19 Readers on the Rise of Dating Apps

Was the pre-internet approach to finding romance really any better?

An image of two arms coming out of two phone screens, holding hands
Tyler Comrie / The Atlantic; Getty

This is an edition of Up for Debate, a newsletter by Conor Friedersdorf. On Wednesdays, he rounds up timely conversations and solicits reader responses to one thought-provoking question. Later, he publishes some thoughtful replies. Sign up for the newsletter here.

Last week, a person who came of age in the online era tweeted this question: “Literally BAFFLED as to how people found love before dating sites and social media. Was settling the norm? Or did everyone just happen to be romantically compatible with the person sitting nearest to them in class?” I asked readers to answer that question or to address whether apps are an improvement.

Jenni worries that apps are displacing all alternatives:

I’m a 25-year-old woman, currently in grad school. I feel like (or at least hope that) I’m part of a silent majority of people in my generation who hate dating apps. I find them very surface-level and honestly struggle to see myself ending up with someone I met on an app. I also think they are negatively changing the rest of the dating landscape. The dating apps have created a culture in which people seem afraid to try for an organic connection in the “real world,” as the apps provide the illusion that the other people on them are ready for a relationship (a debatable premise). I also think they reduce the possibility of organic connections. When I started my graduate school program I assumed a lot of people would be single like me and looking for like-minded people to date; instead, almost everyone in my grad school cohort is dating someone. Many of them met on an app. Am I on the apps? Yes, but only as I feel like I [don’t] have much choice.

Sharon tried online dating––perhaps in Las Vegas?––but didn’t like the outcome:

I’ve tried these dating sites, which are pig-in-a-poke and not nearly as successful as moving around in many social contexts. I once filled out a long “application” process listing every imaginable interest and preference (I’m an overeducated classical musician). I was matched with an Elvis impersonator, complete with gold chains. If you can’t do better than that unassisted, there’s something wrong with you!

Alison met her match the old-fashioned way: CompuServe.

Back in the early days of the internet, when connection was dial-up and images were limited to type on the screen, there was a company called CompuServe, which ran various discussion boards called forums (yes, I know, they couldn’t be bothered with correct Latin and call them “Fora”). In 1992 or 1993, I joined one called RockNet, where people met to discuss rock music; I made a lot of friends all over the world and, eventually, “met” Chris, a Montrealer who shared my love of Billy Bragg and the Jazz Butcher (among many others). Lo, he had a trip planned to San Francisco, where we met in person and subsequently fell in love. Fast forward to 1996, when I moved to Montreal to be with him, and we married. And now, 26 years later, we’re still together and very happy. Is this an example of “finding love through technology,” or a simple matter of luck—because certainly proximity came last, not first! Either way, an outcome to cherish.

Alex is a deeply ambivalent dating-app user searching for love and marriage:

I’m a 32-year-old man seeking women, and in one sense, dating apps have been a lifeline. I work for a tiny company with only three or four colleagues, all men, and I’ve worked from home for almost five years now, so I’m not going to meet a potential partner through work. I’m not a churchgoer, so church is out. I live in a different state from my family and my friends have moved all over the country, so personal networks aren’t too helpful either.

Dating apps are an easy, ready-made way to meet people. At the same time, I lament the void left by the continued erosion of communities. My best friend is deeply involved in a tight-knit religious community. Gossipy church ladies will play matchmaker (“He should meet your daughter! They’re about the same age!”), friends will hook each other up (“I know somebody who knows somebody who’s single!”), and relationships and marriages happen quickly. My friend met his future wife through a mutual friend, proposed six months later, and married five months after that. I peer into this world from the outside and long for it. Even if it comes with gossip, politics, and drama, I long most of all for help, for a break from shouldering the burden of searching for a partner alone.

I’ve become a fairly experienced app dater out of necessity. I applied myself and learned the necessary skills: how to take great pictures (for God’s sake, straight men, ask a woman to take your profile pictures), how to write a killer bio (for God’s sake, say what you’re looking for), and how to suss out the vibe of potential matches from texting alone. I’ve met lots of interesting women and gone on good dates. Still, all my strongest feelings have been for women I’ve met in person. There’s a chemical reaction that comes from locking eyes with someone across the room that apps just can’t replicate.

