To Susie Lee, founder of Siren, most dating sites and apps are akin to putting a woman up on a stool in a bar with a sign stating that every guy there is allowed to hit on her. “In what circumstances in real life does that ever happen?” she says. “Zero. But you’ve created a business where you think that’s the model that is going to work.”
So Lee, whose background is in visual art, rounded up some of her programmer friends to help create an app that gives everyone the power to control their photo visibility. Instead of browsing static profiles, Siren works more like social networking. People get to know each other through conversation, sparked by questions that are posted each day.
The app started in Seattle and now is spreading to Minneapolis, where it will soon be coupled with in-person social events at local cultural institutions.
City Pages chatted with Lee about her background as an artist and why Siren is the dating app of the future.
The Ashley Madison hack showed a huge gap between the number of men using the site and the number of women, who were largely fake. Do you know if other dating sites have similar discrepancies in gender, and how does Siren compare?
That’s something from the very beginning [Siren has] always had. We don’t even market one way or the other but we’re like, "Hmm. We seem to have equal women and men in equal ratio across the ages."
The population of single and looking in the real world tends to be slightly more men than women, but it’s actually pretty close. It’s like 53 to 47 or 55 to 45. But when you go on these sites, the ratios are really skewed. Tinder’s latest ratio is like 2 to 1 men to women, because women are like, “This is gross, I don’t want to do this anymore” or “I don’t ever want to do this and I never started.” Or you’ll have something like on OkCupid where you’ll have a lot of older dudes and younger women.
There’s a lot of talk about safe space right now in different ways. How does this app cultivate a safe space and in what ways is it not a safe space?
"Safety" is one of those trigger words that means very different things to different people… I think about places like on OkCupid, where you can have someone continually message you and harass you, and the only thing you can do is just report them and hide yourself or something. It’s a little weird.
[Control over] photo visibility just allows you to not have that awkward interaction where you’re like, “My client just saw me online and now they’re making our business meetings really uncomfortable.” Or, for example, a barista says, “I can’t be on Tinder because even though there’s this mutual opt-in, they still know that I’m single, so they come to my place of work and they hit on me. So now I don’t feel comfortable at my place of work.” That’s what I think the whole "safe space" is about.
Your background is in visual art. What was the trajectory from visual art to this?
I started out in sculpture. I always say to people, if you start out in clay, it’s fantastic as an artist because it’s immediate... Then I started gravitating toward digital media because I liked the idea that it kept changing.
Unfortunately, I can’t code. It’s funny, when they talk about women in tech, I’m always like, “Yeah. Go women! Other women. I’ll cheer you on!” But I learned how to collaborate with engineers and programmers and say, “Hey, we’ve got this really great idea — what do you think?” Every engineer likes to do crazy ideas on the side. So it was actually really fun to work on these projects.
And then I had friends, both men and women, who started to complain about online dating, and how they were single and didn’t know how to meet people. I had this idea: Women have to feel safe. Also, it was 2013, people know social media. Why not make a dating app conversational in some way? Why is it these weird static profiles when chemistry is about bantering? It’s about sparking someone’s interest. I said, “Let’s just try this and see what happens.”
A year ago, Miranda July launched the messaging platform Somebody, and it seemed to not work very well. As a visual artist creating a dating app, your situation recalls July’s endeavor slightly. Do you think of Siren as an art project?
That’s a great question, because recently the Turner Prize, which is the British national art prize, was awarded to a young architecture group called Assemble. Some people were like, “Oh my god, it’s the death of the Turner Prize” because it’s normally awarded to a single artist, and this is a collective. Plus, they’re not artists. They’re architects. They’re about problem solving and making things better for people in society. All of that resonated with me so strongly, because I think of myself as an artist.
The art world has to be about more than just making an object that’s for sale through a gallery. It also can’t just be a concept. We’re in a world that has a lot of hurt in it. There are a lot of problems, and there’s a lot of discord. As artists, you can’t just sit back and say, “Well, I’ll just go back in my studio and paint." Of course you’re going to respond. How do you do it? It doesn’t just have to be in the nonprofit world. Why can’t we do things like start companies that will actually do good, but do it in a way that actually approaches it very differently than how a tech company does?