Is love blind? That’s what the makers of Loveflutter, a new British dating app, sought to prove with their latest Paper Bag Speed Dating event, in which participants go on approximately 22 two-minute dates with paper bags over their heads. With its tagline #SayNoToShallow, the goal is for singles to look past a potential match’s physical appearance and focus on their personality. All you have to do is design a paper bag, write a 140-character “fun fact” about yourself on it, and see if Cupid’s arrow will strike.
“Looks play a role [in dating], but it’s not just about that,” Loveflutter co-creator David Standen told me when I spoke to him back in June. “It’s about whether you have an obscure collection of stamps as well. Whatever gives you that quirky edge.”
As someone who reports on new trends in the digital dating world, I was curious to see what paper bag speed dating actually looked like, or if Standen was right that quirky “fun facts” have more social currency in the dating world than blonde hair or big boobs. So I signed up to cover Loveflutter’s Paper Bag Speed Dating event—as a bystander only. However it didn’t take long until I was pulled into the experiment.
7:00. I arrive for “drinks” and the “bagging action,” (as cofounder Daigo Smith’s email describes it) at the New York Science Museum in Queens, New York. Because I’ve been in a committed relationship for years, I at first opt to report from the sidelines, but as I head to the “bagging” room, where the women at the event are decorating their paper bags, it becomes clear that nearly everyone at the event is participating, so I grab a #9 paper bag and sign up.
The second thing that becomes clear: Absolutely everyone in the room is a journalist. I’m seated at a table with Business Insider, Cosmo, Elite Daily, xoJane’s Mandy Stadtmiller, and Marisa Kabas, my colleague at the Daily Dot who is reporting on the event for Today.com. “Who are you with?” and “Oh, yeah, I know you on Twitter” are common refrains. Clearly, this isn’t just a speed dating event; it’s a free social networking function for pretty much every eligible bachelorette in the New York media scene.
We’re given blank paper bags, on which we’re supposed to draw a design of our choosing and write a fun fact about ourselves. (This is a nod to one of the app’s features, which features a 140-character “quirky fact” in lieu of a photo on your profile.) Marisa constructs an elegant, perfectly proportioned face on her bag that looks like a character from an Antoine St. Exupery novel.
I draw a sloppy approximation of Groucho Marx, because he’s my hero and also because he’s the only thing I know how to draw.
7:30. In between getting drunk on surprisingly strong sponsored cocktails, I do a tour of the room to take photos. Pretty much every woman there falls into the New York media category, with the exception of two girls who decline to take a photo, on the grounds that they work for a “dating website” and their bosses would be unhappy. “Why? Is it a dating website for spies? Is your boss Michael Caine?” I drunkenly interrogate them. They look at me like I’m a bug that needs squashing.
7:45. A few minutes before the event is set to start, Stefania, an authoritative woman with dark hair and a clipped, Eastern European-British accent who is hosting the event, comes into the room to administer what she tells us will be “a brief presentation” before the event itself.
We look at each other suspiciously. There’s something vaguely Battle Royale about this. Is she going to arm us with machetes and tell us to run outside and slaughter each other? No. She just wants to show us this promotional video, from Loveflutter’s #SayNoToShallow paper bag campaign.
At one point, Stefania is joined by Dr. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, an extremely dishy professor of Business Psychology at University College London who explains a bit of the reasoning behind what he refers to as this “social experiment.”
“Our research showed very clearly that although there were a number of successful dating sites, most of them were very basic,” he says, citing Tinder as an example. “They’re very instinctive, impulsive, and based on superficial things. It’s more like replicating an encounter between two drunken people at a bar.”
I feel like pointing out that considering most of us lady journos are well in our cups at this point, I don’t see how this will be much different, though I understand his broader point: By not allowing prospective matches to see each other’s faces, they’re more able to make snap judgments based on personalities rather than looks. Considering how shallow most men in their 20s and 30s in New York City are, I wonder if this will actually be the case, or if they’ll just use the Paper Bag experiment as an excuse to judge us based on our bodies. Either way, I’m kind of OK with that, because my personality happens to be sparking and also, I’m fortuitously wearing a super tight sweater.
8:00. At 8pm, we are ushered out into the main room with our paper bags on our heads and seated at various tables. I’m #9, so I’m seated next to #10, a stylish and acerbic blonde reporter from Cosmo in a giant fur coat.
“This is so weird,” she says as the men parade in, paper bags on head. “Everyone’s taking photos of each other.”
“Yup,” I say. “It’s a clusterfuck.” We don’t say much to each other after that. After all, she’s my ostensible competition, even though neither of us are there to meet someone and we’re both wearing stupid paper bags on our heads.
