The future of dating apps looks even more complicated
At the beginning of the digital era, there was Match, eHarmony, and OkCupid. Before that, there were VHS tapes, newspaper classifieds, and community get-togethers. Dating is as old as humans, but tech companies are constantly trying to make it something fresh.
Tinder was the first mainstream tool packaged as an app and was started in 2013 by Sean Rad and Justin Mateen. In its early years, it was mainly used by 18- to 24-year-olds, a group that’s now in their 30s and that has been accused of being addicted to the app.
Bloomberg estimated Tinder’s value at $5 billion in 2014, prompting its parent company to put out a statement saying the valuation was nowhere near the truth. The report spoke to the mysticism and energy around the tech company and disruption-based dating apps in general: there was a hungry user base interested in gamifying their romantic lives and money to be made.
By 2016, former CEO Greg Blatt would state that the company’s valuation was $12 billion, only to suggest it was worth $3 billion in 2017—a move considered by employees to cheat them out of compensation through stock options. Tinder is now doing better financially than other tech companies but is still forecasting stagnant growth. Tinder’s fluctuating public image speaks to a fraught relationship between dating apps and their users: when people know they are fodder for companies to earn money, do they trust the apps they’re using?
Simplicity was meant to streamline dating. Like scouring a traditional dating scene, maybe a bar or nightclub, Tinder allows users to instantly decide “yes” or “no” based on a quick glance at someone.
After they found success in the market, competitors cropped up, often with their own unique twist.
Bumble offered a stronger focus on women, allowing them to start conversations with a match to reduce spamming by men. Hinge billed itself as a professional class app, using network connections to connect people. The League frames itself in a classically capitalist fashion: people who dominate and stand out above the crowd will get accepted, suggesting that they are elite and their dating options are other members of the elite class. Feeld offers a kink- and queer-friendly, often non-monogamous culture for users, ensuring a crowd sick of judgment toward sex-positivity can find like-minded people.
Niche sites like this are so ubiquitous it’s a cliche. Jdate and JSwipe for Jewish daters. Christian Mingle. FarmersOnly. Biker Planet for motorcyclists. Military Cupid.
Online dating goes back way before apps, though, and digital connections precede and will outlive any company. People will fall in love however they make a connection. In the digital world, that can mean meeting through gaming, classified ads, Zoom meetings, and more. The only real difference with dating apps is that it’s a setting specifically designed to make romantic connections.
All of this has captured the public’s imagination in the past three decades. From “You’ve Got Mail” and “Sleepless in Seattle” to countless sitcom stories and Hallmark films, online dating has become both normalized and a joke. And younger generations are carving out their own path.
Part of what’s important here is user interest. Tech companies for years have treated data as more important than human interest in their programs. Information and numbers are mined and sold to third parties. After all, tech platforms that fill some basic need—searching, for example, or dating—don’t make money on their own. Numbers do. Algorithms can predict behavior, so in business circles, tech companies frame their utility around the power of their algorithm rather than the experience of their users.
Young people, in particular, appear to be aware of this—and uninterested. Pew Research Center found in 2020 that while 30 percent of US adults said they had used online dating platforms, many young women felt harassed from their experiences online. YouTubers Sabrina Cruz, Taha Khan, and Melissa Fernandes—through their channel Answer in Progress—explored this dynamic in a 2021 video about why young people don’t use dating apps.
The future of dating looks wide open enough to include all interests. For some people, that might mean deeply social over digital experiences. For others, it might mean finding community interests, like VR dating through anime-style avatars or the metaverse. It might mean trusting AI so much that you allow an algorithm to find a match for you without even swiping.
They highlighted an aspect of online dating that aware, digitally literate generations feel instinctively: there’s something unhealthy about the kind of relationships these apps are building. Interviewing the young app creators behind Monet, a doodling-based dating and friendship app that ended its service in 2022, they found that young people were skeptical of mainstream apps.
The Answer in Progress team created a dating simulation to explore how too many options can lead to a new problem. “How are we going to solve the choice overload problem?” Cruz asked. She designed and coded a game that would provide various endings for different players in an effort to figure out what would be a more fulfilling experience.
The finding for the YouTubers was that dating options are incredibly personal. Streamlined, uniform choice mechanics meant everyone was being forced into a similar dating style. “You can define your own framework based off things that you care about,” Cruz told her audience. “You need to dedicate some time to understand what you care about and define a framework that works for you.”
Stop swiping endlessly and try to focus on figuring out what you want in dating experiences, Cruz said. And if it’s still tough, that’s partly due to the fact that “dating itself kinda sucks.”
Some of these findings help illustrate what researchers have found. As labels and mainstream sexual identities have eroded into more of a spectrum and dating practices have evolved to normalize polyamory, asexuality, and more, dating apps try to maintain relevance but also require a bit of rebranding to keep their widespread appeal.
Instead, the future of dating looks wide open enough to include all interests. For some people, that might mean deeply social over digital experiences. For others, it might mean finding community interests, like VR dating through anime-style avatars or the metaverse. It might mean trusting AI so much that you allow an algorithm to find a match for you without even swiping.
Many of these predictions for the future are built around digital connectivity, which allows for wide-open user experiences and exploration. But in the end, they always come down to personal, non-digital connections. And as vivid as the digital world can be, users also have to contend with the potential for loneliness that creeps in.
Sherry Turkle, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor of social studies and tech, has argued for more than a decade that increased connectivity has an ironic effect on users. “Getting that text was like getting a hug,” she told a TED audience in Long Beach, California, in 2012. She was there to summarize the findings of her book, “Alone Together.” “I’m a woman who loves getting texts who’s going to tell you that too many of them can be a problem.”
People want to be together, she explained, but also from a distance. They want to customize their lives and go in and out of all the places they interact with. “Technology appeals to us most where we are most vulnerable,” she said. “We’re lonely, but we’re afraid of intimacy.”
In the years since, studies have shown mixed findings on the role of loneliness as a result of connectivity. One 2014 study by sociologist and internet researcher Zeynep Tufekci found that it might be more nuanced than a paradigm of creating loneliness or not. She argued that studies had found social media reduced loneliness but at the cost of creating new digital winners and losers within society and eroding the boundaries between our professional and personal lives
These disparate instances form a scene of constant change in the digital world, which reflects a societal shift around dating and culture and the power imbalances within relationships. As dating apps expand and change, they will have to reflect these disparate mindsets on dating. It’s clearer than ever that no one size fits all romantically, meaning that even apps that appeal to the broadest possible user base may struggle to meet their users’ needs.