Some bearded dudes, courtesy Bristlr. Kershaw, the creator of the dating site, is third from right. (Bristlr)

It’s probably one of the most annoying, and most inevitable, aspects of online dating: No matter who you are or what site you use, you’re bound to get a boatload of generic messages that look like they were copy/pasted to a million other people.

There are telltale signs of this kind of thing: a certain lack of personal detail, a certain concerning brevity, the resort to vague and overstated compliments, like “you’re beautiful” or “I like your profile.” (Really?) And yet, none of the largest paid dating sites — let alone the free ones — will actually tell you straight-up when someone has sent the same message to multiple people, even though the technology behind that feature is rudimentary.

Maybe they just lack the imagination of 28-year-old John Kershaw — the one-man show behind Bristlr, a social network for guys with beards that will, among other things, tell you when you’re being message-spammed.

Since launching at the end of October, Bristlr has earned some love from the lumbersexual crowd and a few lumbercurious reporters, most of them peeking in for the lolz. But Bristlr isn’t just a bearded face: The app is introducing some innovations that could add critical social context back to online dating.

Aside from the copy/paste notification, which Kershaw implemented on a whim one Friday morning, he’s also working on a rating feature that will let users grade the quality of their correspondents’ messages. If people regularly rate you highly, in terms of how much time you seem to spend on your messages, then you’ll get a little star on your profile. He’s also contemplating status updates, a la Facebook, to inject a little more personality and transparency into the site.

“I view it as trying to make the service subtly more open and honest,” Kershaw explains. “It’s important to me to keep Bristlr’s positive and genuine vibe, and stuff like this is key to that.”

Positivity and genuineness might seem like pretty obvious values to steer by — no one goes into a date looking to have a bad time — but the dating industry rarely articulates its core values that way.

As Dan Slater explains in his 2013 book on the subject, major corporate dating sites are motivated, in large part, by getting users to visit over and over and over again. If they’re totally up-front about how people use the sites or how many people use the sites, they run two big risks: More transparency could alienate some users (i.e., adherents of “Copy, Paste & Bang”) or make dating vastly more efficient, thus lessening the time users spend on site (to quote How About We chief executive Aaron Schildkrout, “If you succeed, you lose.”).

But Bristlr, which Kershaw built and funded himself, can basically add whatever features he wants. As of this writing, Bristlr has almost 60,000 users, about a third of them in the United States. The response has been so enthusiastic that Kershaw, who was working as a freelance Web developer and threw Bristlr together as a joke, recently decided to make the project his full-time gig.


(Bristlr)

In doing so, he joins a legion of niche dating sites that have sprung up over the past 10 years — a legion so large, in fact, that it now accounts for an estimated one-third of the online-dating market. Most of these sites you won’t have heard of, in part because they cater to such a small and specific demographic — think goths or prison inmates or die-hard “Star Trek” geeks. But they also tend to fade into the background because, zany interests and fetishes aside, they’re all basically the same. (Sometimes literally the same, in fact: A number of companies produce undifferentiated “white label” sites that they just brand and market differently.)

Bristlr, on the other hand, is a thing all its own. It might not be your thing, but it’s hard to argue with the philosophy Kershaw is pushing: the idea that providing users with more information, and more transparency, will help them “make better decisions” in their online-dating lives.

“As opposed to most matching sites,” Kershaw adds, “which tend to put your interaction with somebody else in a vacuum.”

… your move, OkCupid.