Are These Dating Apps Killing Romance?

Photographed by Rockie Nolan.
Dating apps are officially out of control. They came, they revolutionised love and then they kept going, greedy for new ways to entice the loveless. We started out with Tinder, which introduced the practice of swiping through virtually anonymous profiles based on how they please us aesthetically – a brutal, if honest act. Next came Happn, which allowed us to digitise the process of bumping into someone or making eyes at a stranger on the street by logging their location using GPS. Then there was Bumble, which put women in charge of starting a conversation and setting the tone between prospective dates. There were other versions of these crowding the market; we had the general population covered. The next logical commercial step for any budding app entrepreneur (entr-app-eneur?) was to specialise, to divide and conquer smaller markets, to target niche demographics. And so they have. But surely this is limiting our dating pools, making them so small and specific that we are bound to miss out. And now? Now, we have things like Bristlr: "Connecting those with beards to those who want to stroke beards". 130,000 people use the app, which started out as a joke between friends in 2014 and became somewhat of a commercial success matching beard-wearers with beard-lovers.

There’s MouseMingle – 'the place to connect people who love Disney and who want that same magic in their relationship'

Bristlr’s only the scruffy tip of the iceberg when it comes to niche dating apps, though. It’s a veritable trend now: There’s also Sweatt, which matches fitness fans and allows them to log in their favourite workouts, personal bests and fitness clubs. It launched in New York in May 2016 and now has thousands of users. There’s Tall Friends for everyone above 6ft4in. There’s Woo Plus for overweight love-seekers. There’s Gluten Free Singles for the bread-averse. There’s YogiMixer for the yoga-mad. There’s Tindog for people with dogs. And then there’s Luxy – "swipe right, connect luxury" – for wealthy people. It’s currently at 12,292,682 matches. And it is income and photograph verified, just to really keep that classism alive and well. Oh, and there’s MouseMingle too – "the place to connect people who love Disney and who want that same magic in their relationship". They’re not affiliated in any way with Walt Disney or his many products and shows; they’re simply a fan-based site suggesting you might find your life partner based on a common passion for The Lion King. Name a demographic and there's probably a niche dating app for it – or currently being developed in Silicon Valley. For some people, it's culturally useful – JSwipe, for instance, connecting Jewish singles, or Salaam Swipe for Muslims. Perhaps religion is a more significant factor in finding compatibility than facial hair preferences or an intolerance to gluten. I’d likely tick an ‘atheist’ option if Bumble offered it. But on the whole, as a trend, niche dating is closing down and categorising all our romantic prospects. It’s totally eliminating the possibility that 'opposites attract' and it’s keeping us all, rather unimaginatively, in our lanes. Aren’t we playing against the rules of love by self-selecting through interests, fitness levels, dietary requirements, weight and height? Doesn’t it make for a dull, homogenous society if we all pair off by likeness? Am I being cynical or romantic? I truly can’t tell.

Niche dating apps divide us by demographic and teach us to seek out our own. To me, that’s a haunting concept

As far as I’m concerned, dating apps have already diminished the romance of the universe. In all the great stories, love is an accident. It’s something beautiful that happens by chance when you’re not looking. It’s a meet-cute on the street, through friends, or what happens when we actually talk to one another. These days, we’re more likely to write our own stories – seeking love very deliberately online or through an app. And that’s fine, we’re all busy, we’re all intravenously attached to our social networks. It’s an expedient way to find love or sex or distraction when we want it, but I maintain there’s a reason every app-user I know deletes it every few weeks in a fit of disillusion. That reason is that dating apps work against the fundamentals of love; they try to organise the chaos of the heart and whatever we tell ourselves about busy schedules and modern convenience, and that feels sad. It feels like a let-down, a back-up plan, the sleek antithesis of messy, confusing, accidental love. Tinder, Bumble and Happn have taught us to use technology to audition strangers for a significant role in our lives. They’ve taught us to scan humanity for people we consider our physical equals. It’s superficial, at best. But the next generation of digital romance goes further – niche dating apps divide us by demographic and teach us to seek out our own. To me, that’s a haunting concept without commercial constraint. We’ve already got apps that define and separate us by income, religion, race and appearance. What next? And what of the chance in love? God forbid you download Bristlr the day your ideal match walks out of a barber shop clean-shaven.

More from Sex & Relationships

R29 Original Series