Zach Alberico

My name is Zach – I like the web, tech and startups.

Dating websites are shit — all of them.

04 February 2013 by Zach

Currently online dating sucks for a lot of reasons, but I wish it didn’t – and it doesn’t have to.
The current popular dating websites are a disaster, but luckily the fix seems easy.

Who we’re dealing with.

We have a few different types of sites, but they all share most of the same problems. From the famous and heavily advertised for pay sites like eharmony and match to the uncomfortable (christian mingle) and weird (cupidtino).

The problem with for pay sites has been well detailed in an old okcupid blog post that was comically removed after they were purchased by match.

From the free sites okcupid is probably the best of the current dating sites. Their question answering match system is clever and does a good job of actually finding people who have similar opinions and would probably get along. They also have additional metrics going on in the background that make for interesting blog posts and they are using these metrics to determine how ‘attractive’ your profile is and will show you similarly attractive people as a result.

Even with all of this there are some obvious problems that aren’t addressed.

There are a few systemic problems with the current dating site model.

Women are over messaged.

Women on dating websites are typically inundated with hundreds of messages (although this does vary based on age and other factors). The signal to noise ratio is a disaster – and while women do at least have the power to sift through the messages and choose, most of the messages won’t be very good because of problem number two.

Men are rarely messaged.

Since men rarely get responses to messages (and almost never actually get an initial message) there is an incentive to send out hundreds of messages. This wide net approach is the most likely to get any response, but also generally degrades the quality of the message and contributes to the first problem.

People are bad at representing themselves.

Dating websites in their current form create an incentive to stretch the truth – although this argument could be made for the way people act on a first date anyway, these inaccuracies contribute to making the profiles even less useful than they would be otherwise.

Ultimately the profile doesn’t matter that much because people don’t care who the site suggests they’re interested in by a compatibility metric – people pick who they’re interested in for a variety of irrational reasons, but primarily (at least initially) because they’re attracted to them.

What about a website where women ask? — Hopeless. I’m not going into the cultural reasons why that won’t work because I don’t understand them, I just know that it won’t.

The solution is actually simpler, reasonably elegant, and works like this.

Start with targeted, specific, restricted communities – colleges are perfect for this. Both men and women have accounts on the site and the accounts are simple – a big photo, name and maybe an about me.

You can mark people you’re interested in, but they will only be notified if they also mark you.

This solves a host of problems – first it completely eliminates the over messaging problem since women are never notified of all of their markers. It simplifies the men messaging process because it reduces the messages to their simplest form (just a marker) and doesn’t pretend to know who and what people are interested in.

Remember the community is targeted so people will primarily be marking people they already know, have seen or are acquaintances with. There are many reasons people don’t ask people they know out. It could be a fear of rejection, that the person is in a relationship already (some people only move from one to the next with no window in between), that they don’t know each other very well – it really doesn’t matter. For people they don’t know it’ll reduce to what dating sites are primarily anyway, selecting based on picture. Since users are only notified when there’s a match it’s like asking somebody out if and only if the answer is yes.

“What about the guy who just marks everybody?”

First there is a social disincentive to indiscriminately mark everybody. There is no advantage to mark people you’re not interested in because all you’ll have to do is reject them and since this is a college campus people’s identities are more closely tied to their reputation. If someone theoretically really was interested in everyone then it shouldn’t matter if they mark everyone because the people they mark will never see it unless the interest is mutual. If this turns out to be a real problem a hard limit on concurrent marks could trivially be set.

This dating site is rejection free, only returns signal (there is no noise), quick and easy. It understands that people choose who they want to date and doesn’t attempt to pick for them. As an unintentional bonus it’s also agnostic to sexual orientation. Since users aren’t notified unless it’s mutual a user is free to mark men or women even if they don’t know the other user’s sexual orientation (or if that user may want to keep it secret).

This idea could be further extended.

Creating specific locations around something is important otherwise they’ll be too much noise in the large number of users, but it doesn’t have to be only colleges. Four square gives you the ability to check into locations, but who cares that you’re checking into some restaurant for the tenth time? Even if you do care, the utility you get from that is minimal.

A reason to check in.

This dating site could give people an actual reason to check in. If you partner with local bars and clubs (have them be official website locations) then when people check in they could see a list of everyone there at the moment with the ability to mark them. You could do small interesting things with this too, if there’s a match it shows the girl’s favorite drink for example. It’d also allow you to run interesting metrics about the places like the number of men and women at certain locations on certain days.

About a year and a half ago two friends and I worked on a basic implementation of this idea in Rails (relying heavily on Michael Hartl’s awesome tutorial to figure out rails and create the basic models). One friend worked on the design and one worked with me on the backend. I really just wanted the thing to exist so I could use it and having to build it was an obstacle. We got decently far – and our code is on github here . Disclaimer: I’m a terrible programmer (need a lot more practice) so keep that in mind — and yeah I’m not a huge fan of the name either.

