“Apocalypse” seems like a bit much. I thought that last fall when Vanity Fair titled Nancy Jo Sales’s article on dating apps “Tinder and the Dawn of the ‘Dating Apocalypse’” and I thought it again this month when Hinge, another dating app, advertised its relaunch with a site called “thedatingapocalypse.com,” borrowing the phrase from Sales’s article, which apparently caused the company shame and was partially responsible for their effort to become, as they put it, a “relationship app.”
Despite the difficulties of modern dating, if there is an imminent apocalypse, I believe it will be spurred by something else. I don’t believe technology has distracted us from real human connection. I don’t believe hookup culture has infected our brains and turned us into soulless sex-hungry swipe monsters. And yet. It doesn’t do to pretend that dating in the app era hasn’t changed.
The gay dating app Grindr launched in 2009. Tinder arrived in 2012, and nipping at its heels came other imitators and twists on the format, like Hinge (connects you with friends of friends), Bumble (women have to message first), and others. Older online dating sites like OKCupid now have apps as well. In 2016, dating apps are old news, just an increasingly normal way to look for love and sex. The question is not if they work, because they obviously can, but how well do they work? Are they effective and enjoyable to use? Are people able to use them to get what they want? Of course, results can vary depending on what it is people want—to hook up or have casual sex, to date casually, or to date as a way of actively looking for a relationship.
“I have had lots of luck hooking up, so if that’s the criteria I would say it’s certainly served its purpose,” says Brian, a 44-year-old gay man who works in fashion retail in New York City. “I have not had luck with dating or finding relationships.”
“I think the way I’ve used it has made it a pretty good experience for the most part,” says Will Owen, a 24-year-old gay man who works at a marketing agency in New York City. “I haven’t been looking for a serious relationship in my early 20s. It’s great to just talk to people and meet up with people.”
“I have a boyfriend right now whom I met on Tinder,” says Frannie Steinlage, a 34-year-old straight woman who is a health-care consultant in Denver. But “it really is sifting through a lot of crap to be able to find somebody.”
Sales’s article focused heavily on the negative effects of easy, on-demand sex that hookup culture prizes and dating apps readily provide. And while no one is denying the existence of fuckboys, I hear far more complaints from people who are trying to find relationships, or looking to casually date, who just find that it’s not working, or that it’s much harder than they expected.
“I think the whole selling point with dating apps is ‘Oh, it’s so easy to find someone,’ and now that I’ve tried it, I’ve realized that’s actually not the case at all,” says my friend Ashley Fetters, a 26-year-old straight woman who is an editor at GQ in New York City.
The easiest way to meet people turns out to be a really labor-intensive and uncertain way of getting relationships. While the possibilities seem exciting at first, the effort, attention, patience, and resilience it requires can leave people frustrated and exhausted.
“It only has to work once, theoretically,” says Elizabeth Hyde, a 26-year-old bisexual law student in Indianapolis. Hyde has been using dating apps and sites on and off for six years. “But on the other hand, Tinder just doesn’t feel efficient. I’m pretty frustrated and annoyed with it because it feels like you have to put in a lot of swiping to get like one good date.”
I have a theory that this exhaustion is making dating apps worse at performing their function. When the apps were new, people were excited, and actively using them. Swiping “yes” on someone didn’t inspire the same excited queasiness that asking someone out in person does, but there was a fraction of that feeling when a match or a message popped up. Each person felt like a real possibility, rather than an abstraction.
The first Tinder date I ever went on, in 2014, became a six-month relationship. After that, my luck went downhill. In late 2014 and early 2015, I went on a handful of decent dates, some that led to more dates, some that didn’t—which is about what I feel it’s reasonable to expect from dating services. But in the past year or so, I’ve felt the gears slowly winding down, like a toy on the dregs of its batteries. I feel less motivated to message people, I get fewer messages from others than I used to, and the exchanges I do have tend to fizzle out before they become dates. The whole endeavor seems tired.
“I’m going to project a really bleak theory on you,” Fetters says. “What if everyone who was going to find a happy relationship on a dating app already did? Maybe everyone who’s on Tinder now are like the last people at the party trying to go home with someone.”
Now that the shine of novelty has worn off these apps, they aren’t fun or exciting anymore. They’ve become a normalized part of dating. There’s a sense that if you’re single, and you don’t want to be, you need to do something to change that. If you just sit on your butt and wait to see if life delivers you love, then you have no right to complain.
“Other than trying to go to a ton of community events, or hanging out at bars—I’m not really big on bars—I don’t feel like there’s other stuff to necessarily do to meet people,” Hyde says. “So it’s almost like the only recourse other than just sort of sitting around waiting for luck to strike is dating apps.”
