It starts with email. Within an hour of signing up for OkCupid, a 28-year-old in Toledo, Ohio wants to know “what’s up.” Other emails follow, delivering messages from individuals who tell me they, too, love Pokémon and Missy Elliott, both of which I mention in the profile I labored over instead of studying. Emails begin arriving every few days to tell me a hidden admirer gave me high marks of four or five stars and that I should start rating people, too. I awkwardly avoid instant messages from forward users with whom I have no clue what to talk about, while unintentional hilarity kicks in as the site suggests I date other Northwestern students I know offline. Weeks later, another email arrives to tell me some good news: The rating system had officially declared me “good looking” and now more attractive matches would show up when I log in. In turn, I would be shown to more attractive people, as if I had stumbled upon on a secret club of the web’s finest singles.
There are a number of free dating sites out there that college students are using, but OkCupid is the de facto gateway site for many Northwestern students and, increasingly, college students everywhere as younger people become a bigger part of the online dating landscape.
“We know that this is happening for a fact,” says Sam Yagan, co-founder of OkCupid. “Half of our users in Chicago are under 24. It’s definitely our biggest segment of the population.”
If the greater presence and diversity of dating sites devoted to serving America’s brightest is any indication — DateMySchool.com, eduHookups, nChooseTwo and GoodCrush, to name a few — the user experience and technology of these sites are also changing as more and more 20-somethings sign up. The industry has taken note — Match.com rolled out $50 million in February to buy the 7-year-old OkCupid and reach the younger, hipper crowd with which Match.com had not quite connected.
Laurel Stankus is part of that crowd. Hardly serious from the get-go, the Medill junior joined the site on a dare from a friend who challenged her to do something about the dating scene she so often complained of.
“And so I set up a profile and thought, ‘There’s going to be nothing but old men and creepy, ugly people everywhere,’ and I ended up meeting two of my exes and my current boyfriend through the site,” says Stankus, who has been dating her boyfriend for more than eight months. “It ended up working out.”
Online dating might seem unconventional — and perhaps a little unnecessary — for students on a campus with more than 8,000 peers who share the same workload, sleep schedules and social circles. But when it comes to the love lives of college students, convention has never applied.
“Dating on campus is not traditional by definition, really,” says Laurie Davis, the eFlirt Expert dating coach. “There is a social life that’s immediate and created for you, there are study sessions in the corner, there are people in your classes, there are lots of ways to facilitate your social life. But just because you can meet plenty of people doesn’t mean that you’re necessarily going to meet the right person.”
When Stankus finds me in the corner of Lisa’s, she waves and comes right over almost as if we weren’t meeting for the first time. Friendly and confident, she and I easily make conversation for a good 15 minutes before getting down to business. I’ve never had a more pleasant or less awkward time making small talk with anybody I’ve just met, and it becomes obvious online dating is not by any means her last resort. Instead, it’s her opting out of a Northwestern scene where students are either just hooking up or, as she was, jumping in too quickly.
“My mom was really shocked in my freshman year of college and was like, ‘You can go on dates with lots of people at the same time and pick one,’” she says. “I was like, ‘No no no, you go on one date with somebody and you’re dating.’”
Northwestern students aren’t by any means undateable, she says. Even College Prowler, the for-students-by-students alternative to the unwieldy Fiske Guide to Colleges, gives both girls and guys B+ scores, grades competitive with, if not higher than, those of just about every other Chicago area school. As Stankus came to learn, dating prospects for the Ivy of the Midwest aren’t so hopeless — we’re just too busy to notice.
“Because we’re all high achievers in hard majors and we’re involved in a million clubs with endless resumes, we just run out of time,” says Stankus. “A date becomes ‘Let’s grab food at Lisa’s’ or ‘Let’s go to the library’ because you don’t have time to do something else. That’s something I kind of missed, the guy picking you up at your door and taking you to dinner. In college, what are you going to do? Walk up to their CSO and say, ‘I’m here to pick up Suzie?’ ‘Let’s walk to Burger King after the Keg together?’ It feels very grade school to me sometimes.”
Yet even a hand-holding, post-Keg Burger King excursion is easy to take for granted. As she sits next to me on a couch in the basement of the Communications Residential College, Carrie Heckel is charmingly dressed in a green cardigan with glasses, her curly brown hair slightly cropped on one side. She’s talkative, answering all of my questions in almost one fell swoop peppered with anecdotes from her dating history. But she doesn’t waste a word. In her mind, dating for gay college students is the “kiddie pool” of dating.
The Communication sophomore says the Internet certainly makes finding other LGBTQ people to date easier, but her feelings toward online dating are ambivalent. As was the case with Stankus, Heckel’s decision to take the plunge and join OkCupid was also on a whim — as much teenage boredom as it was dating dissatisfaction. Yet, it’s also clear from the way she talks about online dating that it feels somewhat mandatory, as if for a gay student, to find anything close to a fulfilling dating life requires one to look elsewhere with help from the Internet.
