Culture

Is It Possible To Build A Creep-Free Dating App? The Founder Of Siren Thinks So

CREDIT: Ken Lambert

If you could design the ideal dating app, what would it look like? For women, for starters, it would be about eliminating the most pernicious problems of male-female tech-based interactions: weed out guys who are creepy, hostile or both; control who can message you and see your photos. These are hardly unwarranted concerns, given that 42 percent of female online daters report having been contacted by someone through an online dating site “in a way that made them feel harassed of uncomfortable,” according to a Pew Research study on online dating and relationships. (For comparison, only 17 percent of male online daters can say the same.) But the current options aren’t ideal for men, either, who don’t want to have to play the numbers game: swiping right on fifty photos, yielding only a handful of matches that don’t necessarily have a great shot at moving beyond the flirtatious texting stage. Men and women alike share concerns about the amount of data that these third-party apps can access, especially on apps like Tinder and Hinge that pull photos and information from your Facebook profile. There’s a need for balance between revealing enough about yourself so you can find someone who could be a good match for you and having enough privacy so that if, say, a potential employer is also on the app, you don’t have to worry about seeing each other.

Enter Siren, which was founded by a woman (a trait none of the other mainstream dating apps share, except for Coffee Meets Bagel) and positions itself as “a dating app that puts women in control of their visibility and encourages women to make the first move.” Think of it as a two-way mirror: a woman can browse men to her heart’s content, but a man can’t see a woman’s photo until she gives him the green light. I talked to CEO and Founder Susie Lee about how Siren — currently only available in Seattle and on iPhones, with plans for an Android app and expansion to New York, D.C. and San Francisco — meets the as-yet-unmet needs of many online daters, why she believes women need to be able to dictate the terms of their tech-based romantic interactions, and why a guy would sign up for an app that doesn’t let him automatically see the photos of the women he’s hoping to meet.

What’s the Siren origin story?

I’m a visual artist, so I come through the perspective of observation through that lens. Being a woman, being a female artist, these are really important parts of the story. Also, I just got my smartphone a little over a year ago.

Wait, you didn’t have a smartphone until last year?

It’s not because I’m a Luddite or anti-technology. At the time, I thought, I have my laptop and flip phone, and these work really well. So when I finally did get a smartphone, which is for a different art project, it gave me this window of opportunity to say, what are people doing with their phones? At the same time, I met with a friend who is on Scruf, a gay cruising site. And it’s a site where you can meet men, it’s location-based. I’d never seen anything like it before.

So you were unfamiliar with the rest of that landscape: Tinder, Hinge, Coffee Meets Bagel, Grouper.

I did hear about Tinder. But somehow to me, Tinder was a game more than anything else. I knew about “Hot or Not” and Tinder, but I thought, that’s not really a way to date people. Scruf is like, you can literally see what you want to see and ask for it. And I asked, is there anything like that for women? The main things that I knew about were OKCupid and Match.com. To me, those are really web-based, desktop, creating a profile kinds of thing.

What did you discover, once you started looking into the rest of these apps?

The one thing that I noticed was, it didn’t matter what site I was on: as a woman, I had no control over who saw my profile picture. That made me feel like a pinned butterfly. If you are a woman who is professional at all, and you have clients or students or colleagues, anybody can see that you’re on the site. It’s not like a woman in 2014 should be ashamed of her sexuality, but we know that as a woman it is complicated to be professional and sexual, in a person’s eye.

I thought: this doesn’t make any sense. In real life, as a heterosexual woman, if you like a guy, there are signals you send. You look at them, smile at them, you touch their shoulder. It’s pretty clear. And you’re very clear when you’re not interested as well. It’s really strange that somehow, in the online dating space, everyone has equal access to everything. The analogy would be like, being at a bar, a guy hitting on every single woman, and the woman is not able to leave the bar. I thought: this is not going to be able to work.

How do you address that issue? What’s the first thing that needs to change?