But then, if you get tired of the apps, or have a bad experience on them, it creates this ambivalence—should you stop doing this thing that makes you unhappy or keep trying in the hopes it might yield something someday? This tension may lead to people walking a middle path—lingering on the apps while not actively using them much. I can feel myself half-assing it sometimes, for just this reason.
Larry Lawal, a 27-year-old straight male software developer in Atlanta, says he used to meet up with women from the apps for dinner or drinks several times a month, but now, “I don’t know, something happened [since] the earlier days,” he says. “I kinda use it now just for entertainment when I’m bored or standing in lines. I go in with zero expectations. I noticed a huge shift in my intentions.”
Lawal remembers the exact moment it switched for him. At the end of 2014, he took a road trip with his friend from Birmingham, Alabama to St. Petersburg, Florida to go to a college bowl game. “On the way down there, I spent a lot of time on Tinder,” he says. “Every city or every stop the entire way, I would just swipe.” He had no intention of meeting up with these people, since he and his friend were literally just passing through. And he realized, he says, that “the idea of being one swipe away from a potential mate kind of lowers the meaning of potential interaction.”
Hinge, originally, was a swiping app very similar to Tinder except that it only offered you people who were connected to you through Facebook friends. But the company’s own research, combined with the Vanity Fair article convinced the CEO, Justin McLeod, that they needed to change. (According to Business Insider, the app was also “bleeding users” and had “plummeted to a 1.5 star rating,” which could have had something to do with it.) In advance of their relaunch, they publicized some of their own damning statistics on thedatingapocalypse.com. “81 percent of Hinge users have never found a long-term relationship on any swiping app”; “54 percent of singles on Hinge report feeling lonely after swiping on swiping apps”; “Only 1 in 500 swipes on Hinge turn into phone numbers exchanged.”
McLeod has noticed the same waning of enthusiasm that I have. “We have people in for focus groups all the time, and we do surveys, and since probably like 2014, it seemed like there was this sort of declining satisfaction over time in these services,” he says. “And I think it’s really hit a low point.”
Whenever using a technology makes people unhappy, the question is always: Is it the technology’s fault, or is it ours? Is Twitter terrible, or is it just a platform terrible people have taken advantage of? Are dating apps exhausting because of some fundamental problem with the apps, or just because dating is always frustrating and disappointing?
“The process of dating inherently sucks,” says Holly Wood, a PhD candidate at Harvard University who’s doing her dissertation on modern dating. “I literally am trying to call my dissertation ‘Why Dating Sucks,’ because I want to explain that. But I can’t, because they won’t let me.”
Moira Weigel is a historian and author of the recent book Labor of Love, in which she chronicles how dating has always been difficult, and always been in flux. But there is something “historically new” about our current era, she says. “Dating has always been work,” she says. “But what’s ironic is that more of the work now is not actually around the interaction that you have with a person, it’s around the selection process, and the process of self-presentation. That does feel different than before.”
Once you meet someone in person, the app is not really involved in how that interaction goes anymore. So if there is a fundamental problem with dating apps that burns people out and keeps them from connecting, it must be found somewhere in the selection process.
Hinge seems to have identified the problem as one of design. Without the soulless swiping, people could focus on quality instead of quantity, or so the story goes. On the new Hinge, which launched on October 11, your profile is a vertical scroll of photos interspersed with questions you’ve answered, like “What are you listening to?” and “What are your simple pleasures?” To get another person’s attention, you can “like” or comment on one of their photos or answers. Your home screen will show all the people who’ve interacted with your profile, and you can choose to connect with them or not. If you do, you then move to the sort of text-messaging interface that all dating-app users are duly familiar with.
When the company beta-tested this model, “we found that this leads first of all to more people connecting,” McLeod says. “But more importantly, when there was a connection, five times as many turned into two-way conversations, and we actually saw seven times the number of phone numbers exchanged relative to the number of connections. People are more selective with this model. It takes a little bit more brainpower to actually show interest in someone, rather than just flicking your thumb to the right.” (In the few days I’ve been using this app so far, men have mostly just “liked” my photos in order to indicate interest, which I’d argue is not any more effortful than swiping.)
The new Hinge will also cost money—$7 a month, though a three-month free trial is currently available. McLeod believes this will make it so that only people who are serious about finding someone will use the app. Whether many people will be willing to pay for it remains to be seen.
“I really wouldn’t,” Hyde says, noting that Hinge will cost around the same as Netflix, “and Netflix brings me much more joy.”
“The thing with design is, at risk of belaboring the obvious, how all of these apps make money is by keeping people on the app,” Weigel says. “Yes, there’s better and worse design, but there is ultimately this conflict of interest between the user of the app and the designer of the app.”
