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"What should young people do with their lives today? Many things, obviously. But the most daring thing is to create stable communities in which the terrible disease of loneliness can be cured."

-Kurt Vonnegut

Today, after much toiling, I'm launching a new website, StrangeAngels.com. I wanted to make my first public announcement of Strange Angels on DailyKos because I have been a member here since its very early days, and being a part of its growth has educated me on the potential of online communities -- a success I hope to mimic. But really, this is a diary about progressive ideals.

For those of you who don't feel like reading a long diary, the synopsis is that I have launched a progressive online dating site. And by that I mean its functionality was inspired by progressive ideas. Unlike other dating sites, it is not a "database of single people." There are no computer algorithms. What we offer is an opportunity to make a meaningful difference in someone's life.

I spent many years developing the concept, and a full year designing the site. I coded the front end, and my associate coded the back end (and I owe fellow DailyKos member Stillman much thanks for introducing us). The site is deeply rooted in the progressive values of community and partnership. You don't need to be single to use the site. And I need your help in getting it started.

We are "soft launching" the site, which means we haven't started marketing yet. This is the first public announcement -- you are the first to hear about it. We literally just opened the site up this morning. So if you're interested, please check it out and spread the word.

And for those of you who would like to read a long explanation of what I'm trying to accomplish, follow me over the orange swishy.

It was many years ago that I tried online dating and discovered it to be a miserable, alienating, degrading, and inhuman experience. And especially conservative.

Conservatives believe in every man [sic] for himself. Progressives believe we're all in this together.

If there is ever a manner in which the "every man for himself" mentality can be seen, it's on the various online dating sites, in which you are expected to act alone in your mission to get that thing you want. It is a human marketplaceā€”an unregulated one at that.

Really, the online dating sites are reflecting a cultural attitude. Erich Fromm picked up on this all the way back in 1956 when he wrote The Art of Loving:

"...in a culture in which the marketing orientation prevails, and in which material success is the outstanding value, there is little reason to be surprised that human love relations follow the same pattern of exchange which governs the commodity and the labor market."
We look for love the same way we shop for sneakers. It was true fifty years ago, and it couldn't be more true today. We're looking for that thing that fits just right, and if it doesn't suit us, we toss it and look for the next thing. Online dating sites are especially suited to this way of thinking. We are not human beings, we are products.

For years I wandered around with the idea in the back of my head that online dating sites were backwards and that surely there was a better way to go about this. Everyone seemed hard at work trying to solve the "problem" of how to match people through fancy computer algorithms, as if the ability to determine compatibility would somehow cure loneliness.

I'm skeptical of the overwhelming emphasis online dating sites place on compatibility. This emphasis may itself be an obstacle to finding love. The rhetoric implies people are like puzzle pieces that need to be fit together. When the right pair is matched, it will then function correctly.

But we are dynamic, amorphous creatures. Our "character" is fluid and evolves with our circumstances and our experiences. Who we are in a crowded room is different than who we are alone. Who we are with our parents is different than who we are with our friends. Who we feel like on the inside may not always reflect how others perceive us. Many parts of ourselves may lie dormant, waiting for the opportunity to manifest and develop.

When considering the question of compatibility, we tend to ask whether or not this person or that person is able to "fit" in our life, to satisfy an idea in our heads of what a companion should offer. We think less about what we have to offer this person in return -- if we are capable of bringing meaning and enjoyment into the person's life, and how we might better accomplish this. We don't think much about whether we need to grow as individuals in order to better support one another.

But although most everyone assumes our ability to love is as innate as our ability to breathe or eat, we sometimes act as if this ability can only be practiced under the most ideal conditions. Once that perfect person comes along, then and only then will our ability to love fully manifest. This is like saying, "I have an innate ability to drink fluid, but it can only be the juice of a Brazilian Guava."

I don't mean to suggest we lack real personalities, or that some couples aren't clearly better suited than others. I'm suggesting our characters are too deep to chart through a questionnaire; they manifest as a response to ever-changing circumstances. And more importantly, our emphasis on compatibility may establish a counterproductive frame.

There are some who argue we have the ability to fall in love with almost anyone. And indeed, in many cultures the idea is that you marry a stranger and then learn to love that person (although, it's worth noting that in those cultures this "stranger" will be more likely to possess the same belief system and cultural attitudes as yourself). Our current view of romantic love in western culture is one that has evolved considerably over the centuries. It's not a coincidence that the emphasis of romantic love as a necessary ingredient for marriage came about with the Enlightenment -- the same philosophical movement that brought us human rights, freedom, and modern democracy. But with these developments come responsibilities. Each of us must give these ideas special attention in order to bring about their fullest meaning and rewards. A truly progressive online dating site should be aware of the history of dating, and should learn from other cultures. The better informed you are -- the broader your understanding, the better equipped you will be to begin a romantic relationship.

