Cambridge and the online dating landscape
When I first arrived in Boston, I was teeming with curiosity and excitement. My thirst for scientific discovery and research was paralleled only by one thing: my eagerness to explore the multitude of online dating platforms. Up until that point, I had never dabbled in this domain but had the impression that it might be amusing to do so. I started researching and experimenting with different applications, such as Tinder, Bumble, Happn, Coffee Meets Bagel, Okcupid, and more. I was intrigued by the different features each offered in order to distinguish themselves. For example, Happn allows you to match with people you frequently crossed paths with, allowing for maximum dating efficiency. In contrast, Coffee Meets Bagel limits the number of matches each day, cutting you off before you got too desperate. While each offered a different interface, I found the experience to be roughly similar. Only one website dramatically stood out among all others in both mission and execution: the MIT-made dildo.io.
The rise of dildo
The name itself raises some immediate questions. When first hearing it, it causes you to wonder: what is implied by such flippant usage of the word dildo? Why was the .io domain used as opposed to the more popular .com? How do I sign up for this service? As a serious individual, I was naturally captivated by and intent on answering these questions.
In short, dildo.io originated at HackMIT by a student who aspired to create a cryptographically secure match-making service as opposed to other services where information was stored on a central server. In those services, a data breach such as the one on AshleyMadison in 2015 could reveal private information to external parties. Initially it was made only for students in the East Campus undergraduate residence. By popular demand, the service was quickly expanded to the rest of MIT undergraduates to the point where it was even reported that 20% of students had used dildo.io in 2016.
The how and why of dildo
The interface of dildo.io was simple: a list of names with a checkbox labeled “DTF” (i.e., Down-To-Fornicate, to put it gently) beside each name. One simply checks a box to indicate interest in a person, and if a mutual match is registered, the individuals are notified. Outside of that, the website offered little to nothing in terms of setting up a profile with information and photographs. The user interface is shown in the image below:
Interface of the original dildo.io website
The simplicity meant that two individuals who matched would have most likely already known each other. This strikes me as perhaps the most intriguing thing about the service. It is not designed primarily to connect two new people, but rather to reduce the barrier to activities between acquaintances. I remember distinctly that the realization of this fact left me emotionally perturbed, first with bemusement, then sadness, and finally delight. Bemusement because of the site’s very existence, sadness because it was necessary in the first place and delight because it reminded me of something so fundamental to the zeitgeist of MIT: the feeling that here, anything is possible.
Where is dildo now?
As of 2019, the dildo.io website appears to be shut down. The original website was not cryptographically secure due to time limitations when dildo was initially built. However, a paper can be found outlining an upgraded version called “Hardened Dildo.io” that delivers on the original goals. The paper was written by other students (not the originator) for MIT class 6.857 Computer and Network Security and provides technical details for the improved implementation. However, whether the original or hardened version of the application will resurface and be made widely available remains unclear. While I am not likely to use this service personally, I do sincerely hope that it revives once again to serve our community and fill me with hope for our future generations.