In 2019, there seems to be a hankering for nostalgic things. Young people love knitting, children are asking for record players for Christmas, and presidents have gone back to the good, old-fashioned business of building walls.
Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised, then, that the old-school personal dating ad is also making a comeback. You may know the format: short, candid bios written by people looking for love, displayed in public places such as newspapers.
Today, of course, they appear on Instagram and Twitter rather than at the back of the morning paper. They gesture towards simplicity, with adverts displayed in typewriter text on plain backgrounds, no photo necessary.
But they have the sort of cult-like following only social media can amass. On Instagram, one LGBTQIA+ personals page has over 60,000 followers, and posts multiple ads a day. Pared-back pages, such as the Red Yenta personals page on Twitter (which helps socialists find politically like-minded lovers), get submissions from across the world, and a personals page for queer people of color is also flourishing online.
Something about this seems antithetical to the 2.0 version of dating that many millennials have grown up with. In 2019, there are apps aplenty, decked with snazzy algorithms, GPS trackers and “online now” buttons to help people find the hottest – and nearest – version of love in a heartbeat. Why revert to a plain text and longer wait times when you can find the most available person right here, right now?
But there clearly is an appetite for it. So much, in fact, that when 39-year-old Kelly Rakowski first set up an online document asking people to send in submissions for a personal ads page, she was overwhelmed.
“It really snowballed. At first I got a couple dozen, then all of a sudden I was getting maybe 500 submissions every two days,” says Rakowski.
Her page became so popular she had to bring on interns to help her manage the stream of submissions. Now it has met the fate of anything that gets popular on the internet: after nearly $50,000 worth of donations through Kickstarter, Rakowski is making an app.
She attributes the attention to people being hungry to find more genuine connections online – something that isn’t fostered by conventional dating apps where people “just throw out a selfie and maybe a cute emoji, but don’t really get to know much about the person”.
Modern-day apps function more like slot machines than matchmakers: it turns out looking through photos and swiping left to right is not only highly addictive, it also rarely results in long-lasting relationships.
Writing up a description of yourself and posting it online, on the other hand, slows down the process of dating completely.
First, it forces people to sit down and think about who they are and what they desire. They muster up the courage to send out their write-up, and then it’s a waiting game: ads can take up to five weeks to be sent out, plus waiting time for responses.
“It’s a sincere process. You’re more vulnerable and people are really responding to that,” says Rakowski.
For 26-year-old Marisa Rosa Grant, who has already posted two successful personal ads on the queer persons of color (QPOC) personals Instagram, the appeal is that people might actually talk to her off the back of a personal ad.
She spent a long time on dating apps before turning to personals, and had a hard time getting any responses – something she largely suspects is to do with being black and queer.
Evidence suggests she is probably right. As with all markets, in the online dating world there are clear winners and losers – and black women get a particularly rough deal. Black women are the least likely to be messaged on some dating apps, and research shows a white person is 10 times less likely to send a message to a black person online than vice versa.
Apps themselves are partly to blame for this. Some, such as Grindr and Hinge, allow people to filter who they see by race.
Add to that the fact that hardly any apps exist solely for gay women, or people who are gender-queer or trans, and you can see why normal dating apps are a hostile environment for queer women of color.
The revival of personal ads represents a rejection of the meat-market mentality of traditional dating platforms, because the focus of the advert is personality.
Mindy Isser, who co-founded Red Yenta, the dating platform for socialists, says: “It’s not the photo that’s drawing you in, that’s the key distinction. Of course we all care about how people look – it’s a key part of relationships – but we’re saying it’s not the only part.”
The format encourages openness because you read first and look later. If a person’s bio sings to you, there’s the chance physical attributes will be overlooked, or that people may end up going for someone they wouldn’t normally see themselves with.
For Grant, that has been hugely helpful. Grant’s advert reads: “I’m a black lesbian from Toronto looking for friends, makeouts and cuddles for when I visit Brooklyn for biz! I love to eat, dance party and make art & love 😉 Let’s meet? Show me around!” Since she posted it, she has had about 30 responses – a huge markup on what she would get on a normal dating app.
“I think the difference is that when someone sees your personal and messages you, you know that they actually took time to read it,” says Grant. “I feel like it gives people more of a chance, especially people of color.”
Grant describes herself as gender non-conforming, which doesn’t translate easily to most apps, where many people make the decision of whether to talk further based on one photo.
“My gender is so fluid that I might present more feminine in one photo, or completely masculine in another – people might look at one photo and think, ‘Oh, she’s a bit masculine, I’m not into that’,” she says.
Personal dating ads are less prescriptive. When someone writes their own advert, they don’t have to tick a box for gender, they can use what pronouns they like and they don’t have to say whether they only like men or women.
It also allows people to take control over the parts of them that are judged. For example, many ads use the word “fat” or “fatty” in a celebratory rather than a degrading way – a far cry from the fat-shaming of some apps. If someone doesn’t want to be judged on their weight, they don’t have to mention it at all.
“It’s an interesting exercise for people to have to describe themselves in just a few words and get information about themselves across really fast,” says Marissa Brostoff of Red Yenta.
For Brostoff and Isser, the entire process of writing a personal ad is an act of revolution. Isser says: “There is something exciting about the fact that we don’t need the dating apparatus [that is currently in place] just to meet each other. It’s really the most technologically simple thing you could do, and yet it works. That’s empowering.”
Politics aside, there is, of course, a voyeuristic element to personal ads’ popularity. When you go on a personals page, whether or not you intend to participate, you already are just by reading them. And it feels naughty – like looking through someone’s love letters.
Grant describes it as a rare bit of sunshine in an otherwise gloomy social media landscape.
“It’s nice to have a place where you know that whatever people post, it’s always positive, because they’re just looking for company,” she says.