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Birds point the way to casual sex app for humans

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A so-crazy-it-just-might work proposal from GOOD editor Ann Friedman resembles lekking in birds

GOOD Editor in Chief Ann Friedman has a novel solution to that age-old problem, how to hook up when you aren't in a relationship and you'd like to skip the niceties that come before you actually get between the sheets.

Now before you click away, hear me out: Friedman isn't clueless about the availability of willing male sexual partners in just about any inhabited location on the planet. It's just that filtering them out has always been a problem.

The solution, if you're a gay man, is simple: a wildly popular app called Grindr uses the location technology in every iPhone to tell you when willing partners are nearby. Friedman's problem is that a system that works for gay men doesn't really work for women. Her proposed solution, which is worth reading in full, stipulates that any location-based dating service / Grindr-based app needs to be clearly aimed at heteros looking for casual sex, but also:

2. Allow only women to search. Even for the modern woman who knows she wants a casual hookup, declaring this on a public profile will result in such an avalanche of attention, potential social stigma, and legitimate safety concerns that it negates the ease of using such an app. To make women comfortable, you need to put the control in their hands. Allow men to sign up and make themselves available, but allow only women to search. Of course, men would be free to reply to or ignore messages from women, but only women can initiate conversation.

What's intriguing and, to someone trained as a biologist, particularly compelling about that proposal, is that it's a near-perfect analog of a process that has already been tested by nature, the "lek."

Black Grouse in Norway face off in a lek

Lekking is the process by which a bunch of males get together in one location and advertise their wares. They fluff their feathers, do little dances, spar, stuff like that. Basically, all the things single human males are already doing in a centralized location known as Facebook. During a lek, females check out the wares. Importantly, they're the ones making the choice. Unlike many other courtship arrangements in nature, all the males can do is stand around making themselves look attractive -- it's up to the females to act, making the lek the avian equivalent of a safe space.

Update: As bioethicist Kevin Keith points out, there is already a literature about human males using their mobile phones for lekking-type displays. (It should be noted that this particular study is about how phones are used in the real world, rather than how we use them to engage over the Internet.)

By organizing this display in a single location, with a clear purpose, Friedman's proposal has the potential to capture what works best about the lek, but with a twist. Here's her third stipulation:

3. Add endorsements. To create another layer of security, a successful app would replicate the real-life dynamic of a friend’s “he’s a good guy” endorsement: In order to be searchable, each man must have recommendations from women who already use the service.

Studies in fish and other animals reveal that females are attracted to males who are attractive to other females. It's an endorsement. As Friedman notes, this assures that "he’s not, you know, a murderer." The lek incorporates an analogous secondary signal -- higher status males get to stand in the center of the territory denoted for the lek.

Anyone who follows the startup scene knows that it can occasionally feel like Silicon Valley is out of ideas. Well here's one just waiting to be implemented -- get to it, programmers.

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Christopher Mims

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Christopher Mims has written for Scientific American, WIRED, Popular Science, Fast Company, Good, Discover, Slate, Technology Review, Nature and the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University. Formerly, he was an editor at Scientific American, Grist and Seed. He is based in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure