Smiling at strangers

A new app for meeting students comes to UB

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The Spectrum

We're living in a virtual age.

First, emails and instant messaging made communication easier. Then, people could complete simple tasks like shopping for clothes and groceries via cell phone.

And now, people can pass on smiles without physically smiling.

A new app called SmileBack just launched in the Buffalo area about two weeks ago. It allows college students to meet new people on their campus through a different and innovative platform. By "smiling" at someone through this software, students can connect through mutual attractions and interests.

Dan Berenholtz, the app's founder, created the iOS application along with friends and co-founders Venkat Dinavahi and Roy Goldschmidt and brother Doron.

The SmileBack team brought the program to Buffalo by introducing it to 100 people with hopes it will spread.

The social networking application allows college students to send anonymous smiles to other SmileBack users in their area.If they send a smile back, the two users will be able to text each other through the app.

"I wouldn't call it a dating site," Berenholtz said. "It could be used for dating, it could be used for relationships and it could also just be for meeting new friends. We wanted to create a social network for meeting new people."

If the couple creates a match, they also receive a voucher for free drinks at a local bar. SmileBack is still working on a partnership with one of Buffalo's bars.

SmileBack is currently available in eight cities on the East Coast, including Ithaca, Washington, D.C. and New York City. Buffalo made the list a couple of weeks ago, followed by Syracuse. In total, the app has over 5,000 users, according to Berenholtz.

Chelsie Zanghi, a junior business major, received an email from Berenholtz a few weeks ago regarding the launch of this new app in Buffalo.

"I don't know if a lot of students know about it, but it could be used as a way of breaking the ice and meeting friends at such a large campus," Zanghi said.

The team has plans to spread the app to other parts of the nation, too.

Berenholtz said they built their reputation in a number of ways, from word of mouth to asking friends in different schools to promote their app to using social media sites like Facebook.

Only Apple products with cellular service support SmileBack; non-iPhone users, like Zanghi, cannot access the program.

Berenholtz said because the app is location-based and the users are matched with students in close proximities, it was logical to keep it only to cellular devices. Also, because people are constantly on their phones, it was a natural decision to make it into a mobile app, he said.

SmileBack originally started as a website called whowentout.com, which was similar to the app but revolved more around nightlife and who might be at the same party or club as the user. Berenholtz and his team decided to open up the pool to anyone on college campuses.

"Even though our product is different now, our goal is always the same," Berenholtz said. "And that is to facilitate connections among college students."

SmileBack was officially launched as a mobile app in the spring of 2013 as a small private beta only for iPhones.The team is currently working on the Android version and will launch it in the next couple months.

Some students are excited about testing out the product, but others disagree with its effectiveness.

"It's a social technological advance," said Anthony J. Field, a sophomore history major. "But it coddles people to a degree."

Field feels that with an app like SmileBack, students are not interacting in a location where they could be and instead they are more or less hiding behind their phones.

He says that this new platform for meeting other students is a good idea, but they "don't need an app for it."

The SmileBack team hopes the iPhone application will continue to grow in Buffalo as it has in other cities.

email: features@ubspectrum.com