Could a Text-Based Dating App Change Selfie-Swiping Culture?
Juniper was over Tinder. A recent college grad living in rural Connecticut, they’d been subject to the swipe-and-ghost thing a few too many times. Then, this spring, Juniper submitted an ad to @_personals_, an Instagram for lesbian, queer, transgender, and non-binary people looking for love (and other stuff). The post, titled "TenderQueer Butch4Butch," took Juniper two weeks to craft, but the care paid off: the ad ultimately garnered well over 1,000 likes—and more than 200 messages.
"I was so used to the Tinder culture of nobody wanting to text back," Juniper says. "All of the sudden I had hundreds of queers flooding my inbox trying to hang out." The response was invigorating, but ultimately Juniper found their match by responding to someone else: Arizona, another recent college grad who had written a Personals ad titled "Rush Limbaugh’s Worst Nightmare". "Be still my heart," Juniper messaged them; soon they had a FaceTime date, and spent the next three weeks writing each other letters and poems before Arizona drove seven hours from Pittsburgh to visit Juniper in Connecticut. Now they plan on moving to western Massachusetts together. (Both asked to use their first names only for this article.)
"I'm pretty sure we decided to move to the same place and live together within the first two weeks of talking. 'You're really cute, but we live in different places. Do you want to U-Haul with me up to Western Mass?'" Juniper says, giggling. "And they were like, 'Yeah, sure!' It was like no question."
Kelly Rakowski, the creator of Personals, smiles when telling me about Juniper and Arizona's romance. Shortly after the pair connected via Rakowski's Instagram account, they sent her an email saying "we fell so hard and so fast (I think we still have bruises?)" and talking about the Rural Queer Butch art project they were doing. They attached several photos they made as part of the project—as well as a video. "They were like, 'It's PG.' It's totally not PG,'" Rakowski says now, sitting at a cafe in Brooklyn and laughing. "They're so in love, it's crazy."
This is, of course, exactly what Rakowski hoped would happen. A fan of old-school, back-of-the-alt-weekly personals ads, she wanted to create a way for people to find each other through their phones without the frustrations of dating apps. "You have to be present to write these ads," she says. "You're not just throwing up your selfie. It's a friendly environment; it feels healthier than Tinder." And now that the 35,000 people who follow Personals seem to agree with her, she wants to take on those apps—with an app of her own.
But unlike the services rooted in the selfie-and-swipe mentality, the Personals app will focus on the things people say and the ways others connect to them. Unsurprisingly, Arizona and Juniper are one of the poster couples in the video for the Kickstarter Rakowski launched to fund her project. If it reaches its $40,000 goal by July 13, Rakowski will be able to turn the ads into a fully-functioning platform where users can upload their own posts, "like" ads from others, and message each other in hopes of finding a match.
"The timing is really good for a new thing," Rakowski says. "If this had started at the same time Tinder was coming on the scene it would’ve been lost in the shuffle."
Return of the Old-School Ad
Personals have a history in the back pages of newspapers and alt-weeklies that goes back decades. For years, lonely hearts would take out tiny squares of space in local rags to detail who they were, and who they were looking for, in hopes of finding someone. The truncated vernacular of the ads—ISO ("in search of"), LTR ("long-term relationship"), FWB ("friends with benefits")—endured thanks to online dating sites, but the infinite space of the internet coupled with the "send pics" attitude of hookup culture has made the personal ad something of a lost art.
Rakowski’s Personals brings that art back to the forefront, but its inspiration is very specific. Back in November 2014, the Brooklyn-based graphic designer and photo editor started an Instagram account called @h_e_r_s_t_o_r_y that looked to document queer pop culture via images Rakowski dug up online: MSNBC host Rachel Maddow's high school yearbook photo, protest photos from the 1970s, any and all images of Jodie Foster.
Then, a little more than a year ago, while looking for new @h_e_r_s_t_o_r_y content, Rakowski found an online archive of personal ads from On Our Backs, a lesbian erotica magazine that ran from the 1980s to the mid-2000s. She began to post screenshots to the @h_e_r_s_t_o_r_y Instagram.
