PERSONALS will emulate personal ads from 80s lesbian erotic magazines by allowing users to identify themselves in whatever terms they choose—as long as it's text-only.
At Honey’s bar in Brooklyn on a Wednesday evening, a twenty-something-looking brunette woman stands on a platform in front of a loving crowd of mostly queer women for a kind of analog-dating-app social experiment. “What are you looking for in a partner?” the emcee asks her. “I want that person where you try to have a conversation but all that comes out is grunts and weird noises because you can’t stop giggling,” she responds. The crowd giggles. Behind the stage, a slideshow of vintage personal ads seeking sex and romance written by lesbians in the 80s plays on loop. Meanwhile, people line up at the bar for mead infused with aromatic herbs.
“And what about scent? Is there a certain cologne or pheromone that really gets you?” the host continues. “I want someone who smells like they’ve been baking focaccia in the kitchen all day,” she replied. Expressions of approval animate the crowd, and eventually, the brunette rejoins them—with much higher chances of meeting the focaccia-baking giggler of her dreams than she had walked in with.
On one hand, the warm, packed event meant to publicize a smart phone app feels out of character—no techy bros or corporate-looking logos in sight. On the other hand, everything about the gathering seems perfectly apt, considering it was put on by PERSONALS (@_Personals_), a queer women and gender nonbinary-focused Instagram account that posts poetic, text-based personal ads submitted from all over the world. The Metropolis Magazine photo editor Kelly Rakowski started the Personals account in early 2017, and it has since grown a following of more than 30,000. Now, Rakowski is turning the concept into a queer, text-based dating app—and she’s launching a Kickstarter campaign asking her many followers to help fund it.
Rakowski is also the creator of a popular “lesbian culture” Instagram account called @h_e_r_s_t_o_r_y, which boasts 130,000 followers. There, she regularly posts vintage photographs of gay women, as well as contemporary content of interest to lesbians and other queers—such as memes featuring Cynthia Nixon. It’s also there that she first started posting personal ads. She had become fascinated with personals she found in the back of the 80s lesbian erotica magazine On Our Backs, and began posting them to the account. “They were just so funny, witty, sexy, charming—I was obsessed with them,” Rakowski says. One reads: “I’m an attractive 30 year old GWF, ex-bodybuilder turned femme fatale in search of that special lady to pamper beyond words. If you are shy yet submissive, extremely feminine, and love to be dominated by a strong-willed Irish woman then write me.”
The response to the personals posts was so enthusiastic that Rakowski began soliciting original ads from her followers, based on the format and tone of those in On Our Backs. Overwhelmed with submissions, she eventually created a separate account just for the ads. Now, she only takes submissions during a 48-hour period every month, that she announces on the account’s “story.” Still, she receives around 500 submissions each time. She sifts through them, and shares as many as she can throughout the month, posting several each day.
At a time when online dating has mostly been reduced to judging people’s photos, and FOSTA has rendered most personal ad sites obsolete, PERSONALS feels unique and refreshing. For many, the appeal seems to stem from the opportunity to self-identify in queer lingo and to read—and perhaps learn from—how others describe themselves when there are no prescribed boxes to check. “There's such a language within a language for the queer community; there’s so many abbreviations, there’s all these different ways to describe yourself, and it’s so beautiful,” says Rakowski.
Take this ad, from New York City: “You’ll know me by my DIY crop circles. I’m a queer, fat, slime girl witch from outer space. Relationship (& actual) anarchist… Let’s make art together and hex the patriarchy.” Or this one, via Detroit: “Bashful, 30-something, fat, ex-librarian lesbian seeking someone for local adventures and day trips. Enjoys fiber arts, trying to ID bird calls, & alt comix.”
Although most of the ads are seeking romance, Rakowski says the app is for more than just that: “It’s for community, for finding friends, for advertising your dyke soccer team, or finding people to help with your farm, or something like that." And in general, it appears to be working. Rakowski says she frequently receives direct messages sharing stories about people who have found each other through the ads—people who have gotten married, made new best friends, and even flown across the country to go camping together in Joshua Tree despite never having met in real life.
With all that success, the idea of turning the concept into an app just came organically, says Rakowski. She’s never created an app before, though. So, she’s been reaching out to mentors in the tech industry and talking with developers in order to build a prototype. After the Kickstarter campaign—which aims to gather $40,000—closes on July 13, she says she will likely need to find more investment. But, if successful, this crowd-funding should get the project off the ground.
Rakowski is currently planning for the first iteration of the app to be very similar to the Instagram account. Users will be able to scroll through ads in a similar way, and the ads will be presented in the same, text-only format, and still be linked to the poster’s Instagram account if they so choose. The differences are that users will be able to search and filter ads by location and key-word, and will be able to post ads at any time, rather than having to wait for the short submission window.
For the future, Rakowski is considering adding the ability to add in a single profile photos—and that's only the beginning of her ideas for how the app could grow. “So you’ve met someone, but do you have all the tools to have a healthy relationship?” she says. “So, offering books to read, or having relationship advice, things within the app that are more building out the media and maybe having interviews with people. I think there is so much, there’s such a community; we can really build more inside the app and outside.”
Rakowski is clear, however, that no matter how popular the potential app gets—the Instagram account will remain alive and well.