“I don’t want to meet people that way, but, like, I’m gay,” she says. “If you’re walking down the street and see 10 people who are attractive, you have no idea which ones are gay, which ones are straight, which ones want to be in a relationship. Finding people online can take some of that guesswork out of it.”
And it’s not just Northwestern’s LGBTQ community that finds online dating to be a solution to limited dating pools. With diplomas freshly in hand, recent graduates can find themselves relocating to where the pickings are slim. Darren McRoy, who graduated from Medill last year, opened an OkCupid account during his sophomore year but never used the site seriously until he moved for a job to La Grange, Ill., a suburb about half an hour outside of the city.
“West Chicago is a wonderful place, but it is not an ideal place for 20-somethings,” says McRoy. “There aren’t many people between 18 and 35, there’s no nightclub scene. There’s nothing like that unless you go into the city.”
He found moderate success in the more than 10 months he spent using it, enough to encourage him to start a profile on PlentyOfFish, another free dating site notable for its high-profile product placement in a handful of recent pop music videos. Davis says McRoy’s situation isn’t so uncommon.
“A lot of my clients are just out of college because campus life is gone and so they need to focus their energy on using technology in their dating life,” she says. “Their social circle is a little bit smaller and they’re looking for new dating opportunities. It may not have been a focus while they were at college, so it’s a whole new world to them even though they’re so comfortable with technology.”
OkCupid’s channels for communication — messages, winks and instant messaging — aren’t that different from what Facebook offers. But while online dating may make it easier to find people, it doesn’t make interacting with them any easier.
“Plenty of things are troublesome about the site that make it difficult for guys,” says McRoy. “The biggest issue is that the general quality of males on the site tends to be douchey. You read through a girl’s profile and you’ll see things like ‘Don’t message me saying, “Hi sexy”’ or ‘Don’t use horrible grammar when you message me.’ I’ve been tempted at times to create a fake account as an attractive girl just to see what sort of absurdity comes through.”
Girls will tell you. For every five or six responses from seemingly legitimate, interested people, Stankus says, another four or five would be sketchier users, including a 75-year-old who asked her to move to Georgia in a few late-night messages. But even the typically annoying or creepy notes can highlight an unintentional entertainment value that often characterizes students’ experience.
“It’s always interesting to see what someone’s initial contact is,” says Stankus. “I hate guys who take their profile picture in a mirror of their abs with their phones. It’s like, ‘Really? You can’t find someone to take a picture for you normally?’” Quickmatch, a game-like feature on the site where users are shown random profiles and give star ratings to each, is another vessel for voyeurism and anonymous judgment. Users get emails when another user gives them a four or a five, but they’ll also get emails for what the site calls a “mutual burn” — when both users give each other one star.
Features that go beyond strictly dating purposes have been a part of the site since the beginning. OkCupid is home to a number of personality quizzes as well as compatibility questions, a nod to some of OkCupid’s founders’ earlier web project, TheSpark.com. (Yagan was also part of the team behind SparkNotes). There’s also OkTrends, the official blog of OkCupid and a hilarious, inside look into the mines of data that are OkCupid profiles. Full of snarky commentary and raw insight, the blog pulls together charts and infographics about everything from whether vegetarians are more inclined to perform oral sex to figuring out what stuff white people actually like to whether the frequency of your Twitter use has any relation to the length of your relationships.
Yagan says OkCupid isn’t trying to be more than a dating site or another Facebook, but he’s aware dating profiles on the site can be used for more than just that.
“We get anecdotal evidence all the time that people are using the site to find roommates or make friends,” he says. “A good friend of mine who runs a start-up uses OkCupid to hire engineers. [She] puts on her profile, ‘I’m a CEO of a start-up’ and gets messages all the time. I don’t think that changes what we’re trying to do. You would never use eHarmony to hire engineers or find a roommate. These anecdotes suggest that we are recently very different and it’s resonating with a younger, web savvy population.”
The rise of college students in online dating has a lot to do with how online dating is evolving as an industry. Personal circumstance may push college students to explore online dating, but changes happening on the other side of the screen are also part of the pull. The label “online dating” may not even cut it anymore — that’s where social dating comes in. Social dating, where online dating meets social networking sites, where the profiles go beyond just a photo and a short bio, and where what you’re looking for, be it a hookup, friend or dating partner, is a little more flexible. Now, there are more options than ever before: How About We connects singles through common interests after users first suggest the dates they’d like to go on, while group dating sites such as Ignighter seek to connect young, busy singles in a no-pressure environment. Tastebuds finds dating partners by music taste, and can work with a pre-existing last.fm account, while nChooseTwo, which began at MIT and has expanded into other Boston area universities, allows users to match up their friends.
“Just like there’s someone for everyone, there’s a dating site or a methodology for everyone,” says Julie Spira, the Cyber-Dating Expert.
