A Date Lab announcement: What we’re doing to protect our daters

(Hailey Haymond/The Washington Post)

“People love disasters, and they also love love stories,” says Sandy Fernández, the original Date Lab editor. For more than 15 years, The Washington Post Magazine’s column has captured those two extremes — and some areas in between. It’s not one of the most popular and long-standing features at The Post for nothing.

Today, we’re announcing a change to the column’s format: We are going to allow participants to be identified by only their first names. To understand the reasons for this shift, it helps to know some of the history behind the column.

Date Lab has always been an exceedingly personal window into people’s lives — and the more people have been willing to share with us, the better the column. For many people, a romantic partner is a core part of how they find meaning and joy in life. And their journey to find that special someone lays bare their backgrounds, beliefs and preferences. To be in Date Lab is to open up your life not just to the person across the table, but to a whole lot of interested strangers. The orchestration of blind dates and the dates themselves can offer glimpses into politics, religion, education, race, sexuality and gender, and how people see themselves and the world around them. It is and has been endlessly fascinating.

When the column launched in 2006, it was a bit of a gamble. Fernández intended Date Lab to be a Washington spin on the New York Post’s Meet Market column — which sent readers on blind dates in the Big Apple — but there were concerns from other editors that Washingtonians were more cautious and aware of their public personas. Would daters share enough for us to write an engaging weekly column? Would people even sign up? For the first few dates, Fernández strong-armed friends of friends to be guinea pigs. But soon after, the applications started coming in.

We knew we were on to something when one of the initial matches resulted in an elopement six months later. A total of four marriages happened in the first five years of Date Lab. Most recently, Willie Gray and Renee Coley, who were set up on Valentine’s Day 2019, are still going strong. Yet our goal is not to produce a love match, exactly. We are, after all, journalists, not a professional matchmaking service. Our goal is to create a date that we think, in good faith, will work — “I just wanted them to have a good experience,” says Annys Shin, who was the Date Lab editor from 2015 through 2020 — and then, in our role as journalists, to learn enough about the date to be able to describe it to readers in a way that illuminates something about the human condition.

Over the years, Date Lab has undergone some key changes. Its biggest overhaul was when the format went from the daters narrating their evening in transcript form to participants relaying their experience to writers, who brought their own perspectives to the column. At the time, the editors “were trying to fight the issue of the sameness,” says Shin of the 2017 change. We wanted an injection of strong voices. A few years later, the pandemic hit, and readers watched in real time as the column navigated another — temporary, as it turned out — change: replacing in-person dinners with Zoom dates and takeout food.

Starting next week, Date Lab will evolve once more, as we allow people who only agree to be identified by their first names to participate with that degree of anonymity. This wasn’t a simple or obvious decision: In nearly all stories, The Post identifies sources and subjects by their full names — and from the beginning, Date Lab has followed this practice. But The Post sometimes agrees to withhold names in circumstances where full identification can cause harm. And we’ve concluded that Date Lab — which asks participants to share so much that is so personal with their fellow dater, with our reporters and ultimately with the reader — now meets that test.

When Date Lab started in 2006, people’s digital footprints were less extensive and less consequential in their lives. At the time, Facebook was just starting to allow non-college students onto the platform; Twitter and Reddit were germinations of what they are today; Instagram didn’t exist. Online dating websites and apps weren’t yet monopolies on the dating scene. But in the past two decades, online culture has radically changed, and our digital footprints now have real power in our lives. More and more people are declining to participate in Date Lab because they are worried about the career implications of publicly sharing their private life. Others, particularly women, are concerned for their safety. In a few cases, participants have received mail to their home addresses, and others have received unwelcome messages on their social media accounts. In the end, we felt we had no choice but to offer our participants a degree of protection. We hope this change allows them to tell their story without worrying about being vilified and harassed, online or in the real world.

We can’t promise there won’t be other adaptations for Date Lab in the future. What we can say is that we hope our new approach to identifying participants will allow this column to thrive for many years — that it will be there for you, the reader, every week, full of dating debacles, uplifting love stories and everything in between.

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