Sometimes it’s hard to remember how single people met each other pre-Tinder. Did we go to bars? Just bang our friends who lingered too long at the house party? It’s amazing how quickly we’ve adapted to swiping through thousands of potential partners while half-watching reruns of Friends. And although I’ve never talked to a woman who didn’t have complicated feelings about dating apps (as a single woman myself, whether I love or loathe Tinder changes every time I open it), there’s been very little research into the wider effects of mobile dating. So Glamour surveyed 1,000 women and talked to experts to find out if apps really have changed how we date. The answer is yes – and more profoundly than we realised…
Asking for a little help finding a partner is hardly new – where would Patti Stanger of The Millionaire Matchmaker fame be if people didn’t need expert advice? What Tinder changed (racking up 1.4 billion swipes a day, more than any other platform) was that it never actually said it was a dating app. “It killed the stigma of online dating by not being about online dating,” says Steve Dean, founder of Dateworking, a consulting company for individual online daters and dating sites.
Before Tinder, dating sites specialised in a desired level of commitment – a casual hook-up, an actual relationship, marriage. But the app caught on because it made it OK to not know exactly what you were seeking. “Tinder says, ‘Do whatever the hell you want; we’re just going to show you people who are nearby and likely to start talking to you,’” says Steve.
In that way, it mimics how people meet in real life. Tinder’s lack of endgame fosters a culture in which a woman can be adventurous in any way she chooses. If you discover through Tinder that – oh, snap! – you’re actually a unicorn and want to only have sex with couples (it’s a thing all right), you can then go to a more specialised app, such as Feeld, to meet them. Or if you just want a friend (straight up, no dick-pics), BumbleBFF may be for you. And you can always sign up for Coffee Meets Bagel or eHarmony if you’re hoping for a relationship. It can work: more than 30% of women who use apps in our survey said they found a serious partner on them; 12% married their match.
Of course, the number-one change the apps have brought about is the ability to access millions of single people at warp speed, at any time, wherever we are. That’s how I started going out with a guy I matched with when my uncle’s Christmas toast ran on too long (admit it, you’ve swiped under the table, too). The upside of all these instant options is that we waste less time on relationships that go nowhere, and we’re less likely to settle. We can set up five dates in a night if we want (though, frankly, that sounds exhausting), which means we’re increasing the odds that we meet the right person just by playing it like a numbers game.
The downside to all that efficiency? It kind of is a numbers game. “It becomes like an addiction to novelty without substance,” says Steve. “When you get a match with someone, it gives you a boost of dopamine, and you think, there’s no cost to continuing to play. The dating app knows this, and it’s exploiting the reward pathways to make sure that we’re always coming back.” For example, two options show up when you get a Tinder match: one to talk to the person you matched with (intimidating) and one to continue swiping (comforting and low-commitment). I know which one I choose.
While this insane efficiency can get us more dates, some experts worry that it’s not making us better daters. Let’s put it this way: if dating is like fishing off the side of a ship, then mobile dating is like fishing from a glass-bottomed boat. Since you’re now keenly aware of how many fish are swimming around at any given time, why wouldn’t you (or the person you’re dating) try casting for more than one? And what do you do when you catch something? You’re less likely to invest the energy working through problems when there are all those other, ahem, fish in the sea.
Remember that episode of Sex And The City in which Berger breaks up with Carrie via a Post-it note? At the time he was a raging asshole, but in today’s dating world that seems downright chivalrous. Now you could have a perfectly good date and then the person just disappears, like in The Leftovers. But ironically, experts suggest all that ghosting could actually be making us stronger. “When you’re afraid of spiders and you expose yourself to them, after a while they hold less meaning for you,” says therapist Lia Avellino. “[Being ghosted] could be building up our resilience and helping us let go more easily.” All those break-ups and blow-offs? They’re basically like exposure therapy, but for rejection.
Of course, dating will always be as complicated as a swipe is simple. But apps have “definitely created more space for women to sprawl out and explore”, says Avellino. And knowing what we want can make us happier when we do find a partner – or partners, if that’s what you’re into.
Tinder, Bumble, Hinge – are these apps making us better at dating, or worse? We asked 1,000 women, aged 18-44*
The most common reasons users say they log on:
Some people do find love. While 32% of those who have used an app say they’ve never actually gone on to meet someone from one of those platforms IRL, many others do make connections:
Survey conducted by US Glamour