For this story I’ve spoken with people who’ve used all manner of dating apps and sites, with varied designs. And the majority of them expressed some level of frustration with the experience, regardless of which particular products they used.
I don’t think whatever the problem is can be solved by design. Let’s move on.
It's possible dating app users are suffering from the oft-discussed paradox of choice. This is the idea that having more choices, while it may seem good… is actually bad. In the face of too many options, people freeze up. They can’t decide which of the 30 burgers on the menu they want to eat, and they can’t decide which slab of meat on Tinder they want to date. And when they do decide, they tend to be less satisfied with their choices, just thinking about all the sandwiches and girlfriends they could have had instead.
The paralysis is real: According to a 2016 study of an unnamed dating app, 49 percent of people who message a match never receive a response. That’s in cases where someone messages at all. Sometimes, Hyde says, “You match with like 20 people and nobody ever says anything.”
“There’s an illusion of plentifulness,” as Fetters put it. “It makes it look like the world is full of more single, eager people than it probably is.”
Just knowing that the apps exist, even if you don’t use them, creates the sense that there’s an ocean of easily-accessible singles that you can dip a ladle into whenever you want.
“It does raise this question of: ‘What was the app delivering all along?’” Weigel says. “And I think there's a good argument to be made that the most important thing it delivers is not a relationship, but a certain sensation that there is possibility. And that's almost more important.”
Whether someone has had luck with dating apps or not, there’s always the chance that they could. Perhaps the apps’ actual function is less important than what they signify as a totem: A pocket full of maybe that you can carry around to ward off despair. But the sense of infinite possibility online has real-world effects.
For example, Brian says that, while gay dating apps like Grindr have given gay men a safer and easier way to meet, it seems like gay bars have taken a hit as a result. “I remember when I first came out, the only way you could meet another gay man was to go to some kind of a gay organization or to go to a gay bar,” he says. “And gay bars back in the day used to be thriving, they were the place to be and meet people and have a good time. Now, when you go out to the gay bars, people hardly ever talk to each other. They’ll go out with their friends, and stick with their friends.”
The existence of the apps disincentivizes people from going for more high-stakes romantic opportunities. If, for example, you have feelings for a friend, but you’re not sure they feel the same, rather than take that risk, you might just look for someone on the apps instead. Heck, for that matter, you might not ask someone out in a bar, because the apps just feel easier. It’s so low-stakes. If doesn’t work out, well, it was only a stranger. You didn’t have to make a friendship awkward, or embarrass yourself by asking someone out in person.
“I couldn’t tell you how many times this happens to me,” Fetters says. “I’ll have a great conversation with a guy at a party or a bar, and [we’ll get to a point where] now would be the natural moment for him to ask for my number, or for someone to be like ‘Hey, let’s get together.’ I know the contours of these things, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been like, ‘Um, okay, so I’ll see you around.’”
“Think about what it would feel like to meet someone in a bar and hit it off with them without the backdrop of ‘Oh, but I could also just go on Tinder,’” she continues. “It would feel like a lot more precious of an opportunity.”
Perhaps the problem is just that no one knows what they’re doing. Apps and online dating sites “don’t instruct people on how to date, they only offer a means of communicating,” Wood says. In the absence of clear norms, people just have to wing it. Often there’s no way to know exactly what someone is looking for, unless they say so explicitly.
“But right now, people feel like they can’t tell people that,” Wood says. “They feel they’ll be punished, for some reason. Men who want casual sex feel like they’ll be punished by women because [they think] women don’t want to date guys for casual sex. But for women who are long-term relationship-oriented, they can’t put that in their profile because they think that’s going to scare men away. People don’t feel like they can be authentic at all about what they want, because they’ll be criticized for it, or discriminated against. Which does not bode well for a process that requires radical authenticity.”
This is how “chill” becomes the default setting for dating. Chill, that laissez-faire stance of being open to “seeing where things go,” but not actually desiring that things go any certain way. “Chill asks us to remove the language of courtship and desire lest we appear invested somehow in other human beings,” as Alana Massey put it in her magnificent 2015 screed against the non-emotion. “It is a game of chicken where the first person to confess their frustration or confusion loses.”
Weigel thinks this could be a result of some residual shame or embarrassment about being on the apps in the first place, about being willing to admit to others that you’re looking for something, even if you won’t say what it is. “I think it fosters this over-compensatory coldness,” she says.
So that’s exhausting. And then, of course, there’s the harassment. Most people I spoke with reported getting some kind of rude or harassing messages, some more severe than others.
“I get one message pretty often,” Lawal says. “I’m an African-American person, and there’s a stereotype that black guys are well-endowed. There are some matches that immediately after the ice is broken ask me [about that].”
