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A New Kind of Love Story

New apps take the search for sex and romance from the static world of dating sites to the real—and far grittier—one of sweat, smoke, and sizzle

Not so long ago, you’d assume that a girl alone at a bar on a Friday night, furiously thumbing her smartphone, had been stood up. Now, thanks to an abundance of apps like meetMoi NOW, SinglesAroundMe, and Skout, she could just be planning her evening’s assignation while her first beer is being poured.

As human activities go, pairing off is arguably the most random. While broken hearts mend and wounded pride recovers, it’s the sheer inefficiency of it all that wears you down. There’s the arranging and anticipating, followed by the invariably excruciating first date. It’s a drain on time, money, and optimism. If ever there were an aspect of life that could benefit from technological assistance, this is it.

For the past decade or so, that’s precisely how online dating—a global industry worth an estimated $4 billion annually—has wooed the lonely hearted, by rationalizing the hunt for love with algorithms. But the likes of eHarmony and Match.com have begun to look like staid maiden aunts. Startups with multimedia functionality have materialized, offering real-time interaction and location pinpointing. While dating websites sift and sort according to compatibility, apps pre-screen for something else: instant availability. This app-enabled loving is gregarious, brashly sexy, and, above all, streamlined. It makes cybersex 1.0 seem as tedious as dial-up Internet.

There’s another name for the inefficiency these apps eliminate: courtship. They might dance around it, but what the apps are really offering is the ability to order up sex on demand. But even if we want the process streamlined, do we really want to eliminate romance entirely?

Perhaps not if these apps, whose tone is decidedly macho, are to be adopted by women. One of the pioneering location-based apps is Grindr. Launched in 2009, it allows gay men to locate other nearby users. It claims over 1 million users, and the company is gearing up to launch Project Amicus, an app for straights, which it says will be focused more on finding new friends. Code to make hookups more appealing to women?

A happy medium might be something akin to the e-cigarettes that Blu Cigs is developing. The smart packs will come with a built-in sensor that detects other nearby smokers. It’s a witty mix of the old and new, a Bond-like gizmo that nods to the sepia romance of the shared smoke—a casually offered light, locked gaze—while cutting to the chase via links to social media platforms that will indicate whether you’re on the prowl or merely after a drinking buddy.

Romantics will likely find this crass, but others might welcome how these apps promote the kind of sexual momentum often stymied by dating sites.

Regardless, social media is helping create a new kind of love story.

Take the Facebook app Social Connect. Its currency is social coins earned by answering “secret” questions that other Connectors can access. Worried you might need rescuing from a date that was boring, or worse? Another feature can keep friends in the loop.

The developers of Badoo, Facebook’s fastest-growing third-party app, liken its ambiance to a club. Friend.ly makes the search for love a more convivial experience by quizzing users about friends and interests. It has over 4 million monthly active users. Among the newer apps is Singlesquare, a Foursquare offshoot launched in January. Users can post “Sightings” of other singles and interact in real time with messages dubbed “pickup lines.”

Cupid makes a storyteller of us all. We regale friends with tales of bad dates, and looking for romance in the ether has gone from furtive admissions in chat rooms to the stuff of how-we-met anecdotes. Apps take it to the next level by bringing your social network in on it from the start, quilting the quest for love into a communal narrative.

Though we resent our movements being tracked, plenty of us are glad to broadcast our progress in the search for a mate, whether that mate is for life—or just for a night. For advertisers, the potential is tantalizing. Sponsored hookups? Branded emotions? Reality soaps unfolding through real-time feeds?

“I want to be dated and narrated,” sang Doris Day. She’d get her wish today—at least in 140 characters or less.

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