Tuesday, 27 January 2015 09:05

Digital Get Down: Online dating in West Michigan

Written by  Anya Zentmeyer
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WHEN ONLINE DATING GETS AWKWARD: Siblings Sean and Brooke Dailey find each other online... WHEN ONLINE DATING GETS AWKWARD: Siblings Sean and Brooke Dailey find each other online... PHOTO: SETH THOMPSON

Sitting at a table in a noisy Grand Rapids bar across from the first OkCupid match she’d ever met up with in real life, Tayler Keefer couldn’t help but ask her date one question.

“I’m not weird and you’re not weird, so why are we both looking for dates online?”

However, what Tayler -- and so many other skeptics of online relationships, for that matter -- don’t realize, is that 11 percent of all Americans 18 years and older have some kind of online dating profile. So if having an online dating profile suggests a person is “too weird” to find dates in real life, it also means not only do 1 out of every 10 Americans fit that bill, but so do the people implicated by the 42 percent of adults in the U.S. who said they know someone else who belongs to an online dating network.

As the Digital Age ushers in a whole new genre of mobile dating applications, the reality of our increasingly social-networked society is changing the conventions around how we forge most of our relationships. One of the more interesting of these is the romantic kind, and thanks to the Pew Research Institute, we’ve got the numbers to prove it.

Changing Attitudes Can Change

After conducting two nationwide surveys, the first in 2005 and the second in 2013, exploring the Internet’s impact on dating and relationships, researchers at Pew charted a 15-point increase in respondents who agreed with the statement “online dating is a good way to meet people." The numbers came in at 59 percent in 2013, which is up from 44 percent in 2005. Conversely, while 29 percent of 2005 respondents agreed with the statement: “people who use online dating are desperate,” that number fell to 21 percent in 2013.

In the time between the first and second survey, so much of our communication technology was changing so rapidly. Facebook wasn’t a publicly available website in 2005 and Twitter hadn’t even been invented yet. Apple was two years away from introducing the iPhone and people still thought MySpace was a cool thing.

Somewhere on the cusp of all of that change around 2007, Wyoming residents Ariel and Ben Kirsch were lying to their friends and family about how they met. Though they technically did have their first date at the former Grand Rapids coffee house Four Friends, for the first couple of years they were together, they didn’t mention the whole eHarmony thing.

“I remember when we initially started dating, Ariel said, ‘Don’t tell people we met on eHarmony,” Ben said. “Tell them we met somewhere else.’”

Instead, they used their first actual face-to-face meeting at the coffee shop as the official story among friends. In fact, nearly none of their family or friends knew Ariel and Ben met on eHarmony until the day of their wedding, when the couple stood at the front of the church looking out at the rows of packed pews, and their well-meaning pastor kicked off the ceremony by letting the cat out of the bag in front of their family, friends and God.

“When we were dating we were just so vague about it,” Ariel said. “Now, we’ve been together for eight years and married for almost six and a half and we have three kids and so many people tell us how perfect we are for each other so it makes me really believe that ultimately, if you found someone who is just really perfect for you, why does it matter how you got to that point? Who cares if you met online?"

Swipe It & Quit It

While the Pew report shows 23 percent of online daters have met a spouse or a long-term relationship through an online dating service, it’s in the 66 percent of online daters that have gone on a date (or whatever you want to call it) where Tinder comes in to play.

Tinder is the Digital Age equivalent of a piece of notebook paper that says, “Do you like me? Check yes or no." It requires you to link your Facebook account with the mobile app, using your profile pictures and basic info as the basis for its simple proximity-based aggregation of users in your area. Tinder cycles through these users’ Facebook photos and you swipe left if you’re not interested or right if you want to message them.

It’s easy and it’s casual, which is in part why it’s gained so much popularity since hitting the app stores in 2012.

However, because Tinder links with your Facebook, the ability to remain in relative anonymity that comes along with most other online dating platforms is lost on this social network, and it’s more than likely you’ll see a whole bunch of too-familiar faces as you’re standing at the bar swiping left and right with wild abandon.

