Dating Apps Were ‘Getting Old.’ Why Not Try Something Older?

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Every Saturday, when Randa Sakallah sends out her free newsletter, Hot Singles, she hopes to make a match. Maybe not a forever love, but a connection, however fleeting, between two people who are interested in something more.

Her emails feature profiles of eligible New Yorkers, framed in the old-school style of personal ads. One day, subscribers might learn about a “spiked-seltzer-loving, beat-boxing, techno dancer extraordinaire.” Another, a “31M Pomodoro Papi” looking for his “Bucatini Baby.”

Each subject answers at least three questions: What is your toxic trait? What makes you hot? What are you looking for?

“It’s a good prompt that’s a little tongue in cheek that gets people to speak positively about themselves when they’re in this dating environment where being self-promotional is kind of awkward,” Ms. Sakallah, 27, said in a phone interview last month. Interested readers are encouraged to email her with their personal information to pass on to the featured “hot single,” who takes it from there.

Ms. Sakallah started Hot Singles, a Substack newsletter, when she moved to New York City from San Francisco last October. At the time, many singles, hot or otherwise, were despairing about the pandemic and the ways it had complicated the dating equation. Finding a potential partner was hard enough in the era of apps.

“The existing ways of meeting people had been getting old,” she said.

Back in the Bay Area, Ms. Sakallah had dabbled in the matchmaking game: She ran an event where participants asked each other the 36 Questions That Lead to Love, developed by a psychologist to help pairs assess their potential for intimacy. She’d also taken note of an Instagram account called Personals, which borrowed from text-based methods of yore to help strangers connect in ways that felt novel. (The account later gave way to an app called Lex.)

“I was thinking it would be cool to do a dating profile that focuses on the whole person,” Ms. Sakallah said, “rather than ‘why you should date them.’” She added that the Q. and A. format “gives you a sense of the person’s voice.”

Avery Bedows, 24, a subscriber who reached out to one featured single, said: “The personality screams through Hot Singles, and it’s very muddled through something like Hinge.” It wasn’t a match, but he’s still reading.

Spenser Mestel (“32M Prince of Polls Seeks Active Voter With Kindred Soul”) described the newsletter as a “single person’s dream.” He’d met Ms. Sakallah in a group for Substack writers and was intrigued by the alternative she’d cooked up to the “stilted, corny prompts” common to dating apps, like Hinge’s “Two truths and a lie.”

“I just lack the will to live on the apps,” Mr. Mestel said. Being on Hot Singles meant others could do the pursuing. (Indeed, two people have reached out to him to express interest.)

App fatigue is a sentiment experienced by many people, according to Stephanie Tong, the director of the Social Media and Relational Technologies lab at Wayne State University. Navigating online dating has begun to feel, she said, “like a part-time job.”

That Hot Singles operates as an interview is useful, Dr. Tong said. Being asked questions makes people think about and present themselves differently than if they were writing their own profile. Also, as profiles are written through an intermediary, “it looks more truthful,” she said. “It’s not just you writing how great you are and posting it to your own profile — someone else might be more likely to believe it because it’s being fielded by someone else.”

Success has been modest so far. Responses have ranged from zero to five per single, and some connections have resulted in a month or two of dating. The newsletter’s subscriber base remains small: about 800 people, where the most popular Substack publications have closer to 100,000 signed up. But Ms. Sakallah has a growing wait list of singles looking to be featured — more than 60, and that’s just the ones who passed her Google Form screening.

Ms. Sakallah has since started a monthly advice column as part of the newsletter. While she makes no money from Hot Singles — she works in tech — she has some ideas for the future, like increasing the newsletter’s frequency and sending personalized blasts.

“I’m personally more interested in how it’s making the experience of dating and finding people to date more fun,” she said. So long as it doesn’t involve swiping, it should.