The winter issue of The Blue & White hits campus next Monday. To satisfy your cravings, here’s a piece by Will Holt that explores a new collegiate phenomenon.
During the first few weeks of the semester, passersby on Broadway may have noticed something peculiar parked outside the Barnard gates: a banged-up, magenta RV with the web address “datemyschool.com” painted in black and blue along its front and sides.
For the duration of its stay in Morningside Heights, the RV’s purpose went unannounced. In fact, the only hint at its mysterious presence on Broadway was the promise written on the side of the RV of “safe, anonymous, exclusive dating,” suggesting to bystanders conjugal visits in the back—which isn’t exactly inviting. (One imagines the interior to be akin to the VW bus on the floor of which you probably would have lost your virginity if you’d matured in 1975, or possibly a set piece from The Hills Have Eyes.) But before I could get inside and confirm my suspicions, the RV vanished. I immediately resorted to my fool-proof Plan B—email—and nervously solicited DateMySchool’s PR apparatus.
In early October, I received the following from one Melanie Wallner, director of public relations at DateMySchool: “As part of our national college tour, we’ve been taking [the RV] on the road to host parking parties at lots of college campuses, where we play music and give out freebies. Tomorrow it’ll be making its way back to NY from Philadelphia, so you should expect to see it again soon. :)”
Just a few days later, the RV trundled up to the sidewalk outside HamDel. This was it. I sat down in the back of the RV with Wallner, curious about these “parking parties” and what exactly she had meant by “freebies.”
The RV’s interior lights had been broken for a while, and since dusk was coming on fast, we spoke in the hush of semi-darkness. Wallner, snug in a black shawl that seemed to swallow her whole, fielded my questions from behind a Formica table. Sensing skepticism, she was quick to qualify her obvious enthusiasm for the company.
“You have to understand that when I was at NYU, I was directing my own plays,” she said, “I was all about the human connection, so I was like, ‘Fuck the Internet!’”
Still, after hearing about datemyschool.com from her mother, Wallner decided to try online dating: “I tried it out and it was so fast, so efficient, and I felt totally safe.”
Words like “efficiency” are often tossed around in discussions about DateMySchool. Started by Columbia Business School alumni Balazs Alexa (’11) and Jean Meyer (’11), the company’s website provides a means of streamlining the online dating experience for college students by limiting profile access to select university email addresses. Alexa and Meyer initially envisioned DateMySchool as a place for the professionally-ambitious to find love, with an eye toward grad students in particular (interestingly, 50 percent of Columbia undergrads on DateMySchool target Columbia graduate students specifically, while only 21 percent of graduates are looking for undergrads).
DateMySchool has been using the RV to raise awareness at various college campuses between Boston and Philadelphia. And while this may not sound like the ambitious “national college tour” that Wallner described to me via email, the company has been rapidly expanding online. As of early October, the website boasted 125,000 users and 1,384 four-year colleges in the United States alone.
Wallner, who “basically studied sex” at NYU’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study, is a true believer in the website’s promise of “Fast, Exclusive, Anonymous” dating. She had her first date through DateMySchool with a CBS student.
“When I asked him what he was doing,” Wallner recounted, “he said he was getting involved with DateMySchool. I thought, Hey, what a great idea!”
Wallner used that CBS student as a reference when she first reached out to DateMySchool in search of employment. After relentlessly (and fruitlessly, at first) marketing herself to the company’s founders, she broke into the business. According to Wallner, Alexa justified his decision to take her because, well, she’s a Double X: “There always needs to be a woman in business. And I think you are a woman.”
The website’s founders have a knack for the weird, obscure, and philosophical. In a February 2011 New York Times profile, Meyer reflected on the paradoxical impossibility of romance in an age of unprecedented connectivity: “People in the 21st Century are alone,” he told Times reporter Hannah Miet. “We have so many new ways of communicating, and yet we are alone.”
Philosophical questions of modern romance aside, DateMySchool has shown great practicality and resourcefulness in its outreach. In Chicago and Miami the company has recently teamed up with an ice cream truck company to make their message mobile. College students in those cities will soon be inundated with DateMySchool pens, door hangers, tote bags and Solo cups—“Tote bags for the girls and Solo cups for the guys.”
According to Wallner, this physical and material presence creates exactly the kind of awareness that DateMySchool aims for. “People love the RV,” she told me. “People love to tweet at it, Instagram it, whatever. We blast music, honk the horn, hit on guys—it’s great.”
From the very beginning, the founders of datemyschool.com have had a very hands-on attitude toward all their projects. A team member found the RV on the side of the road in Brooklyn and immediately set about securing it for the company. It needed serious work, Wallner reflected, but nothing a magenta paint job couldn’t fix.
Despite the relative inexperience of Wallner and her associates, DateMySchool has seen meteoric growth since its inception in 2010. The company’s strategy seems to be largely one of improvisation, and so far this approach has proven quite effective. And while I’m not exactly setting up my online dating profile just yet, I do respect Wallner for her persistence. During the interview, she insisted on three separate occasions that I join up with datemyschool.com immediately. After all, “Five percent of your classmates are already on it.”
In the past few months, Wallner and her associates at DateMySchool have been working to increase that percentage. On November 27, the Spectator published an op-ed by Wallner titled “A culture of love,” in which she attempted to explain the “changing relationship dynamics at Columbia” through DateMySchool. Love, she argues, is “more attainable than ever [at Columbia] because of digital platforms like DateMySchool.” The story that she gives of her own involvement with the websites is much the same that she told me in October, but with one significant addition: Since creating her profile, she has “exclusively gone for Columbia guys.”
The Spectator article essentially constitutes an 800-word advertisement disguised as an opinion piece, which reflects DateMySchool’s digital strategy thus far: get the message out there in every way possible, and see what works.
“We’re just kids,” Wallner later said. “All of us are in our 20s and just out of college. We’re not professional PR people or anything like that. We’re really about doing it ourselves.”