Women have to be in the driver’s seat. She has to be able to make the first move and control her visibility, and she can actually direct herself to people she is interested in. When I talk to men about their experiences online, they say: I get online, I look at all these women’s profiles, and it’s a numbers game of just throwing out messages and trying to start conversations with women. And I thought, that’s really horrible for them, too. That was one key insight: there is no site doing that at all. And in 2014, we don’t have gender equality in almost anything. And it seemed really weird that somehow in the online dating space, it was equal access to everybody.

And you start to look at how most of these sites, except for Coffee Meets Bagel, are made by men. Even if they claim they have focus groups of women, that’s a totally different thing from knowing, innately, how women have to navigate social space. Whether that’s a woman knowing after 11 p.m. she has to be careful, or knowing that if she wears something specific, she runs the risk of certain kinds of comments. And I am baffled that in 2014, we still have to deal with this, but that’s the reality of the landscape. As a woman on an online space, it becomes hostile so fast. If you look at any of the press articles we have, there are two that are kind of civilized, and everything else, especially the CNN article, it rips us to shreds. And that’s kind of why we have to do this.

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It’s interesting you bring that up because when I think about sites like Twitter and Facebook, they’re ostensibly neutral, but they’re really not female-friendly spaces. Harassment on Twitter is a huge problem and Twitter is really not doing anything to change that culture in a meaningful way. And it’s because, in part, Twitter is not actually a neutral space, and neither is Facebook; they were designed by men, and those men had blind spots.

Exactly. And on some level, if you wanted to be kind of reductive, you could say, men want a chance to show off as many parts of their personality as possible: here’s my profile pic, here’s what I do, here’s what I think. But the moment you put a woman’s photo on there, you’re basically competing with the same thing that any media image of a woman is going to do: you are judged based on your looks, your age, your race. If you’re a black woman on Twitter, you’ll get categorized as an angry black woman on Twitter, and if you put something on Twitter that seems inflammatory, you’ll get slammed down as that angry black woman. As an Asian woman, it’s the same thing. I felt that, you get to a very quick little Miss Saigon stereotypes that’s really hard to combat.

Until Siren, I hadn’t been a very public person in the online space, I think subconsciously for that reason. Every time I would do that, I’d look at my image through the lens of the other and feel myself be categorized as this kind of Asian woman. It was almost like being boxed into a room that got smaller and smaller. I think they try to make it neutral, but the public doesn’t allow it to be neutral. I think that’s why you have a lot of these anonymous sites going up, all about protecting the identity of the individuals. But anonymity is problematic for women too. If we could navigate something about privacy and control as opposed to saying, here are two things: you’re either completely visible and public or you’re completely anonymous. And I’m not sure both offer the same kind of safety for women that we need in this day in age.

I did this interview with Janet Vertesi, a Princeton assistant professor who tried to hide her pregnancy from big data, and one of the things she brought up was how Google, by linking all your online usage to one “profile”—your YouTube and your email and your search history and so on—you’re forced to behave the same way in a wide variety of contexts. Yet we know that, as humans, we need the freedom to behave differently in different contexts: you’re different at a party than you are at the office, which is different from how you are with your family, or on a date, and so on. And something like Tinder, where anyone can see you, forces you to be the “I’m looking for a date” version of you in front of literally anyone: your dentist, your boss, your parents, even.

You suddenly are being put into a position that you don’t have agency over. And it basically will provoke a kind of awkward confrontation. This is what has happened to me a couple times: Male friends will say, “Hey, I saw your profile on Tinder.” And then they just kind of let it hang there, because they’re not going to tell you if they swiped left or right. It becomes deeply awkward. You’re looking at somebody who thinks of you in this sexual realm, and they’re laughing and joking about it, and it’s just not a conversation you want to have. As a woman, when you have male friends, I think you want to trust that you can trust them in a lot of vulnerable circumstances. When you’re suddenly cast in a sexual realm, now it’s like, I trust you just a little less. And the onus is on you to say, “Oh, I didn’t see you on Tinder, haha, yet,” or you have to do the guessing game of why I swiped left or right, and how awkward is that? If you probe into that kind of interaction, that’s where it becomes the same interaction where your real life client or boss or ex has a potential to confront you in a way that I don’t think is good for men either.

Susie Lee, CEO and Founder, and Katrina Hess, COO and Design Director.