So here’s what I would say to that original Twitter poster. If they’re still in school, I would tell them that is a wonderful gift: the best chance you’ll ever have to meet people your own age. Every semester brings new classes, new people, daily face-to-face contact (pandemics notwithstanding), every opportunity in the world for sparks to fly. The search for love looks a lot different when you’re sitting in a home office seeing the same four walls every day. I view apps as a necessary evil, based on the individualistic society we have and my life circumstances, but if I could, I’d ditch them.

Jack’s HR-noncompliant advice––meet at work:

I met my wife of 20-plus years by working with her on very high-stakes company projects we both were very excited by. I don’t think there’s a better way—intense discussions, deeply motivated to come up with genius ideas. She shared all kinds of brilliant thoughts that sent me home thinking about her thoughts. I found falling in love with her easy once I had seen such smarts in action … traits that would not have come out had our experience with each other been limited to scoring concert tickets and ski-lift reservations.

Katerina met her fiancé at a singles’ mixer organized by a local church and prefers the old-fashioned approach:

We never would have matched on a dating app. Not only would we have fallen outside of each other’s age ranges (I’m 28; he’s 37), but the way we were presenting ourselves on apps wouldn’t have appealed to the other person. I had all these political and lifestyle “filters” vetting dates on categories that ultimately didn’t matter to a stable, happy relationship. I went on seven first (dating-app) dates in a row and I remember the early excitement of each match, the slow build of the “talking phase,” and then in each case the disappointment when we didn’t connect well in person. His experience was similar. The more you can personalize a dating app like you would your DoorDash order, the more likely you are to be disappointed when someone doesn’t meet every single quality you set.

I’m so glad that he and I met in real life instead. We connected in part because just being at the event meant we shared a connection to this faith community that was important to us. And the differences we had ended up being sources of balance and enrichment in the relationship. But the important part was that we got to feel a “click” or “spark” before any of those differences made us filter the other person out. Dating apps give you a false sense of control over your romantic life. It’s not “settling” to find someone who shares the priorities that matter and is willing to work through the rest! For more lasting relationships I almost feel like apps need to give people fewer options, not more.

David has met three wives online:

In the 1980s, I was a very shy young man whose nonexistent romantic life was saved by online dating. Before online dating, I had to try to discern whether or not a complete stranger had any interest in spending time with me—a terrifying guess. With online dating, you know that the person is at least interested enough to meet, or not, without suffering any real-time in-person humiliation. Virtual humiliation was easier for me to take.  

Over the past 35 years, I found three wives online, and though two of them passed away, I am very happy with my romantic experiences, and my current wife is wonderful. I did not use dating apps but online services (Match and others), and I was always looking for potential relationships, not hookups. Algorithms did not choose dates for me; I chose potential dates based on posted profiles, and potential dates accepted or rejected me based on my posted profile. Sure, some profiles were more accurate than others, and I had my share of “bad dates,” but I typically arranged for a good meal so, at a minimum, both of us ate well even if we did not hit it off. I tried to set a high floor. I think that if one is patient, realistic, and honest, online-dating services can work well.

However, in older age groups, they tend to favor men over women because there are fewer older men. Great for men, but it can be tough for divorcées and widows of a certain age.  

As I am not perfect, I did not seek perfection but someone at my level (or just slightly above) with compatible values—honesty, kindness, empathy, independence, and resilience are way up there for me. I suspect that knowing what works for you, and being realistic about your appeal, and lack thereof, really improves one’s odds. What some may deem “settling” I see as retaining some humility and some semblance of objectivity. There are a lot of wonderful people out there who were not prom queens, valedictorians, heiresses, Nobel Prize winners, etc. I do not believe that partners often fix or save each other, but they can complement each other. I feel incredibly lucky to have found my current wife, and we would not have found each other without online dating.

Ben believes that a dating app for Mormons has given him insights into dating apps more generally:

I’m a member of a minority religious community (the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, also called LDS or Mormon), and some enterprising member of the church has created an LDS-specific dating app called Mutual to help members of the church meet up. The app is fairly widespread among young LDS people, and because of the unique cultural/religious aspects of its users, it avoids the most egregious problems with other dating apps. For one, it doesn't mix those looking for casual sex and those looking for longer-term relationships, since it is widely understood that members of the church don’t (for the most part) sleep together before marriage. Secondly, based on talking to women who use the app, dick pics are almost nonexistent.