“There’s a ton of men out there who treat you like you’re just basically a walking orifice,” Steinlage says. “Once you’re matched with somebody, the rules go out the window.”
The harassment is of course the fault of the people doing the harassing. But an environment with few rules or standard social scripts probably doesn’t help. The apps show people their options, connect them, and then the rest is up to them, for better or worse.
“It’s not the app’s fault that once you go on a date you’re like ‘Ugh,’” says David Ashby, a 28-year-old straight man who works for a tech startup in New York City. “I think it’s just people. It turns out, humans are hard.”
Humans are hard. So dating is hard. And a common complaint about dating, app-facilitated or otherwise, is that people are just too busy to deal with it. Because it’s work, it takes time. Time that people either don’t have, or don’t want to waste on something that might not work out.
“I think a lot of it is the 24/7 work culture and the obsession with productivity [in the U.S.],” Weigel says. “There’s this way in which people are more fearful of wasting time than they used to be. I think it feels historically new. There's this sense of time being scarce. I think it's tied to this fantasy that apps promise of ‘Oh we'll deliver this to you very efficiently. So you won't have to waste time.’”
Dating sites and apps promise to save you time. An actual date still takes pretty much the same amount of time that it always has, so where the apps cut corners is in the lead-up.
A Tinder spokesperson told me in an email that while the app doesn't lessen the time it takes to build a relationship, it has "made the first step super easy—we get you in front of someone with an efficiency and ease that you couldn't before.”
But getting as many people in front of your eyeballs as fast as possible doesn’t end up saving time at all. “I have women saying that they spend 10 to 15 hours a week online dating, because that’s how much work goes into producing one date,” Wood says.
So if there’s a fundamental problem with dating apps, one baked into their very nature, it is this: They facilitate our culture’s worst impulses for efficiency in the arena where we most need to resist those impulses. Research has shown that people who you aren’t necessarily attracted to at first sight, can become attractive to you over time, as you get to know them better. Evaluating someone’s fitness as a partner within the span of a single date—or a single swipe—eliminates this possibility.
“I dated somebody for six months off Tinder, but I nearly swiped left because his profile picture was iffy,” Hyde says. “But for some reason I swiped right and then he was actually really good to talk to.”
And even if there is an initial attraction, there’s a necessary slowness to building intimacy. Efficient dating is, in many ways, at odds with effective dating.
“I don’t know if there is a real solution, unless we’re going to be paired off by the government,” Steinlage says.
“People all the time use this language of efficiency, and I'm always like, ‘Well efficient for what?’” Weigel says. Dating apps do not seem like an efficient way to produce relationships, at least no more so than traditional dating, and maybe less so, depending on who you ask. They are an efficient way to move through your options.
When you use a resource more efficiently, you ultimately use up more of it. This is a concept that the 19th century economist William Stanley Jevons came up with to talk about coal. The more efficiently coal could be used, the more demand there was for coal, and therefore people just used up more coal more quickly. This can happen with other resources as well—take food for example. As food has become cheaper and more convenient—more efficient to obtain—people have been eating more. On dating apps, the resource is people. You go through them just about as efficiently as possible, as fast as your little thumb can swipe, so you use up more romantic possibilities more quickly.
“There’ve been many weeks in my past where I’ve gone out with somebody every night of the week,” Steinlage says. “I really wanted a relationship, and I wasn’t shy about that, but it’s exhausting. The idea of putting yourself out there again and again and again.”
This desire for efficiency plays out outside of the apps as well—if a first date is iffy, people may just not bother with a second—but the apps certainly facilitate it. And not just swiping apps. Reading through profile after profile on OKCupid or the new Hinge amounts to the same thing.
“The whole way these apps are structured, if you think about it,” Weigel says, makes it so “it sort of seems foolish to sink too much time into any one person you get in front of you if it doesn’t seem exactly right.” Because that would be a waste of time. So you end up spending a little effort on a lot of people, and I think this is where the burnout comes from. Because it adds up to feel like you’ve done a lot of work, but you’re still left with nothing.
“When you have however many people you’re actively talking to, it doesn’t even cross your mind that maybe I’m throwing something away a little soon,” Steinlage says. “There’s a whole new currency, and the currency is people. And if you lose one person one day, that’s fine—you have 500 others at your disposal.”
Dating hasn’t become an apocalypse, it’s just become another way modern life can make people feel overworked. When the actual apocalypse eventually comes, perhaps it will be easier to recognize love when it’s looking at us over the rat carcasses we’re roasting on a spit over a trash can fire, when many of our options have been killed off by plagues or zombie hordes, for then no time we’re given will feel like a waste. Until then, there’s always Tinder.