If your recollection of the last tech bubble is kinda hazy—Netscape IPO yadda yadda Pets.com—you might have missed the hype around Nerve Personals, which first launched in the year 2000.
For New Yorkers of a certain self-selecting cultural persuasion, the dating site from Nerve.com was the first online offering that catered to their demo. By virtue of the fact that it was attached to Nerve.com, a purveyor of “literate smut,” it was safe to assume you had a better chance of liking the same movies, reading the same books and not offending some poor Match.com square with your free-wheelin’ politics.
A New York Times magazine feature about the romantic entanglements of Nerve’s stylish co-founders Genevieve Field and Rufus Griscom, touted the popularity of its promising new personals section (“It’s addictive!”). That was followed by more exposure with the HBO series Nerve.com: Downloading Sex, which featured: “a woman who keeps a digital diary of her sex life.” (It’s possible the word blogging had not been invented yet.)
It was around that time in 2001 that Nerve spun out the technology that powered its dating site into Spring Street Networks, which in turn sold that technology to publishers like The Onion, Gawker, and Salon.com. But when Spring Street Networks floundered, so did Nerve’s personals section. Spring Street was acquired by Various, Inc., the owner of Friendfinder, and a company called FastCupid took over the management of the section and its backend in an eight-year deal. Users were less than pleased.
Meanwhile, a slew of other dating sites, from OkCupid to HowAboutWe, have stepped in to try to cater to those same online daters—not to mention the whole Grindr where-are-you-right-now-so-I-can-take-your-pants-off mobile hookup category. “We were just a private label putting our name on someone else’s technology and waiting for the deal to expire so that we could do our own thing,” CEO Sean Mills, who previously served as president of The Onion, told Betabeat. “We were chomping at the bit to do something different, not just from the third party technology, but from the rest of the industry. We cringe when we see some of these commercials on television for some of these big dating sites.’
Well, Nerve.com’s contract with FastCupid expired this year and Mr. Mills, who helped scrub the site clean of its advertiser-unfriendly naked photo repository, has been hard at work reinventing online dating for the modern web. Their new proposition called Nerve Dating, launched out of invite-only beta earlier this month with 10,000 users and is currently only running in New York City.
This summer the company raised a $1 million round from Lerer Ventures, FirstMark Capital, and some angel investors to develop the site, which is free to join, but requires a $20/month subscription to message users. Unlike most other paid sites, it doesn’t cost anything to reply to someone who reached out first. “What you see on free dating sites is there’s a filter missing and people get, you know . . . there’s a creepiness factor sometimes to what you see there,” said Mr. Mills.
At least in terms of its user-interface and layout, it’s the sleekest dating site we’ve seen. (Unlike Google Reader, they seem to understand how to use white space.) Nerve’s creative team also has an interesting spin on things: no more dreaded profile to fill out. Rather daters type in status-update-like questions on what they did last night or offer opinions on lightweight questions. Where OkCupid wants you to respond to directed inquires like “How often are you open with your feelings?” to determine compatibility, Nerve asks things more along the lines of: “My favorite influential ’80s art-rock band is…” or “Two truths and a lie about me are…” The questions show up in a news feed-like homepage where users have the option of privately responding to an answer.
In our first hour perusing the site, we saw references to: Momofuku’s, Enid’s in Greenpoint, Prime Meats in Carroll Gardens, Mark Bittman, the McKibben Lofts, The Princess Bride, the National show at the Beacon, and Frank Zappa. And yes, if you need to ask, we entered a Brooklyn zipcode.
“Rather than go to a site where you have to fill out a long profile that tends to be static, we looked at things like Twitter and Facebook where people are sharing more of what’s going on in their lives everyday, it’s more about what you’ve been up to and what you thought of it,” said Mr. Mills. “What’s powerful about that is you can disagree [with their opinions], and it’s just starting a conversation.”
The idea was to dispense with the equally-as-dreaded first email or IM to a stranger, which can come across as canned or forced. “What’s the more human, what’s the more authentic, natural way to approach the situation?” he added.
After looking around the rest of the $3 billion(!) online dating market, Mr. Mills figured Nerve was in a good position to once again act like an innovator, noting the gender diversity of its site, which gets 2 million unique visitors and 12 million pageviews a month. “We sort of have a different approach to lifestyle content—it’s not men’s and women’s magazines. We write content that appeals to men and women. Very first person. And we try to be a little more intelligent.”
All the emphasis on dating like humans seems to be directed at a certain popular free dating site run by four mathematicians. “What we’d seen is that the whole online dating space it became just dominated by gimmicks and math and science and algorithms and here’s our formula of how we’ll determine whether two people are compatible,” said Mr. Mills. ” These things are very enticing from a marketing standpoint, but they don’t actually work. OkCupid does really clever things with its blog posts—you’re 72 percent my enemy and all that stuff. We think attraction is a complicated thing and people can figure out for themselves whether there’s a connection.”
Which is not to say that filling out scripted questions is necessarily more authentic for a dating site. In one of the question boxes, a recent user wondered, “Is Nerve going to make it? Is being so artificially indirect with each other really the best way for two people to meet online?”
But the bigger issue might be convincing the lovelorn that the Nerve name still means something in online dating. “There are these brands out there, the Onion was one, that have a really loyal following and people have kind of an emotional connection,” said Mr. Mills. “Those brands can venture off-track at times, but that attachment doesn’t go away. When I started at the Onion back in the day, it was sort of in a downward trend and we revitalized it and brought in a lot of new creative energy and that’s what we’re doing here . . . Hell, even Apple is an example of that.”