Grouper, the Blind Online Dating Service You Do With Your Friends: A Story in GIFs

This is what Grouper thinks Groupers look like. I'd just like to point out that the guy on the right is drinking something blue.
This is what Grouper thinks Groupers look like. I'd just like to point out that the guy on the right is drinking something blue.
Grouper

I've written a few things about online dating and encouraged numerous friends to try it, but, having been in a series of relationships since college, I had never done so myself until I tried Grouper a few weeks ago.

I had also never been on a blind date, and certainly not on a blind group date. Grouper pairs two trios of friends (eg three straight girls and three straight boys; three lesbians with three lesbians etc.) for drinks based on their Facebook profiles, but pairings within the group are not predetermined. CEO Michael Waxman started the company in New York City in early 2011, received some funding and advice from inimitable start-up accelerator Y Combinator last winter and expanded to Los Angeles (and nine other cities) a few weeks ago. Each date costs $20 per person, but Grouper pays for your first round of drinks.

Waxman says he started Grouper "because it was something I wanted. I wanted a way to meet new people that wasn't as lame slash sketchy as online dating or a networking event." Of course, he met his current girlfriend on a Grouper.

Recently I've been in that post-relationship bliss where you want to give silence a hug and you're all

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But my friends Stella and Jamie want to try this thing, so I agreed to check it out. What was the worst that could happen? Would we end up fighting over the only cute guy? Would we end up on a date with this fellow?

Groupers mostly take place on low-pressure weeknights like Wednesday and Thursday, and you don't find out where exactly you'll be meeting your dates until the day before, heightening the anticipation. The company is run by a small group of millenials, meaning the employees are pretty similar to their desired market, which might explain why the matchers often aim for witty text message banter with the matchees, many of which are chronicled on their recently-started Texts From Last Night-style blog:

Challen Hodson is Grouper's Director of Member Experience. Rachel is presumably texting while on a Grouper.
Challen Hodson is Grouper's Director of Member Experience. Rachel is presumably texting while on a Grouper.

Everyone who works at Grouper goes on Groupers, Waxman says. They don't even call it a dating service; they call it a "social club...membership by application only."

Waxman tells me the system that matches us with our dates is "half human, half machine," and I picture some kind of fabulous 21st century Yentandroid...

...who reads the wrinkles in your hand to tell you how many kids you are genetically programmed to have and finds you that special someone who ALSO earnestly quoted Radiohead somewhere on his Facebook profile!

Really, it's that an algorithm narrows the pool and then Grouper employees comb through Facebook profiles. What are they looking for?

"[If] this person's a huge hipster and this other group is really really preppy, like, meh, I don't know if that would totally work," Waxman says.

Yeah, I guess this...

Never felt as right as this...

But I do think Zach needed those ten episodes with Tori, if only to better appreciate and understand Kelly, amiright? Sometimes opposites attract.

Anyway, I hadn't been thinking much about my Grouper, until the night of, when the prospect of this Date with a capital D gets me all bent out of shape. I do all those things I wouldn't normally do after work on a weeknight. Eyeliner! Floss! Heels!

I strut down my steps to the car, psyching myself up like I'm about to run The Amazing Race, and cruise down to what Lexi Aiassa, the perky community manager at Grouper who sends us personalized texts and e-mails about the details of our date, called the "Downtown Art District."

Okay, I don't really want to be a dick about her dropped "s," but she did go to USC, even if she is currently based in New York... But yea, okay, I think most people who live West of La Brea wouldn't notice that mistake anyway, so I shrug it off. It does make me wonder, however, about how awkward errors like that could be in the 11 additional cities Grouper plans to expand to soon (for a total of 23), considering all of their employees are in NY (except for a designer in L.A. and a sales guy in San Francisco) and they don't plan to hire anyone new to help tailor their service to local scenes. I also wonder about how $20 per person for one drink will play in Milwaukee or Charlotte.

I get to the bar, and Stella and Jamie are already there. They've been talking about how relieved they are that the three creepy looking characters at the bar aren't our dates.

And then those exact three boys approached us.

I'm not going to describe what they looked like, because, yeah.

Do I really need to explain not being attracted to someone? No. You make these instant assessments all the time, and at your basest core you can't help being like...

