What is more important in a potential date, looks or personality? Twine, a new iPhone app, is making a big case for the latter, positioning itself as a refreshing alternative to the mostly image-obsessed market of online-dating tools. By matching users based on interests listed on their Facebook profiles, Twine only lets singles view each other’s profile pictures once they have both agreed to do so.
“The market is saturated with superficiality,” says Twine’s marketing manager Etan Berkowitz. “From our testing, that was the one thing we heard our testers say was most frustrating with dating apps, they’re entirely too superficial. We want to have connections first.”
Based on Berkowitz’s claim, Twine would appear to be doing us all a favor, saving us from our superficiality once and for all. It’s a nice fantasy, but a fantasy all the same. That’s because photos are an integral part of online dating and there is no way to escape it.
Anyone who has watched an episode of Catfish: The TV Show knows how important it is for the visual to match up with the personality. The show is filled with sympathetic dupes who proclaim their love for Internet paramours only to throw away those years of meaningful conversation and shared interests when it is revealed their crushes don’t look like their photos.
When someone says that looks aren’t important, what they’re really saying is “I’d rather them be good looking.” Even scientific research has enforced our desire for attractiveness, however subconscious it is. As Paul Eastwick, a researcher at Texas A&M University, explained to LiveSceience in 2012: “If a person tells me, for example, that she doesn’t care about how attractive a guy is, our research suggests that her claim isn’t worth all that much.” Meanwhile, sociologist Elizabeth McClintock at the University of Notre Dame concluded from a study she conducted that a “vast majority of couples select partners who are similar to themselves in both status and in attractiveness.”
So far Twine’s attempt to avoid a photo-based matching system has hit some roadblocks, with The Daily Beast reporting a women-to-men user ratio of 16-to-1 when the site first launched in August. (To counter this problem, Twine only lets an equal number of men and women sign into Twine at any given time—leading to large waiting list users can only avoid by signing up friends of the opposite sex.
Meanwhile, everyone else seems to be putting more stress on looks. Tinder’s redux of the “hot or not” rating system has caused the app to become a new standard for online matching while others like VGL and OKCupid have added paid features that allow users to search amongst only the hottest profiles.
Possibly the most telling evidence to the importance of photos in online dating is the ubiquity of personal Instagram links in dating profiles. Of all our social networks, we have found that Instagram’s gallery of images—both of ourselves and the things we like—speak louder for us than any words ever could. And not just how we look in these photos, but what we wear, the faces we make, even the filters we choose define us in a way that text might never quite articulate.
In the end, Twine’s approach might be more damaging than the competition it is looking to distance itself from. When reading a user’s interests, we are still picturing what they look like. And many times that fantasy image can be more dangerous than reality because a fantasy puts impossible standards on a potential mate.
So while Twine may argue online dating would be better if we didn’t prioritize photos, they are just delaying the inevitable (and the horrible feeling of realizing our own superficiality when our ideal match turns out to be a dud in person). Because despite how well interests match on the two-month old app, we’re still most interested in unlocking that photo, praying our dream lover is behind that blurry box.
Benjamin Solomon is a freelance writer based in New York City. He was most recently the Editor-in-Chief of Next Magazine. He has contributed to Vanity Fair, Playbill, Details, Out Magazine, Time Out New York, Today.com and has appeared on Biography Channel, East Village Radio and in Wallpaper magazine. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @benjaminsolomon.