How to build a better dating platform

I used to be uncomfortable when people asked me, “how did you meet your girlfriend?” Online dating was still a burgeoning industry when I had met someone online. And on a site you might least expect: Tumblr. 

The internet flattened the world, shrinking geographic distance and connecting you with anyone around the world. You can meet just about anyone online with a bit of ingenuity. But who are you trying to meet, and how will you meet them? Based on my experience, my friends’ experiences, and my ongoing exposure to the power of the internet, I believe there is an unrealized opportunity in building platforms that foster online relationships. 

Photo by Matt W Newman on Unsplash

Finding Love on the Internet

Ten years ago, in 2011, I boarded an early morning flight across the country to meet a girl from the internet. I kept it a secret from as many people as I could. My roommate and the friends who knew about it thought I was out of my mind. We had been chatting for the last six months after we first met on Tumblr. Four hours later, I arrived in Calgary with nothing but a small overnight bag and the promise of a relationship.

As I got off the plane, I was excited and nervous. Despite having chatted for so long, you could say we didn’t really “know each other” yet since all of our interactions occurred online. Back then, unless you met someone in person, it wasn’t recognized as real. And yet, it felt like I knew everything about her. We had established the foundation of a relationship online, and our real-world meetup was as Ben Thompson put it, a trailing indicator.

It’s hard to remember how much has changed since then. In 2011, Tinder was still a year away from existing. 25% of Canadians had tried online dating, and nearly 70% said they would never try it. Today, online dating earns over $3B a year, and over 270m people have tried it. It’s no longer taboo to mention meeting someone online. It’s often strange to have met someone first in person!

Living Online

“Don’t tell me what you think, tell me what you have in your portfolio”

Nassim Nicholas Taleb

There is an investment quote attributed to Nassim Nicholas Taleb: Don’t tell me what you think, tell me what you have in your portfolio. He recognizes that who we say we are is often different than who we really are. This is what I call an expression-based view, and I believe the same premise is true in relationships. Don’t tell me who you are; show me who you are.

This quote captures the two different approaches to platforms: Identity versus Expression. Modern dating platforms are built on the premise of Identity: tell me who you are. I believe there is an opportunity in fostering connections based on expression: your demonstrated identity, interests, and values.

Identity-based Platforms

Facebook was the first internet presence most people had, aside from email. This nascent technology meant most people ported over their whole selves from the physical world. Friends, photos, interests. These users recreated themselves by liking pages representing their identities: joining groups for their graduating classes and favourite sports teams. People had yet to appreciate anonymity or the potential for multiple “sculpted selves” online. Facebook is designed for users to create an online persona representing their real-world selves. In 2014 Mark Zuckerberg said, “We ask everyone to use their real name, [grounding] it to reality and ties it back to the person’s real identity.” He didn’t want there to be any distinction between your online persona and your physical one.

As more of our network came online, we started to craft a perfect persona. Thanks to the feedback loops of likes and comments, we started editing ourselves and posting what garnered the most attention. We hid the more “embarrassing” parts of ourselves, dulling our rough edges and focusing on the smoother parts with mass appeal. As a result, Facebook became the vanilla place it is today.

This pattern happened with Myspace and continued with LinkedIn—they were networks where we crafted an idealized version of ourselves. For me, these represent identity-based platform. Your presence and participation on the networks are based on your designed identity – who you say you are. 

Expression-based Platforms

These stand in contrast with what we might call expression-based platforms. Platforms like Twitter, Tumblr, and even the OG Instagram. These platforms are built around specific facets of you and allow you to express yourself. Either through design or sheer luck, these networks were focused on a more artistic side. You could be vulnerable, more anonymous, and be judged solely on what you posted. This allowed people to embrace their weirdness and create entire subcultures. Look at the fanfiction explosion due to Tumblr’s fandoms or Twitter’s thriving communities such as Fintwit. As the world moved online, many early adopters no longer felt comfortable “being themselves”. We see this transpire with the prevalence of finstas, Snapchat, or Instagram Stories. People are seeking a safe space to express themselves. 

Ben Thompson writes about how he maintains multiple identities online in Social Networking 2.0. This approach is not online native to internet communities, but a strategy that improves the relationships Ben has within each member of the distinct groups. “Social interaction in any medium is always a balance between self-expression and the accommodation of others, which means that in the analog world it is a constant struggle to strike a balance between being myself and annoying everyone around me at some point or another. The magic of the Internet, though, is that you can be whatever you want to be.”

We want to connect with people who interest us when forming relationships, based on shared interests or beliefs. Identity-based networks limit this to a cultivated image that may or may not match reality. While this same catfishery is possible on expression-based networks, I believe most people use them to express themselves, not seek validation for who they are. There is so much latent opportunity here it feels like a waste. I mean, I once got a date off of because we shared a similar taste in music! 

I’ve seen love stories happen through Tumblr, Twitter, even the online gaming communities I’ve been part of. My favourite recent story is the one Julia Galef shared in her book The Scout Mindset. Julia observed an emerging conversation between a blogger and critics spanning blogs and comment sections around the web. In seeing him change his mind in light of solid arguments, she was impressed. She sent him a message: “Hey, this is Julia Galef—just wanted to tell you how much I appreciate your thoughtful writing! It feels like you actually care what’s true.” He sent her a response and the rest as they say is history. “Ten years after that exchange, we’re engaged to be married.”

Building new relationships

I’m optimistic about the power of the internet to bring people together to forge new relationships. While friendships are more common, hang around in certain circles long enough, and it becomes inevitable.

I believe there is an opportunity to build products and features for relationship-building based on interests and communities. Goodreads (or better replacements) can foster relationships and connection through shared interests in topics and authors. The same could possibly through Letterboxd. Though these communities are less expressive, I believe your taste is a valuable data point for who you are. I wonder if this could work within fitness communities. In a podcast interview, Justin Mares, founder of Kettle and Fire, shared an interesting matchmaking service: pairing users based on their spending habits. 

Each of these are starting points for matching people based on their natural, lived behaviour and not a curated identity. 

What other communities are hotbeds for future relationships?

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