With sites like Match.com and Yahoo! Personals offering pages of photos of attractive women and buff guys bragging about their cooking skills, online dating long ago shed its stigma as a refuge for the horny but socially challenged. So how's a poor geek supposed to get a date?
Spencer Koppel, a retired actuary and self-described geek who was divorced three and a half years ago, faced this very problem when he started investigating dating sites. "All of them seemed to be focusing mostly on looks," he says. "Looks are not important to me in terms of who would I be interested in. It's more, do we have common interests? Do we read the same kind of books? I'm into computers, I'm into crossword puzzles, things that are more geeky in nature." When he mentioned his dissatisfaction to his 25-year-old daughter, Laina, she suggested that it would be helpful if there were a dating site for smart, nerdy folks. "I said, 'I think you're onto something,'" says Koppel, who'd taught himself to create Web sites as a way to keep busy during his retirement.
Gk2gk.com, which he runs out of his River North condo, went up in April. As with most such sites, the prospective client fills out a list of questions about race, age, religion, and what he or she is looking for in a mate. But on gk2gk.com there's a section for users to indicate whether they prefer Unix or Linux, a PC or Mac, and multiple-choice queries about their favorite branch of science (physics, chemistry, or math?), authors (Douglas Adams or J.R.R. Tolkien? Philip K. Dick or J.K. Rowling?), and calculators (Hewlett-Packard or Texas Instruments?). There's also a message board with a few posts, most a month or two old and one of them written in Greek, and "fun pages," mostly lists like the "Top Ten Ways to Tell If You're a Geek." You can buy a Geek 2 Geek pocket protector to signal your allegiance and availability. But aside from some scattered stock images of people with bad haircuts and questionable fashion sense--including ubergeek Bill Gates--there aren't any photos, nor will there ever be. The home page tells (or warns) prospective members as much: "If you're interested in finding someone based on looks, go elsewhere. There is no appearance information on profiles (no pictures either), true geeks just don't care."
Some geeks beg to differ. "I think everyone cares about looks," says Kristina, a 21-year-old in Colorado whose profile reveals that she has "an insane weakness for faeries and dragons." And in fact some members' profiles do address their appearance, usually briefly and with descriptions like "cute" or "not bad looking." A few even request that possible matches be "handsome" or "not fat." But Koppel suspects that couples who play D & D together stay together. "I think geeks have longer and better relationships because they're not into looks so much. Looks fade, but people with common interests stay together," he says. "And geeks are kinda grateful for anybody."
Web design is apparently not a priority for geeks either: the site features lavender backgrounds, Times New Roman, and a logo that looks like it dates from the Tron era. There are also a few bugs: When I filled out a profile so I could poke around the site, a sentence suggesting that I was a fan of pro wrestling somehow ended up in my description. A keyword search didn't pull up any profiles, nor can you search for a specific user name. But since Koppel offers the service for free, he doesn't stress about such things. "At some point along the way, once we get all the bugs out of it and it's a really good site, we may have to charge for premium services or something like that," he says.
Right now income comes only when members click on ads. "But it hasn't been lucrative by any stretch," he adds. He hasn't bothered to do much advertising; most of the current 2,000 or so members have come through word of mouth and from a couple mentions on blogs written by his daughter and her friends. "I've been thinking that it's been so well received, I'm considering other Web sites that are for a specific demographic," Koppel says--for example smokers, the overweight, or single parents. But the whole venture is more about fun and keeping busy than becoming an online entrepreneur. "I was an executive for a lot of years. I had to deal with all the bureaucracies of a large company and so forth," he says. "I really don't want to do that again."
The site in some ways represents Koppel's embrace of his own geekiness. "Being a geek is a character-building thing, I always say," says Koppel. "I do love computers, I'm not athletic, I don't enjoy sports other than watching professional football." He does crossword puzzles while watching games. "I'm totally uncoordinated. You can see the glasses are half an inch thick." He laughs. "I'm not somebody who is going to attract anybody by his looks."
Aside from his glasses and a button-down shirt, though, there's not much that's overtly nerdy about Koppel on casual acquaintance. He's well-spoken, friendly, and talkative, given to self-deprecating jokes and exclamations like "My goodness!" But he says that's come after a lifetime of battling shyness and forcing himself to perform in situations where volubility is required. In his professional life, "I was sort of the oddball," he says. "Talking about baseball games and things like that, none of which are interesting to me. I'm sort of like, whoo, is it nine o'clock already?"
Koppel did manage to charm his ex-wife, whom he met when he hired her for a job. "She was a very attractive woman--still is," he says. "People were always kind of surprised that she and I were a couple, although she has her own geeky qualities too."
Though he says he's not seriously looking, Koppel has his own profile up on his site. He says he's met a couple of interesting people, but nothing has panned out. So if you know anyone who might be interested in an older gentleman who likes crossword puzzles, Jeopardy, and football, you know where to send her.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Yvette Marie Dostatni.