Bristlr: The Feminist-Friendly Dating App For Beard Lovers and the Bearded

Photos by Shirlaine Forrest
Photos by Shirlaine Forrest

I have a thing for beards, so when I heard about this new dating site and app called Bristlr, I was intrigued. It was not until I heard that it was supposed to be more feminist friendly that I decided to actually try it out. Although I have no intention of dating anyone right now, I signed up for it to see what it was like. Much to my surprise, within the first five minutes of using it, I saw many men who basically resembled my dream guy.

The messages I’ve gotten from the bearded men on Bristlr have greatly differed from all the disgusting ones I’ve gotten on Tinder and OkCupid. They’re respectful and try to genuinely get to know me. I have not gotten one single inappropriate message and their grammar is excellent, too. Bristlr doesn’t let you message someone without you mutually liking each other, which is similar to Tinder. However, it lets you know who likes you first and tells you if the person has sent the same message to many other users. It’s much less intimidating and scary than Tinder, which makes it easy to use.

After remaining in awe over this positive online dating site experience, I decided to chat with the bearded creator, John Kershaw.

You mentioned in other interviews that the creation of Bristlr started out as a joke. What made you decide to take it further and create an actual app and a website?

From the joke I thought it would be funny to make a fake website for Bristlr, so I made it look like a really stereotypical startup, so it’s got the really big picture in the background and all this, and it looks really polished. I spent a couple of hours making this, and I released it out into the world just because I was bored, and it had a signup form on it, and people started actually signing up, and I thought, “Well, if people are actually signing up let’s see what happens if I actually make it,” so I spent two weeks making the first prototype. Launched that, and it’s been growing since then.

Did you expect it to ever get that big?

No, but I think when I first started it I gave it about a 10% chance of being successful, so 10% of me was like, “Of course this is going to be really successful” and 90% of me was like, “No, this isn’t going to last a week,” but I think right now I’d give it about a 50/50% chance of still being around, but I’m very pessimistic.

Had you experienced the online dating scene and had familiarity with other dating apps and sites before creating yours?

I’ve been on OkCupid, so yes, I remember signing up for that in like secondary school to see all my matches with my friends, and it was a fun thing to do, and I’ve used Tinder briefly, so I’ve used them throughout my life, and I’ve never looked at them and seen any great big problems, but there’s always little annoying bits that you wish you could tweak or problems you wish you could get rid of, and that’s stuff that is really nice that I have the opportunity to try to fix within Bristlr, and I don’t expect to be able to fix them for all these other websites of course, but it’s nice that I’m in control of Bristlr so I can make it how I like.

Currently you can’t choose the sexual preference or the age or anything. Is that going to change?

Yeah, that’s correct, and it is going to change. I didn’t put it in there originally, because I didn’t think it was very important, but now Bristlr’s got like 60,000 users. People want more ways to search. When Bristlr first launched the home page was just a list of everybody in the world using Bristlr right now, which in the first week was totally helpful because there was only 100 people, but now there’s so many people it’s becoming more of a thing that people want to be able to filter down so they can find more matches or people who are more likely to be the kind of people they want to hang out with, and age is one that I was quite surprised is something which has been … It is the most requested feature.

I get like half a dozen emails a day from people asking for age, and it’s both from younger users of the site and older users of the site, and everyone basically wants to only see people of around their own age, which is really interesting, so I’m adding that, and yeah, the gender and sexual preference issue is a really interesting one, because when I first built the site it had no gender. There’s no gender field or anything like that, and I was quite pleased with this, like “Oh good, I’ve avoided the horrible tricky situation you get when it’s just like gender, male/female.” It’s like, oh no, that’s not how gender works, but now that the site’s getting bigger I’ve realized that whilst it’s not very queer exclusionary it’s still not particularly usable, because it assumes that everyone’s hetero, if that makes sense.

