By Jill Bongiorni, News Staff
Sometimes there is nothing more intimidating than approaching a member of the opposite sex.
Four students are trying to take the guesswork out of this often-awkward first encounter by creating FirstSighter.com, a dating service that matches singles by comparative attractiveness.
“Our entire site runs off the idea that attraction makes relations happen,” said co-founder Tony Ciampa, a junior entrepreneurship major. “If you’re on the subway or at a bar, the only criteria you have to go off of is physical attraction. You won’t approach someone if you’re not physically attracted to them and won’t approach them if you don’t think they’ll be attracted to you.”
Each user is given a physical attractiveness ranking from one to 10 as decided by the FirstSighter community. Initially, the users assign themselves a ranking that is replaced with a community-based ranking in 24 hours. Users can only be matched with and see others’ profiles that were ranked within one point of their own ranking – so if a user is ranked 6.3, they only see others who have been ranked from 5.3-7.3. Unlike similar dating sites, such as HotOrNot.com, users are never able to see their own or others’ rankings.
Ciampa described the service as a cross between a dating site and a social network – a “middle ground between a hookup site and an eHarmony.” Profiles on FirstSighter.com consist of one or several photos of the user, as well as “Facebook-like interests,” such as favorite movies, books, TV shows and music. These interests are the second-most important criteria behind a user’s ranking. The site features a complex algorithm that, in addition to remembering ranks and interests, learns the types of profiles a user clicks on most often, and will gradually tailor results to match past interests.
“What we’ve done is we’ve created a profile that dives into your personality. We ask questions about your everyday life,” Ciampa said. “The idea is that through these, you can infer a lot about a person’s personality. The physical attraction is only meant to be the first step, like that first step in a bar. We go a lot deeper than just that on our site.”
The service also supports same-sex relationships. Preferences enable users to be interested in the opposite or same sex, and then those are the only people they can rank. For example, men interested in men cannot rank women, whereas men interested in women cannot rank men, and vice versa. Ciampa said that while a bisexual option will not be available at launch time, it “absolutely will be an option in the future.”
“In terms of algorithms, it’s a bit of a higher level of complexity so we may launch before building an option for bisexuality and then add it in shortly after,” he said. “So we’re not ignoring bisexuality preferences, but we might not have it right away.”
Born out of the Entrepreneur Club’s Husky Startup Challenge this past winter, FirstSighter was created by Ciampa and fellow students, sophomore management information systems major Jacob Mulligan, freshman interactive media and graphic design major Ryan Ma and freshman computer science major Cory Finger. The site stemmed from the thought of having to leave campus after graduation or to go on co-op, where the “social bubble” Ciampa called campus and classes, is suddenly nonexistent. Ciampa said the site was created with this in mind for graduates and students to meet people and create relationships.
Though the site officially launches in May, there is a currently promotion for Northeastern students, in which every 50th member to create a profile receives $50 until the 400th profile is made, which will receive $200, and the 1,000th user will receive $400 in cash. FirstSighter does not currently have any funding, so the cash prizes will come out of the $1,500 the group won at the Husky Startup Challenge.
Middler finance major Jon Lesh was one of the first to create a profile on the site upon hearing about the promotion.
“It’s tough to approach girls a lot of the time, and this just makes it easier,” Lesh said. “It’s basically an answer to what a lot of people are looking for. If a guy sees a girl he likes but isn’t sure if the girl is into him or whatever it is, this kind of eliminates the initial awkwardness where you know that you’re both attracted to each other before you meet.”
At first, Lesh said he was uneasy over the service’s ranking process, but quickly changed his mind upon learning more.
“When I first heard the idea about the ranking, I was kind of skeptical. Then I found out you don’t know your rank and it turned into this genius idea with people getting matched up with people in their league. No one gets their feelings hurt,” Lesh said. “On the surface it looks very shallow, but FirstSighter is hidden shallowness. Everyone is accepting it and going for it.”
