Wings, the Facebook Dating App, Pulls an Icarus; Relaunches as DateBuzz.com

12/7/10Follow @wroush

It turns out there’s at least one thing that Facebook isn’t good at: helping people find dates.

Back in July I took a close look at Wings, a new Facebook dating app created by a Palo Alto, CA startup called Triangulate. At the time Sunil Nagaraj, Triangulate’s co-founder and CEO, called Wings the first example of “data-driven dating.” It was all about making matches between prospective daters based on statistical analyses of the similarities between the two parties’ social media profiles—for example, their likes and dislikes as expressed in their Facebook status updates and other online activities.

Triangulate collected $750,000 in seed funding from Trinity Ventures and Playdom founder Rick Thompson to build the app, and Facebook even made Wings a featured app in its applications dashboard, a central list of Facebook apps. But Wings never took off. Nagaraj says the explosive viral adoption that many apps have achieved on Facebook—the prospect of which is the main attraction of launching a service on the giant social networking platform—just never happened for Wings. Users weren’t “liking” the app enough or inviting their friends to join at a fast enough clip to keep the service going.

Perhaps it should have been obvious from the start, but it turns out that dating is more about trying to meet someone new than about inviting all of your Facebook friends along on your search for love. “Facebook has made people feel comfortable sharing parts of their lives, but it’s not the same with dating,” says Nagaraj. “There is still hesitation around sharing the fact that you’re dating with 500 friends. By constraining the app to within Facebook, people were getting uncomfortable.”

DateBuzz Updated ScreenshotBut while Triangulate plans to clip Wings, it’s not getting out of the dating business. All Wings users are being invited to move their accounts to a new service emerging from private beta testing today. It’s called DateBuzz.com, and it’s entirely separate from Facebook—although members still have the option to sign up and login at the site using their Facebook credentials.

Like Wings, DateBuzz has a schtick: a voting system that allows members to share what they find “dateworthy” or “buzzworthy” about other members. The service’s ultimate aim is to help members find promising dates, but the voting system is designed to help them gather feedback along the way from “co-daters” about how they’re presenting themselves and what parts of their personal profiles seem most effective to other users (whether or not those other users are scoping them out as a potential date).

Nagaraj and his Triangulate co-founders, fellow Harvard graduates David Chen and Matt Weisinger, say DateBuzz is different from other dating sites because it “breaks down the walls between its users, making the process interactive.” Wings was also interactive, of course, but the key difference this time is that co-daters on DateBuzz don’t know one another beforehand. So the often-messy process of evaluation, flirtation, and rejection isn’t unfolding in full view of all of one’s existing friends.

Triangulate’s decision to drop Wings to start DateBuzz is a classic startup “pivot,” to use the euphemism of choice among today’s Internet entrepreneurs. And Nagaraj naturally puts a brave face on the switch, calling the months since Wing’s launch a grand experiment. But the experiment clearly failed. “We came to market with a pretty strong notion of what we could do technologically to make matches automatically behind the scenes; we threw that against the wall to see what would stick,” he says. “We’ve come out of that with a ton of lessons about what people want to do and what their most pressing needs are in the dating world, and DateBuzz comes out of that.”

The primary lesson, in Nagaraj’s words: “People want feedback from real people. They’re not impressed with algorithms.” One of the biggest pitfalls in the online dating world is clumping: on most dating sites, just a few females with attractive profile photos attract most of the messages from males, and vice versa, leaving everyone else feeling isolated and even more insecure than when they started. “We threw some very cool technologies and platforms at that, but we weren’t addressing what people really need, which was that they wanted something back,” Nagaraj says.

To provide members with more feedback, there’s a whole section of DateBuzz called “The Buzz,” where daters help each other. Members can flip through pieces of other people’s profiles, such as their photos, and can mark them as “buzzworthy” or “needs work.” “It doesn’t have to be about the date, in the end,” says Nagaraj. “We’re allowing [members] to pat each other on the back and share support and feedback.”

Nagaraj, a programmer and former management consultant, says his team stumbled on the idea for The Buzz after recruiting Wings members to help with photo moderation, a challenge for all dating sites. Volunteers rated other member’s photos as blurry, inappropriate, or abusive. “It was incredibly addictive for a large portion of our user base,” says Nagaraj. “We’d see people rating thousands of photos, and we realized that there was this interest in interacting, not just because you want to message them date them.”

DateBuzz retains some of the matching technology behind Wings, but here, too, the process is now more interactive. Users can guide the algorithms toward better romantic matches by marking specific members’ profiles as “dateworthy,” a notation that will show up on their profile.

With Wings, Triangulate hoped to earn money by requiring payments in the form of virtual coins for the privilege of sending messages to potential matches. The coins could be purchased with Facebook credits (which Facebook members buy using real cash). Nagaraj says DateBuzz will have a much simpler business model: subscription fees similar to those at Match.com, eHarmony and other online dating sites. (The site is free for now.) Having to pay to message a potential date, even if it’s in virtual coins, introduces friction at just the wrong moment; a simple subscription model “better aligns our interest with our users’ and ensures the community has a better feel,” Nagaraj says.

In place of Facebook-style virality—which never materialized anyway—Triangulate is trying out a different way of acquiring users for DateBuzz. It has recruited three women who live in San Francisco to create daily video blog posts about their experiences using the service. (“Jen” is a freelance sports journalist, “Kate” is studying to be a pharmacist, and “Marita” is studying for an MFA in poetry and fiction writing.) Nagaraj says the hope is that the women’s daily posts will spread virally and lead viewers back to the blog, which features a prominent signup button and will contribute to DateBuzz’s image as “a strong, edgy brand.”

If DateBuzz gathers some buzz of its own, Triangulate will be able to grow out of its seed stage and seek a full Series A investment in the spring, Nagaraj says. The company has already begun to staff up, most recently adding former Arie Grapa, the former head engineer for Yahoo Personals, as its chief technology officer. “Arie brings a ton of technical experience, but also a passion for the dating world,” says Nagaraj. “He was at Yahoo for 10 years, and 7 or 8 or those were at Personals, so he has seen the ups and downs.”

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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