There are a lot of real world practices that translate well onto the web, and in doing so, open themselves up to participation by much more diverse audiences. Speed Dating is the practice of organising a bunch of very rapid dates, of only a few minutes each, in order to find mutually compatible matches.
The core idea here is remarkably similar to my previous discussion of “HOT or NOT”. At the end of the date, each person marks down whether they would like to see more of this person, and if the feeling is mutual, they are both informed so that they can hook up. In the real world, it can save a whole lot of time wasted sitting through expensive meals with people you don’t even click with. The real benefit, however, is that once again, this is an interaction with a reduced sense of rejection.
In fact, rejection in speed dating can be managed even further by changing the format slightly. I witnessed one round of speed dating where each person sat down for ten dates, each of three minutes duration, and at the end had to provide a list of up to five people who they they had dates with that they would like to see more of. This is a little different to the “yes” or “no” approach, and on the surface might seem less efficient (if the goal is simply to find all possible compatible matches). It does, however, give you a bit of a mental excuse if you don’t end up hooking up with people. You were only allowed to mark down five people, so there may have been some perfectly lovely people who just didn’t quite make the cut. Likewise, if the people who you marked down didn’t end up doing the same for you, then perhaps it was because they found too many other great people on their dates, and couldn’t quite fit you in.
Five people doesn’t have to be the limit either. The further you reduce it, the less successful matches found, but also there will be a lessened sense of rejection. Perhaps four is an interesting number, as you can fail to get a match, while still possibly being “above average” in the other person’s esteem.
Considering the fear of rejection in sites like HOT or NOT is not so necessary, as your yes/no choices are made about each profile you encounter out of a very large pool, making the whole experience very anonymous. Speed dating brings something a little different to the table. It offers a chance to form an opinion about your actual two way interaction with another person, rather than just judging them as a static image or collection of facts. However, by making it a two way dialog, you open yourself up to rejection, which is why I believe that this aspect must be considered.
So, how does this work on the web?
There seem to be two key features which set speed dating apart from saying “yes” or “no” to a user profile. One, as I’ve just mentioned, is doing something to make it a two way channel of communication. The other, is to reduce the pool of people involved so that you can be fairly certain that you are offering an opinion on someone who is also offering an opinion on you. In practice, two way communication seems to automatically imply the latter, however I’m fairly certain that there are some possible types of communication which provide some of the benefits of speed dating without necessarily being real time.
On the real time front, I’ve come across one site recently that does this. At www.speeddate.com, users are actually lined up to take part in live, three minute webcam or text chats. This is a very literal interpretation of speed dating, and probably the most succesfull way of doing it, although not everyone has a camera or is confident interacting with strangers in this way.
Like all ideas, I think that this one is open to being picked apart and used in a variety of ways. Perhaps other activities which we perform on web sites might benefit from involving a fixed group of people. Waiting for the group to “fill up” before being able to start the activity might be a bit of a pain, but a structured social experience that involves a known group of people might have some benefits over our usual rambling social networks. This doesn’t just apply to dating sites. It could be just as applicable for people watching a private webcam show (for those who like their porn to be sociable).
Perhaps also we can consider how we can make our interactions more like two-way conversations, so that instead of judging the a photo, people are judging how well they get along.