Susie Lee, CEO and Founder, and Katrina Hess, COO and Design Director.

CREDIT: Ken Lambert / Seattle Times

Another issue you hear about all the time, especially with Tinder, is guys who just immediately jump to something really sexual and aggressive.

It is amazing when someone says, for their very first interaction, “Hey, do you want to come and suck my balls?” And you think, is that working for you?

If we sort of think of the analogy as a group of people in a physical space, it doesn’t take too many bad apples to create a weird energy in that space. Part of what we want to do is to say, if you allow women to control their visibility, what they can do is, even if there are creepy guys out there, those guys are not going to get a lot of feedback. It’s not like we’ve designed a site to be anti-creepy; we want to be really pro-human. People say “Siren is going to take out the creeps.” But it doesn’t take THAT many creepy people to feel like an entire space is creepy. So let’s say we have a question of the day and a guy is completely inappropriate about it. Most sane women are not going to make themselves visible to that guy, so he is going to feel like he’s in a completely empty room, and then he’s going to leave. Everyone in the room gets to say, “You’re being weird, we’re actually moving to a different room.” And it allows good, decent men to not be associated with that creepy guy. Because on Tinder, where you have no control over the quality of the messages, you’re just going to leave that party entirely. You’re just like, this party sucks, I’m out of here.

Part of the key to Siren is that you’re not required to be connected through Facebook, correct?

Right. The new dating site, Hinge, pulls all this crazy information from Facebook. And even on Tinder, if this app is going to say, “We’re pulling this data,” you have no ability to say “actually, I’d rather you *not* pull this one!” It’s sort of brutal, what you’re doing with users. You’re throwing them into a ring. You can login through Facebook if you to, but we don’t pull photos or info. You choose a username that hopefully is something that allows you to protect your privacy. You don’t have to use your real name. It’s very scary as a professional woman that someone will see you on a dating app and then say “Hey! I found your LinkedIn profile.”

What information is in a Siren profile? How did you determine what to include?

If you’re a woman on Siren, you have a really fast profile creation. You take a picture in the app or can pull it off of your camera roll. It kind of assures your privacy because that photo can’t be linked to anything else. The other thing that is a little radical, but isn’t meant to be radical, it’s just inspired by real life, is that you input your age but we don’t put the age in the profile. So it’s only a way for us to understand who our demographic is, but it’s not put front and center. And every other dating site is like “YOU ARE 35.” And I don’t understand why that is that important. And men are put in as a range, as opposed to a specific age.

There are two reasons for that: one is, this is data from OK Cupid, when women say they’re interested in a particular age range, they actually do stick to that age. Men, regardless of their age, always found young women more attractive. They will always reach out to a woman who is 21, no matter how old they are. Women do need to know an age range, but men don’t stick with it. And on a social level, again, we’re fighting a negative perception of women at certain ages. It’s kind of a social barrier. This way, it can be a conversation, not a pre-judgment. It just seemed sensible to me. Why cut off a potential for chemistry because you’ve already made assumptions? Giving too much data can oftentimes be an inhibitor to conversation.

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You don’t put your specific workplace, right? Just what you do, like “teacher” or “rocket scientist.”

Both men and women identify what their occupation is or how they want to identify themselves. If you want to say “badass writer,” you can say that. I want people to be proud of what they do. And they also put education level. You can say “non-traditional” for someone who didn’t go to college. And we didn’t want to feel like people were penalized because they didn’t go to college. But we asked women what was important to them, and women wanted to know the man’s height and his education level. So both men and women put education and men put their height.

That kind of runs up against this idea of Siren, doesn’t it? That men have to reveal their height? It’s not like you’re asking women to publicize their weight.

I think it’s that women say height is important to them, and men say they don’t care. But you’re right, that is one of those contentions that I think is problematic for me a little bit on a political level. It is true that we don’t ask for a woman’s weight. You’re raised an interesting point. On some level, if women are going to make the first move and feel visible, men know, “whatever package I put at the beginning is something she’s into.”

Don’t men lie about their height on dating sites all the time? It seems like a space that’s ripe for fabrication, just so you aren’t taken out of someone’s pool of potential dates.

