Coffee Date - Contextual Statement (Kitchen sink version, 5,760 words)
CoffeeDate was an individual project, as such I conceptualized and executed every facet of the project from beginning to end. I did however take on board suggestions, ideas , thoughts, discussions and input from tutors, friends and classmates. Sometimes incorporating that feedback wholesale or in part to experiments, tests, iterations or even the final outcome of the project. Ideas people gave me ranged from conceptual, theory or even technical or implementation.
In order to achieve the application itself, an iPhone app, I needed to learn to create applications in Objective-C and Interface Builder on the Mac. More specifically I needed to learn how to send information to and pull information from a remote server, implement a secure registration process and login process, a chat client, use location services and table views. However the project was not about just creating an an iPhone app and when it became clear that I risked spending a semester learning how to build an incomplete application, I explored the possibility of implementing CoffeeDate as a web application. It turned out that iOS supports web applications quite thoroughly an it was a feasible solution. Along with ease of development, this also bought with it other advantages such as the application being cross-platform, clients always being up to date and not having to submit the application to Apple’s app store.
I’ve had to learn a lot about various technologies, but there is a lot of room for improvement. The PHP is messy and could do with being rewritten into classes. It does however currently perform it’s function.
The project has evolved somewhat over the year and different things have interested me at different times, though some things have remained constant. On a purely technical level, I just wanted to build a dynamic and secure website that used a database and had users. Dating websites also interested me in particular because I joined 2 New Zealand sites briefly in early 2009 and what struck me was that for such popular websites they were either ugly or lacked what seemed like rudimentary features. One example is that filters were not reciprocal. So if a user ruled out a specific demographic for example, that didn’t stop that demographic from seeing and bothering that user. Another thing that immediately stuck out to me was that one could find people that they knew on the site and I considered that this might not always be something that a user wanted. I considered that if one could log in using Facebook then the site could automatically hide Facebook friends from each other (and state clearly that that’s all it was going to do). It was this initial experience and that at the time I wanted to move on from my current occupation that first made me consider building an alternative dating website. I felt that I could implement better features and a “nicer” user interface, though my web development skills were basic and as a worker with already did a technical job in a different industry. I didn’t feel up to spending my free time learning more technical skills for something that might never come to fruition. I valued my free time for other and more social pursuits.
Starting this degree enabled me to pursue a range of other skills however. The project became incredibly interesting as I read various articles and forum posts from sources with certain credibility such as y.combintor.com, otherwise known as Hacker News. y.combinator is a seed accelerator, it incubates startups, provides advice and investment in return for 6% of the company equity. The forums attract entrepreneurs, programmers and tech pundits. Over the years there has been no shortage of discussion on what makes a good dating website, what the problems are with dating websites and various models they are based on as well and many outside links to other articles and discussions. This was a great starting place and provided me with a huge list of ideas for improvements of a theoretical dating website. I was able to compile a basic list of what seemed like fundamental flaws that prevented dating websites being effective for their users. I presented these in semester 1, but in the interests of completeness, I’m going to summarise my findings here:
Dating websites reduce people into attributes that will fit into a database. This is the criteria users will search and can be searched on, so it becomes important data even though it’s not really the data one may use in real life. This creates a certain amount of superficiality. Other interesting things that were clarified for me included that sites with their anonymity promote misrepresentation and bad behaviour. Another interesting aspect of the sites were because they were dating focused, they caused users to concentrate on some sort of endgame rather than just talking to people and getting to know them. The experience was terrible for both men and women but for different reasons:
Research in Semester 2
In June 2012 Jon Millward, a self-proclaimed specialist writer published the results of a 4 month experiment called Cupid on Trial. He set up 10 dummy accounts, answered 25 questions the same, used similar sounding user names and wrote the same profile for all the accounts. The only differentiation was the photograph. For that he used 5 males and 5 females that 4 independent judges unanimously agreed on a ranking of attractiveness. He set this test up in 5 different cities in the States and 5 different cities in Britain. He then waited for unsolicited messages. After 4 months the results were stark. Two women had full in boxes (around 500 messages) and received 83% of all the messages. It only took 2 months for their inboxes to fill up so at that rate they could have received twice as many messages. All the women except one had more messages than the most popular man and 3 men sat within a margin of error. Also interesting was that one in three men who viewed a profile sent a massage, while 1 in 10 women who viewed a profile did the same. While this experiment raises new questions (such as the content of the messages received), it clearly demonstrates that women will get bombarded with messages and they have no hope of filtering them, while males will send messages and can generally look forward to no response. In any case finding a match on a dating website (and OkCupid has a good reputation at least amongst the community of Hacker News) is something of a lottery.