How people access the sites is also becoming more flexible. Already, nearly 250 million Facebook users access the site through a mobile device. And mobile dating, either in the form of dating site apps for your phone or geolocation services that let you find singles nearby, is expected to become a billion dollar industry by 2013 according to Juniper Research. Zoosk — which claims to be the world’s largest social dating community — is a subscription service that has its own site in addition to a mobile app as well as third-party apps available for most social networking platforms. Not surprisingly, these changes are finding an easy audience among college students and 20-somethings, the early adapters in social dating. “Without question, it’s the younger demographics which are driving the technology, and the technology is embraced by the younger demographics,” says Steve Sikes of VisionSync, the company behind the Social Connect mobile dating app for Facebook. “It’s the younger demographics that are pushing the envelope. It’s the younger demographics which are letting us know what they want.”
For a trend in dating that’s only a few years old — Zoosk, for example, was founded in 2007 — social dating has done well for itself. Zoosk in particular announced this past February it had a 250 percent growth in annual sales. But the alternatives to the basic profile-browsing dating services, such as finding dating partners via phone or by geographic proximity can feel, if not a little bit sleazy, more open and forthright than what users are used to.
“It’s hard because users still want anonymity and privacy on dating sites,” says Yagan. “Most usages of the term ‘social’ imply some transparency or sharing with your network.”
Controlling who knows about your explorations in online dating can be the initial anxiety of singles on the web. Industry experts and dating coaches are quick to point out that the stigma of online dating has been gone for years, and oft-cited statistics from Match.com — one in five relationships start online — suggest they’re right.
But managing the stigma plays an important role in the online dating landscape for young people, and sites like DateMySchool.com, originally designed to connect students from different departments, have built their business around it. Balazs Alexa, one of the co-founders, says their approach is exclusivity, safety and security — and they’ve managed to reach 20 percent of Columbia University undergrads because of it, a commendable breakthrough for any dating site trying to tap into their target market.
“There haven’t been any successful college dating websites, none of them got 20 percent penetration,” says Alexa. “Because they don’t get it. It’s not just you throw the website out there. It’s not viral because people don’t want to be known on a dating website. That’s a very strong factor.”
Even the students who are open about their luck with online dating weren’t always so willing to share how they found their dates.
“Only recently have my boyfriend and I decided to tell people how we actually met,” says Stankus, who used to say she met her boyfriend through a mutual friend at Loyola. “I think we had been together long enough that they knew us as people and as a couple and knew that it wasn’t this sketchy booty call fling. It was a legitimate relationship.”
Heckel and her ex-girlfriend also used to lie about how they met until she came clean to her parents as well as her friends, about five months into their relationship.
“It was a non-issue because we dated so long,” says Heckel. “Their generation is very hesitant, but our generation is different because we’re online.”
We, as college students, are the Net Generation. Listen to college students talk about the mechanics of their dating lives long enough and the Internet rears its head eventually. In 2008, the New York Times held a contest inviting college students to submit essays to its Sunday Styles column, Modern Love. Of the top four stories, two mentioned Internet dating and the wired lives of college students. Three years later, when the Times held the same contest this past April, the entries showed we’re more online than ever.
“In poring over these submissions,” wrote column editor Daniel Jones in the introduction to the winning essay, “we were struck by how routinely the Internet and smartphones are obliterating the geographical boundaries that used to define one’s dating pool.” Essays that once spoke of physical intimacy and little emotional connection were now pondering the reverse — and how technology filled the void.
“There’s a digital element to love,” says Spira. “A lot of dating has a web 2.0 element to it and intersperse communications online and offline. We can’t just rely on meeting someone in real life because we have all these technologies available and our friends are already on there.”
But Heckel says the meeting in real life Spira talks about — the combination of happenstance encounters and random luck with strangers — doesn’t even exist where college students could find it in the first place.
“A lot of dating interactions are based either through texting, emailing, sending a message through OkCupid or through Facebook,” says Heckel. “It really is online, but I don’t think people recognize that. There’s still this expectation that you’re supposed to meet people organically, that people are just supposed to see you and automatically go up to you and say, ‘Hey, do you want to go on a date?’”
Communicating with your significant other through Facebook and texts might not seem so revolutionary. But consider this: There’s CollegeACB, which is fraught with hot lists and crude curiosity about who’s out there. There’s the anonymous message system NU Post-It, which sets out to “get people talking more and to make people happy” one email at a time. And LikeALittle lays down faceless digital charm, typed out with as much effort as a bad pick-up line. If our whole lives are spent sharing the details of our day-to-day experiences online, and if Northwestern students are not strangers to engaging with those we don’t know, the idea of using the Internet to find someone to share those details with doesn’t seem so odd. Dating 2.0 has been here for years, having left its fingerprints all over offline and online traditional dating. But as for college students? We were never traditional to begin with.