However, others are still skeptical for different reasons. Licensed Marriage and Therapy Specialist and Doctor of Psychology Karen Ruskin, based in Sharon, raised concerns over the fact that users’ physical attraction will be judged on photographs alone.
“What happens in a picture is extremely different than what happens in an actual interactive experience with another person. In the flesh experience with another human being – that is what creates heat, not just the photo itself,” said Ruskin, author of “Dr. Karen’s Marriage Manual.” “A very attractive person can get ugly very quickly if they’re not your type in dialogue. Just as a person who is not that appealing in a photo, in person, can be extremely attractive based on their body language, how they interact, etc.”
Ciampa said he and the other founders realize this and considered having users submit a video rather than a picture, but ultimately decided against it.
“Obviously a video would be a great tool for understanding body language and confidence,” Ciampa said. “But the reason we don’t do it right now is because we want to make it as not awkward as possible. We’re afraid if we ask people to do a 15 second video, they’ll be awkward. We do want to experiment with that because it’s a great idea, and we want to show that live interaction. We just haven’t figured out how to do it yet in a non-awkward way.”
Other concerns have been raised over the site’s ranking process. Relationship expert and coach Darshana Hawks, also known as Dr. Dar, host of a WBTV Friday morning radio show in Charlotte, N.C., is troubled by the self esteem and ego problems that could arise from the site’s methods.
“My concern is, does this open up bullying in the college world? Because it’s calling people to compare each other based on physical attraction,” said Hawks, a master licensed relationship coach and certified life coach. “This is serious. When there is a situation when you’re comparing one person to another based on physical appearance – there are issues.”
Ciampa and the other founders have thought of this too. As most other dating sites, FirstSighter does not release real names of its members anywhere on the site, nor does it provide any contact information. The only way to contact a user is to message them through an on-site messaging system, and you cannot message anyone more than one point out of your rank. Also, comments on pictures are not allowed.
“I truly believe FirstSighter will do more to raise self-esteem and self-image than it will to deteriorate it,” Ciampa said. “It is my opinion that self-image problems stem from the way you’re perceived by others. If you think nobody wants to talk to you or nobody wants to date you because they don’t find you attractive, that’s going to make you very self-conscious. Conversely, if you’re going on dates with people that genuinely are attracted to you and interested in you, who cares how society as a whole perceives you? I’m not trained in psychology, but I find it hard to believe that there are many people out there who would rather have society as a whole think they’re ‘hot’ than to know a few people that genuinely feel the same way they do.”
Regardless, Hawks and Ruskin said they are skeptical of the site’s ability to yield successful long-term matches.
“When I meet with couples and provide counseling – whether the people have a similar looking level or hotness, or one is totally more hot than the other, that’s never an indicator for whether the relationship is successful,” Ruskin said. “I see super hot people and their marriage is horrible, and I see a not-so-hot couple and their marriage is horrible, and I see a super hot person with a lesser attractive person and their marriage is horrible.”
Hawks said she met her husband on Match.com, and they didn’t see each other in person or in a photo for the first three months of getting to know each other, and she said it was a major factor in their success.
“We both to this day say if we saw each other, we never would’ve gone out with each other. What you think you’re attracted to does not end up being holistic attraction,” she said. “I really think that from my own experience and having worked with hundreds of singles that people really shouldn’t go off that first chemical response for physical attraction. They should go on everything else first, and physical attraction comes later. You need to know a person’s body mind and spirit to have a long lasting relationship.”
The founders don’t necessarily disagree with this. FirstSighter was created for singles ages 20 to 30 years old, where, according to Ciampa, the average relationship lasts anywhere from a month to several months.
Ciampa agreed the site could be described as one that matches people with Mr. Right Now as opposed to Mr. Right, and the users also understand this.
“I’m pretty open to anything,” Lesh said on joining FirstSighter. “I just think it’s a great idea and I definitely want to give it a try, but I don’t have any plans or goals. I just think it’s a good idea.”