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Are dating apps dead?

As singles grow disenchanted with dating apps as a means for finding love, people are beginning to take matters into their own hands

They say that love is a battlefield, but in the jungle of online dating, it better resembles a wasteland. FaceTuned and filtered-up, we swipe through potential profiles like a seemingly infinite deck of cards in search of love – or at least a hook-up. When we do eventually find a match, the vibe is stilted. Perhaps they’re unresponsive, or we’re busy with real-world distractions. Perhaps we’re too consumed by another potential suitor whose conversation too will run dry when we get bored and inevitably lose interest.

Inside this gamified practice of swiping left and right, users are ‘nudged’ to process the face of their prospective partner within seconds. Nearly two in five people have used dating apps, yet very few services provide information on a user’s personality, with the exception of some short quips based on a list of pre-made prompts. And no matter how many times you refresh your profile with new selfies (to show you’re confident), full-body shots (to show you’re not a catfish), and group photos (to show you have friends), you still end up feeling bored and depressed.

The effectiveness of dating apps in holding our attention is part down to ego-boost, part boredom-busting. The act of swiping has been proven to intensify pleasurable chemical reactions in the brain, with Dr Liu telling Psychology Today that dating apps have capitalised on dating becoming an “addictive game”. Infinite scrolling doses our brains with dopamine, encouraging us to swipe perpetually while hardwiring us to seek rewards. On the surface, there are no consequences to our actions, so it allows us to disassociate from the real-world effects of our actions. We bench (put a potential partner on hold in case we find someone better), breadcrumb (lead someone on), and haunt (continue creeping on people’s stories even after ghosting them) ad-nauseum.

With about one-third (34 per cent) of US adults on apps because they want to have something fun to do, and 26 per cent using apps to have casual sex, finding love doesn’t come easy. 2020 study by Pew Research found that one third of women using dating apps have been called an abusive name, and nearly half of women had men continue to pursue them online after they said no. Elsewhere, recent stories – such as that of West Elm Caleb – highlight further the growing frustrations surrounding dating app etiquette. 

But after years of death and pandemic, people want to sign onto dating apps for actual connections, not to win the social analytics game of how many matches you’ve received in X-number days. While swiping into infinity at the fractional chance of finding love might sound fun at first, it quickly becomes trivial. Case in point: Tinder and Grindr recently came near the top of a list of apps most likely to make users unhappy. The pursuit of alternative apps – of which there are many – feels equally fruitless, prompting you to abandon virtual dating altogether. So it’s no surprise people are wondering, is it finally time to find love the old-fashioned way?

“I think people flock to online dating as it’s quite literally at your fingertips, but it gets repetitive, scrolling, swiping and coming across your exes,” says Sam Rubinstein, the founder of Link Ting, an IRL queer speed-dating event in London. “Post-lockdown, I think people are open for something different and to be in a queer environment. Never judge a book by its cover, and meeting people they wouldn’t usually go for online can be a lot more surprising!”

Rubinstein kickstarted the semi-regular event after growing bored of conventional online dating over lockdown. “In 2021, I began my own company Rooibos, working as a hairdresser/barber, and I wanted to utilise my database of queer clients and set up Link Ting as an in-person dating event where I could potentially match-make where needed,” they add. “The more events I do the more I’m starting to configure the right format, but after everyone’s had a drink or two it’s fun to sit back as the mastermind and witness the flirting unfold.”

For Cem A, the admin behind art-centric meme account Freeze, the pandemic made them pursue new methods of dating. He founded Freeze dating last year with the intention of bringing like-minded followers together beyond the algorithm. “Art events, exhibition visits and private views were a good way to meet new people with shared interests. We wanted to use art memes to reach out to the same community online,” he explains. Having launched the first Freeze Dating last year, Cem received over 800 responses in 12 hours, prompting him to close applications early. “It was very motivating to get such an overwhelmingly positive response. On the other hand, we learnt that we'll need more tech support next time. If we can find a suitable collaborator or platform, we’d like to organise a live online event for dating and networking.”

“I think people flock to online dating as it’s quite literally at your fingertips, but it gets repetitive, scrolling, swiping and coming across your exes” – Sam Rubinstein

Elsewhere, a genderless dating event at 180 The Strand in London is hosted by sex therapist trainee Eliza Lawrence, who provides prompts to help move along conversation. ”It’s nice to see people connecting on a philosophical level. We even had a couple stay at the table, recording their own conversation about sex and love,” says Sophia, one of the event organisers. 

Dating apps are certainly evolving: a new app Thursday is only live for 24 hours once a week, giving users a small window to match, message and arrange to meet, while Tinder has introduced a new blind date feature to reflect the modern dating habits of Gen Z, who value authenticity. But the increase in curated dating experiences demonstrates our need for Real Human Experiences. “Wednesday nights at a Link Ting event means you have something to look forward to mid-week. I try to create a space for you to have a flirt, for me to drown out any awkward silences with my serenading and for those who are shy, to pluck up the courage and speak to people they wouldn’t usually feel confident enough to,” says Rubinstein. “Some have said that it’s nicer than a classic night out, spying someone over at the bar who you spend all night wishing you’d spoken too. I’ve had great feedback from those who have attended so far. If you don’t find love, you’re bound to find a friend. And that’s always appreciated as a queer in a big city!”

We’ve spent the best part of two years stuck behind screens, our day-to-day lives increasingly steered by algorithms, so taking matters into our own hands feels novel – exciting even. “Dating apps started to feel increasingly impersonal. It’s understandable that people are seeking non-algorithmic ways to find like-minded people,” agrees Cem. With the current trend for Y2K, young people will no doubt continue to seek new, authentic modes of connection without the need for tech. Perhaps we won’t be stopping people in the street just yet, but a change in our dating habits is on the horizon.