By Alexia Elejalde-Ruiz, Tribune Newspapers
February 27, 2013
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.
Still, the constant connectedness of mobile apps have turned off some users.
Jennifer Kelton, 47, founder of badonlinedates.com, has used Skout and thinks mobile dating has fed into a culture of instant gratification. It can be dangerous if you meet someone without thinking, and it has eaten away at wooing, she said.
Cristina Triglione, 32, who has used OkCupid Locals, PlentyOfFish and Let's Date, among other apps, said she gets many messages from men who nudge her with little more than "hi sexy," which isn't very informative. What's more, messages often come in at inopportune times.
Triglione, a special education aide in Boston, said she likes the concept of location-based dating but wishes there were a way to reveal her location to select people only or block those out of her age range. Plus, she is uncomfortable posting a date request on OkCupid. "I don't want everyone to see it," she said, "and I'm not really sure what kind of attention I would get from that."
OkCupid co-founder and CEO Sam Yagan said location-based apps should be part of "a portfolio of dating strategies and tools," good for facilitating last-minute dates. Of the 4 million active users on OkCupid, half of whom access the site through their mobile phones, 1 million have the Locals app, slightly more men than women, he said.
OkCupid also recently launched the mobile app Crazy Blind Date, which sets up a blind date — no photos, no profiles — between users who have suggested date ideas in the same neighborhood. He declined to disclose how many people have been matched on Crazy Blind Date, where men outnumber women 3-to-1, but said 70 percent reported a positive experience.
"You could watch TV tonight or you could spend 20 minutes on a blind date," Yagan said. "Maybe they're not attractive, but you met a new person, maybe you have a good story to tell."
Time will tell
As with online dating, mobile dating started off catering to people looking for casual relationships, but as it becomes mainstream more serious relationship-seekers are using it as well, said Mark Brooks, an analyst and consultant to the Internet dating industry and founder of onlinepersonalswatch.com.
As online dating growth flattens, mobile dating is on a fast ascent.
"It's more natural, you're out and about," said Brooks, who predicts that dating via mobile phone will change the game profoundly because apps can gather instantaneous feedback about how a date went, resulting in better matches. "People don't really know what they want, so the best way to match people is to look at their behaviors," Brooks said. "Your phone is going to get to know you, it is going to get to know your buying behavior."
Mobile dating tips
Laurie Davis, author of "Love at First Click: The Ultimate Guide to Online Dating" (Atria), said users have to approach mobile dating differently from online dating.
Smaller screens mean shorter profiles so people must make better use of the interest check boxes. Messages will sound more like text messages, but a quick "hey" is not enough and you must still highlight something in common or ask a question.
"You still need to know that there's something that will inspire you to meet, because otherwise why wouldn't you just stay with your friends?" Davis said. Obviously, meeting in public is advised.
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