IN THIS POST #METOO DATING LANDSCAPE, IT’S HIGH TIME WE RETHINK HOW WE ACQUIRE WHAT WE DESIRE—ESPECIALLY WHEN WE START FROM BEHIND A SCREEN. WRITER OLIVIA LINDSAY AYLMER DISCUSSES THE CURRENT DIGITAL DATING LANDSCAPE AND INTERVIEWS WOMEN SUCH AS @H_E_R_S_T_O_R_Y AND PERSONALS FOUNDER KELLY RAKOWSKI, AND DATING EDITOR AT ELITE DAILY, HANNAH ORENSTEIN.
Seeking connection through technologically enabled means is, of course, nothing new. While the platforms may have grown in sophistication and personalization, and shifted to our smart phone-wielding fingertips, the underlying urge to make the process of meeting new matches more efficient goes back to at least 1964. That’s when Joan Ball, an early pioneer in computer dating and social networking realms, founded the St. James Computer Dating Service in England.
Long before we were swiping left and right alone in our bedrooms, considering common interests and cuteness of photos, Ball started her service (which would eventually come to be known as Com-Pat, short for “computerized compatibility”) based on the premise of matching people by what they didn’t want in a relationship. Through the remainder of the 1960s, her hunch proved a hit.
You may be more familiar with Operation Match, Ball’s American-founded counterpart, which was born in 1965 by three Harvard students (Jeff Tarr, David Crump, and Vaughan Morrill) and an outside partner (Douglas Ginsburg). The group developed the idea as a remedy for what they saw, as reported in a 1965 Harvard Crimson article, as “the irrationality of two particular social evils: the blind date and the mixer.”
That’s where computers as matchmakers come in.
Initial preferences were noted via paper questionnaire (read: no profile pictures), then punched into cards, and processed on an IBM 1401 computer. In return, participants received a printout with addresses primed for snail mail.
“WE SET OUT TO REALLY EXPLORE WHAT HAPPENED TO CHIVALRY AND COURTSHIP AND HOW MODERN-DAY DATING SEEMED TO BE ON A BAD TRAJECTORY,” COPYWRITER IAN HART TOLD ADWEEK IN JANUARY. “WHEN WE SAY DATING DESERVES BETTER, WHAT WE’RE REALLY SAYING IS PEOPLE WHO DATE DESERVE BETTER. BECAUSE I MEAN, THEY REALLY DO. MODERN DATING TREATS EMOTIONS LIKE A DISPOSABLE COMMODITY. ANYONE WHO’S BEEN SINGLE KNOWS THIS. IT’S AN ASPIRATION TO TREATING PEOPLE LIKE PEOPLE.”
So ad campaigns are one way to put modern seduction in a fresh context, but what about a new app to fill previously unmet needs entirely? Enter photo editor Kelly Rakowski, whose name you may recognize as the founder of the Instagram account @h_e_r_s_t_o_r_y, a collection of images drawn from early 1800’s to late 1990’s lesbian culture.
It’s a balmy evening in July when Rakowski, 38, and I meet outside a coffee shop on the cusp of closing in her Brooklyn neighborhood of Park Slope. If she appears slightly dazed, it’s for good reason. Her campaign to bring Personals, a new kind of text-based dating platform and community, to life has clearly struck a nerve, having met its Kickstarter fundraising goal, and then some, of $47,779 with 1,736 backers just a couple days prior. Suddenly, what started as a fun, lighthearted project-turned-Instagram account between friends and managed via Google Docs appears primed to shake up the queer dating landscape for the better.
Inspired by old-school newspaper “personals,” and created for lesbians, QT (queer-trans), and non-binary, LBTQIA-identified people, the format draws a nostalgic page from the playful, witty, and often humorous looking-for-love ads Rakowski initially discovered in the archives of On Our Backs, the first women-run erotica magazine geared toward a lesbian audience.
Rakowski envisions the full-fledged app as a nucleus for what she terms “slow dating”: a respite for those who’ve grown weary of traditional selfie-swiping culture to more thoughtfully, and specifically, articulate their desires—whether for a romantic relationship, a friendship, or players for a dyke soccer team (it’s happened!), depending on the person.
“When I first showed one of my friends, she was like, “oh, finally, I can just see what people are wanting. They’re so direct,’” Rakowski tells me. On Tinder, which she admits, with a laugh, she “used hard” about four years ago, “you didn’t know if you should write something or not, because it’s too embarrassing—but this is all about being up front. You have to be honest with yourself. I just really think when you write something down, it really can come true to life in a different kind of way.”
One key ingredient in the cult following that has built up around Personals lies in its embrace of language, a critical means of expressing queer desire in all its nuanced multiplicities. “The personal really does compliment the way people describe themselves,” Rakowski explains. To that end, she regularly receives DMs from people who have recently come out, who tell her that “just reading how people talk about themselves is really helpful.”
What sets Rakowski’s vision apart from preexisting apps is her focus on fostering a community larger than the sum of individual matches. In addition to hosting speed dating events and full-fledged parties (the most recent of which unfolded in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, complete with cherry-red streamers and a disco ball) that bring the app to life beyond its interface, Rakowski would like to develop new tools to help guide what happens after two people meet via Personals, whether they live in Los Angeles or a rural, midwestern town. As she sees it, the key to navigating online dating comes down to setting clear intentions for yourself and staying open to unknown possibilities. It’s about “being true, and not playing games. Because if you meet someone and it works, it just works. But you really need to know yourself—and know what you want.”