So essentially we'd gotten all gussied up and paid twenty bucks for four-dollar beers on a weekday night to arrive and decide:

What a waste! Maybe no one lame enough to sign up for Grouper is even compatible with me.

Up next: Grouper's response

 

"We're not fortune tellers," Waxman says. "Maybe you meet someone you want to go on a date with once every five times or ten times you go to a bar. Maybe for Grouper it's one in three."

He suggests that we follow up with guys we don't want to date, see them again, meet their friends, merge social groups, maybe find someone else we would be interested in. I feel a little stressed when Waxman tells me this. Am I supposed to feel comfortable saying we'd be interested in doing karaoke this weekend, leading these guys on only to turn around and mack on their more attractive friends/ask if they HAVE more attractive friends? Shady! I would be offended if guys did that to us.

Also... I have friends. I'm not here to make friends.

Now I'm trying to rationalize not wanting to date any of them, but every reason feels offensively superficial. Gosh, is there any way to evaluate a potential date without coming off like this?

Okay, all I can say is that Guy 3 was balding, wearing a tropical shirt covered in turtles and appeared to be 15 to 20 years older than we are. (I'm 25.)

"Hair is preferable to bald," Jamie later e-mailed Aiassa, when she requested feedback.

Guy 3 was sitting furthest away from me but every time I glanced in pity over at Stella I imagined he was conversationally pawing at her, as a turtle paws at the ground:

When we talked about it later, Stella described the moment we all realized that these were, in fact, the guys we had each paid $20 to go on a date with in the same way that a fireman might describe arriving at a tough blaze with a cat stuck on the roof: a sudden knowledge that you had to do what you have been trained to do, immediately. Now was the time to dutifully charm and politely listen.

I ask how they met. Riding motorcycles, comes the answer.

Motorcyles! How badass. At first I picture us riding around Malibu like this:

But after about thirty seconds of delusions that I had met dreamboat Jesse Katsopolis in the flesh (Have mercy!), I remember that I used my get-out-of-a-motorcycle-accident-free card that one time in rural Thailand when I fell off in the freezing cold rain and emerged with only a month-long bruise on my thigh.

When it comes down to it I'm a neurotic inelegant klutz, and I'm too paranoid about this happening:

However, I did then appreciate all three of them are RIDERS and all three of us are WRITERS.

When I tell this to the boy closest to me, he offers a pity laugh, but I don't think he appreciated this assonant coincidence as much as I did.

"I will say that I've been on worse dates with better-looking people," Stella tells us an hour or two later, after we stammer, avoid making concrete plans to see each other again and begrudgingly sacrifice Jamie, who gives one of them her phone number.

How did this happen, I wonder. Yentandroid, I put so much faith in you! What are your methods, again?

Apparently Grouper employees also look at "the subtle details," Waxman says, including "the background of Facebook pictures. Are people in a club or in nature?"

I go back through my Facebook photos and scan my wall. Of course my most recent photos are at two clubs (horror!), one because it was a bachelorette party...

...and the other because I had been promised unlimited pizza.

"This isn't typical!" I want to shout. Here I thought my Facebook photos merely represent what I'm doing when I'm with the friends who love taking photographs, not who I truly am as a person. All of a sudden I find myself horribly upset, far more so than I was at the time, that my one friend didn't want to go hiking more often during our travels this past summer.

But then I start to think, dude, I've hired a highly personalized dating service. I don't ever have to accidentally be alone with some creeper...

...my friends will always be there to make me seem more normal. And when the dates go badly, we can all share in recalling awkward moments later on! Maybe I kinda like this...

When Jamie finds out from a friend that Grouper in L.A. now has a waiting list because so many people have tried to sign up, she interprets this as a good sign.

"Exclusivity = our friend" she e-mails us. I respond, less confident.

"Are the early birds [i.e. the desperate] hotter?"

I guess we'll have to see. Every Grouper is a leap of faith.

Do you trust this half human, half machine with your Thursday night and your twenty bucks?

Hey, Stella and Jamie, I'm down for another if you are.

Follow me on Twitter at @adelaidelaments, and for more arts news follow us at @LAWeeklyArts and like us on Facebook.

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