When trying to navigate the arduous path to love, the question of "compatibility" is still a valid one to consider. But most online dating sites operate as if it's the only question. I contend this is a far more complicated issue that requires broader thinking. It is not simply a matter of how to determine who is right for you. How do you even express yourself online? How do you engage in this system without becoming a "product?" The problems of finding love cannot be solved with computer algorithms. They can only be solved with a far more dynamic tool -- the human being.

Companionship as a human right

Many of us have come to think of human rights as being "that which can be guaranteed by the government." I believe this is a misunderstanding of what human rights are all about, or at least, how I see them. Our founding forefathers spoke of this "inalienable" sense of rightness. It is not simply a matter of having certain legal liberties or guarantees, but rather, an acknowledgement and expression of our essential humanity. It is the freedom to be truly human that we strive for in our society. That is the American Dream.

Some of us may choose to be single, but it is undeniable that the desire to form an intimate and romantic relationship is innate in our being. It is equally undeniable that modern society makes this increasingly difficult to achieve. There are a lot of lonely people out there who wish to fully realize themselves as human beings -- to express love, to care for another, to be understood, to form a meaningful connection. I believe they have a fundamental right to do so. Everyone who wishes to have this experience is deserving of it (with rare exceptions, perhaps). But because our society can be so pathological in its structure, many are unable to achieve it. People need help.

There is a conceit in our culture -- that what you want is what is right. I also find this to be a very conservative idea. Conservatives have this quaint notion that governments are the only possible source of oppression (and thusly, anything a government does is by definition oppressive -- unless of course it is done by a Republican). They fail to realize there are many sources of oppression. Corporations can certainly be oppressive. Nature can be oppressive. We can oppress each other as individuals. These are all external sources of oppression. But there are also internal sources. Our own minds can oppress us with limited and ignorant thinking. You cannot underestimate the ability of your unconscious to trick you into self-destructive and damaging behavior. This danger is particularly present on online dating sites, where we are free to let our insecurities do the driving. This is why having some outside perspective is so enormously desirable. We need someone to ask us hard questions, to get us thinking about what we're really after, to promote us to consider ways in which we might be preventing ourselves from achieving our goals.

All those years ago when I was alone (no longer), I felt I was lost in a dark forest. What I really needed was help. Real help. From an actual person. I needed some friendly advice. I needed guidance. I needed someone to put out a good word for me; to advocate on my behalf. And realizing this need gave birth to the idea for Strange Angels. A simple idea. A progressive idea. What about an online dating site where people helped each other?

At first the idea seemed so incredibly obvious, I felt surely someone had thought of it. I did find some dating sites that employed social-networking features but nothing that addressed the underlying problems of online dating. Some of these sites seemed to almost be seeking to dehumanize the experience even further, asking the users to rate each other like movies on Netflix. The more I developed the idea for Strange Angels, the more I realized that whatever competition existed, however similar some of the concepts may have appeared on the outset, none of these sites were at all interested in seriously addressing the difficulties involved in finding companionship.

None of the sites were really interested in acknowledging people's humanity, but rather in feeding certain attitudes or desires.

So how is Strange Angels different? When it comes to functionality, the site gives people the opportunity to form partnerships with others who act as their personal advocates. A matchmaker. Not a new idea by any means. A matchmaker is really just a friend who wants to help. This is not a "crowd-sourcing" approach, which may work for some things, but I believe not with a matter so deeply personal. The idea here is to help someone directly and privately. It's a chance to make a meaningful difference in someone's life by offering support, feedback, and guiding them through the dark.

You can learn more about the inner workings of the site here.

But what makes Strange Angels so very different in my mind, is not just the functionality. We are not simply going to spit this technology up on the web and watch it go. And this is where I really draw inspiration from DailyKos. We have a mission to engage with people and make a meaningful difference in this world. This involves an unflinching look at the realities we find ourselves in. That is why the Strange Angels blog will be a central component to the site. Unlike other online dating sites, we are not peddling fantasies. We will write about relationships, dating, sexuality, and culture in general with brutal honesty. We will tell you the truth. Relationships are difficult. Sometimes painful. They require hard work and dedication. If you want a fairytale, go to one of the conservative sites like eHarmony (and good luck with that). Strange Angels is a progressive site and we treat you like an adult.

And yes, we are looking for contributors to the blog. If interested, you may contact me here.

As a business, Strange Angels is independently owned and operated. Although I have received interest from venture capitalists, I have not taken any outside money, and would like to avoid doing so. I want the site to be a financial success, but the idea here isn't to maximize profits for shareholders. We are trying to provide a real service here, not just find a more efficient way to extract money from people's pockets.

Right now we have developed the site around a certain functionality. As with all things, you have to go from a very high concept and translate that into a reality, and that can be a very humbling experience. Things will get lost along the way. But the fundamental idea of people helping each other is sound. We are just starting out, and we plan to continue to find new ways to implement that idea. How the site functions now won't necessarily be how the site functions a year from now, or five years from now. Just as the functionality of DailyKos was guided by its userbase, so it will be with Strange Angels. And this is why I need a group of progressively minded people to help get this thing off the ground and shape its future.

So... If you believe this experiment is worth trying, I thank you for helping me get the word out.

-Zack

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