At happy hour, he steps to the bar for a tequila and Tecate drink special. He’s surrounded by women, but pretends not to notice them. He wouldn’t want to offend anyone with unwelcome advances; it’s Brooklyn, after all, yet another excuse for his dwindling sex life. He’s swamped at work. None of his friends are single. He’s more creative alone. He can do without the drama. She’s too basic. Sex will come to me. Masturbation is fun. Plus, it’s cuffing season. Everyone is taken. Boom. His empty shot glass hits the bar and he moves to the outdoor patio. He lights up a smoke, siphoning through Instagram while sporadically swiping right. Ding! It’s a match. But he can’t think of a creative way to open the convo.
It wasn’t always like this. Back in high school, he was a free-spirited, somewhat offbeat kid who could hang with the popular crowd. The girls liked him; he was different than the bros. By fifteen, he lost his virginity, and by college, after a year of random hookups and $11 plastic handles of vodka, he fell into a relationship that almost made it a year. In fact, all of his relationships almost made it a year. Now he’s living in New York very successfully for his age. He’s following his dreams. Alone. And he can’t figure out how the fuck to start this Tinder chat.
Ding! “Hey, how’s your weekend going?” She messaged him first.
It’s been a while since she’s had a boyfriend. After she landed her dream job last year, her life has been consumed by meetings, events, and keeping up with her Instagram following. Even her subway rides, which were once a tech-free escape, are brimming with Slack notifications. Thanks a lot, G Train, and to whoever brought cell reception underground.
But tonight, she’s going out. It’s only Thursday, and she hasn’t seen her girlfriends in forever. Between her schedule, and their boyfriends, they’ve grown apart in recent weeks. Tonight will be different, though. They’ll smoke cigarettes, reminisce about college, and talk shit about Donald Trump. Maybe she’ll even get laid, or worse: meet someone she likes. Ugh.
At the bar, she orders a Lagunitas—her favorite. There are guys everywhere, but none of them seem interested. She takes a seat. As she waits for her drink, she asks the dude beside her to watch her coat while she pees. He nods, politely. He doesn’t seem to get it. So she swipes right. Ding! Almost instantly, it’s a match.
The advent of dating apps has drastically changed the narrative of modern romance. Gone are the days where real life courtship is needed to find a partner. Now, with apps like Tinder, Bumble, Grindr, Hinge, The League, and dozens more, a potential match is, quite literally, a swipe away. More than ever before, technology promises efficiency and accessibility, no matter your appearance, gender or sex. But some believe the convergence of dating and technology has distracted us from human connection—that the rise of mobile dating is pulling us further from meaningful relationships, and closer to instant gratification and superficial validation.
It all truly started in 1995 with the launch of Match.com. Originally created as a theory that aimed to provide classified advertising systems for newspapers, in about one year the site had over 100,000 registrations. By 1997, according to a 2013 company blog entry, 150 couples had married after meeting through the platform. Fast forward a decade to the 2008 stock market crash, and its membership grew exponentially (go figure, right?). Then, in 2011, Match purchased OKCupid for $50 million, which, unlike its predecessor, offered free services and supported itself through advertising. It also appealed more widely to younger singles.
That’s when things really took off. In 2012, the Tinder app launched, bringing online dating to mobile. As one of the first “swiping” apps in history, Tinder saw about 1 billion swipes and produced 12 million matches a day by the end of 2014. It is also important to note that Tinder was created by Hatch Apps, which operates within internet and media giant IAC, the same company that owns Match.
Today, it’s reported that Tinder sees an estimated 50 million users with 1.4 billion daily swipes. Even more, a handful of alternative dating apps have emerged, each promoting a definitive feature, message or quirk. On Bumble, women make the first move. Hinge is for serious, “authentic” relationships. The League offers exclusive and “intelligent” dating. Grindr is geared toward gay and bisexual men. Happn matches you with people you’ve crossed-paths with in real life. DOWN lets users indicate if they’re looking for a date or simply ‘down’ to fuck. And this only scratches the surface of the digital dating craze that continues to grow as technology becomes more universal.
And yet, despite the numbers and its viable stake in the tech industry, young people are failing to find success through digital dating. In fact, a lot of them are turned off by it. Many find it time-consuming, one-dimensional, and complain that they rarely get matches; or that when they do, it seldom amounts to an actual date, hookup or relationship.