It would seem that, with some of the worst sexual aggression, misbehavior, and manipulation eliminated, this app would lead to better outcomes, successful relationships, and more perfect power couples, right? And yet, every time I talk to someone who uses the app, the strongest positive reaction I can get is a “Meh,” or possibly “It's fun to go on and see who is there.” More often, the reaction is “I’ve felt better ever since I stopped using it.” Even in a community with clearer expectations around dating, a slower pace when it comes to sexual relations, and norms protecting against the worst misbehavior, these apps still don’t work well, because they encourage participants to dehumanize each other and themselves, to evaluate artificial performances of attractiveness and to put on one of their own. Apps perpetuate the myth that attraction is something that exists, that you either have it toward someone or you don’t, when in reality, attraction tends to build (or diminish) as you get to know someone.

In fact, the advantage of marrying a classmate, or a cousin’s friend, or someone from your old congregation is that you have an accurate picture of who they are, which you can evaluate in addition to physical and social aspects. In short, apps are wrong from the beginning about the way that good romances form for most people, and eliminating some of their worst aspects (whether that be sexual aggression or ghosting) won’t fix the fact that their solution doesn’t fix the underlying problem. Some people get lucky, and a broken tool still works for them, but by and large, people end up feeling more isolated.

Apps misapprehend the true bottlenecks that keep more people from finding partners. Seeing a sufficient number of attractive people is not the limiting factor in most people’s lives. Ironically, I think the original poster is correct, in that most marriages from “the old days” involved settling. But I also think that’s the right way to form a relationship; everyone settles for their partner, and everyone’s partner settles for them. There’s no such thing as a ready-made “soul mate” (if you get a soul mate, it is only through years of working on each other’s flaws and learning to appreciate each other more), and searching for one wastes time you could spend learning the hard work of loving another person and changing your life and personality to serve them, while they do the same for you.

M. is a 73-year-old woman. There was a time when apps might have helped her. She writes:

I got pregnant at 18. Was I in love? No. Did I opt to keep the baby? Yes. I decided to do it on my own. 1968. But my parents forced a marriage on me. We divorced three years later (he left me).

I was left penniless with a 3-year-old. It took a while to figure [out] my way forward. It took 12 years to find the man I wanted to be with through mutual friends. We have been happily married for 40 years. Would I have had better luck with a dating app? Over those 12 years, I suspect so.

Glenn is suspicious of modern love:

We live today with the romantic myth that love is some kind of wonderful and/or awful disease that we may or may not catch, and may or may not get over. What we fall into we can very easily fall out of. It happens to us, or does not happen to us, and we have very little say. This is the stuff of every cheap romance novel, movie, poem, love song, and Hallmark card. It is the modern version of the old pagan myth of Cupid hunting us down and inflicting us with uncontrolled destiny. It is strange that in such a modern, prosaic world we take such an ancient and poetic, even magical, view of our emotional lives. I will doubtless be cast aside as an unromantic clod for saying so, but here goes: Love is not a feeling that leads to a commitment. Love is a commitment that leads to a feeling! The emotional ties follow the commitment. The commitment does not follow the emotions. Our first inclination is to rebel against such a view. It certainly won’t be the plot line of our pop culture’s next great rom-com. But how else are we to explain the endless long succession of unfulfilled and unfulfilling relationships that litter our cultural landscape today? The high divorce rate? The unending series of deeply important obsessive relationships, until they turn out not to be so important after all as soon as we are distracted by the potential of something new and mysterious and other?

He counsels putting our trust in God and man:

Jesus commanded us to love one another. He was not asking us to conjure up some emotion out of thin air. He was commanding us to commit to one another. I don’t always feel in love, especially when last night’s dinner sits heavy on my stomach. We humans can often fool ourselves into equating lust with love, or atmosphere with emotion, or mere physical attraction with true spiritual virtue. Feelings are ephemeral, fleeting, and fickle things. My commitments are a much more substantial and ultimately sustaining bond than my emotions. My commitments are a truer and more lasting expression of my inner self. My emotions may lie to me; my commitments never do. I [have been] faithfully committed to the love of my life for 30 years now, and it feels great!

Dan wonders if Stephen Stills didn’t have it right:

In hindsight, I did settle. My ex-wife would say the same. We “settled” with each other, mostly because we both were young and insecure. But several fine children and grandchildren came out of our relationship. Settling wasn’t so unsettling after all. Perhaps we would have done better by committing to settling more; you know, “Love the one you’re with”?

