Internet dating is exhausting. You have to write a profile, sift through other people's efforts, contact them, set up a date – and then go on the damn thing. Then there's pre-date research; Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn (while logged out, obviously). After that, more often than not you don't click, then spend the evening secretly texting friends while fantasising about sitting on the sofa watching Gogglebox. Even sites such as Tinder – the online dating site that doesn't have profiles, just the option to swipe on someone's photo to register your interest – can end in an uncomfortable evening when your date doesn't match up to his or her picture.
But a new dating service or "social club" aims to take away the hard work of going solo, matching up two groups of friends for a night out. Grouper, which launched in 2011 and is already running in 25 US cities, is launching in London next month. It's dating, with mates. Users sign up via Facebook, invite two "wingmen" and answer some questions including two truths and a lie about themselves. Grouper then "hand matches" the original trio with another group (crucially, each group can't have any mutual Facebook friends) and on the day, tells them where to meet. As Kristen Badal, Grouper's director of international operations, says: "We use online technology to bring members offline and take conversations to where we think they belong – face to face in the real world."
So, does it work? My friends and I were sceptical – what if we all fancied the same person? – as we arranged a group date during Grouper's soft launch. It turns out that the site was still ironing some things out. The initial questions were in US mode (no, I didn't vote for Obama) and we never received the two truths and a lie from our opposite numbers. Despite the hi-tech approach, this was bona fide blind dating.
Thanks to bad traffic, my two companions and I arrived 15 minutes late at 8.15pm. So far, so bad. But the designated venue, a dimly lit, speakeasy-style bar, was a more off-beat choice than I'd expected. We told the barman we'd arrived, and then we waited. Nearby were three French guys buying shots. Was it them? Apparently not; they headed upstairs while we were ushered to a table surrounded by a very merry office Christmas party. "My colleague's seen them," a flustered waitress assured us at 8.30pm. "They're having a fag," she said at 8.40pm. "They were definitely here," she confirmed at 8.45pm. "Three French guys…"
Our matches had apparently clocked us, had their free drinks (included in the £15 Grouper cost) and left. We had to laugh. Grouper stays in contact with members and if anyone drops out, it tries to rally new matches. True to the site's word, I received a text saying "special replacements" were on the way. At nine, our new dates arrived (one fresh from a yoga class). They were super-friendly, fun Americans – shame one of them had a fiancée. But as Grouper says, it's about "making connections", romantic or otherwise.
Despite our teething problems, I think the concept can work. The company's founder subsequently met his long-term girlfriend through Grouper. And others fared better in launch week. Ben, 22, a business developer, says of his matches: "We ended up partying all night. We're doing a Grouper round two with them in the new year." And Danielle, 23, a PR executive, didn't let being in a relationship deter her: "I was assured I'd be the wingwoman of the team. On screen, I can see how they'd look like the perfect match, but in reality we were very different people."
I'd certainly give Grouper another go, though; it was fun, I discovered a new bar and met interesting new people – who have offered us places to stay if we're ever in New York or San Francisco. Sadly though, there's no hi-tech solution for "I just didn't fancy it (or you) tonight". µ
Grouper launches in London on 16 January, joingrouper.com
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