Are we safe from GPS-dating Apps?

“You’ve Got Mail”. When online dating made its debut in the 1990s it spawned a hit Hollywood movie and an all new way to meet “the one you love”. While established online dating services like eHarmony and Match.com go to painstaking lengths to match daters based on their exhaustive surveys of likes and dislikes, another step in the continuum of courtship has emerged – GPS-based dating applications for smartphones. Singles can now find out who else in their immediate vicinity is looking for a love match. If they find an appealing profile, the potential Romeo or Juliet just needs to send someone a text –if there’s a mutual interest, they can meet within just minutes.

Apps like Skout, Grindr and StreetSpark let people sort through lists of potential daters based on where they are located at any given moment. All three services list the distance between the person using the app and other users, in feet. If a person is listed as zero feet away, for instance, you might glance up from your seat at a coffee shop to see that person hanging out across the room or sat at the table opposite you.

The idea of meeting someone on the fly through a mobile app based solely on proximity seems to me like a risky proposition. Operators say that they allow users to control the amount of information they divulge. Internet safety expert Robert Siciliano says, “Somebody knows your location. They just tap you on the shoulders and all of a sudden, you’re having a conversation with this person. You don’t know how they know about you”. Apparently individuals in their 20s and 30s (people typically using this service) are willing to look past the risks of GPS dating and digress from traditional matchmakers or just meeting someone by fate and retreat to the seemingly sordid scanning of profile pictures ranked according to who is closest. Are we so jaded that we feel the need to seek romance through technology? Dating someone based on an online survey-oriented algorithm seems eccentric enough; how do we validate dating someone depending on proximity?

The users of these apps say it’s a slightly updated version of internet dating –rather a slightly intrusive version. It allows the busy youth to skip the more elaborate “mating rituals” of online dating which seem to move too leisurely in an epoch of text messaging and social networking. But surely (other than just safety concerns) there are drawbacks to this contemporary phenomenon. “It is so immediate, it can give off the connotation that people only want to meet up for sex,” said Tom Critchlow an online marketer who lives in New York and is a frequent user of OkCupid Locals (an app form of OkCupid, a larger dating site). Also, using proximity as a factor may lead to the same five or six men (or women) showing up when you check your phone from home.

Michael I. Norton, a professor at Harvard Business School who researches how people interact online, said people had always looked for love nearby. For example, he said, “We go to the same concerts and bookstores in the hopes of meeting someone who likes our favourite band or author.”

“To older people,” he continued, “these services feel more intrusive, but younger people are used to the Web. At some point, this kind of interaction may become the default.”  The idea that the world of dating could be taken over by technology and matches made based on proximity, is rather frightening but highly possible.

One of the ways of developing a positive relationship is a powerful first impression. Most GPS-dating apps rely on instant messaging as a way to break the ice before a real-world conversation takes place. The complication with this is that the first impression that a person lets you have of them can be highly manipulated. There is no way of verifying that the person you are planning to meet for a drink or a cup of coffee is the person you think they are. In fact, a serial rapist could probably pass himself off as a business magnate when speaking to someone from behind a shield.

Christian Wiklund, the founder of Skout, one of about a half-dozen GPS dating sites available to nearly 2 million people, said that the site is careful to make certain that the exact street address of the person sending messages cannot be determined. Wiklund still encourages daters to use common sense: Agree to meet only in public locations and, when in doubt, meet dates with friends. A dating coach in New York City, Arthur Malov says that many women are unlikely to use such apps because they may feel threatened by notes from strangers who know more or less where they are. But the frightening part is, careless teenagers with giving and trusting parents who pamper them with iPhones or Blackberrys much before they can handle any such responsibility, are exposed to these options. This exposure can lead to these teenagers being targeted by predators who have access to their general location.

There are many reasons people fall for each other: Personality, looks, humour – similar interests. But this new class of GPS-enabled smartphone apps is trying to bring dating back to the pure, data-driven basics –latitude and longitude. Is this form of dating anything more than a fad? For the lucky few, GPS dating has proven to lead to successful relationships; but I wouldn’t go as far as recommending it or classifying it as a safe and efficacious way of dating.

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About the author

Tara Sud

After living the first seventeen years of my life in India, I travelled to the England to study at the University of York. My undergraduate degree was in English Literature and Linguistics, and I am currently completing my Masters degree in Romantic and Sentimental Literature. Apart from writing, I thoroughly enjoy playing piano and consider myself a commendable Scrabble competitor. I have a keen interest in literature, psychology and biology and love to learn in general.