says. At Brandeis, she’d recognize people from their OkCupid profiles while walking to class. “It’s the same people over and over again,” she says. Benowitz usually leaves her GPS locator off, but when dropping off a friend at Tufts this summer, she activated it and immediately got a “push notification’’ — essentially a pop-up message — that there were two single guys nearby. She responded to the one she thought was cute, and because he was also in Davis Square, they were sitting across from each other within a few minutes. “I didn’t know him at all, but I felt like I did, since we had been messaging for a few minutes and I saw his picture,” she says. They chatted for an hour, realized there was no spark, and politely said their goodbyes. She says she never felt unsafe — she liked the spontaneity.

Consultant Mark Brooks jokes that one reason location-based dating hasn’t yet gone mainstream is that there are too many men running the sites. Match is the only major dating site run by a woman, and its CEO, Mandy Ginsberg, has said the company won’t rely on location-based tools. (Instead, Match recently launched Stir, a series of local singles events in major cities like Boston.) While Match’s app does have limited location features, Robinne Burrell, the company’s director of mobile product and distribution, says its experts don’t believe the location-based approach puts singles on the path to long-term relationships. She compares location-driven dating apps to the guy who delivers cheesy lines in a bar. “I’m not going to say that all mobile dating apps are hookup apps,” Burrell says, “but they’re not matching you with someone who has read your profile or your essay or what you’re looking for in a long-term partner — that’s the beginning of a dialogue and the premise for a relationship. These apps are a little more casual, so they may lead to more casual meetings.”

Dave, 33, works in the food services industry on Nantucket. He’s used several online dating sites, but he heard about the SinglesAroundMe app from a friend in New York City who swears it’s an incredibly easy way to meet women. Dave’s friend has met numerous people — “he meets women on there who are around the block!” — and has enjoyed quite a few spontaneous hookups. He hasn’t had much luck with the app on Nantucket — “it’s too insular out here” — but he says it’s made it easier for him to set up dates with women on the Cape when he’s there for work. “It’s not weird,” he says. “It’s amazing. It’s technology. It’s progress.” 

Sam Yagan, CEO and founder of OkCupid, which boasts that its site has 10 million profiles, is deadpan when he says he didn’t build a dating app to help people have casual sex. “Obviously, we can’t control how people use OkCupid Locals,” he says, “but we’re trying to guide it toward more meaningful interactions.” Which is why the app asks users to broadcast what they’re looking to do, similar to HowAboutWe’s format, rather than just showing them who is around. For example: “I’m heading to the Celtics game. Want to meet for a drink?” or “Anyone want to go to the ICA on Saturday?” Yagan compares these broadcasts to tweets. It’s a nugget to start a conversation with someone close by, not an invitation for a one-night stand.

 Industry executives see your GPS coordinates as an inevitable part of the future of dating, even as they’re still figuring out how to make women feel safer finding dates that way. And they’re working out how to leverage all of the other information they can glean from your smartphone.

Imagine this: You’re on a first date with Jake, a guy you met while reading at a cafe in Cambridge’s Inman Square; he was returning his friend’s kayak and checked his phone, and there you were asking if someone wanted to talk books. The date is going well enough when Jake says he has to go to the bathroom. Inside, he gets a message on his phone: “Did you ask about her interest in Impressionist paintings? She recently went to an exhibition at the MFA.” Jake returns to the table with a grin. “Do you like art?” he asks.

Smartphone technology is bound to get smarter, and as it does, so will mobile dating apps. They won’t rely on daters’ sometimes faulty perceptions of themselves as a tool in matchmaking. Instead, they may use information gathered from your smartphone to compile a detailed catalog of your likes and dislikes, moods, schedules, and behaviors. In other words, whether you like it or not, they’ll know you better than you know yourself.

For example: If you say in your profile that you want a long-term relationship, but then you mostly search for partners open to casual hookups, the app could be programmed to stop matching you with daters who want a serious relationship, or at least stop showing them your profile. Or if you consistently “check in” to bars and restaurants between 6 and 8 p.m., the app may match you with someone who tends to go out around the same time and in the same neighborhoods.

“There’s going to be a much greater understanding of time and location that is only going to enhance the dating experience,” says Schildkrout of HowAboutWe. “We’re going to know where you are, who you’re with, when you’re available and not available; we’re going to make recommendations about bars or restaurants where lots of single people have recently checked in.”

Your mobile phone goes everywhere with you — and through it, data are being collected and stored along the way. All of that information is bound to better inform matchmakers, maybe even make them better at their job. Says Schildkrout, “When it comes to mobile dating, we’re only in the first inning.”

Brooke Lea Foster is a former assistant editor for the Globe Magazine and is the editor of weewestchester.com. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.
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