The problems with dating apps, particularly for straight women, are well-documented. The most obvious example is OkCupid, where anyone using the site can write to any other member (unlike others, such as Tinder and Hinge, where users must “match” before sending each other messages). My inbox on OkCupid currently contains a message that reads like an attempt to hire an escort (“I’m not looking to jump right into a serious relationship, but I have a good chunk of change in my bank account if you wanted some adventures in the city or are up for a trip to Europe on my tab”), another from a 61-year-old man in Mexico City congratulating me because I am “a really fun and fantastic girl” (I’m 23 and live in New York), and an abundance of pick-up lines ranging from cheesy to grossly offensive. OkCupid’s homepage includes an endorsement that it is the Google of online dating, but in actuality it is not the Google of online dating. It is the Bing: There are seemingly limitless results, but rarely are they what you’re looking for.
Frustrations like these are what led me to Sparkology after Googling “best online dating sites” one night following a particularly bad date. Sparkology is a dating site that purports to use social science to provide a “curated dating experience for young professionals.” Before its launch, the company held focus groups to find out what said young professionals thought dating apps and sites were lacking, and what they would like to see instead. Sparkology also said its team worked with professors at “major universities” to develop a behavioral algorithm that helps users find their match based on their actions.
They found that women who are part of this vaguely-defined demographic want to connect with ambitious men who graduated from prestigious schools and that men want women to be educated, but don’t really care about where. This led to the site’s requirement that all members be college-educated young professionals, and for men to have received their degrees from a list of select schools.
Some have called Sparkology elitist, but its exclusivity is dubious: It currently allows alumni of 1,558 colleges to join. But the site’s problems run deeper. The website’s faddish celebration of social science disguises a service characterized by outdated attitudes regarding dating and gender norms. For a site that claims to “adamantly support the modern lady and gentleman” with its innovative structure, it’s the most retrograde form of online dating I’ve seen.
Take, for example, Sparkology’s subscription system. Women pay a monthly fee, whereas men pay each time they message a woman and can only send a certain number of messages per month. The idea, which is based on the focus group research, is that men on Sparkology will write higher quality, more personal missives than men on other dating sites who can contact as many women as they want free of charge.
That system, however, has created a certain entitlement among male users—as though you owe them a reply, since they spent $3 to send you a message. And the site encourages this way of thinking. When a man sends you a message, Sparkology will email you the following: “Remember, he used one of his limited and pricey Sparks to send this special message specifically to you. We are sure he was nervous to hit the send button—so please be kind and check him out!” After receiving a number of follow-ups from site members I hadn’t replied to, I realized users can see when a message is read. I eventually stopped opening messages from senders whose picture or opening line didn’t appeal to me, only to receive multiple emails from Sparkology reminding me about the messages “patiently waiting” in my inbox. “Our qualified men pay to start a conversation, and these men would love to get to know you better,” they read.
A dating site based on academic elitism (and not subtly either—Sparkology’s slogan is “Natural Selection. Evolved.”) is bound to make some members feel uncomfortable. But what I found most off-putting about Sparkology’s version of online dating was the constant assertion that the men on the site were “real gentlemen” of a higher quality than other dating sites (wording taken from the Sparkology FAQ page)—and that, because they’re paying to talk to you, they therefore deserve increased attention and consideration, even though you’re paying to be on the site too. There’s something deeply icky about pushing women to feel indebted to men they’ve never met, the virtual equivalent of feeling pressure to converse with a stranger because he decided to buy you a drink. (The site also has the annoying habit of pricing its plans for female members in the equivalent of cocktails: Women can join for six months at twenty-five dollars per month—a mere one and two-thirds cocktails!)
The idea that a website can cull together the finest single men the internet has to offer by requiring a degree from one of 1,558 schools and charging a $3 fee per message is absurd—yet the resounding message to women on the site is how lucky they should feel to receive messages from such ideal potential matches. Alex Furmansky, Sparkology’s founder and himself a Penn graduate, told Mashable that “Sparkology’s pool of men is like day and night compared to Match.com.” Furmansky’s vision is shaped by a college experience where he noticed the loudest, most obnoxious guys at the bar routinely got all the girls, and the idea that most dating sites effectively reproduce an online version of that bar scene. Instead, he’s trying to create an approach to dating where “the guy with the wine and flowers wins.”
Furmansky built this ethos into the site’s mission statement: “Sparkology is for all the wonderful men women can’t be trusted to handpick at a bar.” In such an environment, it’s not difficult to see why nice guy syndrome runs rampant on the site. All of this brings up a question I come back to somewhat often: What does it take to create a dating site that women enjoy using? Or is it not the nature of online dating to be something anyone enjoys, regardless of gender or orientation? I have a vague idea that maybe the answer lies in an app or site where only women can initiate conversation. Then again, the site’s activity might be so greatly diminished that it wouldn’t be a very interesting option for online dating at all.
Image via shutterstock.