Whilst I’ve avoided the first pitfall, now I’ve got the problem of trying to make it an actually inclusive website, and so I’ve got some plans there because I don’t want to screw it up, because it’s very easy to screw up stuff like this. I think I spent about a month just chatting to various friends about ideas I’ve had, because they have a far better insight on these kinds of things than I do, and I think the idea that I settled on is going to be a “Your Gender” text box, and you write in whatever gender or genders you’d like and then another text box which is Genders You’d Like to Meet, and you write in there all the genders, and then using some fancy database stuff you should then be able to match up people who are searching for one thing with people who are searching for other things. I’ve gone through a lot of trial and error, and my hope is to be very open about how the process works and then gather feedback from people and actually listen to people who I’m hoping this is useful for to see what they make of it.

So far what I’ve noticed from using it—because I actually did make an account before contacting you to see how it worked—  is that it showed that most of the people who have liked me were guys who seemed to be in their late 40s and 50s, which I wouldn’t think is a demographic for this.

The demographic information, I don’t really understand that at this point. It seems to be something that loads of different people can get involved with, because it’s not as cold as something like Tinder. It’s not as complicated and very explicitly about dating as OkCupid. It has this fun, easy vibe, which I think a lot of people can get bored with, and now it’s about me making the experience as good as possible for people so that if you’re on there you can be fairly specific about the kinds of people you want to meet.

You also have the thing that shows you if the guys have sent the messages to many other people before.How did you decide to come up with that? Had you seen the messages on OkCupid and Tinder and thought, “Okay, I have to change this?”

It seems universally non true that that happens on all these other website, and I’m aware of it happening to me, and I just realized it’d be really really easy for me to put a little check in there so when someone puts a message it goes and checks and sees, did I send that to anyone else, and then sends us a little message, so I added that, and within a few hours there are people who are tweeting about is saying how brilliant it was, and/or I was getting to a point with some guys who were being pulled, and that made me realize that I was also a winner with that one.

That is amazing. I know it’s simple, but it helps out women and other people who get those type of messages all the time. 

It took about an hour. It’s not a complicated thing at all, because it’s not very fancy. It literally just tells how many times the person has sent that message.

It’s so useful. I think that’s why people are considering this as such an amazing thing, because it had never been seen before in other dating sites. 

It’s part of my approach to user protection in a sense that other sites for a user allow you to send a message to multiple people and just don’t talk about it and pretend that it’s not happening or they try to ban you from doing it, and so you can’t do it, whereas my approach is to let you do it and then inform everyone of what’s going on, so if someone says, “Hi there. How’s it going,” and they send that to ten people that’s probably fine, because it’s a really generic opener, but if someone said, “Hey, I read your profile. You’re the only one for me” and they send that to 100 people then that’s different.What my goal is is to give people the tools to make the decisions themselves, because that seems easier and smarter.

Bristlr is seem as one of the very few feminist-friendly dating apps/sites. However, all of these things that can be useful for female users who tend to deal with issues on dating sites a bit more than men (or at least heterosexual men) seem more like basic and common sense, no?

I don’t feel like I’m in a position to judge whether it is or isn’t feminist, but I try to make it definitely not-not feminist, if that makes sense. I try to avoid anything that’s going to cause problems that I see in other sites, and I’m very grateful that I’ve got a lot of friends where I can send them an email being like, “Hi. I have this idea,” and they’ll reply back like, “No, that’s terrible. Don’t do that,” and I’m like, “Thank you very much.” I rely a lot on my friends who know an awful lot more than me, and it seems to be working. I hope that it’s a feminist website, because the alternative is awful.

Since it’s so successful now, would you considering expanding to non-bearded men?

I don’t know. That’s a tough one, because the whole point of Bristlr is that it has this big hook, which is it’s all about the beards, and that adds a really nice lighthearted vibe which I think is one of the strongest points. With regards to the actual technology, I would be very happy to work with people once it’s more settled down, work with people and branch out and make a version of Bristlr that’s not just beard-ey, because the technology could be used for any number of things, but I’m so busy with just Bristlr right now that that’s a pipe dream rather than a reality at the moment, but I plan on trying to open … It’s like the gender tools that I’m going to be adding, I plan on opening them up to other people who are making websites because I know there’s a bunch of … I keep seeing them, a bunch of really cool queer dating sites for the startup, and there’s a bunch of people, and they get a little bit far, and then it fizzles out, and I’d love to be able to provide tools to help those kinds of groups and to actually make it and make some really cool stuff.