Recently there is someone finally doing something similar to this – although it’s a bit simpler and not quite as useful because it’s not exclusive to a specific group or place. It’s an iPhone app called tinder and it shows you a photo which you can swipe left for no and right for yes. It then only notifies based on mutual interest. If there’s a match it allows the users to chat.

I can’t be the first.

I know I couldn’t have been the first to think of this and Paul Graham specifically mentioned how shitty dating websites are (at least in 2005). Mark Zuckerberg mentioned in his startup talk that the meeting new people space isn’t something he’s interested in (although this could always change) and that it’s still pretty wide open.

Online dating sucks because we’re trying to take classified ads from news papers and put them online instead of using the web and computers for what they’re good at. It’s a technical mistake as much as a social one and it’s the same reason the creative jukebox looked like a CD player before the iPod showed what could be done. When Facebook launched people jumped on it partly because they wanted to see if the person they liked was single. This idea is just an extension of that and it’s a more interesting solution than continuing to carve out stranger niches for more dating sites that don’t solve the right problem.

There’s also the possibility that dating itself may be broken too, but I don’t pretend to have a fix for that.

14 comments | Categories: Uncategorized

Comments (14)

  1. There is a Facebook app called ‘Bang with friends’ that does exactly this.

    • Didn’t know about this so that’s cool.

      While the title of the app might generate initial interest – I think the stigma it creates will hurt it much more than it helps (especially when trying to get women to use it). People are also unlikely to want it tied to facebook and it doesn’t have the check in part.

  2. Interesting article. It would never occur to me to use an online dating service because at every level of the process people misrepresent themselves online and/or project into the situation conditions that don’t exist.

    One modification to your idea would be to allow people to elect others into a local social group. This allows them to see people interact before they get into a dating situation, since dating is like used car sales or the internet itself, in that the same projection behavior I describe above is the norm.

    Any idiot can act like the successful dates on TV and get through a few dates without revealing that he/she is a psycho killer, nutcase, abuser, secretly boring, etc. (Disclaimer: I am “out of the closet” about my own boring nature.)

    This is why people tend to like to socialize in groups. You see your potential date interacting with others, specifically others from whom he/she has nothing to gain. This reveals more of the character than the flattery and deference which is the norm on first dates.

  3. Great idea! I especially like the system of marking people you’re interested in.

  4. Just a heads up, the idea you are talking about, where you mark someone, already exists. It’s called Tinder. They use your Facebook profile pic, and you can add other pics and some info about yourself. My friend has been using it and says its like fishing with dynamite…

  5. I agree with everything you said here and I made a dating app I think addresses many of your complaints. Would you consider checking it out and giving me some feedback? http://bit.ly/getletsdate

    • My first impression is that you have the mutual matching idea right and your implementation is a lot like Tinder (or Tinder’s is a lot like yours). You have a couple more features to try and improve suggestions, but in this case I think 99% of approvals and rejections are because of the picture. I’ll try it out and let you know what I think.

      I’m also not a huge fan of the name.

  6. OkCupid already was that feature and they have for years. When you rate someone 4 or 5 stars and they do the same for you, you both get a notice message. It works great.

    • I don’t think that’s how it actually works with Okcupid. I’m pretty sure when you rate someone 4 or 5 stars it either tells them who rated them if they’re a paying user or it tells them ‘someone’ rated them which creates an incentive to rate everyone just to find out who.

      It’s also hard in a huge community of people that aren’t grouped by something (like a college or specific bar/club) because there will be too many users. In Okcupid’s case I’m also not sure how many people even use the rating part.

  7. Came across this post on HackerNews (http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=5206807) after researching for this post (http://whoo.ps/2013/02/28/what-facebook-needs-now-silent-connect). I know for a fact that you can forgive bad form for pointing to your own website ;-)

    In any case, I enjoyed this post. I had the very same ideas several years ago and was actually dumb enough to try to patent it back in the pre-iPhone days (http://www.google.com/patents/US20070037574). The tricky part of this product is that it only works when everyone has it. I suspect that this feature needs to be built on top of another app/platform that merits checking in for non-hookup reasons. Probably on Facebook, which will enable hyperlocal eventually. A huge swath of people open Facebook (implicit check-in via GPS) once an hour anyway.

    • Yeah there’s definitely an up front issue with getting enough people using it (which is why I think the targeted college roll out would be the best start). Building it on facebook means everyone is already there – and if “Bang with friends” didn’t have such a terrible name it would have been interesting to see how it would have done. Although I tend to think for something like this there is an advantage to having it separate from facebook.