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Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Speed Dating in a Grindr World: A Chat With Ben Chang of SF Gay Speed Dating

Posted By on Wed, Nov 5, 2014 at 1:40 PM


Speed dating (or at least the term itself) was supposedly conceived in 1998, by one Rabbi Yaacov Deyo at a Peet’s Coffee in Beverly Hills. Compared to the history of human sexual relations, it’s still very new, but in a culture saturated by dating apps, there’s a whiff of quaintness about it.

Moreover, the idea of putting yourself out there without a protective membrane of carefully calibrated profile pics probably sounds scarier to many people than it did five years ago.

Software engineer Ben Chang thinks “technology overall has made dating seemingly easier but actually harder.” Indeed, the entire premise of HBO’s Looking is the difficulty of finding a meaningful connection in contemporary gay SF. A San Franciscan in his “late 20s,” he began San Francisco Gay Speed Dating in October. The third such event, with registration fees going to the SF AIDS Foundation, happens this Saturday at the Mix. (It’s already booked up, but more events are in the works.) We chatted about how speed dating works, the crucial ways it neutralizes bad feelings, and whether Grindr is really ruining things.

This conversation has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

What type of people show up to these speed dating events?
People from all walks of life. Some work at technology companies. Some work at education institutions. Some work at nonprofits. We have people of all ages too, mostly 20s to 50s.

Will you keep in touch with people afterwards? Would they let you know if they found happiness with a partner?
Given that it is a new program that just started, it is too early to tell if the events will help form real partnerships. I do plan to follow up with some of the matched people a few months down the road to see if they are still in touch.

Do you see this as an alternative to the traditional bar scene? Or a complement to it?
I see it as an alternative, and a complement to the traditional bar scene. I think making new friends by yourself in a bar is difficult in the Castro. It can get quite cliquish. People also seem to tend to avoid eye contact in the Castro, probably unless they already know you or they want to take you home with them.

The expectations are very hard to manage. You never know what the person you’re talking to at a bar is really looking for. He could be in a relationship already, or he may not be interested in a relationship at all. At a speed dating event, lots of those unknowns are cleared upfront. You know people at the event are also looking for a relationship, like you are.

What do you think about the dominance of Grindr, Scruff, etc.? Is it too conducive to random sex at the expense of a meaningful connection? Or is it just another thing altogether?
People use Grindr and Scruff for different reasons. Some for random sex, some for killing time, some for dates and relationship. But one thing is in common: a photo-driven dating-sex app will heighten the importance of visual attraction and downplay any other attributes of a person. It really caters to a base instinct of people making snap decisions based on imagery without having to think. When people meet in real life, other factors can potentially compensate lacking physical attraction. Online, that never happens. If you don't look attractive, you are out. Period. Try messaging 10 people and no one writes back. How would that make you feel?

Speed dating does not address all of the problems. People may still judge you by what you look like. But at least you have a chance to express yourself in front of them and you have a chance to know them, too. There is substantially more social recognition and humility. You are as respectable as anyone else at the event. On the internet, most people have the meaner approach: If I don't find you attractive, I don't want to talk to you. That can really take a toll on people's self-worth and self-esteem. And there is no faster way to spread snobbishness and jadedness.

One way we make the speed dating event more fruitful is that we allow attendees to choose attendees they want to be friends with in addition to attendees they want to be romantic with. So even if you don't have a romantic match, you may end up with a couple new friends that you can hang out for a beer with. It reminds people that nothing kicks off a wonderful relationship, or even a friendship, better than a face-to-face conversation. You can get past the flakiness and superficial judgment that is so prevalent in the gay dating scene and get talking right away.

Do you feel like the possibilities of forming a relationship in SF or the Castro have changed for gay men?

I think technology overall has made dating seemingly easier but actually harder. While it increases dramatically the quantity of people around us that we can potentially meet, it reduces the likelihood of deep meaningful connection and can potentially make us meaner, more jaded and more insecure and about ourselves.

This phenomenon is happening not just in SF but all over the country. I think dating apps and sites have their place, if we realize the flaws. We need alternatives that cater to different needs and expectations. For people expecting sincere, open-minded conversation as a relationship starter, speed dating might be a good choice to go with. For people who really want nothing more than saying yes or no to face pictures, Grindr and Scruff are probably all they really need.

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About The Author

Pete Kane

Pete Kane

Pete Kane is a total gaylord who is trying to get to every national park before age 40

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