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More Than Tinder: How Apps Help Form Connections in Smart Cities

The stereotype of urbanites absorbed in their phones is not unfounded; look around any downtown coffee shop, and you’ll find people checking email or playing games—and not interacting with each other. Small talk can be intimidating and awkward, so sometimes it’s just easier to delve into your phone.

But dependence on phones doesn’t mean that people don’t want to connect; in fact, as location-based meetup apps show, smartphone users are increasingly interested in face-to-face connection. But for busy young professionals, networking face-to-face via industry happy hours can seem less than efficient. A new group of apps aims to use geo-location and common friends and interests to form new, relevant connections. With technology disrupting how we connect in person, the days of awkward small talk over cheap beer may be over in smart cities.

Romantic (?) Connections

Tinder was the first dating app using location-based information to gain mass appeal. The app uses Facebook profiles to gather basic information and analyze user’s compatibility, based on location, number of mutual friends and common interests. Tinder is extremely well used among young people. A Mashable analysis points out that more than 6 billion matches have been made since Tinder launched in 2012.

Tinder is the big dog in the room when it comes to geographically-based dating apps; their immense user base offers a seemingly unending line-up of potential dates. Yet, growth has led to challenges; in July of 2014, London-based security firm Symantec found a flood of bot Tinder accounts luring users into webcam and game sites. More recently, an update that integrated Instagram and expanded users’ Facebook profile presences led to user outcry, as well as ongoing technical issues.

As Tinder expands its scope beyond just swipe-able pictures, users may be abdicating the platform to more specialized dating apps. Former Tinder Fofounder Whitney Wolfe has started a female driven version of Tinder, which puts all the impetus of messaging on women, after a match has occurred. As TechCrunch points out, Wolfe understands that dating apps only work when women are active and engaged—and feel in control of the barrage of messages from matches.

Other users who are frustrated by endless back-and-forth messaging that goes nowhere may be attracted to the dating app being launched in London called Rendeevoo, which aims to do away with small talk. As TechCrunch reports, Rendeevoo bills itself as “Uber for real-life dates,” and works by allowing users to select a date, then place an order by selecting a venue and paying for a cocktail ahead of time at one of a handful of East London bars. The prospective date then also pays for his or her cocktail and the two meet, with no mobile messages exchanged.

Matching for More

Yet, connecting is about more than just getting drinks or a date; forging connections can lead to valuable business and job opportunities, as well as learning experiences or even just conversations. New app GetReal takes an approach similar to Rendeevoo, encouraging people to spend more face-to-face time when they are in each other’s vicinity. Users post a profile composed of a photo and a short paragraph; opening the app shows users in your vicinity who are willing to meet, as well as your shared social network contacts. Users send a meeting request using an in-app pin-drop feature, and an optional message, and GetReal gives users a half hour window to accept, defer, or decline a meeting.

In TechCrunch, creator Arnaud Meunier explains that the app is being used in tech communities for “two-minute coffee meetings, primarily for a business purpose.” The same article posits that those in the tech world may be more accustomed to random meetups, and considers the possibility that the app could be co-opted by people just looking for quick hookups.

Paradigm Shift

In the case of Tinder offshoots, such as Bumble, and dating sites such as Coffee & Bagel and Hinge, users are able to select platforms that align with their values and preferences rather than seeking out the largest network available. GetReal, with its open-ended mission, allows connection based on individual interests and location. A next step for this kind of technology would be an app that cities can use to further engagement. For example, Loomio provides a mobile platform for decisionmaking and discussion among a pre-selected group. If an app like this incorporated geo-location, cities could use it to engage citizens for decisions, such as neighborhood-level planning decisions about amenities, like parks or changes in street or sidewalk design.

A generation ago, geo-tracking potential dates or business contacts may have been seen as an invasion of privacy, while chatting in the grocery line was considered innocuous. But today’s urban dwellers have their own networks, and may find random conversations inefficient for creating connections. Apps using geo-location with social media integration to link users provide a framework for connecting on similar interests or through shared contacts. Part of the uncertainty of meeting new people is removed.

Furthermore, traditional means of networking often entailed invitations to specific events, clubs, or societies. Geo-location enabled networking apps may usurp these barriers and allow for greater access for typically under-represented populations. If cities integrate geo-location into their technology plans, they may be able to reach populations who otherwise would not have participated in the civic process. Smartphones already connect us to our contacts; with geo-location apps, they have the potential to connect us to helpful networks in our backyard.

Emily Brown

Emily works in urban planning, helping cities to become more competitive. She was named as one of 40 under 40 economic developers, and has taken part in a successful Kickstarter…