There are many different things that flicker across my friends’ faces when someone asks them about dating apps. For some, it’s the thousand-yard stare of a person who’s seen things they’re not prepared to talk about. For others, it’s the rictus grin of faux optimism in the face of terror. And, for others still, it’s the split-second flinch-grimace of someone whose boss just asked about a project they can’t admit is going poorly.
Tinder and its swipe-centric copycats have transformed modern dating. They’ve also brought with them certain widely acknowledged problems: For one thing, they’ve made it difficult to include a full set of the most basic personal information, like the type of relationship you’re looking for (a problem that’s even more pronounced for queer and gender nonconforming users of mainstream apps). The less information available at the outset, the more work that needs to be done in each individual interaction, lest you accidentally commit a Wednesday evening to a nerd who wants to tell you about his ethically nonmonogamous lifestyle, or — worse — someone who does improv.
Now that swipe apps have become the norm, though, there’s an enormous opportunity for something to come along and improve on them. By all indications, we have reached Peak Swipe. The question now: What comes after Tinder? And what are we all doing in the meantime?
For a long time, my personal work-around was to use OkCupid, which was what people in their 20s in New York used when I moved here in the Dark Ages before Tinder was a thing. That worked for a while, but now that OkCupid’s once web-centric experience has shifted to emphasize the service’s app, complete with a prominently featured swiping structure, it’s basically just Tinder for people who want room to write several long-winded profile paragraphs about their sapiosexuality. And the same sorts of behavior that run rampant on Tinder and its imitators — the single-word “hey” introduction, the assumption that users should want to meet up very quickly after exchanging only a few texts — have metastasized into mainstays of dating in general. Last summer, I deleted my OkCupid profile for what I’m assuming will be the last time.
Talking to women in their 20s and 30s about the ways they avoid swipe burnout (or at least make swiping more pleasant), almost all of them said basically the same thing as Serena, 34: “I can only stand dating apps at this point because I delete them frequently. It feels less like a full-time job that way.” She was contemplating joining Match.com, one of the oldest and most traditional dating sites, in hopes that it might mean sifting through fewer profiles in search of decent, mature people looking to go on real dates.
Eliza, 29, said she’d mostly abandoned using swipe apps for their intended purpose. “Tinder transitioned from being a thing where I actually wanted to meet people to being, ‘I’m bored, tell me I’m pretty,’” she said. “I don’t really meet people on it anymore.” At a certain point, the apps themselves had come to feel like a source of entertainment, even if the notion of meeting any of the men on them began to feel increasingly absurd. Kelly, 27, said she was trying to find potential partners the old-fashioned way. “I’ve started asking my friends to set me up with men from work or whatever, at least to have some information beyond a few pictures and a one-liner profile joke.” Her results, though, have been mixed: “There was a guy who sells merch at EDM festivals who I went out with because a friend recommended him. I never would have on a dating app, and that would have been the correct choice.”
Several months ago, one of Tinder’s more notable competitors, Hinge, announced it would be completely rebuilding its app to abandon swiping and focus instead on fomenting more serious connections between users. The app’s makers seem to have come to the realistic conclusion that no one is going to beat Tinder at its own game, so it might be time to do something else. For the women I talked to, though, the biggest area of potential improvement wasn’t an emphasis on serious connection — after all, women like sex, too. Instead, the emphasis was on effective use of their time. Swipe apps display a range of matches efficiently, but as Julie Beck found when writing about the topic at the Atlantic, “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.”
Services as disparate as OkCupid and eHarmony try to help guide users toward the most appropriate matches using algorithms. But why should algorithms know best? My friend Jenny, 35, who started using Tinder this year after ending her marriage, spotted the problem immediately. “We’re attempting a rational, data-driven approach to something that is fundamentally weird and sometimes inexplicable,” she told me. “We thought nerds could help us fuck and it turns out that notion has some problems.”
With so many tricky things to consider — problems with user bases, discovery, and the assumptions made by the people creating apps, as well as the fickle, vague nature of human attraction — what if there can’t actually be an app for that? Or maybe not just for that? Most of the friends I polled who were active Twitter users mentioned it as the app where they had had the most success meeting potential partners, and I know at least one person who eschews dating apps entirely because her DMs have been so fruitful. In a way, that makes sense: Twitter mimics traditional social interaction in that you can find new people via friends and observe their personalities and senses of humor over time before feeling compelled to proposition them for a date.
Among lighter social-media users, the biggest potential seems to lie in finding a way to meet people in person in greater volume, and without the one-on-one formality and investment of a date. Being — yes — physically present with someone has its perks. It allows attraction to bubble up with people whose photos may not move your needle in passing, as Serena pointed out. With dating apps, “You don’t get the surprise of meeting someone and experiencing them with curiosity.” Tinder seems to have detected this latent desire in its users as well. At the moment, the app is trying to meet their desires with a feature called Tinder Social, which allows small groups of friends to match and meet up. Mostly, though, that just seems like a way to confirm your suspicions about who is the most attractive person in your immediate social circle. The apps need to think bigger.
Eliza predicts that the best clues to the future of online dating can actually be found in the past: “Honestly, I think we’ll swing the other way. Not even back to how our parents met, but before that — mixers and dances and shit.” Many of the women I spoke to seemed to be interested in something similar to that — a tech setup for meeting people in a bar or at a party, basically. It would take some alchemy for those larger meetups (Eliza offered that one template might be “field day, but for grown-ups”) to seem cool instead of desperate.
But that was once a problem for online dating as a whole, too. And, if the potential rewards look like they outweigh the ignominy of participation, it’s a problem that can be overcome.