6859491382_8402d530c1_bFacebook, with its Web of connected friends and friends of friends, would seem a great platform to facilitate matchmaking. But so far, no app developer has really cracked it. Washington DC startup Hinge, however, thinks it might have a shot.

Today, the startup has launched an iPhone app that turns your Facebook friend network into a dating game. Download the app, sign up with Facebook, and then Hinge will start presenting you with profile pics of your friends of friends – or, sometimes, just your friends – and ask you to rate them from 1 to 5. It keeps a note of all the people you rated a 4 or 5, and then if those people happen to use Hinge too and express similar interest in you, it will let you both know by way of an ice-breaker email.

Hinge started off as a Facebook app, and then went into beta with a mobile version. In those early days, however, it asked people to answer questions about potential matches. Turns out, that was too much hard work. After an initially strong pick-up, Hinge’s engagement numbers flagged. The founders, Justin McLeod and Bennet Richardson, came to realize that only one thing that really mattered to people who were using the app: attractiveness.

mzl.gbpjvxdn.320x480-75 mzl.xiicqegd.320x480-75So, the new Hinge just asks users to give a rating based on the photo. It also provides a name, work information (when possible), and a quirky made-up fact, like, “Karly enjoys shopping for gummi-vites in bulk,” or, “Jenny’s biggest fear is land sharks.” In other words, it’s a lot like Hot Or Not, but instead of affixing ratings to anonymous slabs of meat you’re doing it to people who know your friends, with a potential hook-up at the end of the game.

The Hinge founders refer to this as “social context.” They want the app to be like a virtual cocktail party where you psychically know who happens to be interested in you. It’s designed to be played whenever you have a few minutes to kill.

There are, however, several discomforting aspects to Hinge. For a start, there’s that Hot Or Not thing. It feels like it plays to our most base, and deplorable, instinct of what it means to make a connection with someone. It would be not unfair to lob the word “objectification” in the app’s direction. To be fair to Hinge, though, looks-based date-hunting is likely just as prevalent on serious dating sites such as Match.com and OKCupid – but at least they bring other elements into the consideration equation. Of course, Hinge is careful with privacy and makes sure you only ever have an inkling about how you’ve been rated if you happen to express interest in someone who has expressed in you too.

But another problem is that Hinge pulls in people’s profile information regardless of whether or not they are Hinge users. Hinge isn’t using any information that isn’t already publicly available or willingly shared on Facebook, but there’s still a creep factor here. Some people may object to being objectified by friends of friends via the app, even if they never find out about it.

There’s also a bit of a personality problem. While the little messages that Hinge includes with each profile are well-meaning and supposed to be fun, they’re also not things that the people being rated came up with themselves. In a sense, Hinge is ascribing a personality to someone who may not be like that at all. For all I know, Jenny might love land sharks. She’s weird like that sometimes.

Finally, when I tried the app, it delivered me a bunch of friends to rank. That’s fine, but it was more than off-putting when I was asked to rank my brother’s wife, my 10-year-old cousin, and my best friend’s mom. You are supposed to just swipe on through when faced with such a problem, but it still feels wrong. If nothing else, it’s a total mood-killer: Oh yeah, she’s nice, four out of five!… then, Yeah, she’s not for me, maybe a 2… then: What! Mom?!”

None of those concerns are to say that Hinge will fail. It’s true that people like to rank people based purely on their looks. That’s what Hot Or Not was all about. We’re a crappy species like that. And being able to find a way to get connected to people who you wouldn’t have otherwise known had the hots for you does hold a lusty promise of fun. The startup also plans to host events, wherein everyone who signs up for the party gets to check each other out using the app. While the app is available nationally, Hinge is initially keeping the events focus on Washington DC.

Hinge isn’t worrying about monetization for now, but it will look to add premium features and some targeted advertising in the future. It has $750,000 in backing from 500 Startups, and Washington DC-based VC firms Fortify and Piedmont Capital. Its most direct competitors are location-based dating app Tinder and Facebook’s own Graph Search, which gives people a way to find potential partners without having to leave the social network.

[Picture by Hotel de la Paix Geneve]