The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A wave of new dating sites attempts the impossible: getting rid of all the creeps


Technology is often called upon to fix our most entrenched social problems — for better or worse. So it should come as no enormous surprise, then, that a new wave of apps and Web sites has risen to dispense with a particularly modern menace: Internet creeps — and the dating Web sites that enable them.

In the past six weeks, no fewer than three (!) creep-free, lady-friendly dating sites have launched to rave reviews — including one, Mesh, that auto-filters messages based on things like curse words, and another, Siren, that lets women control which men can see their profiles.

The apps are all attempts to solve an oft-discussed and well-documented industry problem: Women, by and large, are besieged by sexual solicitations, spam and other garbage whenever they log onto an dating site. But they’re also novel efforts to curb unsavory online behavior by preventing it rather than moderating it after the fact. And in that respect, they could be trailblazers not only for the online dating industry, but also for an entire constellation of spam-filled, harassment-marred social sites.

“Our whole site is built around women. From day one, we wanted to solve the problems women face in online dating,” said Asher Snyder, CEO and founder of Mesh, one of the more promising upstarts. “It just so happens when you solve women’s problems online, the experience gets better for everyone.”

Snyder, like many of his contemporaries, doesn’t have much data to back that up — yet. His dating site, which he envisions as a kind of anti-Tinder, just launched in open beta a few weeks ago. Since then, the service has seen roughly 2,200 sign-ups from daters intrigued by Mesh’s radically proactive technology, which lets users screen out messages that contain everything from f-bombs and sex terms to bad grammar. A language filter, similar to what education software deploys to detect plagiarism, can flag messages that a user has copy-pasted to multiple men or women. And daters can select “dealbreaker” issues — things like how a match feels about religion, or whether he does drugs — and bump messages from that person according to how he answers. Very preliminary results would suggest that all this works: Mesh boasts a mind-boggling average response rate of 95 percent.

Think of it as the world’s most effective spam filter, in the world’s spammiest place.

Other apps have taken more unusual approaches. Singled Out, which launched in beta this week at the University of Massachusetts, solicits discussion questions from female users — “did you like ‘The Notebook,’ ” or my contribution, “is this app cool?” — and asks male users to vote yes or no. Women can initiate messages with the men whose answers interest them.

On the other side of the country, Seattle’s Siren doesn’t let men see women’s profiles until the women “select” them. There are no message filters, a la Mesh, but it decreases the junk from randos —  and puts women in control. Women are also the only ones who can send a notification the app’s dubbing a “Siren Call” — a kind of broadcast to all the men a female user’s interested in. (Notably, neither Siren nor Singled Out have much to offer the LGBT community. Mesh, which lets users identify as bi, trans, or a range of other combinations, is more inclusive on this score.)

“I believe that we are creating a space where women feel safe to have fun,” said Susie Lee, Siren’s CEO and founder, “and where men find genuine ways to start conversations with women who are interested in them.”

Given the frenetic speed and specificity with which dating sites crop up — there is, quite literally, a dating site for almost every conceivable demographic or interest — it almost seems odd that no one’s thought to make an explicitly female-friendly dating site before.

You can blame a range of factors for that delay: run-of-the-mill inertia, monetary concerns, the fact that mainstream dating sites are overwhelmingly run by men. OkCupid’s Christian Rudder has said that the site isn’t introducing filters or other screening tools because it risks blocking viable matches; Mesh’s Snyder puts it a little differently: “OkCupid makes a lot of money off creeps.” (Those are, in his estimation, the people most willing to pay for OkCupid’s so-called premium features.)

Whatever the reason, it doesn’t make much business sense: If women don’t have good experiences on dating sites, they’re unlikely to stick around — let alone engage with other daters. That hurts women, sure, but it also hurts their potential matches, and it definitely takes a toll on dating sites.

Snyder has experienced that firsthand. He used OkCupid for almost a decade, since its launch in 2004, before giving up on it entirely. He didn’t feel he was getting good, compatible matches anymore. And he was tired of hearing from female friends that all the guys they heard from were creeps or jerks.

“Online dating has become such a crapshoot,” he said. “There has got to be a better way.”