8:30. Here’s a tip about speed-dating, for those who’ve never tried it before: Pee beforehand, especially if you’ve been imbibing liquid courage throughout. The event moves so fast that you don’t really have time to separate yourself from the action. By the time I’ve been through about 10 or 12 dates, I’m so exhausted and my bladder is so full that I’ve started greeting men not by saying what my name is, but by saying, “Hi, I really have to pee.”
“Oh, man, me too,” #17, Armando, says. We spend the next two minutes discussing our peeing exit strategy and how good it would feel to pee before our date is over and we move onto the next one, bladders unrelieved.
8:45. By this time, I’m fairly drunk and my Groucho Marx mask keeps slipping, so I’ve started dispensing with social niceties altogether. When a man tells me his name is Lanson, I spend the next minute and a half repeating his name in an exaggerated French accent; when a man in a cat mask whose fun fact is “I love Katy Perry” tells me he doesn’t know Katy Perry’s cat is named Kitty Purry, I bark, “Then why the hell did you put that shit on your mask, then?” I am the Insult Comic of Paper Bag Speed Dating.
My brusqueness has apparently garnered me a reputation among the men at the speed-dating event, even within the span of 30 minutes. More than one man comes up to me and tells me they’ve been warned I’m “feisty,” “difficult,” “cold,” or, as the guy who’s toting around his Shih Tzu tells me, a “challenge.” Lesson learned: If a woman insults a man, she’s called a difficult bitch. If a man insults a woman, it’s called “negging.”
8:58. My last date before the dramatic de-bagging “reveal” is with David, a Peruvian man who, unlike the other men, doesn’t have a gimmick or an eloquent quote on his bag or an excuse for being at Paper Bag Speed Dating. He’s pretty honest and straightforward about why he’s there. “I came because I want to find a girl I can spend time with,” he says.
“Do you think you’ll necessarily find her here, with a paper bag over her head?” I ask.
“I don’t know, maybe,” he says. “I will do anything I can to find her. I am sure you are doing the same thing.” My heart sinks a little bit in its chest, because I know the truth: I am not there to do the same thing. But if I were, I know that David would be the only guy I’d check “like” for on the Loveflutter spreadsheet.
9:00. It’s time for the reveal, where all the men and women line up and rip the paper bags off their heads. While this seems contrary to the entire spirit of the event—you can easily change whether you’d “like” or “pass” on someone after, not before, you see what they look like—the past hour has admittedly piqued my curiosity, and I’m just as excited as the other women in line when we all take off our bags. Some of the men look exactly as I expected; others, totally different.
9:15. We’re invited to stay at the museum and chat with people we’ve met during the mixer while partaking in lukewarm empanadas and branded cocktails. While it seems like Loveflutter’s event created a few sparks between matches, the room is evenly split, with men in their little groups and women in theirs; it looks sort of like a middle school square dance, which makes me wonder how many people were actually there for the novelty of the event and how many truly wanted to meet someone.
I soon find out the answer, however, when I’m approached by the man with the Shih Tzu. He seems disappointed, so I assume that his strategy of using animals to sleep with women has backfired. But my sense of Schadenfreude immediately turns to shame and sympathy when he tells me his feelings about the event.
“All the women here were reporters, and all the men were here to meet someone,” he says. “You’re a reporter. Your friends were reporters. I wish we had known that when we signed up.”
I don’t think he was totally right; although I wasn’t there to meet anyone, I think many of the women I was with were genuinely keeping an open mind to the prospect of meeting someone at the event. After all, dating is tough, no matter what industry you’re in; if there’s a new way to meet people, regardless of how wacky or gimmicky it is, chances are men and women alike will likely be willing to give it a shot.
But he did have a point. While Loveflutter’s goal of getting singles to #SayNoToShallow is admirable, the trouble with Paper Bag Speed Dating isn’t that people are unwilling to overlook physical appearance in favor of personality; it’s that the event is just too staged and gimmicky at this point for people to see it as anything other than a novelty.
Loveflutter and Dr. Tomas Chamarro Premuzic is right—people are tired of basic, superficial dating apps, and they are ready to #SayNoToShallow. I’m just not so sure that wearing a Groucho Marx sandwich bag on your head and talking to someone for two minutes about their hobbies is the best way to go about it. But I wish David and the rest of the men I met at Paper Bag Speed Dating the best of luck in finding someone they want to spend time with, and I hope that whoever or wherever she is, they don’t have to wear a paper bag over their heads to find her.