Student’s Online Tool Connects Strangers in Real World

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Since rolling out his relationship-making website and mobile web app, Dining With Strangers, this fall, Ruben Martinez ’15 says more than 200 students have signed up to use it.

Jamie Weisbach ’16 and Kate Kearns ’14 were two of the students curious and brave enough to meet up with a stranger. “I decided to try Dining with Strangers to meet someone I wouldn’t normally meet,” Weisbach said. “There are so many cool people on this campus that I never get to interact with, so I thought it seemed like a cool opportunity.”

Kearns said she was intrigued by the app as a way to help students break out of their social groups. On her “date,” she got gelato downtown. “Obviously, the gelato was delicious and conversation was fun,” she said. “We talked about the different activities we’re involved with. We also talked a lot about technology and had our own personal version of the Mac versus PC debate.”

Martinez designed and coded his social networking website and smartphone app this summer to enable Bowdoin students to set up blind encounters with other students. The app is inspired by the Bowdoin tradition of Dining with Six Strangers. While Martinez’ first version was directed at people who wanted to make new friends and explore local spots, he recently added a new category for users seeking romantic partners.

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Ruben Martinez ’15 and Romeo Ibanez ’15

Bowdoin’s Date-apalooza, a student-run event to encourage healthy dating on campus, is working with Martinez to incorporate his tool into its mix of offerings. When student organizers approached Martinez to inquire about using Dining With Strangers, he adapted his site to appeal to those seeking love.

Martinez and his business partner, Romeo Ibanez ’15, have also established relationships with downtown establishments, including Gelato Fiasco, Scarlet Begonias and Eveningstar Cinema, and are working on building in capacity to make reservations or buy tickets online. Right now, users can set up a meeting at different places, from Thorne Dining Hall to the Museum steps for stargazing, with one, two or three other students. Once the date is set, others can join it.

If someone wants to join a date, they have a few options, such as having a meal for two at Moulton “with a person who likes Pixar movies and is interested in business and art.” Another option is a meal for two at Jack McGee’s Pub & Grill “with a person who likes technology and is interested in entrepreneurship.”

The main intention of the Dining With Strangers tool is to help students break out of their social circles, Ibanez said. “Part of what we are trying to do is combat the idea that once you get engrossed in a social scene at Bowdoin, it’s hard to meet new people.”

It’s crazy to think the Internet can connect 7 billion people, and yet people still feel they are alone.”  
—Romeo Ibanez ’15, Dining With Strangers CEO Tweet this

Ibanez and Martinez say they are concerned about the trend toward loneliness in our increasingly hyper-connected world. “My generation was raised on Facebook,” Ibanez said, “and [a significant percentage] of Facebook users report feeling a decrease in happiness….What starts to happen is you start to wonder why is everyone is having a better time than you are.”

With Dining With Strangers, the socializing happens face to face; while there is a messaging function, its emphasis is to coordinate meeting logistics. “With social networking, you sit at a computer all day and keep clicking the refresh button,” Martinez said. “What we want to do is the opposite — we want users to get out into the world.”

Martinez and Ibanez eventually want to bring their start-up to the world beyond Bowdoin. Martinez said he’s hoping to be admitted to a business incubator, such as MassChallenge, to develop Dining With Strangers into a profitable venture.

Ibanez said their online tool will compete with other online dating sites by focusing on facilitating friendships as well as romance, connecting people through shared enthusiasms — such as eating out. Plus, Dining With Strangers doesn’t ask for photographs. “We want to bring people together around a common set of interests,” he said — rather than, say, a common level of attractiveness.

“Our work is about how we can leverage technology and resources to improve the lives of people,” Ibanez continued. “It’s crazy to think the Internet can connect 7 billion people, and yet people still feel they are alone.”

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