These days, it's not enough just to create an online dating community of users looking for love. There’s got to be a hook, and Sparkology's schtick is pretty intriguing: All members must be college educated and can only join the site if they’re lucky enough to score an invite from someone cool enough to have already gotten one. Women, with proof of a college degree, pay about $25 a month for unlimited messaging and access. For guys, Sparkology requires not only proof of a college degree but a degree from a specific list of schools. Did you go to University of Arizona? Sorry, Wilbur! YOU can’t join.
The list, according to Sparkology founder Alex Furmansky, is based on U.S. News and World Report’s top national and regional universities with a few international schools thrown in the mix. Men don’t pay a monthly fee, but instead, they pay for ‘Sparks,’ or messages that go for about $3 each. It’s supposedly the digital equivalent of buying a woman a drink. “The specific schools were put in place because it’s what women wanted from our focus groups,” Furmansky says. “It’s a good filter to bring in a certain kind of gentleman, but no filter is perfect.”
Is this digital chivalry, or is this BS? I sensed something innately icky about the system, the gender disparity, and the exclusivity. “We’re the only site out there that does payment differently for men and women, and that’s because men and women are different and have different methods of dating,” Furmansky says, veering into some weird gender territory. “We have people of a certain caliber, people who are tired of having to weed through thousands of profiles, who are tired of being bombarded by these bros who email them saying, ‘Hey baby.’ We get the refugees of Tinder and OkCupid.”
As soon as I set up a fragment of a profile, I was already getting emails that highlighted the guy's school (Wharton, Cornell, Dartmouth, or MIT) and career (hedge fund, finance, lawyer). The messages themselves didn’t come off particularly bro-tastic, and there were far less one-word messages or sexts you’d find on Tinder.
Furmansky was kind enough to set me up with the site’s dating concierge, a service that would obviously be available for elitists. Other Patti Stanger-like concierges are available on dating sites like match.com and eHarmony, but for thousands of dollars. Laurie Davis, author of Love at First Click: The Ultimate Guide to Online Dating, heads up the yenta department here.
Davis provides various services offering users everything from a basic bio rewrite to photo reviewing, message critiquing, unlimited dating advice, and even messaging guys on your behalf. Davis sent me a questionnaire to fill out and asked me to send her 10 photos of myself plus three messages I’d sent to guys on the site who never responded.
When we spoke about my results, it was mind-blowing. First of all, the bio she rewrote for me captured my personality. Her secrets were simple. “We think about how to make a bio skim-able by using shorter sentences and lists whenever possible. Writing things in threes is a big marketing tactic, and it’s all about marketing yourself.” I didn’t include anything in my initial profile about specific activities, but after our call, where I elaborated on some things I found fun to do in the city, she emailed me this sentence: “Part of staying in the know is partaking in cultural activities: you know, doing The Color Run, checking out Rain Room, or indulging in a cronut.”
Just like in-person dating, not every guy responded to my message, which I knew was normal, and Davis specifically told me not to let that stand in my way. My first successful slew of messages came from a guy we will call Vegan Sean. Vegan Sean and I messaged back and forth before he asked for my number, but upon exchanging info, he immediately texted and asked when we could meet for drinks. Two days later, we sat at an Italian bar trying to get to know each other. Not even 10 minutes into being there, I felt zero sparkage. I stayed, of course, and endured a lecture from him about going vegan, and why the confusion between omega-3 fatty acids and omega-6 fatty acids was the biggest problem facing the modern world.
My next date was with an Indian doctor who looked just like Dev Patel. Cute? Yes. Spark? No. My third date was much more successful and turned into three dates. But, all of the dates were at fancy, expensive restaurants with $16 cocktails and even when l suggested grabbing pizza to eat in the park one night, he chose a pricey sushi place instead and — our sparks fizzled out quicker than I could finish my spicy tuna. The problem wasn’t, of course, the guys as people — no one totally sucked. It was that we didn’t have the chemistry it takes to spur a relationship. The bonus was good conversation with intellectual guys. And, while all three guys earned six-figure salaries, it was only the third one who flaunted his credit card like it would impress me.
Cathy, a 28-year-old Dartmouth grad who works at a fashion start-up, met her boyfriend Nick through the site and says she didn’t mind the exclusivity. “I think people can be intimidated by the fact that I went to an Ivy League school, so Sparkology kind of evens the playing field, but I can see how people think it’s very elitist,” she says. “It wasn’t like all the guys on the site were ideal, they were just sifted through. It was mostly guys who work in finance or business, and those guys can be very arrogant and not that nice to date. But, Nick is a Williams grad who works as a finance trader, and he’s an actual, thoughtful, normal human being.”
Sparkology’s objective is well-intentioned. It gives women a wide variety of driven men who are looking for a relationship, but doesn’t actually make it easier to find that spark — just easier to find a guy with a great education and a sick career. In the end, it’s comparable to your average dating site, albeit with fewer dick pics. But, hey, whatever works, right?