Photo by Andi Schmied
You know how you hate Facebook’s constant, inevitably unhelpful “updates”? Imagine being 80 years old, learning how to use a computer, then having Facebook mess you around while you’re just trying to leave an overly-earnest comment on your granddaughter’s graduation photo. For many older adults, the pace at which technology moves is prohibitive. They can’t keep up and don’t want to, so many give up.
Or at least, they used to. The elderly are getting more tech savvy, participating in the internet in record numbers. According to an Ofcom report, the number of adults over 65 years of age using tablets to access the Internet jumped from five to 17 percent between 2012 and 2013. Despite this, seniors still spend significantly less time online than younger people, and use that time to do significantly fewer things. Most adults over 65 only use the Internet to check emails and browse news websites, but abstain from more complicated online tasks like banking, streaming television, or participating in social media sites.
This is where Tapestry comes in. Andrew Dowling was working as the Director of Technology at a Fortune 100 tech company when he left in 2010, to become founder and CEO of Tapestry—an app that allows seniors to use Facebook and other social media in a simple, accessible way. The app took off, and Dowling found he had tapped into a solution to more than one problem: tech illiteracy was one thing, but what Tapestry was also helping to solve was late-life loneliness.
Most recently, he’s developed Stitch—a “companion finding” app that some are calling “Tinder for seniors." The app aims to set up geographically close older people for purposes as diverse as romance, activities or simple phone conversations. I caught up with the 45-year-old entrepreneur to talk about dating on your last legs.
VICE: So where did the idea for Stitch come from?
Andrew Dowling: Building the Tapestry business meant we got to spend a lot of time with older adults who were feeling very socially isolated. And while Tapestry changed many lives, it was clear that for lots of people just staying connected to your family isn't enough—they needed to find new companions. And that's because one of the inevitabilities of aging is that your social circle gradually shrinks. Some people die, some move to Florida, some find their bodies just can't do the activities they used to. With people living longer than ever before, this means the only way to stay socially healthy is to meet new companions – but for many people at a later stage in life, that's extraordinarily difficult. Believe it or not, for seniors loneliness is a bigger killer than smoking or obesity. There's lots of research now, which correlates social isolation with higher death rates and greater incidence of dementia. The reality is that we need to stay socially connected, if we want to stay healthy.
How will you get seniors—a typically technology-shy demographic—to use something that works in a lot of ways like Tinder, the Millennials' dream app?
We've been described as "Tinder for old people" but that's actually a bit misleading. The one thing we do take from Tinder is the idea of no unsolicited contact. Our users will only be able to be contacted by someone if it's someone they've already liked. Apart from that a lot of the things we do are very focused on the specific needs of older users, which means we're quite different from Tinder. Everything: from how we verify user identities to their preference for phone calls over chat. What's the seniors dating climate like, currently?
We've been surprised to discover how active the dating space is for seniors. By the way, we tend not to use the word "seniors" as most baby boomers will tell you they don't identify with that word at all. Terminology is really tough in this space but we've found the term "older adult" works best.
Photo by Andi Schmied
What are some of the challenges of dating—or seeking friendship—while older?
It's a long list. Trust and authenticity is a big one, including scammers—this audience is one of the biggest targets for scammers online, and we've heard some shocking stories about their experiences on dating sites. Health considerations can be an issue, as can the limitations about what activities they can do. For the older end of the spectrum, things like whether they can drive at night or not come into play… lots of things that simply don't apply to a younger audience. Promising to eliminate scammers from the “companion pool” seems to be a big part of the Stitch enterprise.
I'd say almost half the users we interviewed brought up their experiences with scammers on online dating sites. Someone from the other side of the country would message them and strike up a conversation, try to get to know them and then ask for money. There are a number of reasons this sort of behavior can flourish on dating sites, which means that, for us to combat it effectively, we need to do a range of things to de-incentivize the scammers and protect our real users.
Part of it is in the area of identity verification, part in how we handle the protection of user's identities and part in how we respond to these incidents when they occur. Unlike most other dating sites, we know that the biggest reason many people will be coming to Stitch is because of our promise of safety.
When is it going global then?
The trials have only just started in the Bay Area and so far we think they're going well -- we're certainly learning a lot! We don't have a set launch date for the wider market as it depends a lot on how those early trials go, but we're hoping to have the platform launched globally by the end of the year.
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