Followers ate them up.
"They were just so easy to love, easy to read, and so funny and so smart that I was like, 'We should just start making these,'" Rakowski says.
Rakowski solicited submissions, and set up an Instagram account—originally @herstorypersonals, later changed to just @_personals_. The small squares of Instagram provided the perfect size for the ads, and attaching someone's handle to the post provided an easy way for interested parties to follow, message, and get a general sense of each others' lives. "I would read through all the comments and and be like, 'Damn, these queers are thirsty as fuck. Me too. Everybody is here to find love. Shit, me too!'" Juniper says. The account took off within a matter of months. Personals had struck a nerve.
While dating apps provide a space for LGBTQ+ people, they’re not spectacular at providing much in the way of connection or accountability—and can often come off as unwelcoming for some queer, trans, and gender non-conforming individuals. Apps like Grindr are queer-focused, but can often feel like havens for cis gay men. Bumble caters more to women, and even provides support for folks just looking to make friends, but still doesn’t provide much in the way of community.
Personals, while ostensibly functioning as a way to meet future partners, also works as a support network where people show up simply to encourage people's posts and trade flirts. Rakowski is also adamant that it not just be about dating; she highly encourages the use of Personals to build LTRs and soccer teams.
"Arizona and I have been half-joking, half-seriously talking about using Personals to organize a poly[amorous] butch commune out in the country," Juniper says. "I totally feel like we could do that on there."
They probably could. As it has grown, Personals has attracted users from Brazil to Bulgaria—and nearly every type of seeker, from "Gender/Tender Queer"s to Vulcans. It's also become a source of clever ad wordplay—typical post: "Wanna smash heteronormativity and make sauerkraut?"—and self-affirmation. People post ads that are incredibly frank about their identities and desires, often in ways that encourage even more honestly from both readers and future Personals post-ers.
While Rakowski can see what happens in the comments on each individual post, she has no idea what happens when people slide into each other's DMs—but what feedback she does get is positive. "I hear stories through people I know that someone was at a dinner party and their date was someone they met on Personals," she says. "My friends that are therapists are like, 'My clients talk about this.' It really is spreading."
But as Personals got more successful, it also became increasingly unmanageable. Back in April, BuzzFeed published a piece chronicling the Instagram account’s rise and the relationships—including one marriage proposal—that had blossomed thanks to the site. After that story, submissions started pouring in and the follower count jumped. "I started getting so many submissions that it was hard to keep up," Rakowski says.
As it stands now, Rakowski does open calls for submissions once a month, saves them—hundreds of them—to a Google Doc, and then posts them as she can. She currently has a gig as a photo editor at Metropolis magazine, and running Personals—along with @h_e_r_s_t_o_r_y—is a major time-suck. "I've always had side projects," she says, "but this is a side project that's overtaking my life." Funding for the app, if she gets it, would allow her to pay for the design work and developer hours needed to get it up and running, significantly cutting down on her hours spent on Google Docs.
The Personals app, which Rakowski has already prototyped thanks to pro bono work from friends, would operate much like the Instagram feed does now. Users can post their ads and/or like ads from others and then message people they like within the app, a streamlining process that'll allow a lot more posts than Rakowski is currently able to manage. It’ll also permit people to search for potential matches by interest, geography, etc. much more easily. At the outset, the app will be both free and free to use so that it can be accessible to as many people as possible, but Rakowski says she's considering other models to help keep the app going down the line.
But will moving Personals to an app ruin the fun? Will uprooting the community that's formed around the Instagram account change things? Perhaps, but its core users don’t think so. Arizona, who describes themselves as shy, notes that Personals can be a bit intimidating: If your ad gets picked, it’s one of only a few that will go out in a week. An app would alleviate some of that spotlight-like pressure, and open the door to more users.
"Before I posted my Personal I never interacted with any of the postings," Arizona says. "I just looked and thought, 'This is so cool; these people sound so great,' but I was way too terrified to talk to anyone. I just hope that switching over will make it more accessible to folks with different personalities."
Spoken like a member of the post-swipe world.