Leila believes apps have been especially beneficial to queer people:

I’ve dated online and offline, in queer circles and straight ones. My biggest takeaway is that online dating is a reflection of my generation rather than a root cause of its problems. It’s harder for queer people to date offline. Approaching a stranger of the same sex in a coffee shop is outright dangerous in most parts of the world (and many parts of North America). Even if you’re not surrounded by homophobia, the numbers are against you—there are fewer gay people in the world than straight ones. As a result, queer people looking to date have three options: Move to a city, date a friend, or turn to an app.

I was lucky to grow up in a diverse city. Since it’s always been obvious that I’m attracted to women, I had no trouble finding queer communities in my teens. I met people at parties and picnics. With real-life dating, you get to learn your partner’s coffee order and the sound of their laugh, to experience a period of human intimacy even if you never end up having sex. Getting to know a potential partner as a person rather than a profile is rewarding. Scrolling through an app feels like a chore or a bad habit.

But apps can be useful if they can facilitate real-life connections. In the early days of the pandemic, I went out with a girl I met on Tinder. We planned outdoor dates for each other and talked about our lives. Getting to know someone far away from my social circle was refreshing. Other than the fact that our first conversation took place through a screen, the experience felt a lot like real life. Real-life connections, however, can have disastrous consequences. Falling in love with my high-school best friend was the most painful experience of my life. Losing a friend feels a lot worse than getting ghosted, so I can understand why many are eager to avoid dating people they know in the flesh.

Errol hates the turn toward apps:

Why do people seem more afraid of the person they meet at the grocery store than the guy who they matched with who wants to go on a hike outside the city? I’m retired from dating because of the unwritten rule that apps are the only way to meet people. Apps encourage you to view yourself as a product, and to make that product as appealing as possible. I’m pro-capitalism. But I have my limits when it comes to personal interactions. I love the apps for those who have trouble connecting to strangers, but let the outgoing go out.

Liam recounts his Irish youth:

I am 62 and grew up in Dublin when even phone landlines were not ubiquitous. To meet, you had to go to places where there were people, e.g., pubs, parties, other people’s houses, dances. You had to actually talk to people and deal with possible rejection. You had to learn to be charming, or at least interesting. You ended up meeting a lot of annoying people that you disagreed with. Some became close friends or lovers.

My secondary school and university were full of thriving clubs where people pretended to be interested in topics or activities so they could meet people. It wasn’t easy to get laid (or “hook up,” as younger people call it) which wasn’t helped by the fact that Ireland then was still very Catholic. But we did get laid. I never used a dating app (if I was single I would use it in a heartbeat), but getting to know people by chatting them up, then slowly falling in love, is not a bad way to spend one’s time. It is also a way to find out more about yourself. I suspect that it is a better way to find one’s soulmate than an algorithm.

Karen’s marriage wasn’t great, “but it was a durable one that survived across time and trouble,” and she doubts that she would have been better off in the app era:

A dating app is an illusion machine, or maybe a delusion machine. The fantasy is that there are always more possibilities out there, available to you with no more effort than brushing right or left. As long as you search online, you needn’t worry that you are seldom presentable. You can slide right past the person who failed to list similar interests. Disappointments are mostly quick and private. There’s no opportunity for chemistry until the brief encounter where you fail to find it. Strangers add up as though you’re working on some demented survey of the opposite sex. It’s always been hard to meet someone, especially after college, in a new town, at a new job or even an old one. The pool isn’t infinite; time isn’t either. Marriages are not statistical matchups made by cupid programmers. You choose a mate and then you have a marriage to work at, however you found the match.

Russ counsels meeting people in person and focusing on their best qualities:

I am a 62-year-old male, with vast experience dating literally hundreds of individuals. My worst two dates were women I met online. Scary even. I never wanted that third strike. But as to how to meet potential mates (or hookups): Obviously, get out of the house, and less obviously, perhaps, put your phone down and leave it down. If you see someone who intrigues you, determine right away whether they are appealing to your heart or your loins. Honesty is key to any good relationship and starts with being honest with yourself. Follow that with introducing yourself. Don’t use pickup lines; just be real. If you introduce yourself it is generally assumed there is some level or type of attraction. And finally, don’t be a snob. No one is perfect, so do not ignore warning bells, but try to view the person in favorable lights. Generally speaking, everybody has some good qualities.

I have a score of long-term relationships (more than one year); some were tall, some were short, some skinny, most chubby. Some were smart, some were very nice, some were Black, and some were white. But we seemed to always be compatible for a period of time; in love, even. Hundreds were just about the sex, and that worked both ways. But I have no experience or advice on how to maintain that for years without end.

