91M People Tap This Dating App of Destiny - OZY | A Modern Media Company

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The pandemic is forcing this romantic dating app to explore new paths.

By Fiona Zublin

  • Dating app Happn uses geolocation tools to recreate chance encounters, and now has 91 million users in 17 countries.
  • Founder Didier Rappaport foresees a new phase of AI-influenced online dating, but with real-life magic added in.

Our eyes met across a crowded bar. We were waiting in line next to each other. We were the only two people hanging out in the kitchen at a party. He randomly sat next to me at a play.

Or: We matched on Tinder, and now we’re getting married.

Relationships forged online are no different to those forged offline, but man, are the how-we-met stories more boring. Dating apps are really utilitarian and do not at all smack of destiny. Except for one.

I wanted to bring real life back into the dating space.

Didier Rappaport

Happn, a French app (of course), uses geolocation to show you other people on the app whose paths you crossed. The cute girl you locked eyes with on the subway because you were reading the same book, but never spoke to? In past years, you’d have to resort to a Craigslist missed connection. Happn’s goal is to — if you’re both amenable — bring you two crazy kids together.

DidierRappaport_happn_sanslogo

“I found that dating sites were too virtual. Like a catalog,” says Happn founder Didier Rappaport from his office in Paris. “I wanted to bring real life back into the dating space.” Rappaport, 65, a co-founder of massive video sharing site Daily Motion, describes himself as someone who’s always “open.” Though he’s always been focused on tech in his professional life, one day, during an unrelated conversation about the possibilities of geolocation, he realized it could cross paths with dating. That was the spark for him.

“Romance is about coincidence,” he says. “One day you’re in front of someone that will become your one.” The idea behind Happn isn’t that it will definitely find you love — it’ll just help you meet someone. The rest of your life is up to you.

You may not actually have locked eyes with the people you meet on Happn — which has 91 million registered users and markets itself in 17 countries — but when it launched in 2014, you’d have come within 250 meters of them. Over time, the app has introduced new ways to connect online, like CrushTime, a game where you can see four nearby profiles and guess which one has liked your photo in order to match with them.

The physical proximity aspect means that Happn needs to be vigilant about security, never showing users their matches’ precise location and being strict about banning people who harass others. The app also sends users advice on how to behave, Rappaport explains, to help train people used to, say, sending unsolicited dick pics, that “you can’t do in the digital world what you wouldn’t do in real life.” They’re always adding new tools to deflect scammers, including, this month, facial recognition. And for many people the romantic spark has really worked — Rappaport has even been invited to weddings of people who met on the app.

And research indicates that users do routinely see people on the app that they recognize from real life. “It’s just interesting that you could cross paths with someone like eight or nine times and never really even see them or realize that that’s them,” explained one interview subject in a 2017 study of how users felt about Happn’s use of location data.

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But as the agoraphobic narrator of best-selling 2018 novel The Woman in the Window wondered after downloading the app: “What if you haven’t crossed paths with anyone? What if you forever navigate the same four thousand vertically arranged square feet and nothing beyond them?” It’s a question that this spring suddenly because relevant to a lot more users.

An app based on randomly star-crossed paths with strangers works less well when everyone is trapped in their own apartments by a global pandemic, working from home and only emerging once every few days for essentials. Like so many businesses, Happn had to adapt, expanding the range at which the app detects nearby matches to 120 kilometers in order to keep users from having to stare at a sparse list of matches. They’re planning to keep that system even as the pandemic passes — but sorted by distance, showing you first the people nearby and eventually enlarging your circle.

“Before the COVID situation, only 3 percent of our users said they were keen to use video calls,” he explains. Now that number is 60 percent, and the app facilitates virtual video dates.

Rappaport sees online dating as existing in two distinct periods — desktop, which was about the perfect profile, and mobile, which is all about speed and infinite options. As mobile dating moves forward, he hopes AI will start to fill in the once-exhaustive profiles of the desktop age, using geolocation to intuit that you both go to the movies a lot, for example, and giving you ways to start up a conversation. “Many people are shy,” he says, “They don’t know how to start a conversation.” Even with that person they locked eyes with across a crowded subway car.

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