Dating website experiments
Through out semester 1 my research consisted of a lot of reading, mostly non-academic but incredibly useful. In semester 2 I felt that along with reading, I had to be more hands on with my research. This would of course include the thought processes that I seem to have while making something - the mobile app - reading more academic material and experiments of my own. As the second semester started, I joined 3 dating websites. NZDating, FindSomeone and OKCupid. I was hesitant about this for a few reasons. One reason is that I’m not particularly interested in being on a dating website. The whole time I’ve worked on this project, I’ve had to battle with the suspicion that my end goal is to find dates of my own. This project has nothing to do with me, it started before BCT with certain financial motivations and a sense that I could do such a site better (by certain metrics). Then, when it became a project it became an interesting subject. Another reason that I was hesitant is that my own research told me that it could have a potentially negative emotional impact. Even as a researcher, I would be putting myself up on the site, my pictures, my description of me. If I send messages and one in ten get answered, it wont be a nice feeling no matter how detached I am from the process. Also, I didn’t intend to be completely cold - I was not planning on sending messages randomly, but to people that I might actually find something in common with. Last of all, visiting these sites turned up something interesting: I was being matched with friends and acquaintances. I did not particularly like the idea of being visible on a site to people that knew me, and could read my profile. I pushed on but did not send any messages for a while, until a classmate (while getting coffee with them funnily enough) told me that I need to “get amongst it”. So I did.
I was perhaps rather fortunate that the first person I chose to send a message to messaged me back (user name melonpop). We talked a little bit but in the interests of my mobile application that clearly puts focus on meeting people, I kept conversation to a minimum with the hopes of actually meeting the person. The “date”, 2 weeks later was terrible. It wasn’t a date, and in fact I discovered that I had crashed her friend’s “leaving for England” drinks at a sports bar. I had to deal with her incredibly annoying friends. Things also fizzled a little bit when there was the revelation that I was a student (this was clearly stated on my profile) while she expressed some sort of hostility towards higher education. We never met up again.
This left me slightly reflective about any form of online dating, even my own application that was different. However there were a few factors at play. One is that this person had no idea that while I was genuinely interested in meeting her, I was also just performing research for my project, which happens to function very differently from the dating website that I met her through. The basis of my application is meeting people for during small breaks in the day, coffee breaks for example, which is totally different from meeting someone at a bar on a Friday night. The meetings either way would ideally be conducted one on one, and this particular meeting was less than ideal in many ways. The setting cannot be blamed on the website, but the person who chose such a setting in the first place. None the less this single example dampened my enthusiasm for a couple of weeks. A few subsequent messages sent through NZDating were met with no reply and this along with the general seediness of the site itself pushed me further away from wanting my application to be a dating app. The 3 different sites that I joined had different vibes around them and produced different results.
There are other things that I picked up from NZDating. A lot of women end their profiles with statements along the lines of “I don’t want to see your [genitals]!!” or “if you are just after sex, then don’t message me!” A smaller number of women complain about couples contacting them or males continuing to bother them after they haven’t replied and essentially made it clear that they are not interested. I lament that I haven’t read male profiles to see if there are similar patterns in complaints, though at the time it just seemed slightly weird for me to be checking out male profiles. All of this points to the bad behaviour and that it’s entirely permissible on NZDating. On one hand this makes the site open to all kinds of people, on the other it gives license to people prone to using that freedom to annoy other members. For that reason I imagine that it becomes exceedingly difficult for anybody relatively normal to start a normal conversation with anybody else relatively normal.
I did send more messages to people and would occasionally get responses. I asked one person (user name nix86) who in her profile had hinted that she has had some interesting encounters online on the site, what some of the most interesting messages she had received. I’m not terribly comfortable repeating her top three responses, they were quite extreme. She did however say “And keep in mind that these came from people with relationships profiles, and appeared relatively normal lol.”.
