Sarah Z. Wexler, a Portland writer, recalls one of the funniest and worst messages she ever received on a dating website, OKCupid: “Girl, let me get up on dem buttcheeks.” She laughed. “I couldn’t believe that this was the first contact this man initiated with me — to think that that would ever work.”
Surprise. It didn’t. But that doesn’t stop thousands of men from inundating women with messages in dating apps — today’s virtual version of a singles bar — that are by turns gross, hilarious, objectifying and just plain sad.
In her years of dating, Wexler, who edited the book “Awful First Dates: Hysterical, True, and Heartbreakingly Bad,” has also been the recipient of “the carpet bomb” — the impersonal, copied-and-pasted form letter sent to hundreds of women at a time; the cheesy pickup line; and numerous illiterate greetings like, “Sup, gorgus.”
“[He] wrote me, ‘Hello, Sarah Z. Wexler.’ He knew where I went to college,” she said. “It felt like a big violation that I was potentially semi-anonymous and my name and professional stuff was something that someone could find by having access to my picture.”
No wonder Susie Lee, a Seattle-based visual artist turned tech entrepreneur, created Siren, a dating app designed to protect women from scenarios like the ones Wexler experienced.
Lee, who’d never signed up for a dating site until she began researching the competition for Siren, was unnerved after receiving messages fetishizing her Asian ancestry. She partnered with Katrina Hess, a designer she had met on another project.
“I didn’t feel safe on these sites. I felt really exposed,” said Lee, who is Korean American. “Especially as an Asian woman, you put your picture up there and suddenly like ‘Asian fantasy’ would come up.”
Online dating is now virtually free of the stigma it once had, and Americans are taking to it in droves. According to “Dataclysm,” the new book by OKCupid’s co-founder, Christian Rudder, more than 55 million have registered for a dating site in the last three years. Of course that means more and more creeps are online, too. A 2012 experiment by Jon Millward, a data journalist, found that women were messaged 17 times more than men; the best-looking woman received 536 messages in four months, while the best-looking guy received only 38.
With Siren’s unusual features, Lee hopes to change the nature of the messages and put women in the driver’s seat, which is what Siren was originally going to be called. The free iPhone app, currently launched to a select market in Seattle in August (with an Android release coming shortly), allows women to peruse men’s pictures and their answers to the “Question of the Day” (“You found a magic lamp and get three wishes. What are they?”) and view their Video Challenges (“Show us a hidden gem in Seattle”). If a woman is suitably impressed by a man’s answers, she can make herself visible to him. Only then can he see what she looks like.
It’s a far more thoughtful — and cautious — approach than the one taken by the dating app of the moment, Tinder, which is effectively a “hot or not” game, with little information beyond a few photos, age and volunteered biographical tidbits. And the implicit notion that it’s a “hookup” app can be uncomfortable for some women.
Other, more traditional dating sites like OKCupid can also leave women unwittingly exposed. At a round-table discussion about women and online privacy in September at the Project Room on Seattle’s Capitol Hill, Lee said: “In 2014, it’s very hard for a woman to be both professional and sexual.”
Teachers, politicians and women in power are particularly sensitive to revealing, personal details being made public. For instance, OKCupid’s questionnaire posits, “Once you’re intimate, how often would you and your significant other have sex?”
You don’t have to look far to see examples of women’s online vulnerability. Even high-profile actresses such as Jennifer Lawrence who often pose provocatively on the covers of magazines are subject to public shaming when their private, nude photos are hacked and posted on the Internet.
Wexler is still disturbed by her reverse Googler: In such a situation, Siren’s built-in privacy features could be helpful, she said. “You are sort of metering out who gets what information about you.”
Women as app creators
Lee, 41, is an unusual candidate for an online-dating tech entrepreneur. A visual artist who works with sculpture, digital technology and video, with a master of fine arts degree and a background in science (she has a bachelor of science degree in molecular biophysics and biochemistry from Yale), she’d only just gotten her first iPhone in summer 2013 and had an “aha” moment after playing with Scruff, a gay male dating app on a friend’s phone.
Curious, she signed up for dating sites like Plenty of Fish, OKCupid and Match, and was appalled by their tacky designs: “If you have any taste at all, how can you be on this thing?” she laughed.
And OKCupid’s lengthy profile creation bored her. She wanted to make something that wasn’t an eyesore or laborious to join. Indeed, Siren’s slick opening screen is a sensual drop of dark ink floating in water; the profile creation is short and sweet.
She began working on it in earnest last year after meeting Hess, 37, who became the app’s lead designer and chief operating officer. The duo are now close friends who finish each other’s sentences. Sitting at Ada’s Technical Books and Café, Lee sports a chin-length bob and angular, arty glasses; Hess has a bubbly, impish personality and an affinity for knock-knock jokes.
Lee and Hess (and by extension, Siren, which has another woman on the team of five) are an anomaly in the dating-app universe. Nearly all dating websites, including Tinder and Snapchat, are created by men, with a few exceptions (one is Coffee Meets Bagel, created by three sisters). This might explain why so few dating sites consider the privacy and safety issues that women experience.
Hess drew an analogy to the tech world and fashion. “It reminded me of fashion houses, actually, and how most of these haute couture dresses are made by men for women to wear.”
Indeed, the industry is riddled with charges of sexism. Women hold less than 25 percent of all jobs in the science, tech, engineering and math (STEM) professions, according to a 2011 report by the U.S. Department of Commerce. This year, one of Tinder’s co-founders, Whitney Wolfe, sued Tinder and InterActive Corp, its parent company, alleging sexual harassment. (The case was recently settled out of court.)
Competition is tough
Lee and Hess are only just finding out if Siren’s unique methodology works. Four hundred early adopters were invited in August; there are now 1,200 users, Lee says.
The biggest hurdle Siren faces is getting enough money and users to go viral. A tiny startup like Siren (seeded with funding from friends and family and Lee’s own savings account, amounting to about $400,000) faces incredibly stiff competition. Many of the largest sites, like Chemistry, OKCupid and Match — even Tinder, which presents itself like a startup — are owned by IAC, a huge company worth $4.2 billion.
Siren is also up against people’s innately shallow behavior: With only one photo for the profile picture, the app de-emphasizes the visual, in favor of wit and intelligence.
“If you only pick out cute guys, you’re gonna have the same problem on any other site,” Lee said. “The question is how do you actually unlearn that and actually do the thing you do in real life?”
New York City online dating consultant Steve Dean, of Dateworking.com, isn’t sure Siren’s approach, while noble, will really work. “Tinder has proved that both sides are equally superficial,” he said. And he praised Tinder’s unique messaging protocol (users can correspond only if they both “like” each other): “Even though you see a lot of crap on the Internet about Tinder founders, the Tinder app itself is actually revolutionary. It was one of the first apps that put women fully in control,” he said.
Still, Lee and Hess are betting that men are less shallow and want more repartee. And they know that women want a little more flirtation than crude references to buttcheeks. After all, Siren’s motto is “Charm Someone’s Pants Off.”
“Before the ‘pants off,’ it’s more about charming someone,” said Hess. “Be charming.”
Tricia Romano: firstname.lastname@example.org