I think the same thing would happen if you put a woman’s weight! I guess that’s interesting. We’ll see if that plays out. You get occupation, education and height.

And what about thinking outside the straight-relationship box? Is this an app that people beyond men looking for women or women looking for men would be able to use successfully?

It is heteronormative; we’re sticking to a particular gender dynamic between men and women for now. And we have focus groups in the LGBTQ community to find out what their needs are. Because I find it funny that these sites say they’re for everybody, but then they make you pick a gender that you are and the gender that you want. To say it’s all the same and you just have to toggle a switch, that’s not really being sensitive to the needs of each group. So we made the decision to launch this as a particular way to address a particular kind of dynamic that isn’t working between men and women, and then investigate thoughtfully how we can make that work for other groups.

What are some of these questions of the day?

They’re almost never about romance and dating. Those are such icky questions to talk about with total strangers. So, for instance, “What was a job you wanted as a kid?” or “What’s a hidden skill or talent that you have?” Today’s question is, “What’s a recent pet-peeve?” We think of it as a water-cooler function. It’s pushed out every day as an alert. You respond, free-form, in a tweet-length format. It’s fast and fun, and it’s about good editing. We don’t make it so “tell us your life story.”

I think one of our questions was, “What’s an issue that’s really important to you and why do you stand behind this?” And a lot of guys said gender equality, and that’s why they’re on Siren. Now, they could be gaming the system, but when the next question comes up, their personality will ultimately, totally come through. When somebody has a kid, their responses will say something about that. Something about them always shines through.

You answer the question of the day and you can see all the men who have answered the question. When you put in your zip code, it’s people 40 miles around you. It’s not so location based, like ‘that guy is literally two doors away from me.’ And you can adjust the radius from you. You’ll see only the responses of men within your age range and radius. You see a picture of a guy, because physical looks do matter. But one of the most interesting pieces of data that we have is 96% of men who we consider active, meaning they’ve answered at least 5 questions of the day, some woman out there as made herself visible to him. That points to a kind of subtle gender difference. I think women have a much larger spectrum of what they find engaging and interesting. Siren allows a much broader spectrum of men to have a chance on the site. We were kind of blown away by that statistic.

Okay, so if I’m a guy, and I could be on an app like Tinder where I get to see photos of women and choose from the entire group, like some single girl catalog, why would I go on Siren and give up the endless options and the control, just to hope someone else will pick me?

You get to do that as a man, obviously. The question is whether or not you get to have a lot of success on that site. If you’re a super attractive man who is charming through your words, you’re going to do great on every site. That number of men you can probably count on one hand. Our gender ratio is kind of nuts. As long as you verify that you’re in Seattle and on an iPhone, we let people on the site, and our gender ratio is about 55 percent women and 45 percent men.

So I think men are reading this and saying, it’s not like they’re conceding control, it’s that they realize, it gives them a chance to have their personality come through, through their humor and intelligence and sensitivity. It allows them to say, “Which women actually are interested in me? Because those are the ones that I should focus on. The other women, who aren’t interested, I’m throwing darts in a dark room.” And for women, you can’t have fun if you don’t feel safe. I think most of these other sites force women to feel really defensive about things. We allow women to say, I can reach out, I can do it in real time, if a guy seems not cool to me, I can push that V button and make myself not visible to him.

Also, men get to see women’s question of the day history. This woman, this username, answered this question in this way. So he can reach out to her and say “you love Star Trek, me too!” and she gets that message via Siren, and that encourages her to make herself visible to the guy. Like, you like me even though you don’t know what I look like. You like me for my brain. That’s hot.

This is really a pro-woman and pro-man site. Oftentimes it gets pushed in as being awesome for women, which is true. But I think we do care very much about how good men can create meaningful relationships. You need to have buy-in from everybody for it to work. Our mission is to answer the question, how do we make strangers less strange in an online space? It’s really about allowing people to feel safe in the space. It’s not about an entire resume of another person; you just want to be gentle with people. As an artist, I hope that comes through over and over again: this is a site that should be compassionate to people who want to make meaningful connections, and how do you do that?