Findsomeone I should say I didn’t get much from because one cannot send messages without paying a monthly subscription fee which I was not willing to do for a number of reasons, quite separate from the study. I’m essentially opposed to financing their site. That said the quality of the experience is somewhat different to NZDating. NZDating feels like a wasteland, it’s like visiting a Las Vegas back road, or closer to home, K Road. Findsomeone by contrast has certain standards. People already in relationships are asked to not join. Pictures are vetted by real staff and the main picture must be a face picture with no sunglasses. The site promotes an image that gold members (those that pay) are actually serious about dating and I suspect that people do buy into that idea despite the unavoidable fact that this serves the site’s bottom line.
My experience with OKCupid was more positive. The site has a relatively functional design and used algorithms to match people based on questions and personality tests that a user could take (voluntary). This in some ways goes toward resolving the problem with shoehorning a person into a database. The design of the site made it feel like a nicer place to be. It seemed to promote a certain standard of interaction without constant intervention from site administrators. I mostly lurked on the site but eventually decided to be more active. I sent and received a few messages (which I made a point of always answering, though perhaps that’s because I’m not receiving an average of 50 messages a day) and inadvertently have made a few online friends/acquaintances, all of whom know that I’m working on a project related to dating websites and a mobile application. I have received some odd messages however. One from a person who claimed to be “looking for love”. In hindsight I probably shot this person down a little bit. I responded to that with “okay...” which was probably dripping with “are you for real?!”.
Development of project
I had started with the intention of creating a new dating website but there were 2 factors that came into play very early on Semester 1. One is that I also wanted to explore mobile application development, more specifically, native iOS development using Objective-C and the Cocoa Touch framework. The other was that I had considered the idea that using location awareness in a mobile phone was somehow appropriate for a dating application. These two ideas worked well together and as I examined the information I had about dating websites I realised it also tied in as a potential solution for many of the problems that my research had raised with dating websites in the first place. A consideration with mobile phones is that information has to be condensed and simplified into a suitable format for their small screens. This was a useful for a dating website because dating websites presented far too much irrelevant data in the hopes that it would make up for the fact that they cannot really capture the essence of a person, even with an algorithmic approach such as OKCupid. As Dan Ariely said (paraphrased), “people are more like wine, and you can’t describe wine with a database”.
Dating websites I had decided collected far too much irrelevant data on a person because that played to the strength of the technology used. But people are not a collection of statistics. I am not my height or weight or eye colour and I imagine that these are not the things that one remembers or even notices about me. I personally have certainly never become interested in a person from data that one could enter into a database about them. Dating websites encourage a user to interact with this data, perform searches on it and when they find someone, to sit behind the computer and talk to another user. This certainly has it’s merits, but it touches on a wider concept that a lot of social networking technology actually sits in between the user and interferes with the social. Dating websites on one hand enable people to meet other people but on the other hand go some way to preventing them from actually meeting. On one hand they enable interactions that probably would otherwise not happen, but on the other hand they shape those interactions unnaturally. By contrast my application didn’t collect much data on a person and it followed that one could not search for data that didn’t exist. The application was about real interaction. My hope was that my application would facilitate interactions between users and then get out of the way.
My experience with dating websites turned me off the idea of CoffeeDate being a seen as dating application. A strength I touted in Semester 1 that it was not a dating website so therefore didn’t have the same stigma associated with it. But this didn’t go far enough in semester 2. I have begun to question how relevant a user’s picture is in the application. Is this a relic of a dating website or does it serve a purpose beyond that of online dating? I personally believe that it does serve a purpose but it should not be a required element, so the application has evolved accordingly. The only information a user is required to enter is a user name, an email and a password. This simply makes their account functional. I will get back to this further on.
I went to Dev World in Melbourne in September. One talk in particular seemed relevant to my application and a general interest of mine. It was called “App UI Usability”. A lot of what was spoken about already made sense, but there were a few things in the talk that made me re-evaluate the layout of the application. An example was to not crowd a screen with too many form elements. As a result I decided to investigate spreading the registration from and options across more screens. In the talk it was discussed that users don’t generally like entering information into a mobile phone so forms should populate themselves as much as they possibly can with data that they get from elsewhere on the phone. This is more of a technical problem for me at the moment, though I intend to deal with it once other bugs and problems are fixed.
Another concept I considered but never really got to develop further was the gamification of my application. I wanted to make iterations of the application and find methods to turn meeting people into a game. The idea behind that was to make the app more fun for users and remove certain frustrations if it wasn’t really working out for people. An idea that I’m not entirely familiar with but I started to think about was that games are social and that they bring people together. This could possibly have been used to further the intentions behind the application in a fun way. I did not develop this idea at all because actual application development consumed the time I needed to try this out.
