There’s a reason Tinder feels like a meat market: You’re swiping your way through an endless parade of photos, making instant judgments about who’s hot and who’s not.
But designer Kelly Rakowski is building a thriving online dating community for lesbian, queer-trans, and non-binary queer people where there are no photos involved at all. Right now, it’s an Instagram account called Personals, where Rakowski (who, full disclosure, used to be Co.Design‘s photo editor) posts short, pithy descriptions that people send her about who they are and what they’re looking for. One recent post is from a “transmasculine babe in search of authenticity no matter the gender presentation” who warns “may gift you plants and/or taxidermy” and announces their current gender identity is “floral daddy.”
It’s a brilliant take on online dating with roots in newspaper personal ads–in particular, the personals section of a 1980s and ’90s lesbian erotica magazine called On Our Backs. Rakowski discovered the magazine’s online archives while hunting around for photographs to surface on her other popular Instagram account, Herstory, on which she shares historical photos of lesbians that date from the 1800s all the way through the 1990s. “[The personals] were just so funny and sexy and smart that I just became so into them and started posting them on Herstory,” she says. “I started thinking, why don’t we write them now?”
She asked for her Herstory followers to submit their own personal ads, and quickly the number of submissions began to overwhelm her original Instagram account. Thus the Personals Instagram account was born, with the idea of bringing the old-school personal ad format into the present day–and hopefully, helping people find each other using the power of the web. The submissions began to flood in, and Rakowski instituted a system where followers could submit their writing once a month. In a single 48-hour period, she would receive upwards of 500 submissions, which she would then slowly post over the course of the next month, complete with each user’s Instagram handle so that other people could send them direct messages. Today, about a year and a half later, the account has more than 30,000 followers.
Now, Personals is destined for app-hood. This week, Rakowski launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise money to transform the Instagram feed, which she ran using only Google Docs, into a truly independent meeting space for queer people. Rakowski says the decision is motivated in part to escape from the confines of Instagram’s corporate overlord–Facebook–and also to give her some relief from the very manual process of formatting and uploading all the submissions. But how do you design an app with no images that stays true to the DIY vibe of the original Instagram community?
The key to Rakowski’s vision for the Personals app is that it remains text-only–though users will still need to log in through Instagram, a measure that Rakowski hopes will keep the trolls out. The key to the app will still be users’ text descriptions. “Maybe there’s a rejection of the Tinder culture, because you’re just looking at a person’s kind of shitty, badly lit selfie,” she says. “But who are you? What are you looking for? I feel like writing directly about yourself and your desires has made for deeper connections.” This is particularly important, Rakowski says, for the queer community, where language is a primary mode for self-identification: In the posts, people describe themselves with monikers like “tender gendered,” “butch emotional laborer,” “latinx switchy-witch,” and “power bottom-leaning.”
“I think language is really important for queer people because there are all these different words to describe who you are that just don’t exist in the straight world,” she says. “It’s almost like a code language.”
The personals, each limited to 45 words, are also similar to a familiar form of modern communication: the text message. “It’s not a lot to read, you can digest it really quickly, and they’re really funny,” Rakowski says. “It’s the perfect amount of language to describe yourself.”
The app, which she hopes to launch in beta this coming fall, will have a similar feel to the Instagram feed, with a long stream of posts that are all tagged with keywords based on location, age, and gender identity. People will be able to use these categories to search and sort through all the personals on the app, and post as many personal ads as they want on their own profile. While one day she wants to have in-app messaging, for the first version Rakowski plans to build in Craigslist-style encrypted email communication instead–if you reach out to a person you’re interested in, an email will go straight to their inbox.
Crucially, the design of the app will be text-only, black and white, with no pictures. People’s descriptions will stand alone, just like they do now.
The lack of images certainly hasn’t stopped people from meeting each other through the platform: Rakowski tells me of several engaged or married couples who met on Personals; there’s even a hashtag devoted to it. Others have met lovers and friends and other like-minded souls, even if they live a world away. One couple met while one was living in Sweden and the other in Southern California–they’ve recently moved in together in L.A.
For now, Personals says it is just for “lesbians, queer-trans, and nonbinary queers.” No gay men allowed–at least not yet. “There are so many things for gay men and I think it’s really important for us to have something first,” Rakowski says. “We build it first, we take the space, and then we can welcome other people.”
And for all those waiting anxiously for the app, there are more than a thousand posts on Instagram to read through. Even if you’re not looking for love or sex on Personals, the entries are a joy to read, chock-full of passion and humor and hope. One recent entry states, “I have two girlfriends, one book contract, and little free time, but I’ll make you snack plates and let you pet my sexy Mexican hairless dog.” Who could say no?