Love in the Time of Algorithms

Sex By Southwest: We Hung Out with Bangs With Friends

The DTF-friend finder is planning a mobile app. Could fundraising be next?
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Souvenir from South by.

“I got my first match!” one of the cofounders of Bang With Friends told Betabeat earlier this week as we scarfed down free grilled cheese on the curb outside the Austin Convention Center. Around us, hordes of lanyard-wearing South by Southwest attendees swarmed by, eyes firmly fixed on their smartphones.

Unfortunately, the match–facilitated on the since-banned Bangs with SXSW specialty site–wasn’t a lust connection. “It happened at 3 or 4 am, so I was already too far gone at that point.”

For the unaware monogamists among us, Bang With Friends–a play on Zynga’s Words With Friends–is a website that serves up photos of your Facebook friends. It looks like a Pinterest page, but acts like a catalog of potential one night stands–pulled from your existing social network. If the urge strikes, users can click the “down to bang” button below their Facebook profile picture. The desired partner is only notified if they also selected you for a night of more-than-friendly benefits, reducing the risk of rejection and lowering the barrier to boning.

The trio of San Francisco-based cofounders, who met while working for the same tech company, are maintaining their anonymity for now. All we can say is the brosef was blond and friendly. However, he did reveal that Bang With Friends is moving from a side project into a full-time occupation. And it sounds like they’re in the process of raising funds. “No comment” and a vague reference to SEC rules was all we could weasel out of our grilled cheese companion.

He was much more loquacious when it came to the Facebook-connected app’s potential, which should be helped along by the mobile app currently under development. “It’s too insane to ignore,” he said of the service, which has already picked up  750,000 users who have hit the “down to bang” button 16 million times. About 70 percent of Bang With Friends users are between the ages of 18 and 34–a demo Facebook isn’t willing to ignore. “Overall,” he said, “we have a good relationship with [Facebook]. They’re happy to have us on their platform.”

“Our generation responds to that open and honest approach,” he added, “We cut through the bullshit.”

The aforementioned bullshit, of course, refers to the niceties of dating and online dating in particular, which can require a little more conversation–and game–before you know if someone is DTF. “How does anyone describe themselves? It’s fucking insane that they’re expected to do that,” he said of the process of filling out profiles on sites like OkCupid. 

The shortcomings of online dating were a hot topic at SXSW. The day before we met Bang with Friends, Betabeat had attended a panel called “Dating By Accident: Finding Love While You Tweet,” hosted by New York Times reporter Brian Stelter and his girlfriend, NY1 traffic reporter Jamie Shupak, who argued that DM flirting on Twitter might serve lonely hearts better than conventional matchmaking sites.

“I feel like the geo-location part [of finding love through social networks] is just starting to be tapped,” Mr. Stelter told the crowd before adding that no, he didn’t mean “tapped,” like that. Ms. Shupak looked on aghast, but as Mr. Stelter pointed out with a YOLO-ish shrug, it was already 5pm and, hey, even Grindr was hosting a party later that night.

Bang With Friends was hardly the only libidinous brand with a presence at SXSW. There was also Qpid.me, the website that lets users verify a potential partner’s STD status via smartphone. In an email to Betabeat, founder Ramin Bastani said he got the idea after, “A girl slapped me in the face after I’d essentially asked if she’d been ‘tested.’  I figured there had to be a better way!” (He also directed us to “90 second video of that awkward story :).” In fact, Mr. Grilled Cheese was wearing one of the multi-colored leis from his previous meeting with Qpid.

To promote Bang With Friends in Austin, the cofounders launched that specialty SXSW site–somewhat superfluous considering the rivers of free alcohol and convenient hotel rooms. Conference organizers sent it a cease-and-desist letter for an unsanctioned use of “SXSW” in the original URL. But the startup still got 3,560 attendees to sign up and facilitated 221 matches by Tuesday. They also handed out “a few thousand” customized condoms with a Kama Sutra-esque logo.

If that sounds appealing, we should note that the company is hiring. “Culture is very important to us,” said the cofounder–sounding like pretty much every other techie we know. “As you can imagine, we need to be able to talk about sex and say whatever the fuck we want,” he added.

The company’s ‘no rules’ approach to bed-hopping has gained traction on college campuses, he said, noting anecdotal evidence from U.C. Santa Barbara and Chico State. According to MakeLoveNotPorn founder Cindy Gallop, however, its popularity has traveled further than that. At a women in tech brunch the next day–“Lean in . . . to your mimosa”–she told us that after a recent debate at her alma mater, Oxford University, a number of students approached her to ask if she had heard of Bang with Friends. “They literally said to me: ‘This is exactly what we need. This is perfect for us!’” (The Bang with Friends cofounder told us the service is actually most popular in Germany, with the U.S. and Brazil vying for second place.)

Ms. Gallop, a veteran advertising exec, also brought up Bang With Friends on stage during her SXSW panel on the future of porn, which had a line snaking out past well past the ballroom doors. The app got a big round of applause. Ms. Gallop first met the cofounders in a Google hangout after chatting on Twitter. “I went into it quite cynical. I did not expect to be as impressed as I was by the team,” she said.

The use case for women might be stronger than Hollywood would have you assume. The cofounder we spoke to said they receive a lot of thank you notes from members who say, “I’ve always wanted to do this and now it’s easy.” From women, the feedback has been around freedom from having to make the first move. “They’re not overwhelmed by all these [online dating] messages. They can safely mark the guys they always had a crush on,” he said.

He also brushed off the criticism that Bang With Friends is a sign of technology inhibiting our ability to talk to one another. “Just because we cut through the bullshit doesn’t mean you’re not gonna communicate,” he said. Rather, it helps navigate the “fine line” of not wanting to compromise a friendship.

Venture capitalists should understand the appeal, he said. “The thing about VCs, they’re humans too. It’s okay to be curious and it’s okay to take a look.” That initial SXSW match may not have worked out, but he and his fellow cofounders have eaten their own dog food, so to speak.

Both he and Ms. Gallop situated the startup as a sign of sex positive culture because, he said, “It’s putting sex it its proper place in the conversation. What we wanted to be is not necessarily a straight Grindr, but it has some of those elements.”

Social media-phobes should be aware of one definite downside, though. In addition to your number of Twitter followers, Facebook friends, you now have to worry about your “Bangability” quotient. The cofounder wouldn’t offer many details about the “the exact proprietary algorithm,” but it takes into account the number of times people have decided they’re “down to bang” you, as well as views, clicks, number of Facebook friends, and the number of friends who have joined the service. Just imagine the Klout perks on that influencer metric.

A version of this story appeared in the March, 13, 2013 issue of The New York Observer. 

Follow Nitasha Tiku on Twitter or via RSS. ntiku@observer.com