Given that it appears Overlap.me has escaped the obscurity of a private beta and launched, ever-so-softly, into the public consciousness, I figure I should explain what it is and why I’ve built it.
The frustration I’m ultimately trying to solve is how to meet new people.
Not go on an internet date (though that would be ok too).
Meet. New. People.
Why, in 2011, is this still such a problem?
I don’t believe any of the three dominant social experiences online — not Facebook, Twitter, nor the plethora of dating sites that exist — have yet nailed the social dynamics of new human connections.
Overlap, I hope, will be a step in the right direction, though time will tell (it will need a lot of users to even have a shot at working, and it’s still a work-in-progress).
But before exploring Overlap, let us begin with the status quo.
Facebook is not a place to meet new people, because it’s entirely focused on who you already know. It’s creepy when people you don’t know try to add themselves as your friends. Facebook does not try nor succeed at connecting strangers.
I believe that focusing on trusted, real-world connections is why Facebook succeeds at being Facebook. If Zuckerberg tried to turn on a tap of new stranger-connections, I think he’d face an uproar from the real-life-rooted communities he’s helped grow over the past 8 years.
Conceptually, you might think Twitter is in exactly the right space, because it’s focused on (A) your interests and (B) people you don’t already know.
But Twitter is too public a forum for me to describe myself with the nuance and personal risk necessary to start new real relationships. Speaking to the entire world at once doesn’t come naturally to me, and I find I need more than 140 characters to engage in genuine conversation with new people. I’ve never actually met anybody on Twitter, and while I’m aware that many people have, it’s not a typical use case.
Also, a tremendous amount of Twitter activity revolves around a small number of extraordinarily popular users who are followed by everyone else. Twitter is a new spin on mass media. Yes, it’s far more participatory than television, but in practice, “follower” relationships still have celebrity at their core, and celebrity does not a potluck dinner make.
Online dating sites should have nailed this space long ago, because the single important problem they should have been hammering at for years (were they not obsessed with milking their subscription models), is reducing the friction of like minds meeting each other. And while statistics and personal anecdote both agree that many relationships and marriages have indeed been sparked by the Match.com’s of our world, I still find myself frustrated with (A) the awkwardness of online dating experiences, and (B) their exclusive focus on romantic relationships, rather than friends.
Dating sites have tried to expand into “friendship”, but I believe they’ve failed because they never did really get to the heart of the problem they were trying to solve. The incumbent dating sites only exist because millions of people want so desperately to get into bed with each other that they’ll fork over the equivalent of a second cable bill to gain access to poor-performing, over-hyped dating markets propped up by expensive TV campaigns. The tremendous power of human sexual desire has inhibited innovation by subsidizing the ongoing survival of awkward solutions that succeed not by merit but via mastery of modern mass media and PR.
(Free dating sites have been far more innovative, but still haven’t solved my problems.)
Dynamics of Failure
So what’s wrong with the state-of-the-art?
While in real life we tend to meet our best friends serendipitously as we go about the business of living, online dating has continued to feel awkward. Yes, I’ve met great people via online sites, but I’ve also wasted horrendous amounts of time writing and re-writing profiles, and conversing awkwardly with the wrong people.
How do you start a great conversation? Usually with a short remark about something you’re quite sure the two of you have some interest in. It doesn’t need to be prolonged; starting off an online relationship with an extended essay about how that person’s profile made you feel, describing how incredibly joyful you are to have finally met someone who truly understands the delicate quiverings of your precious, enigmatic soul, rarely leads to success.
No, the ideal first remark is short but relevant.
In real life, there are enough contextual clues (appearance, mannerisms, and the like) that even asking for the time or the weather gives the two of you the opportunity to subtly keep distance, or edge into dialogue. Online, an ideal interaction would be slightly more attuned to mutual interest.
Profiles: Even though expressing yourself is fun, filling out profiles isn’t.
I hate writing profiles about myself. I find it difficult, and awkward. This is not a problem of being articulate, but rather a mis-match between the static nature of a profile and the dynamic nature of being human. I didn’t talk the same way to the CEO I met while selling industrial truck trailers at a farm show in Regina as I did to the art history student from Oxford I met on a beach in Malaysia, so why should these two people — and my mother — see exactly the same version of me online?
Defining a single version of my self that I will be satisfied with, knowing that it will be viewable online for eternity by everyone, is impossible. I have written dozens upon dozens of online profiles because it seems every time I sit down to the task, I have a different aspect of myself in mind; not one of these profiles has ever stood the test of time.
Profiles are work, they aren’t fulfilling their purpose, and the problem of profiles is connected to the problem of context.
As humans, we are constantly morphing our selves to fit each situation we find ourselves in. The internet on its own, provides very little context; in a sense, we need “walled gardens” of defined social expectations to make us comfortable. It’s why there’s LinkedIn for business, and Facebook for your friends. We need a social context to tell us what’s appropriate to say and do in any given situation.
Speaking into the eternal, unlimited void of the internet, knowing that everybody you will ever know can google everything you’ll ever write online, is intimidating and leads us to react with self-censorship and fear. Instead of expressing vulnerability, we only show our best sides—precisely the opposite of what leads to real intimacy. Fear is a constant presence, because all your inner social genius—the part of you that knows exactly how to avoid swearing around your grandmother without even thinking about it—doesn’t work in internet-land.
