Last week, on perhaps the coldest night that I have experienced since leaving a college town situated more or less at the bottom of a lake, The Verge’s Ashley Carman and I took the train up to Hunter College to watch a debate.
The contested proposition was whether “dating apps have killed romance,” and the host was an adult man who had never used a dating app. Smoothing the static electricity out of my sweater and rubbing a chunk of dead skin off my lip, I settled into the ‘70s-upholstery auditorium chair in a 100 percent foul mood, with an attitude of “Why the fuck are we still talking about this?” I thought about writing about it, headline: “Why the fuck are we still talking about this?” (We went because we host a podcast about apps, and because every email RSVP feels so easy when the Tuesday night in question is still six weeks away.)
Fortunately, the side arguing that the proposition was true — Note to Self’s Manoush Zomorodi and Aziz Ansari’s Modern Romance co-author Eric Klinenberg — brought only anecdotal evidence about bad dates and mean boys (and their personal, happy, IRL-sourced marriages). The side arguing that it was false — Match.com chief scientific advisor Helen Fisher and OkCupid vice president of engineering Tom Jacques — brought hard data. They easily won, converting 20 percent of the mostly middle-aged audience and also Ashley, which I celebrated by eating one of her post-debate garlic knots and shouting at her in the street.
This week, The Outline published “Tinder is not actually for meeting anyone,” a first-person account of the relatable experience of swiping and swiping through thousands of potential matches and having very little to show for it. “Three thousand swipes, at two seconds per swipe, translates to a solid one hour and 40 minutes of swiping,” reporter Casey Johnston wrote, all to narrow your options down to eight people who are “worth responding to,” and then go on a single date with someone who is, in all likelihood, not going to be a real contender for your heart or even your brief, mild interest. That’s all true (in my personal experience too!), and “dating app fatigue” is a phenomenon that has been discussed before.
In fact, The Atlantic published a feature-length report called “The Rise of Dating App Fatigue” in October 2016. It’s a well-argued piece by Julie Beck, who writes, “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.”
This experience, and the experience Johnston describes — the gargantuan effort of narrowing thousands of people down to a pool of eight maybes — are actually examples of what Helen Fisher acknowledged as the fundamental challenge of dating apps during that debate that Ashley and I so begrudgingly attended. “The biggest problem is cognitive overload,” she said. “The brain is not well built to choose between hundreds or thousands of alternatives.” The most we can handle is nine. So when you get to nine matches, you should stop and consider only those. Probably eight would also be fine.
The fundamental challenge of the dating app debate is that every person you’ve ever met has anecdotal evidence in abundance, and horror stories are just more fun to hear and tell.
But according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted in February 2016, 59 percent of Americans think dating apps are a good way to meet someone. Though the majority of relationships still begin offline, 15 percent of American adults say they’ve used a dating app and 5 percent of American adults who are in marriages or serious, committed relationships say that those relationships began in an app. That’s millions of people!
In the most recent Singles in America survey, conducted every February by Match Group and representatives from the Kinsey Institute, 40 percent of the US census-based sample of single people said they’d met someone online in the last year and subsequently had some kind of relationship. Only 6 percent said they’d met someone in a bar, and 24 percent said they’d met someone through a friend.
There’s also evidence that marriages that begin on dating apps are less likely to end in the first year, and that the rise of dating apps has correlated with a spike in interracial dating and marriages. Dating apps may be a site of neurotic turmoil for certain groups of young people who don’t feel they need quite so many options, but it opens up possibilities of romance for people who are often denied the same opportunities to find it in physical spaces — the elderly, the disabled, the isolated. (“I’m over 50, I can’t stand in a bar and wait for people to walk by,” Fisher sputtered in a moment of exasperation.) Mainstream dating apps are now figuring out how to add options for asexual users who need a very specific kind of romantic partnership. The LGBTQ community’s pre-Grindr makeshift online dating practices are the reason these apps were invented in the first place.
Though Klinenberg accused her of being a shill for her client (causing the debate moderator to call a timeout and explain, “These aren’t… cigarette people”), Fisher had science to back up her claims.
She’s studied the parts of the brain that are involved in romantic love, which she explained in depth after disclosing that she was about to get into “the deep yogurt.” (I loved her.) The gist was that romantic love is a survival mechanism, with its circuitry way below the cortex, alongside that which orchestrates thirst and hunger. “Technology cannot change the basic brain structure of romance,” she said, “Technology is changing the way we court.” She described this as a shift to “slow love,” with dating taking on a new significance, and the pre-commitment stage being drawn out, giving today’s young people “even more time for romance.”
At that point, it was contested whether she had even ever adequately defined what romance is — kicking off another circular conversation about whether matches are dates and dates are romantic and romance means marriage or sex or a nice afternoon. I’d say that at least 10 percent of the audience was deeply dumb or serious trolls.
But amid all this chatter, it was obvious that the fundamental problem with dating apps is the fundamental problem with every technological innovation: cultural lag. We haven’t had these tools for long enough to have a clear idea of how we’re supposed to use them — what’s considerate, what’s kind, what’s logical, what’s cruel. An hour and 40 minutes of swiping to find one person to go on a date with is really not that daunting, compared to the idea of standing around a few different bars for four hours and finding no one worth talking to. At the same time, we know what’s expected from us in a face-to-face conversation, and we know much less about what we’re supposed to do with a contextless baseball card in a messaging thread you have to actively remember to look at — at work, when you’re connected to WiFi.
Even as they’ve lost much of their stigma, dating apps have acquired a transitional set of contradictory cultural connotations and mismatched norms that border on dark comedy. Last month, I started making a Spotify playlist made up of boys’ choices for the “My Anthem” field on Tinder, and wondered if it would be immoral to show it to anyone — self-presentation stripped of its context, pushed back into being just art, but with a header that twisted it into a sick joke.
Then a friend of mine texted me on Valentine’s Day to say he’d deleted all his dating apps — he’d gotten tired of the notifications popping up in front of the person he’s been dating, and it seemed like the “healthy” option. You could just turn notifications off, I thought, but what I said was “Wow! What a considerate and logical thing to do.” Because, uh, what do I know about how anyone should behave?
Also I met that friend on Tinder over a year ago! Maybe that’s weird. I don’t know, and I doubt it interests you. Certainly I would not make the argument that dating apps are pleasant all the time, or that a dating app has helped find everlasting love for every person who has ever sought it, but it’s time to stop throwing anecdotal evidence at a debate that has already been ended with numbers. You don’t care about my Tinder stories and I don’t care about yours. Love is possible and the data says so