I set up an experiment where people in the BCT could sign up to have coffee with a random person that they have never spoken to who is also in the BCT. While there are certain flaws in the experiments, such as everyone in the degree at least has the degree in common, I wanted to find out what people made of the concept, and the people of BCT were the most available to me in the time frame that I had. Participants had to write their name on a slip of paper and one interesting thing about them as a conversation starter. This mirrored the “about me” box in the current iteration of the application. Incidentally there is a tight character limit in the “about me” box in the app. It’s meant to be sort of line a one liner to start conversation or be a signature of some sort. The slip of paper also had space to enter what year a participant was in so that when I matched up the names, I mixed people from different years up to ensure that they didn’t know each other. Otherwise the matching was random. They put this paper in a box and at certain times I’d take names out and pin them up in pairs. There was then another form that they were to fill out, asking them question about the experience. I was not entirely sure what I wanted to know specifically at this point but I thought some preliminary research might help me find that out. The questions were as follows:
What was the experience of having coffee with someone you (probably) don’t know like?
Would you do this again (have coffee with a random person)?
Do you think you’d ever use a smart phone app whose sole purpose was to meet new people for a coffee break?
Describe what you were expecting before you entered in to this, was it different and how?
Do you think you might have made a new friend/acquaintance you might not have otherwise made? Why?
Anything else to add?
I posted about it a few times in the BCT Facebook group and on the white board at the entrance, pointing to the box and a small A4 poster that I had made. My concern was getting participation and this turned out to be well founded. While the idea seemed like a popular one but it wasn’t a particularly high priority for students concerned with getting their work done in the second half of the semester. This experiment might have fared a little bit better in the first half of the semester, had I considered it at that time. Around 16 people signed up, but only 2 pairs actually met up and had coffee, and only one of those pairs filled out the form. The second coffee date actually happened at a bar in front of a crowd of us celebrating the last day of Studio, and while it was interesting to watch, it was not really representative of the intention of the experiment or the application The feedback I received from the pair that did do the experiment properly was positive however. They enjoyed talking to someone new and both believed that an application facilitating such a thing had its place.
Another thing was happening around the time that the experiment was taking place. I was building the actual location awareness and table view of other users at the time (the registration and authentication parts took a disproportionate amount of time) and as mentioned I was also discovering how much I dislike dating websites, particularly NZDating. The experience was best described as seedy. I started wanting to distance myself and my application further away from a dating focus. I had already done this a little bit at the binning of semester 2. I removed sexual orientation from the application and I had been considering whether the preference of displaying males or females only was in line with an application that was not focused on dating, though I kept it in for the meantime, partially because I wanted solve it as a programming problem. As I mentioned, adding photos serves a purpose, but I have been considering what it’s removal would do to the application, and how one could adequately replace photos with something else. Being able to add photos in easily from a mobile web application has in fact only been possible with the advent of iOS6. Previously web applications have not had access to the Camera. I’m not yet certain about Android or other mobile operating systems, but there would need to be a way around it, and it would probably require a clunky work around such as having to set up certain parts of an account from a desktop web browser, though this could also work in one’s favour if the application was to become more complex after all.
In some ways I felt that I had come full circle in my Studio. I had spend about 5 weeks in the first semester floundering around with a project that would have something to do with social networking and meeting new people in a way that current social networking websites cannot. I had moved into dating websites because I had a side project and it seemed to be a lot more interesting to me and had some thing that I could actually get stuck into technically. Now I found myself building a mobile application focused solely on meeting people.
The name of the application has been a point of discussion and contention amongst tutors, peers and it is something I have personally thought about a lot. In Semester 1, I wanted to position the application as something that was about meeting people but surreptitiously giving a wink to it’s dating potential. This led to discussion about what the application was actually about. Was it an innocent way to meet people or was it a dating app? What kind of message was a I giving? Perhaps the message was too mixed for the app to find success. My feeling on the subject was that it’s dating potential is what would sell the app but the pretence of just meeting people is what would make it popular and useful. On reflection I think the imagery that I used was possibly too overt even for that positioning of the application. As I’ve moved away from targeting it as a dating application I have considered a name change. None of the names have been as satisfying as CoffeeDate, and after discussions with various people finding opinions and my own thoughts, I’ve decided that CoffeeDate is a generic term for meeting up with someone for coffee, and it’s dating connotations are only as strong as the imagery surrounding the words let it be. CoffeeDate has a nice ring to it, and it’s up to me to come up with good artwork and layout along with a good description of what the application is about.
