OOne of the first things I did when a long-term relationship ended in 2019 was download a dating app — motivated primarily, I must admit, by fantasies about my ex’s reaction to seeing my profile. Since then I have never really stopped. I sit on it during TV commercial breaks, waiting for the microwave to ping, in all those time slots where I listened to my own thoughts. In bed I scroll on my back until my hand tingles because all the blood has run out. But despite my best efforts, they haven’t found me a boyfriend, or even a lot of sex. In fact, they have done the opposite of what I thought they would do when I first heard about them. They don’t make anything easy – they make it much harder.
I was in college when people around me started using Tinder. I had a boyfriend at the time, so I never signed up. But I remember being jealous of the people who did. It would make it so much easier to find someone, I assumed: you wouldn’t waste nights chatting with people in the smoking room only to find out they have a girlfriend, or open the door to rejection by writing your name down. a napkin and gives it to a waiter. You just had to decide if you like the look of someone, wait for them to do the same and if so, you can both meet up and have sex, or go out, whatever you want. Apps would make the ambiguity of attraction explicit and clear.
Admittedly, my first experience with apps was fun. As I walked out of the subway toward my date, I took off my headphones and thought about how exciting it was to be able to spend the whole evening getting to know this stranger. The apps allowed me to communicate with people outside my comfortable circle of journalist friends. There was the delivery man I met at a pub five minutes from mine who liked heavy metal because he heard that listening to it at the gym made your heart rate soar; who pointed to the corner shop where he could never buy booze because the owner knew his mother. There were also disappointments, such as the guy who spent 12 minutes looking for this video of himself on ketamine because it was “really funny” (it wasn’t). But even when things didn’t go according to plan, they were still moving, there were opportunities, there were people saying, “Are you about Thursday?”
Over time, this data became scarcer. Instead of asking you out, they asked for your Instagram handle and occasionally sent you flaming emojis in response to selfies. If you met, they would often disappear after the third date, or you would. It started to feel like everything was falling through your hands. Finding a date felt exhausting, impossible even. Apps put a lot of hidden obstacles in the way of actually finding someone, and after a while people stopped trying to maneuver around them.
Part of the problem is that apps give you so many options that no one ever seems like the right one. You may have had a lot of fun with that lawyer with the sexy throat smile, but then the girl with a landlord meme on her profile might seem more your type. So you stop responding, often without explanation, and that’s easier if you met through an app because they don’t know any of your friends, don’t work in the same building as you, don’t cross over into your world. You can ghost them without affecting your actions. No judgment.
Even the fun of meeting a wide variety of people quickly fades as the algorithm seems to identify your type after a while and starts showing you endless carbon copies of the same person. (To me, that usually means a guy in a fleece with a tiny earring making documentaries.)
In retrospect, it seems rather naive of me to think that apps would provide connections. Hinge’s tagline is “Designed to be deleted”, but if that were true it wouldn’t have much of a business model – which is why you’re tempted every day with a notification that shows you “most compatible” in the app to see.
Shall we leave ten years after the reign of Tinder? There are signs: recent articles about the demise of apps, pieces of advice on meeting people offline. But turning back time may not be so easy. Apps have allowed us to divide our romantic lives away from general socializing, so when you’re out now you don’t really think about meeting anyone — that’s become something you do while you wait for the shower water to heat up. Sometimes I’m at a party around real hot men and don’t register them until the next day, when my anxious brain goes on all night obsessed with every single mistake I’ve made.
Obviously, love still happens despite everything. People answer, even if they are tired from work, they show up at 6:30 on Tuesday, even if that means they will be fined four pounds for missing their spin class. “You have to break the circle!” ordered my friend who did meet her boyfriend through an app. “Push through the nonchalance!”
A few days later I got the chance to try it. I matched up with a guy I’d matched with three times in different apps. “Not you again,” he texted. To which I replied, “Here we go again”. There was something strangely romantic about it – as if we were these star-crossed lovers, brought together by different algorithmic organization methods, all the statistics and patterns pointing us at each other and then pulling us away. If only we could fight our way through our lethargy, through another “so how was your weekend?” conversation, maybe we’ll find something real. Maybe we’ll stick around to learn each other’s favorite kind of sandwich, the birthmark on the top of their shoulder. So I told him I was off that week, even though I was supposed to take a train to my parents’ house. I took him into consideration when working out my hair washing schedule.
Needless to say we never met.