40 Days of Dating goes viral: Is it the design or the drama?

By Carmel DeAmicis , written on August 8, 2013

From The News Desk

The blog 40 Days of Dating has gone viral and I'm not surprised. My spidey senses were tingling last week when two friends from disparate social circles/geographies posted about it on my Facebook newsfeed.

For those who don't know what 40 Days of Dating is, I recommend not going near the blog until you have a solid hour and a half to spend reading it. It's an addictive find, and one that sucked my precious Saturday morning away last weekend. Of course, if you hate reality TV and/or love you won't have that problem. You'll feel nauseous after a few posts, shut your laptop, and spend the next few weeks mocking anyone who mentions it. The social experiment evokes either fandom or disdain in the masses flocking to read it.

The premise is simple: A boy and a girl meet. He's a commitment-phobe; she's a hopeless romantic -- cue every cheesy rom-com montage ever created. But there's a twist (isn't there always)? They've been friends for four years, they both wind up single at the same time, and they decide to try a weird social experiment: they will "date" exclusively for 40 days, see each other every single day, and meet with a couple's therapist once a week. By the end of it, they both hope they'll have solved their mutual romantic malaise. Of course, the audience is egging them on to fall hopelessly in love.

They did the experiment last spring, and every day they would each answer the same list of eight questions, which range from "What did y’all do together?" to "What did you learn about yourself?" They saved up all the answers and since July 10th, they've been posting each of their Q&As one day at a time to a blog. Like any good rom-com there's all sorts of drama to suck readers in: Will Jessie quit the experiment? Will Tim sleep with another girl? Will they ever stop fighting and finally have sex?

Unlike most rom-coms, the blog is also a cool collection of art. They're both graphic designers, and they enlisted the help of their design friends to create quirky, funny, occasionally fantastical Warholian comics that fit with each day of dating.

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So why is it so addictive?

The duo has mastered what many journalists have not: how to bring real world events to life by integrating the right multimedia into the story. Jessie and Tim both mention significant little moments throughout their Q&As, whether it's text messages that impacted them, videos they referenced, online chat conversations, or Wikipedia entries they looked up. Instead of allowing the print words to speak for themselves, after the forty days ended they embedded the artifacts throughout the Q&As. The end result makes the reader feel like they're there, taking part in the relationship.

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It reminds me of the New York Times interactive Snow Fall piece, which has been widely praised for bringing the story of an avalanche and its tragic ending to life by including audio of the 911 calls, graphics of how avalanches work, short video interview snippets, and camera footage from the skiers who were on the slope.

Some might scoff at that comparison, and obviously 40 Days of Dating is much more reality TV than journalistic reporting. My editor Nathan Pensky practically threw up in horror, when I told him I was writing about it. I believe his exact words were, "It's like the Grade-A, uncut pure version of everything wrong with, like, 'Big Brother' or whatever."

People are following it obsessively like the latest version of "The Bachelor," detailing every little twist and turn. I think that's what makes this social experiment so compelling, whether you love or hate it. It's exposing the inner workings of a relationship -- the daters' thoughts, feelings, reactions, overreactions, interpretations, excitement, exhaustion, boredom, anxiety, and all the rest -- for the whole world to ogle. And with the expose comes cool art. It's like if The Bachelor was some weird, creative comic strip made by an indie artist who is still normal enough to be loved by the masses.

It helps that both Tim and Jessie write well, and even in their brief answers to the Q&A, they illuminate interesting things about human nature, particularly when it comes to romance. We delve into their differing perspectives on the same event, and see the little ways they miscommunicate -- or conversely, read each other better than the other one realizes.

It may seem like a twisted little publicity ploy to some, but the contrived nature of it serves as a framework for seeing inside these two people's minds. Funny enough, they also grapple with the fake nature of their situation (see: Day 15 when they freak out about whether or not they're allowed to sleep together). The reason they're dating may not be natural, but their reactions to the relationship are. I suspect that is precisely what the masses are responding to.

Now the real question is: When will the Internet copycats arrive? It can't be too long before we see the next big 40 day interactive, artistic experiment exploring human nature in reality-web style.