An announcement from Date Lab: What we’re doing to protect our daters

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(Hailey Haymond/The Washington Post)

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“People love disasters, and they love romance stories too,” says Sandy Fernández, Date Lab’s original editor. For more than 15 years, The Washington Post Magazine’s column has captured those two extremes — and some areas in between. It’s not one of The Post’s most popular and oldest features for nothing.

Today, we are announcing a change in the format of the column: We will allow participants to be identified only by their first names. To understand the reasons for this change, it helps to know some of the story behind the column.

Date Lab has always been an extremely personal window into people’s lives – and the more people willing to share with us, the better the column. For many people, a romantic partner is an essential part of how they find meaning and joy in life. And their journey to find that special someone lays bare their origins, beliefs and preferences. Being in Date Lab means opening up your life not just to the person on the other side of the table, but to a whole bunch of interested strangers. The orchestration of blind dates and the dates themselves can offer insight into politics, religion, education, race, sexuality and gender, and the how people see themselves and the world around them. He is and always has been fascinating.

When the column launched in 2006, it was a bit of a gamble. Fernández wanted Date Lab to be a Washington version of the New York Post’s Meet Market column — which sent readers on blind dates in the Big Apple — but other editors feared Washingtonians would be more cautious and aware of their public personas. Would daters share enough for us to write an engaging weekly column? Would people even sign up? For the first dates, Fernández armed himself with friends of friends to be guinea pigs. But soon after, applications started coming in.

We knew we were on to something when one of the first matches resulted in a runaway six months later. A total of four marriages took place in the first five years of Date Lab. Most recently, Willie Gray and Renee Coley, who were installed on Valentine’s Day 2019, are still going strong. Yet our goal isn’t to produce a love match, exactly. We are, after all, journalists, not a professional matchmaking service. Our goal is to create a date that we believe, in good faith, will work — “I just wanted them to have a good experience,” says Annys Shin, who was Date Lab’s editor from 2015 to 2020 — then, in our as journalists, to know enough about the date to be able to describe it to readers in a way that sheds some light on the human condition.

Over the years, Date Lab has undergone key changes. Its biggest overhaul came when the format shifted from daters recounting their evening in transcript form to attendees recounting their experience to writers, who brought their own perspectives to the column. At the time, publishers were “trying to wrestle with the similarity issue,” Shin says of the 2017 change. We wanted an injection of strong voices. A few years later, the pandemic hit, and readers watched in real time as the column navigated another — temporary, ultimately — shift: replacing in-person dinners with Zoom dates and takeout.

Starting next week, Date Lab will evolve once again, as we allow people who only agree to be identified by their first name to participate with this degree of anonymity. It was not a simple or obvious decision: in almost all stories, The Post identifies sources and subjects by their full names – and from the start, Date Lab has followed this practice. But The Post sometimes agrees to withhold names in circumstances where full identification may cause harm. And we concluded that Date Lab – which asks participants to share so many personal things with their fellow daters, with our reporters and ultimately with the reader – now meets that test.

When Date Lab started in 2006, people’s digital footprints were smaller and less consequential in their lives. At the time, Facebook was just beginning to allow non-college students access to the platform; Twitter and Reddit were offshoots of what they are today; Instagram did not exist. Online dating websites and apps were not yet monopolies in the dating scene. But over the past two decades, online culture has changed dramatically and our digital footprints now have real power over our lives. More and more people are refusing to participate in Date Lab because they are worried about the professional implications of sharing their private life publicly. Others, especially women, fear for their safety. In a few cases, participants received mail to their home address, and others received spam on their social media accounts. In the end, we felt we had no choice but to offer our participants some protection. We hope this change will allow them to tell their story without worrying about being vilified and harassed, online or in the real world.

We can’t promise that there won’t be more adaptations for Date Lab in the future. What we can say is that we hope our new approach to identifying participants will allow this column to thrive for many years to come – that it will be there for you, the reader, every week, full of dating debacles , uplifting love stories and everything in between. .

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