When two people, three hours deep into a date, realise they’ve spent most of it berating the demands of dating apps – the very medium through which the meeting was arranged – it’s clear that something is amiss with our dating culture. One half of that weary twosome was me a few months ago, and while my date and I shared passionate beliefs about the burden of Bumble and the tedium of “Tinder admin”, that was about as deep as our connection went. But since then, rather than risk spending (read: wasting) yet another evening on an attractive-but-ultimately-disappointing man from the internet, I vowed to put my phone away for a while.
I’m far from alone in feeling tired of apps and more enthused by the prospect of a rom-com-worthy meet-cute. Many singles in their 20s and 30s are experimenting with old-school dating methods after one too many mediocre-to-bad online dates, and ‘retro’ ways of meeting people IRL are back with a vengeance, at least in many big UK cities. Speed dating, blind dates, matchmaking services, supper clubs and 'alternative' dating nights are on the up, largely due to our online dating ennui. Dating sites and apps may be old news but the current backlash feels more intense than we’ve seen before.
A lot of people on dating apps are jaded and angry. Guys write things like 'Do not message me if...' followed by a list of things that irritate them in their bios.
Ann, a journalist in her 30s in London, swore off dating apps 12 months ago after four years on Tinder, a few weeks on Bumble and 24 hours on The Inner Circle ("the worst of the worst"), and says she'll "never go back”. And not just because of the glut of choice and hard graft often required for success. "I started hating everyone on Tinder and what I'd become on there. I was wasting people's time, being what I thought was sassy but actually a bit rude," she told Refinery29.
"A lot of people on there are jaded, resentful and angry. Guys write things like 'Do not message me if...' followed by a list of things that irritate them in their bios. One day I just thought, fuck, something's wrong if your 'Hey world, wanna date me?' message is a nasty, negative rant."
Ann has been on three dates since bowing out of apps and while they've been a mixed bag, she says there are major advantages to only ever connecting with someone in real life. "You know what they actually like, sound like and if there is spark. The thought of downloading an app now makes me puke."
Chris, a producer in his 20s in London, has been gradually giving up Tinder, Bumble and Once for two years, trying to approach women at events and be introduced by friends instead. "I haven't been on as many dates since, but that’s kind of the point. There's a tendency with dating apps to rush into a first date to avoid wasting time chatting through the app, which inevitably leads to a string of underwhelming dates."
The biggest benefit of having an IRL-only rule? "When you’re dealing with stuff that’s 'only' in real life it doesn’t carry the pressure of your date having to live up to an image you’ve cultivated on an app," a natural tendency for many users.
The moral panic surrounding online dating is as old as the tools themselves, with people rallying against the throwaway connections (read: casual sex), dishonest and creepy behaviour they breed. In 2015 a viral Vanity Fair article claimed we were in the midst of a hookup-fuelled “dating apocalypse” thanks to swipe apps like Tinder, while the following year The Atlantic noted “the rise of dating-app fatigue”. The latter trend has only been exacerbated by the growth in the quantity and variety of apps on offer and the number of us using them.
So is the tide turning against apps for good? "Yes and no," says Professor Eric Klinenberg, a sociologist at New York University and co-author of the 2015 bestseller Modern Romance: An Investigation. “On the one hand, more people are using them than ever before and they're growing more popular among older and younger generations. On the other hand, lots of people are burning out on the experience," he told us. "Online dating is so demanding that it can feel like a second job. People are sick of endless messaging with strangers whom they'll never meet in person."
Klinenberg explains that there’s simply too much choice: “People suffer from cognitive overload and don't know how to deal with all the people on their screen. What's more, they're exhausted from all the things they do on their phones in general. People used to go out and looked for love at very specific times and places. Now, everyone with a smartphone is carrying a 24/7 singles bar in their pocket. It's hard to keep up," he adds. "They're looking for a faster, nicer way to connect in real life. Now, the big dating sites are doing whatever they can to help."
Indeed, apps like Bumble and The Inner Circle are increasingly branching out into IRL events themselves: from Valentine's Day spinning to speed dating with the chance of a free holiday with your match (gulp). Outside the tech world, dating events and companies are springing up everywhere. Jordi Sinclair founded Smudged Lipstick in July 2016 after noticing people becoming “disconnected from the ‘real life’ aspect of dating”.
The company's off-the-wall events include 'Dirty Scrabble Dating' (speed dating and scrabble with dirty words) and Jenga dating, which it claims help to break the ice. “Our simple social skills such as body language, tone of voice and eye contact are really suffering because we're so used to texting or emailing," says Sinclair. "Our events ban phones and encourage people to communicate with each other by doing something fun.”
Even the best dating app is really just an introduction service.
Professor Eric Klinenberg
It’s unfortunate that many people need the 'excuse' of a weird and wacky event to approach someone face-to-face, but this is the world in which we live, says dating coach Hayley Quinn. "In 2018, we’re facing two big barriers to meeting people in real life. While most people prefer meeting someone in this way, no one knows how to go about it. Women have been traditionally taught to have a passive role in dating and that the man should make the first move. However, with a valid discussion around harassment happening right now, men may understandably hold back.”
But there are advantages of only ever meeting someone IRL, Quinn adds. "First, you'll know faster if there’s physical attraction and basic compatibility. Secondly, because you’ve had a personal connection, people are less likely to flake on the date. Thirdly, by taking up a hobby you give yourself a much longer window of time to get to know people. People can be pretty quick to dismiss someone after a first date.”
All of which is why "even the best dating app is really just an introduction service", Klinenberg says. You can't really know who you're attracted to until you meet up in real life. People don't look like their profile pics. You don't know what their laugh sounds like, how they carry themselves, or how they smell. You don't know how they dress or interact with other people. You need to feel what it's like to be with them.
Nevertheless, we probably haven't seen the end of dating apps. Klinenberg predicts they'll become even more sophisticated: "We'll see more of them. They'll geo-locate. They'll identify people you're messaging when you're near them in real life. They'll help you set up dates. They'll even suggest places to eat and drink and dance. Someday, they may even tell people when it's okay to make the first move in real life.”
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