I’ve been asked why coffee had to be part of the name. The short answer is that getting coffee with someone is a social thing. In the work place I’d occasionally find time to meet up with friends nearby for coffee and it was really just a catch up as well as a break where we got to drink coffee. The coffee and the social meet was a double shot pick-me-up before heading back to work. In the BCT it slowly became tradition amongst friends to go and get a coffee together. We’d usually go in pairs, and it was as much about getting some fresh air, spending some time together and discussing whatever was on our minds as it was about getting an actual coffee. It’s almost like a modern-day cigarette break in a few ways. It’s social. It’s a drug that picks you up and some would consider it a vice. It involves leaving the premises and getting outside. Last of all it can get expensive. It is rather a lot healthier though. The word date is used in Lunch Date and Dinner date. Using the modifier changes the meaning of the word from being about dating to being about a more innocent social or business meeting between friends, acquaintances, business partners, clients or even strangers. A Coffee Date is short and informal and simply means that 2 people are meeting at a certain time on a certain date.
I came across the name Sherry Turkle early in the year must have thought it was relevant to something for I discovered her name typed into my iPhone Notes application but I don’t remember when I did that. I heard her name again in a seminar on mobile technology in education, and some of her books sounded interesting. Her latest book “Alone Together” sounded like it was incredibly relevant to my work and my own personal interest in social technology, so I borrowed a copy of the book and have been reading it. A quote from early on in the book resonates with my own feeling on social networking, mobile technology and even dating websites and what it all has become:
These days, insecure in our relationships and anxious about intimacy, we look to technology for ways to be in relationships and protect ourselves from them at the same time
Social technology has a dark side, much of it seems like unintended side effects of a utopian vision where technology actually connects us and some of it perhaps as a result of our capitalist system and our consumerist bent. We’ve become more connected with each other through computer and mobile networks, our laptops and our smartphones and our tablets. We can keep in touch with more people from further away then ever before, and we can do so instantly. We can gain insights to each other’s current events and thoughts through status updates, photos, instant messages, email and gain context with technologies like geo-tagging. Despite all of this more and more people are acknowledging that the very technologies that connect us over their wireless networks are disconnecting us in the real world. Facebook can put one in reach of an old high school friend yet it also winds up replacing real meetings with closer friends because it’s more convenient. This is not a new phenomenon, but it’s prevalence has become more obvious with new technologies. Dating websites with their messaging systems lock many unwitting people into an endless message cycle. People are more comfortable replacing real life interactions with interactions that they can control in time, but at the cost of not actually connecting with people in real life. Text messaging keeps people at arms length, and we can control when and how we will respond and as a result are sometimes afraid of real conversation. We’re more connected but less connected. Text messages with their small character limit also point to another phenomenon that is deeply related to our disengagement with real people. We are being more distracted. More and more people look to their smartphones for a new distraction. A new text message, email, Facebook message, status update, tweet and the list goes on. We’re unable to pay attention to one thing for long enough to be properly engaged. Our minds are always elsewhere. We can’t even have real conversations with people because we are busy checking our phones. We can’t read a book or even an article online without flicking to another tab for a new distraction. Social technology has given rise to a population with a low attention span and a certain anxiousness about being alone yet afraid of any kind of real intimacy.
It was my aim for this project to use technology where it is useful, to enable real life connections to be created, but then to step out of the way completely, rather than replace those interactions. It started out as an answer to traditional dating websites, but it has a place in a wider context. I wonder what the role of a dating website actually is, as it seems to leapfrog over the process of just meeting people and straight into meeting a partner. My feeling that the largest problem with dating websites was that it reduced people to figures that fit into a database completely skipping the substance of a person, and aiding a new kind of superficiality as people were searched upon by that criteria proves not to be to biggest problem with dating websites. Well, it is for the sites themselves, but the biggest problem by far is that dating websites promote the endgame. They want to short out the process of just talking to people, making friends, being social and the entire journey. Yet it’s the journey that is the fun part.