That would be great, because I know that OkCupid also tries to be inclusive and queer friendly, but it doesn’t work out. You did say that you want to have it say that you can write your own gender and whatever you want. That would be very useful. What else do you want to change, but firstly, what else do you want to add soon?

I’ve got a wall covered in Post-it notes of ideas, but the things that look likely to actually make it into the finished product is a way to have statuses so you can post up data about how your day is going. You can post a photo of your beard in the morning, be like, “I’m using this new product. Let’s see what it does. I combed it this way, had a trim.” I like that, because that seems light and friendly, and then people refer to each other, maybe like on Twitter, and then suddenly you’re building a cool little community. I’m keen to get adverts in there, but not terrible ones. Because I know where everyone is, in a not creepy way, if there was a local barbers or a local beard oil company, like say they’re in London, then it would be really cool if they could advertise two people on Bristlr in London, and I could then … I can avoid working with big advert companies, and I can basically work with small companies who this is their perfect demographic, and then that seems like a good thing, and then I could actually get enough money to earn a living, which’d be brilliant.

What else? Oh, I want a way to rate messages, so if you get a really good message from someone you can give it a little thumbs-up or something, but if you get a really crappy message you can give it a thumbs-down, and then people who regularly send nice messages get a little star next to their name, and you’re like, “Oh cool, I’m going to talk to them because everyone says they’re lovely.” It’s using the community as a whole to again give you more information about what’s going on and what people are like.

Have you used your own website to see how it works?

I have. Up until this year, or for the last couple of months, I have refused to meet anyone off it, because there’s a super-weird para-dynamic, or I was worried that there would be a super-weird paradynamic. It’s like, “Hey, we’re meeting on this dating site that I built,” and I was concerned that that would be incredibly weird, but after I voiced this concern to several friends and they were like, “That would be ridiculous. That’s not a problem,” I’ve subsequently been on some dates, and it’s been lovely and not weird at all, which is actually really nice.

That’s great!

I’ve had more luck on dates using Bristlr in the last month than I think the entire of last summer using Tinder, but that might just be me.

Tinder is all-around horrible. 

Tinder’s great for about 30 seconds, and then I realize what a terrible human being I am and then I have to stop using it.

Some of my friends actually switched from Tinder to Bristlr because they thought that it was much better for a woman to use to avoid the creepy messages on Tinder. 

Really? Wow. I guess Tinder has the problem that it’s so much more popular than Bristlr. Bristlr is at that point now where there’s enough people using it that you can use it, but all the gross unpleasant people haven’t grown that beard yet.

Maybe it’s just a beard thing. Maybe men with beards are just nicer and better.

I think that that is spot-on. [laughs] It is interesting, the numbers, but I have no idea what the gender split in somewhere like Tinder or OkCupid is, but on Bristlr the number of people with beards and the number of people without beards is about 50/50, which really surprised me, because I thought it was going to be like 90% people with beards, but it’s actually a really nice balance, which is really cool.

Yeah definitely, and I do hope that it actually doesn’t fizzle out and it keeps going on, because it’s such a good alternative.

I need to keep myself positive, because yesterday the traffic was about 10% lower than the day before, and I was like, “Oh, that’s it. It’s over. Pack it in, go home,” and then I looked that the wider graph, and it’s like, “Oh, okay, so traffic this week is actually double what it was last week, so it’s actually still doubling, so that’s okay. It’s fine.” I’m a very pessimistic person, but I am very happy. I don’t want to be too proud because then I get cocky and then I’ll screw everything up, but I will accept that it’s currently alright, I suppose.



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