This begs the question of whether digital dating is merely a trend or here to stay? Has it truly revolutionized the dating world? And if so, what does this say about us as a culture and society?
Although the match came quickly, it took almost a week of scattered communication before they met in person. Neither wanted to come off as desperate, and secretly, a fleeting hookup wasn’t their intent. Both in their mid-20s, the result was always the same: straightforward drunk sex, awkward cuddling, and a graceless farewell before returning to their lives, hopeful that they would never again run into that person at any of the four Brooklyn bars they frequent regularly.
But by the time they met for real, they already knew each other. Although their text conversation was casual at best, their dating app profiles linked to a social media account, which linked to other social media accounts, making it possible to explore each other’s work, friends, family, interests, and more. But in person they would play it cool. After all, internet stalking is creepy.
Yet it’s not to say this immediate access to a person’s personal life is necessarily a bad thing. One dating app user, for example, who we’ll call Blake, is a 23-year-old who identifies as non-binary, and doesn’t date people based on gender. By day, Blake’s a nanny, and by night, a comedian. They live in a busy part of Manhattan, and can be spotted on an uptown train to the Upright Citizens Brigade. Between the hustle and bustle of trying to make it NYC, Blake finds themself on Tinder.
“I prefer to date someone ‘in between’… like androgynous people, queer people, people who are non-binary in preference. But it’s really hard to find those people, which is why I started using Tinder in the first place,” said Blake. “I know the specific type of person I’m looking for and dating apps increase my odds of finding that person.”
Blake isn’t the only one who feels this way. Another user, who we’ll call Paul, is a gay man who enjoys dating apps because he can connect with people without any awkwardness.
“When you’re LGBT, the biggest thing is finding people who are like you,” Paul said. “I’ve seen people I know on apps that I didn’t even realize are gay. Had I known, I would’ve done something about that, but I had no idea.”
Like Blake, Tinder is also his most used app, which he uses for both dating and occasional hook ups. “There’s no way to classify traditional dating anymore,” he said. “Especially when you’re part of the LGBT community because sometimes it’s hard to pick up on who’s here for you and who’s not. When you don’t have any sense of who’s available, how would you even know to make a move in the first place?”
Happy Hour Drinks
Their first date started slow. The occasional pause in conversation gave way to fast scrolls through Instagram and replies to work e-mails that could’ve waited until morning. He was attracted to her, and she could tell he was kind-hearted; maybe a little shy, but passionate. By their third round of drinks, they got comfortable. He made her laugh—she thought his dad jokes were adorable. Beers turned into shots, and shots into beer shots. He asked her for a cigarette. And as they huffed down nicotine in the cold, he felt her hand rub against his.
Then came the pivotal hour that always arises from work-night drinks: when you must choose between an Uber home or plunging into a shadowy night of finding the answers to the life problems you’ll forget by morning. But in the end, it all comes down to the next day—you check your calendars for meetings, considering the outcome of showing up late to work with dark circles under your eyes that only you can see.
He takes out his phone to order an Uber. He doesn’t want to seem too nefarious.
The date was going better than expected. As the night progressed, reservations about meeting on an app vanished. Whether this was just an encounter or something more, the connection sparked and the rest seemed irrelevant.
Similarly, Blake’s first Tinder date was a thing out of quirky romance novels. They met at a feminist bookstore on the Lower East Side that was serendipitously hosting an erotica reading; their date would lean in to whisper funny interjections between mentions of labia. They escaped for dinner and ice cream, and ended it where they first locked eyes: the park. The date, according to Blake, lasted for 12 hours. This reaffirmed Blake’s decision to take dating to the internet.
For Paul, however, his first Tinder date wasn’t so successful. He had recently come out to his family and wanted to put himself out there, so he started swiping.
He matched with a guy from Long Island, where he grew up, who also went to the same college. They had mutual friends and both studied theater. It seemed like the perfect match, so they met for dinner in Times Square.
But something seemed off, and Paul had a sinking feeling—his date reminded him of a person he disliked from high school. Eventually, Paul cut ties with him, despite his insistence on keeping the relationship moving. “He seemed a little obsessive to the point where I became very uncomfortable,” Paul said.
Since this first date, Paul says that’s generally how things have gone: he meets up with a guy, which either ends as a date or one-time hookup. “There’s a learning curve to dating apps,” he added, “and there are definitely ways to play the game that you learn over time.”
Additional reporting by: Robin De Clercq, Ana Borruto, Michelle Bocanegra