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Mobile dating apps grow in popularity

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Mobile dating. It’s all the horrors of online dating transferred to your phone, where you get creepy texts from people who view your profile and use your location to stalk you. Right?

Sometimes, yes. But it could also spontaneously put you in front of the someone who likes your favorite food, books and music and might just like you, too.

As a concept, mobile dating isn’t really new. It’s been around since the invention of mobile phones. Smartphones and apps are just the shiny new tools in the age-old quest for love.

Americans now use dating apps more than online dating sites, according to a 2011 report by Flurry Analytics. “The number of people using dating apps is growing faster than the number using all apps,” it said. “In short, dating is a growth category.”

Globally, the mobile dating market is expected to be worth $2.3 billion by 2016, up from $1 billion in 2011, according to Juniper Research. Most apps use the “freemium” business model, where it’s free to sign up, but people pay a fee for premium features.

Match, eHarmony, Skout, Grindr, OkCupid, MeetMoi, Plenty Of Fish and Badoo each boast a distinct personality and millions of user profiles, messages, chats, winks, flirts or other measures of dating app success. The iTunes store has countless dating apps under its social networking category.

But much like dating, finding just the right match is no easy task, according to industry experts.

At a swanky Los Angeles hotel in June, six single people sat before a roomful of industry executives to discuss that issue.

This annual conference is a gathering of the biggest players in the dating app business. The six participants had signed up for a first-of-its-kind mobile dating boot camp, organized by Julie Spira, an author and cyber-dating expert.

Their mandate was simple: Try out two apps for two weeks and provide honest feedback.

While developers collect their own statistics and user responses, this was the first time this sort of focus group was organized, she said.

Franklin Horn had never tried mobile dating before.

“I don’t think I would have started it on my own, and I’m in the software industry,” said Horn, 27, who works at a tech startup in Santa Monica. “It’s a hard thing to put yourself out there.”

He used three apps: eHarmony, Skout and MeetMoi. While he didn’t go on any dates, Horn said he exchanged about 150 casual messages with a few women.

“Since I’m single and busy, I wanted to use it as a way to practice flirting and see the technology behind the apps,” he said.

Another participant, Joe, 30, from Chicago, described his experience in a blog.“With these apps it feels like, ‘Hey, I’m in the area, I’m looking to hang out,’ he wrote. “You know what somebody’s intention is. It’s a little more explicit up front.”

The perception about mobile apps, which is not totally inaccurate, is that they’re meant for casual dating. Most companies advertise them as a way to “meet new friends,” which is why they fall under the social networking label.

Skout’s homepage puts it simply: “Life is short, you are busy and people are having fun without you right now. So start Skouting and find your party, anytime, anywhere.”

Apps are usually free, and it takes a matter of minutes to create a profile or upload a photo. Grindr, MeetMoi, SinglesAroundMe and several others use geolocation technology that lets people arrange spur-of-the-moment dates. (Most apps let users display only their general location, rather than a precise one.)

But for those who want quality, there are options. And developers are turning to simple, real-life concepts to woo users, like the common friend.

The social network

That’s where Facebook comes in, with apps like Zoosk and Are you Interested? Facebook itself recently announced a new feature, Find Friends Nearby, to connect with other Facebook users.

A new wave of apps such as Coffee Meets Bagel and Yoke focus on common friends and use Facebook profile information to match people.

“You can judge a person by the company that they keep,” said Mark Brooks, analyst and consultant to the Internet dating industry.

There’s nothing like a mutual friend to make a potential match look more valid, something that the boot camp participants also felt strongly about.

“For me, having a recommendation totally bumps you up on the list,” Horn said.

Coffee Meets Bagel, a four-month-old New York startup, found that users were 37.2 percent more likely to want to date a person if they had mutual Facebook friends. If users had four mutual friends, they were 90 percent more inclined.

Coffee Meets Bagel, which is run by three sisters, started as a Web site and recently released apps for iOS and Android. It uses a simple concept: Set a deadline and people will respond.