As a current resident of the Big Apple and a former Grand Rapidian, 21-year-old Cody Jones moved to New York City after landing a position at Nylon Magazine. Although he says Tinder isn’t quite as crowded with people you recognize as Grand Rapids, in his experience, it's not a guarantee you won’t ever see someone you know on Tinder and they won’t see you.

“You would think that you would feel more anonymous on dating apps in a big city but it’s funny how many people you still do end up recognizing on apps like Tinder when you’re using them,” he said.

Sometimes, the people you recognize hit a little too close to home.

“My sister saw my profile, took a screen shot of it and then tagged me on Facebook,” said Sean Dailey, who lives in Grand Rapids. “I think that’s kind of indicative of the small town issue with dating websites because it’s not introducing you to anybody that you don’t already know and in its worst case scenario, it’s somebody you know too well.”

Sean is in a committed relationship now with someone and although he did not meet her on Tinder, the two reconnected using the app. While he will tell you he thinks “it’s generally kind of accepted that Tinder is a nightmare,” and nobody who uses it takes it too seriously, he will admit those kind of online dating platforms are still very much a part of what it means to be young and single in 2015.

“I think if you’re from the younger generation it’s less of a sad, desperate thing and more of a normal thing,” he said. “If you’re of a certain age and you’re single, you’re probably on a dating app in one form or another.”

The New Normal

If you ask its spokesperson Rosette Pambakian, Tinder is part of the regime of social networking platforms creating new ways to solve age-old issues with communication breakdown. She says mostly, by virtue of its Choose Your Own Adventure design, it’s helping break the stigma of online dating by stripping its structure of all of the things that mandate romance.

“The purpose of Tinder is social discovery -- for people to meet and connect with mutually interested people nearby, whether it be for friendship, dating or any reason,” she said. “Essentially, all we’re doing is facilitating an introduction between two people that want to get to know each other better. Beyond that, it’s entirely up to them to figure out what they want from the connection.”

It may be funded by the same guys who own OkCupid and Match.com, but it strips down all of those things that put the pressure on romance and open the floor up to new relationships and new friendships. Pambakian said people even use Tinder for networking and travel.

“This essentially reduced the stigma attached to ‘online dating’ and makes us very different from the dating apps on the market today,” she said.

Remember Tayler? The normal girl who met a normal guy on OkCupid and had a normal first date? She’s got a boyfriend named Felix now and they’ve been dating for almost a year. He’s another successful OkCupid match -- not the same one she went on her first real life OkCupid date with, but the one that has made her a self-described “online dating advocate.”

“I've always been an advocate for it,” she said. “I mean, not in the same way as someone is an advocate for fighting AIDS in Africa, but I don't think you should be afraid to do it because you think it makes you weird, or will make you ostracized for being a person who doesn't know how to interact with society and has to find dates from behind a computer screen. I think it's good, with respect to dating. You want to find someone you care about who also cares about you and if you can use the tools available to date around and find that right person. How is that not a good thing?”

Different Folks, Different Strokes

Looking for a more specific type of romance? Like, really, really specific? From the peculiar to the practical, these very real dating sites are for singles that know EXACTLY what they want in a partner.

Purrsonals
If you find yourself walking away from too many dates with a cat-shaped hole in your heart, then Purrsonals is the purrfect way to find your purrfect match. Cats.

Clown Dating
We won’t claim to be experts on the culture of clown love, but even though this unlikely singles dating network boasts the tagline, “Everybody loves a clown…Let a clown love you,” somehow we think that’s just not true. Juggling home, work AND romance is a balancing act - but that’s just the type of thing users on Clown Dating are into.

Sea Captain Date
Unlike real boats, relationSHIPS need more than just one captain at the wheel. Unlike every other dating site ever, Sea Captain Date can make that happen.

Farmers Only
Because city folk just don’t get it.

Tall Friends
You don’t have to be the tallest person in the room anymore.