The context-free nature of the public internet makes communicating self difficult.
Ill-Fitting Game Dynamics
Now, all forms of online dating have natural game-dynamic qualities, like intermittent rewards, which have led me to become addicted to various sites over the years—addicted in the sense that I would keep checking my email incessantly, hoping to see a new message while in the midst of a new online foray into the consciousness of an attractive Other.
Game dynamics and addiction are not bad in and of themselves; they are a natural part of life. But the mark of an undesirable addiction is that it leads you to behaviour that is not, in the long term, getting you where you really want to go, and that’s where these sites have fallen short for me: I can spend hours upon hours per week tending to my online dating efforts without ever having quality interactions that evoke the sorts of feelings of thankfulness and appreciation that I experience in the real-world.
So a pet peeve of mine is when technologists try and turn something fundamental, like human connection, into a cheap game for their own benefit. I do not believe we should let obsession for measurement overtake common sense: we should not narrowly optimize the experience of our products for some subset of our users who are particularly susceptible to addiction. I believe we should embrace our innate and powerful desires where it is fruitful to do so, but allow our conscience to intervene where it is not, much as we let our love for competition motivate us to partake in sports at the same time as we fight against our own will while walking past the ice-cream aisle.
Game dynamics are inherent in human relationships, and at their best can enhance our lives, but they can also be abused to serve the interests of network owners.
The Overlap.me Experiment
No solution to a problem as vexing as human relationships is likely to be quick or easy, but I believe Overlap.me may be a step in the right direction. I will now explain what I’ve built, ask you to play with it, and hope for the best.
In the world of Overlap.me, an overlap is a short string of text, that represents something you can have in common with another person.
Anybody can create overlaps, and an overlap can be about anything.
Here is what the 10 currently-most-popular overlaps look like:
Overlaps that you haven’t joined show a “Me Too” button; “Me Too” is the essential gesture of Overlap.me.
When you click “Me Too”, you get to see all the other people who have also clicked “Me Too” on the same thing:
The number next to each person tells you how many overlaps you share in common. If you see a little globe icon, it means they’re within 300km of you (or whatever distance you want).
The key difference between joining an overlap and sharing something on a profile is that when you click on a person, you only see what you share in common:
The idea is that each element of your identity is selectively shared with like minds. So if you enjoy drinking Tequila, nobody else needs to know… except others who enjoy the same guilty pleasure.
Remember, this is still the internet — a place where it’s impossible to “enforce” honesty. Overlap is not a place where you can reveal parts of yourself that other people truly shouldn’t know. But overlaps do create mini opt-in environments where, at the very least, other people are given the opportunity to respect your disclosure wishes and leave you be as you wish.
Using overlaps is more analogous to tact than privacy. Privacy may be possible in closed environments like Facebook, where you specify beforehand who can see what because you already know who’s on your friend list. But this isn’t possible when meeting new people.
If overlaps make expressing your identity more fluid, natural, and human, I believe they also make initiating conversation a whole lot more easier.
Instead of facing the prospect of filling a big blank message screen when you find someone you’re interested in, all you have to do here — in fact, all you can do — is remark on one of the overlaps you have in common:
A short, sweet, relevant way to begin a conversation.
And, you don’t have to worry about cluttering somebody’s inbox by remarking on multiple overlaps, since all messages from a given user go to the same place.
Overlaps are designed to be a general-purpose way to meet people based on what you have in common, but if they achieve this goal, they will surely be useful for dating as well. In any case, uncertainty about whether you’re open to dating new people could create anxiety, and in our effort to take the friction out of every step of meeting new people, we definitely want to avoid anxiety.
So, at the bottom of your settings panel, you can decide whether or not you’d like to use the site for dating, as well as basic age and gender criteria about who you’re looking for:
What Overlap.me will do is show a little heart icon only next to users who (A) fit your age/gender criteria, and (B) also want to date someone of your age and gender.
This means nobody will see a heart next to your photo — and see that you’re using Overlap.me for dating — unless the two of you are a possible match.
I don’t expect the dating function to be useful until the site has a lot of users, but I thought it made sense to have it baked in right from the beginning.
Where to now?
If this concept has merit, then we’re only at the beginning of (A) growing a user base, and (B) fleshing out the website, neither of which can continue to be handled adequately as a solo effort. This is merely the juncture at which I feel the product is ready to be taken for a spin in public.
So I am very excited to begin this conversation, and I would welcome help from wherever it may come to spread the word & build this out.
It was nearly 3 years ago, while hiking in southern China, that the idea first occurred to me for the sort of tit-for-tat information swapping mechanism that eventually became overlaps, and it wasn’t until I attended YCombinator’s Startup School in 2010 that I decided to take the idea seriously. Being my first web app, development has been an adventure, full of pitfalls as well as successes, but so far well worth the sweat.
To watch a concept grow from a twinkling of an eye into a working product has been truly satisfying; To transform a working product into a meaningful success is a challenge I find exciting. But if there’s one lesson I’ve learned time and time again, it’s that people are what bring meaning to any endeavor. I invite you to join me on Overlap, experiment, have fun, and let us all see where this might go.