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Engineering senior Hong Kim is releasing a dating app, Otter, this Valentine's Day. The twist? In Otter, you will be pairing friends together, not working to get matches for yourself. 

Photo: Julio Sosa / The Daily Pennsylvanian

If you're tired of desperately swiping right, Engineering senior Hong Kim believes his new app, Otter, will help you find a date that's more likely to last. The Daily Pennsylvanian spoke with him about his plans for his new project:

Daily Pennsylvanian: How does Otter work?

Hong Kim: Basically what happens on this app is that you can suggest people for your friends to go on dates with. You don’t choose who you want to date. You don’t choose who you want to meet. You choose people for your friends. The flip side of that is that your friends choose people for you. What happens is when two friends are suggested they will both get a text message that night saying, “Do you want to go on a date with someone [your name] suggested?”

DP: How did you come up with the idea behind Otter?

HK: I have another project called FreeforCoffee, which is a tool that groups can use — college groups and also companies — to facilitate one-on-one conversations on a larger scale. I’ve been working on this idea for about two years or so. The initial idea came from a brainstorming session for FreeforCoffee. We were thinking, how do we give people better matches? And we can guess all we want with our algorithms, but maybe a simpler way is just to ask people. And then it suddenly hit me that this should exist in the dating world.

DP: Why make another dating app when there’s already so many out there?

HK: Everything out there is basically the same variant of judging people based on profiles. Basically every app out there you see a collection of profiles — the volume is different, the way it’s presented is different — but essentially you’re given a few photos, a few lines and then you make the decision if you want to meet the person or not. But that’s not how most people find their significant other. Based on a recent US survey, 65 percent of married couples find their spouse through friends. That’s how people find love. And that behavior just doesn’t exist online.

DP: So what kind of person should use Otter?

HK: The offline analogy of people with Tinder is people at a bar: you survey your options based on appearance and attraction, and then there’s some amount of rules of engagement based on social rules and then there’s some communication like flirting. Then you decide if you want to move forward. What happens on Tinder is pretty much the same thing; it’s just on steroids. That bar activity is pretty much what dating apps are right now. But not everyone shines at the bar scene for a ton of reasons, and for very similar reasons, there’s a ton of reasons many people don’t like to engage with the Tinders of the world. And where do they go for online dating? There really isn’t [an outlet] for them. So this realization was the motivation for starting to think about Otter.


DP: Why do you think this behavior will work online?

HK: One question people ask is why would people be so altruistic. I think what will often happen is you have someone close in mind that you want to set up because they're just a good friend, and you just want to see them be happy; their dating success is your excitement. And then you would think about everyone you know and try to suggest the best person for him or her.

In a sense, Tinder sort of brings out the worst in people in that they make judgments about someone in a microsecond. You could argue that that’s how people are — we make snap judgments. But one thing that Hunter and I believe is that that’s not the case. People are much more judgmental on a profile than in reality. We found on FreeforCoffee that when people sit down they find commonalities and enjoy each other’s personality and have a great conversation more often than not. That’s the belief we have for dating as well.

DP: How long have you been working on the app?

HK: I’ve been working with a friend Hunter Horsley who graduated Penn last year. We were working on FreeforCoffee for a long time and this came from there. He is a Product Manager for Facebook. So he designs the mock-ups and I do all the coding.

This idea hit us last weekend, and we’ve been so excited about it that we’ve just kept working and it’s pretty much been our life day and night for the last week. It’s like a mobile website, since you can build a website much more quickly than you can build an app, but it’s built with mobile phone use in mind, so it should be comfortable online.

DP: What are your goals for the app?

HK: The goal is to have 500 users by Valentine’s Day. The bar for critical mass for this app to work is so much higher than the traditional dating apps. The reason is if 1 percent of Philadelphia uses Tinder, Tinder works. If 1 percent of your social network is on Otter, then Otter is useless because the likelihood of two of your friends who you want to match both being on that app is so low. The only way to tackle that is to try and tackle close-knit networks and get everyone to buy in at the same time. That’s why we’re focusing on Penn and trying to get a critical mass at Penn on it in a short time frame.

DP: How do you hope to spread the word about Otter?

Kim: On social media, I want to post photos and fun facts. For example, there’s this very cute otter fun fact that otters go to sleep holding hands because they don’t want to drift apart falling asleep. It’s the cutest thing in the world.

This interview has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

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