Angelle’s story appears to have a happy ending:

I am female but my observation is that online dating works far better for us than for men. Men are still mostly the pursuers, and most still prefer to do the choosing. I am not afraid to ask for the first date, but it wasn’t often well received. Women get so many more contacts usually than men do. Especially the women who are the most attractive. I got enough interest to keep me busy, but those women could get 1,000 messages a day; they have a lot of choices. Men who are not in the same stratosphere have trouble getting responses; they get depressed and then some get angry and bitter.

A con, at least for me as a somewhat traditional woman, was the amount of unsolicited  body-part pix I got and the number of men looking for “intimate encounters,” who didn’t understand the phrase not interested. I actually experienced one attempted physical assault I didn’t see coming, on a first date; a verbal attack in public; and a few [instances of] getting stood up. Had I met these men in person, I think I would have picked up on this kind of thing right away.

I was on online-dating services (before smartphones) for about seven years. I had a lot of first dates and met a lot of nice guys. But I only ever had a few short-term relationships (a month or two) and one that lasted a year. I started the online-dating thing because there are just not many places where I am to meet men. Not going to hang out at bars … lol. I am still single, but I have met someone by chance through looking for a job after I lost mine because of COVID. This never used to happen, and now it has.

I am tickled because I think I may have finally found the right guy. We have taken time to get to know each other and have become really good friends, something I think should be the first part. Many from the dating site were in a big hurry to get to the end. Whichever end they wanted. I don’t believe in fate, but it seems the universe is on my side for once.

Marek recommends seeing how a potential partner handles the possibility of shipwreck:

I went on a two-week trip on a three-masted sailing ship, where we worked as unpaid crew. The woman I met there had much in common by virtue of also going (single and without knowing anyone) on the same trip. We’ve been happily married for 28 years. Seeking out an arena that reflects you is a good way of filtering potential partners. It’s also easier to bluff online than out on a yardarm in a storm. The latter provides true insight. My sympathy to young people. While their choices seem freer, they are that much harder to navigate.

And Earl, who also went to sea, shares the story of his romantic life:

In 1960, a fellow freshman at Tulane introduced me to his sister, a high-school student. Janet was intelligent, inquisitive, lively, and fond of literature. We became friends, occasionally having a date. By the time I graduated in 1963, she was at Tulane, and we were an inchoate version of a couple. She was at my side when I was commissioned from NROTC as an ensign, U.S. Navy. I left for sea duty and a career in the Navy. We promised to “keep in touch.” There was a sense of commitment, very soft, and not just a farewell phrase.

Keeping in touch from a ship in the mid-1960s was done by letters, handwritten or typed on my portable Smith Corona typewriter that I couldn’t use in heavy weather unless I tied it down. We wrote several times a month as I told her about Hawaii, Japan, the Philippines, and Hong Kong. I would not be home for a year. We reconnected then, sensed the connection was stronger, but knew that her commitment to education and mine to the Navy precluded personal plans. I had three more years of obligated service.

In June 1965, I left the war zone in the South China Sea and came home for a couple of weeks. The brother who had introduced us was well into medical school, and Janet was determined to follow. Medical school and sea duty were not conducive to any romantic commitment. We kept together with more letters and, while in port, lots of quarters fed into pay telephones. At Christmas 1965, I was able to get home for a couple of weeks, but in 1966 the ship’s schedule became more intense. I was spending a lot of time at sea, usually three weeks or more at a time. I would not be able to come home for summer leave. Besides, Janet was taking a course at the University of Minnesota to ensure that she would be accepted into her second year of medical school.

In the summer of 1966, amid a huge airline strike, I was able to get away for a few days, flying from Charleston to Minneapolis with the aid of my summer-white uniform and sympathetic airline people. Those few days taught us that, whether we wanted to admit it or not, we belonged together. Back at sea I decided it was time to change my life. I resolved to apply to law school and to resign my commission when my obligation expired. In March 1968 we were married after eight years of what used to be called “courtship.” She was between her second and third years of medical school; I was a freshman in law school. We both graduated in June 1970 and became an oddity for those times, a doctor-lawyer marriage in which the doctor was female. Three sons and five grandchildren followed. Despite being a physician and many visits to MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Janet died in January 2017, leaving me with many exciting memories.

Thank you to everyone who shared your stories, and may you all find (or keep) love.