Users provide basic Facebook information. Everyday at noon, they receive an e-mail with one match, a friend of a friend. They have 24 hours to ‘like’ or ‘pass’ over the person. If both users choose ‘like,’ they are connected through a private number. If they pass, another option arrives the next day.

“We’re trying to use mobile technology to make people take an active stance in dating,” said co-founder Arum Kang, a former product manager at Amazon.

Yoke, a Facebook app, goes beyond common friends to shared interests. It uses Netflix, Amazon and Spotify to match users according to their taste in movies, books and music. People connect much the way they would be if they met at a concert or movie, said Rob Fishman, one of the founders.

“The whole idea is to recreate the serendipity of real life,” he said.

There is no secret formula for an app to succeed, said Brooks, the Internet dating analyst. But “the more you can model the real world, the better you’ll do,” he said.

New mobile app developers realize this and are tapping into the wealth of information available on Facebook, while trying to balance users’ privacy concerns.

“If social media was an option, I wouldn’t enable it,” said Lauren Durst, a research consultant in the District who has used Match and OkCupid. “That would take away some of the anonymity.”

Spira says that just like online dating, people should apply common sense with an app.

“You have to use intuition and act the way you would in real life,” she said. “Like meeting in a public place.”

Quick connections

In the District, dating can be tough, especially for women.

“The dating pool is limited,” said Katie Gill, who ran a blog about her experiences in the city. “Half the guys I went out with have gone out with my friends.”

Gill used eHarmony’s Web site and the Match app for BlackBerry with varying degrees of success. She met her current boyfriend through Twitter. He followed her. Then she followed him. And voila.

Social media reflect a more authentic version of a person than dating profiles, Gill said. “You make profiles on dating sites based on the perfect version of you,” she said. “Twitter is more raw.”

For members of the gay community, the District’s dating pool is even smaller, but they are among the most enthusiastic adopters of mobile apps. Grindr, which launched in 2009, uses geolocation technology to answer the toughest question of all: How do you know who’s gay around you? The app, targeted at men, lets users see who is checked into Grindr nearby.

Zac Dela Cruz, 25, said the app made him feel more connected to D.C.’s gay community. Cruz, a Silver Spring resident, has been using the app for three years and said he has had two successful relationships with men he met through it.

Even so, Grindr is a double-edged sword, Cruz said.

“It’s cool to meet people with, but it’s also a way to keep tabs on them,” he said. “You can find out a lot.”

When he goes out with friends, Cruz said, they like betting on how many men around them are checked in on the app. The loser pays for drinks.

To Carlos Benefield, it was a way to meet like-minded men at a time when mere mention of his sexuality was taboo. Benefield, 25, is a member of the military and spent two years on duty in Afghanistan.

Since he traveled frequently, he said, he used the app to talk to other men and network in new places.

“The ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ repeal and same-sex marriage being legalized are great steps,” he said. “But you still sometimes feel like you are the only gay person in the room.”

Benefield, who lives in Alexandria, said his last relationship was with a man he met through Grindr.

Working for you

In a city of workaholics, the convenience of mobile dating apps is not lost.

“I feel like online dating is so time-intensive, with so many profiles to read,” said Durst,who used Match and OkCupid.

Apps made it easier to stay involved and respond to messages even during the daily commute, Durst said. She used them to go on a few dates in the past, but eventually lost interest.

Ken Christensen, a Web developer, said he had made good friends using OkCupid. He thought the app was especially well-suited for Washington.

“There’s a lot of people who move to the city for the short term,” he said. “It’s a good way of meeting somebody and occupying your time.”

But on the flip side, he said, dating apps did not encourage bipartisan relationships.

“If you knew right away that the person was a Republican and you’re a Democrat, you would skip over their profile,” he said. “And you might be skipping over your future wife.”

All the dating app users were clear that they’d prefer meeting someone the old-fashioned way, without technology. Even if they did use an app, they wanted to take the relationship from online to offline as soon as possible, said Spira, the cyber dating expert.

“I’m sure Mrs. Horn is out there somewhere,” Horn, the boot camp participant, said. “The app is just a way to meet her.”

© The Washington Post Company