Naturist Passion
Spoiler alert - it’s for nudists! Cut right through the chit-chat and find some naked people online the legal way.

Singles With Food Allergies
Because it turns out the only person who could ever love someone with a peanut allergy is another person with a peanut allergy?


There's an App for That 

When it comes to the dating world, not everyone's preferences are the same. Some are looking for love, while others are looking for lust. And then there are others that are strangely specific. Here are some things you can get out of these apps. 

GET LAID

Simple to use and based on location, these mobile dating apps are largely appropriated for those seeking, ahem, instant gratification.

Tinder
With a super simple user interface, the mobile dating app Tinderlinks up with your Facebook account so users within certain proximity of each other can swipe left or right depending on whether or not they're interested in you based on your profile photo and basic interests. You can only message another user within the application if you both swiped right (for yes), but after mutual interest is established and messaging is enabled, Tinder leaves it up to you to decide how to make the next move.
Cost: Free
Platform: Mobile

Grindr
Before there was Tindr, there was Grindr, so all you geo-social networking fans know whom to thank next time you use the app for instant gratification. Much like Tinder, Grindr uses your location to find other users nearby and displays profile photos by proximity to wherever you are. Unlike Tinder, Grindr doesn't link with your Facebook, and is geared primarily toward only geared toward gay, bisexual and bi-curious men. Since hitting the app store six years ago, Grindr boats 10 million downloads and more than 5 million daily users.
Cost: Free
Platform: Mobile

GET DATES

When you want more than a one-night stand but less than a legally binding document, these apps are best for singles looking to play the field.

OkCupid
If algorithm-based matching is what defines eHarmony, then OkCupidis the (free) eHarmony equivalent for IAC/InterActiveCorp, which also owns Match.com and invested big bucks in helping to create Tinder. With a boatload of member-created quizzes and multiple-choice questions, the more you answer, the better OkCupid's algorithm works to filter in your best potential matches. 
Cost: Free (with premium "A-List" upgrade options) 
Platform: Online (with a solid mobile app available)  

PlentyofFish
Plenty of Fishis another basic, free online dating site with the standard hobby/interest-based matching system. An old reliable, Plenty of Fish doesn't have any kind of interesting, new matchmaking approaches to speak of, but it's simple, has a familiar feel and allows you to use pretty much all of its features without a premium upgrade.
Cost: Free (with premium upgrade options)
Platform: Online (with a solid mobile app available)  

GET HITCHED

When you're ready to settle down, these apps will help you find other singles interested in forging a long-term, committed relationship.

Match.com
Essentially an online personal ad, Match.com shows you other singles in your area with similar interests/preferences based on a questionnaire. First one on the scene way back in April1995, Match may be the grandfather of online dating sites, but recent studies show it's still getting more action than eHarmony, OkCupid or Plenty of Fish with 45 percent of online daters choosing the website and mobile app companion to find love.  
Cost: Membership required for full use (free to browse)
Platform: Online (mobile app available with limited features)  

eHarmony
Though the online dating website eHarmony cropped up after Match.com in 2000, the long-term relationship-focused dating tool was the first to introduce a kind of scientific process to online matchmaking. Or, as its former CEO Greg Waldorf was quoted as saying, "Its not about matching people who have certain hobbies … it's about compatibility."
Cost: Membership required for full use (free to browse)
Platform: Online (mobile app available with limited features)  

THE NEXT BIG THING.

A new app poised for big growth in 2015 to check out when everything else starts to feel SO 2014.   

Hinge
Having just raised $12 million last month to hire more developers, make app improvements and expand beyond its already existing 28 markets, Hinge is already being dubbed the MySpace to Tinder's Facebook. Though Hinge uses the same simple, Facebook-generated swipe-yes, swipe-no format made familiar by Tinder, it doesn't use proximity to generate users for judgment, but takes some of the guesswork out by using your own Facebook network to connect you with friends of friends, or friends of your friends' friends.
Cost: Free
Platform: Mobile

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