On June 6, 2013, a search for “dating apps” in the iTunes store produced 2,191 results.
There is an app called Badoo. (Who knew?) Other titles include: YoDarling, Scruff, Boost!Me! and Coffee Meets Bagel. I scrolled through a couple dozen on my phone. I did not find one called I Drink Negronis.
Shortly after Seattle’s Susie Lee got her iPhone, her curiosity took over and she started investigating the dating app world. “I could do this better,” she announced. And so she forked over $40,000 from her savings and launched a corporation that’s brought together developers who are working on a dating app called Siren.
Lee, it’s important to point out, is a local artist. And Siren, she explains, is every bit an art project that she hopes will net a profit.
“The arts are the research and development wing of culture,” says Lee, whose work has been exhibited internationally. She graduated with an MFA in Ceramics from the UW. She was The Stranger’s Visual Arts Genius Award winner in 2010.
“So having an artist enter a start-up space, enter technology, I’m asking different questions. I’m saying: This is what I can do. I’m also saying: Arts can be good business.”
Along the way, she wants to seriously upend what she says is a pretty dismal and boring way for people to meet.
“When I look back and I think about the guys I had chemistry with, I think: I would never have met them this way,” she says, about how apps are structured now.
Consider, says Lee, how limiting the online profile is. “I don’t meet people because they know about my food choices or the number of books I’ve read.”
Consider how static these profiles are.
“And what if today, I’m feeling like this and the next day, I’m in a different mood or I put on a different outfit, and I feel like this.” But the current slate of online apps box you in, says Lee, who is 41.
And then there’s a yuck factor, particularly if you’re a woman. Says the artist: “It feels creepy. You put up a photo and then all of sudden, you get all these random messages from guys.”
Susie Lee talks with participants in a user-interface work session for Siren at Capitol Hill's The Project Room. Photo: Rodrigo Valenzuela by The Project Room.
We meet at one of Lee’s favorite haunts — Ada’s Technical Books on Capitol Hill. When she shows me an early version of the iPhone app, it becomes clear that a female creative’s brain is fueling this project.
Yes, users have photos, but they’re all black-and-white and they’re sized full-screen. “People look better that way,” Lee says.
But rather than discovering people solely by photos paired up with factoids, when you log in you’re initially prompted to answer a question. Name your favorite poet. Gloves versus mittens? The question will be crafted daily by some local creative (director Megan Griffiths, for example). There will also be phone video challenges: Show us your best impression of a corgi. That sort of thing.
“Then you can see how men have answered. And you can discover someone by how they’ve answered various things. It goes beyond – I love to travel and I love good food! Because everyone loves to travel and loves good food!” Lee says.
And in this way, you’re finding out how people think — or at least write — before merely sizing them up based on looks. It’s how women often decide who’s attractive. “You might meet a guy and then they say something interesting or funny and then all of a sudden you’re interested,” she says.
It was also important to give women total control of who can see their profiles, says Lee, whose research shows most dating apps have been created by men.
So women can see men’s answers before deciding, on a case-by-case basis, whether or not to make their own profiles public.
On Siren, women don’t have to give their age.
“In real life, you don’t ask a person how old you are until you think there’s potential.”
There’s also a “siren call” that allows a woman to broadcast their profile to all users within a certain mile radius advertising, oh, coffee. And it’s only up for a set amount of time.
“It’s a way to use technology and say, ‘This is what I want to do right now.’ And what if you have an art opening? You could broadcast that and you could create a spontaneous event.”
Artists, Lee says, are all about taking ideas and exploring and seeing what sticks. Siren is about starting conversations, engaging the public, pushing back on what it means to craft a self-image.
Siren is scheduled to launch at the end of June.
Crosscut's arts coverage is made possible through the generous support of the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation.