Life in the digital age

Life in the digital age (Chicago Tribune file photo)

Danny Boylen, a personal chef in Washington, D.C., was enjoying a cigar at a rooftop bar one summer evening when he wished for some company and — poof! — it appeared.

The genie, in this case, was the OkCupid app on his cellphone, where he "broadcast" his request to members identified, via their phones' GPS functions, as "Locals" who happened to be nearby.

As people increasingly pursue online dating through mobile phones — 25.3 million people accessed personals sites through mobile devices in December, versus 21.3 million through a fixed computer, according to comScore, a leader in analyzing digital audiences — a slew of location-based dating apps are capitalizing on GPS to match daters based on proximity, skipping the more formal back-and-forth correspondence of some sites in favor of meeting right here, right now.

An interesting idea, in theory. But in practice?

A woman responded to Boylen's request and agreed to meet. When she arrived, she was "absolutely hammered," Boylen said, so after one drink he thanked her for being spontaneous, put her in a cab and "poured her home."

Another time, Boylen responded to a woman who "broadcast" that her plans had been canceled and she was having a drink at a downtown restaurant. He knew upon walking in the door that "it was just wrong," he said, as she didn't stand to greet him, she seemed peeved at having to wait and she asked him several times if he was intimidated by her looks.

Is faster better?

Sour dates happen all the time, whether arranged online or set up through friends. But Boylen, 41, who has periodically dated online for more than a decade, said the brevity and immediacy of communication through mobile apps seem to make daters less articulate or able to express or gauge interest, so you have less of a sense of what you're getting into.

"I thought it would be a fun thing to do, but meeting someone with so little information — that in itself was a turnoff," he said.

Location-based dating apps have been wildly successful in the gay community, where pioneering apps like Grindr, launched in 2009 and boasting 4 million users worldwide, alert gay men to others who may be just a few feet away.

Although it is considered a hookup app (and there are plenty of chest-only photos to prove it), Rob Anthony, a 34-year-old management consultant in Toronto who asked that his last name not be used, said he also uses Grindr to make work connections or find people to have a drink with while he's traveling.

"I met some of my best friends that way," he said.

Location-based dating has been slower to catch on among heterosexual daters, likely because women are more wary of announcing their location and meeting a guy without some vetting.

Keeping it safer

App makers have sought to address those concerns.

SinglesAroundMe, which features a map with drop pins showing where nearby singles are, recently launched an "approximate location" option that lets users displace their coordinates by 1 to 2 miles.

Tinder scours a user's Facebook connections to see which friends of friends are single and nearby and invites users to give each profile a thumbs up or down, alerting both people only if both have expressed interest.

MeetMoi sends members a push notification if a match is in the vicinity, getting no more exact than "within .2 miles," and only if both parties agree to chat does the app allow a connection. They have an hour to decide before the option disappears.

Alex Harrington, CEO of MeetMoi, which has 3.7 million users, said the app does the work for the users and gets them meeting in real life pronto so they don't waste time on a lengthy email courtship only to discover they have no chemistry.

"I like that you get right to the point," said Allison Schaffer, 22, who works in online marketing in Chicago and has met several men through MeetMoi. Schaffer said the limited window to chat forces you to exchange contact information, usually Facebook pages, so you can learn more about the person before meeting up.