The New York Times: Serendipity Is No Algorithm on College Dating Site

Originally published in the New York Times Sunday Styles section, Sunday, February 27th, 2011

JEAN MEYER, a business student at Columbia University and a founder of Datemyschool.com, an online matchmaking service, believes modern ambition is the death of love.

Standing at the bottom of the steps to Low Library at Columbia recently, Mr. Meyer, 28, argued that his generation was bred to attend the best schools, maximize revenues and grab the most gilded opportunities, even in matters of the heart. He blames a common suspect — technology — saying that the most wired people in history seem to lack emotional connection.

“People in the 21st century are alone,” said Mr. Meyer, who is French. “We have so many new ways of communicating, yet we are so alone.”

But Mr. Meyer’s solution to this problem is more pragmatic than romantic. Created with Balazs Alexa, also a 28-year-old M.B.A. candidate at Columbia, Date My School offers a highly selective shortcut to love for students who are fluent in social media but too entrenched in their studies for much of an actual social life.

The site, which just received $500,000 from private investors, went live for Columbia last November and New York University in December, restricting membership to those with .edu e-mail addresses at these two institutions. Within a week, Date My School had attracted almost 1,300 users, approximately 5 percent of Columbia’s student population. It now has more than 7,000 users, including some from the Fashion Institute of Technology because, Mr. Meyer said, a friend convinced him that there were a lot of attractive women there — women who specifically “wanted to date guys at Columbia.”

Mr. Alexa, who just finished a semester exchange at the University of California, Berkeley, has expanded the site to that campus as well as Stanford. In April, the two men will take aim at Boston University, Harvard and M.I.T. Teresa Finney, 26, who will begin her first semester at N.Y.U.’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies this spring, is one satisfied user. “I am interested in dating people who will not feel threatened by my schedule,” she said of her failed attempts with traditional dating sites. “I rarely have any free time.”

“The site is elitist, and all the better for it,” Ms. Finney added. “Date My School is doing exactly what Facebook did in its early years.”

That site was also exclusive to .edu e-mail addresses at elite institutions in its incubator stage at Harvard, and Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss, who were Harvard students along with Facebook’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg, have contended that Mr. Zuckerberg got the idea for it after they shared their plans for Harvard Connection, a Harvard-only dating site. Mr. Meyer is unperturbed by any comparison. “I don’t care when people call me ‘The French Zuckerberg’ in the hallways,” he said. “Mark Zuckerberg is successful.”

He believes that Date My School surpasses the Winklevosses’ blueprint because of its many options for privacy and selectivity. Users choose which schools and programs can view their online profiles, which remain invisible to all others. (Mr. Meyer and Mr. Alexa believe this decreased the embarrassment associated with online dating.)

Through the search function one can specify religion and body type. The enhanced privacy is part of what persuaded Dominique Lefebvre, 24, a film student at Columbia, to sign up in November; her profile is visible to all graduate programs except her own.

Still, she said: “The selectivity can sound a bit shallow. I have a friend who is visible only to law, business, engineering and med students at Columbia. One could say she wants to meet men who have a solid, lucrative future ahead of them, but I also think she wants to meet men who are responsible, men who have a plan, know themselves and know what they want from life.”

Ms. Lefebvre, who arrived in New York from Montreal two and a half years ago, is happy her profile is invisible to those she knows best at the school. ”Most of the guys I’ve hooked up with since I’ve been here were in my program, which didn’t turn out to be a great idea,” she said.

She had even less luck dating men she met at bars and on OK Cupid, a site that makes matches based on an algorithm that calculates compatibility based on answers to a questionnaire. “Grad students understand each other and the weird lifestyles we lead,” Ms. Lefebvre said. “To be able to meet someone who is also going through a rigorous program but outside of my field would be wonderful.”

Jonathan Fainberg, a post-baccalaureate student at Columbia who is applying to medical school for entrance next fall, is one Date My School user who likes the site’s enhanced filtering. “If you are in grad school at N.Y.U. or Columbia, I have to assume you are smart, ambitious and motivated — at least one of the three,” said Mr. Fainberg, 24. “So far, everyone I have met through Date My School has been an impressive individual, even if they weren’t dateable for me.”

Dateability, in any case, may be a lower priority to the site’s users than professional networking. According to Mr. Meyer, 63 percent of users answering a question module on the site said that they’d prefer “having the most amazing career” to “meeting the love of your life.” If that’s even possible, these days.

“Young people today have the impression that dating is like buying consumer goods,” said Mr. Meyer, his brown eyes reflecting some sadness about that.

 

A version of this article appeared in print on February 27, 2011, on page ST11 of the New York edition.