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.”