Dating sites remake the introductions
Surprises, group events part of mix
In the middle of the day, your phone rings. It’s an unfamiliar number. New York area code.
“Hello,” a robotic voice says, “It’s Mr. Brooks from Tawkify. Don’t turn around. Act natural.”
The voice instructs you to wear a dress tomorrow night for your date: a poetry slam at the Cantab Lounge. Make sure to carry a favorite poetry book. Your suitor will be wearing a baseball hat and carrying a notepad. “Don’t be late or I can’t answer for the consequences,” the voice says.
Tawkify, a blind-date matchmaking site, bills itself as “the new old way to date.” It is one of several matchmaking start-ups tailored to millennials who seek companionship, but who have no interest in enduring a string of traditional one-on-one dates to find it.
“We actually never use the ‘D’ word on the site or in any of our materials,” said Michael Waxman, founder of Grouper, a New York-based matchmaking site. “Social club” is how Grouper is billed. Grouper uses members’ Facebook profiles to set up a date between two people — who each invite two friends along, increasing the odds of clicking with someone.
“Our whole site’s about trying to form real relationships, and not just with members of the opposite sex, but with your friends, too,” Waxman said.
Injecting a bit of adventure is also part of the new formula.
MeetCute sends potential matches to a location but doesn’t reveal them to each other, forcing participants to connect with their MeetCute match — or with a total stranger.
Even major dating sites are jumping into adventure dating. OkCupid just launched Crazy Blind Date, an app that lets users pick a location and a day, then sit back and get paired up someone to go out with.
“In order to create love, you have to create mystery,” said E. Jean Carroll, a longtime advice columnist for Elle Magazine who cofounded Tawkify last spring with developer Kenneth Shaw.
About 20 percent of people now meet their partners online, and there are more than 2,000 dating sites on the Web, said David Evans, a consultant who edits onlinedatingpost.com. But it’s an industry that is undergoing rapid change, as users move to mobile devices and companies strive to keep up.
The numbers for big dating sites have been mostly stagnant or, in some cases, decreasing in recent years, according to data from Nielsen, the media research company.
Match.com, for example, fell from about 7 million unique visitors from home and work computers in November 2010 to just over 3.1 million such visitors in November 2012, while Plenty of Fish went from 2.5 million to fewer than 2.3 million during the same period.
Because many dating sites offer “basically the same user experience as . . . five years ago,” Evans said, there has been room for innovation — and opportunity. Numbers for recent start-ups are minuscule compared with those for the big-name sites, but they are growing.
That would include the rise of smartphone dating apps like Tinder (owned by Match.com’s parent company), a location-based app that identifies people nearby whom users might know and connects them if there’s interest. It’s reminiscent of Grindr, the popular mobile app for casual gay meet-ups.
Author Jessica Massa, 29, interviewed hundreds of young singles across the country about their dating lives for her love-advice book, “The Gaggle,” which encourages women to look at the men in their social networks, or “gaggles,” to find potential matches. Many of the millennials Massa spoke with were children of divorce, but even those whose parents stayed married often did not see a connection to emulate.
“A lot of the millennials I met whose parents are still together, a lot of them didn’t really want that same relationship,” said Massa, who has a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Harvard. “So to think that we should go through the same means to find someone — I mean, it doesn’t really make sense.”
Massa found that many young people are wary of typical one-on-one dating, and that even calling something a “date” ramps up the pressure and the worries about rejection.
“Asking a girl on a date now feels very formal, very official. And if you do ask someone on a date and it doesn’t work out, it’s a little bit harder to turn that into a friendship,” Massa said. If “there’s a gray area, you just sort of move out of the gray area casually.”
Bill Hibbard, 25, who works in sales for a finance company and lives in Boston, said he preferred Grouper for meeting people over something more “formal.”
Dating sites “seem a little bit more one-on-one and personal, whereas with this you get to go out with one or two of your buddies and it’s more of a social gathering,” Hibbard said.
Ryan Cook, 25, an ad revenue manager who lives in the Back Bay, said he uses OkCupid sporadically and has tried the Tinder app. But he feels that making a connection face-to-face isn’t so easy.
The Grouper date he went on in December helped eliminate “social pressures,” he said, and turned into a nearly five-hour hangout at multiple bars.
“The ability to have the backup of two people or at least one person you’re familiar with turns it into a less-pressured situation,” Cook said. “It was sort of exactly what I was looking for. It was a fun, nonstressful night out.”
Such casual or creative meet-ups may offer more “guaranteed fun” than the typical dinner or drinks, author Massa said.
“If nothing else, you can go home and be like, well, that was an experience. And I think that’s a lot more appealing than going to dinner and the whole reason you’re at dinner is to look at each other and figure out if you’re going to fall in love.”
Making online meet-ups as relaxed as possible could be the way to keep young people on the Web dating scene, said a Northwestern University psychology professor, Eli Finkel, who studies romantic relationships.
Paring down the number of potential matches may help, too. Many of the new niche sites narrow down the choices, instead of showing users a supermarket’s worth of options and telling them to pick one, said Tawkify’s Carroll, whose company employs human matchmakers to pair people up.
“You can stand — what? — 15 minutes just choosing toothpaste,” Carroll said. “What [online dating] does is it makes the situation worse. So we curate.”
And that, in the end, may be the best way to make a connection.
Last year, Finkel was one of five academics who authored “Online Dating: A Critical Analysis From the Perspective of Psychological Science,” which posits that dating algorithms are ineffective at predicting romance.
“None of these sites has cracked the code,” said Finkel, who believes the “human algorithm” is the key to finding the perfect match.
“That’s your mind,” he said.