Updated: Jul 23
It’s Valentine’s Day today and romance (or the lack thereof) is on most people’s minds - and 100% of marketing managers' content calendars. These days, analogue romance is pretty much dead, except in old books, so single people will be reaching for their phones and loading up their dating apps of choice.
It’s a market that’s come a long way in a few short years. A YouGov study in 2016 found that 1 in 3 British under-40s had used app-based or online dating before. Pew Research found that 59% of US internet users thought it was a good way to meet people. This is a far cry from the early days of eHarmony and Guardian Soulmates, when online dating was perceived by most people as either weird, desperate, or both.
There are now a myriad of major dating apps active in the UK, all catering to different tastes and ideas of how matchmaking is best done. So what do people think of them, and what stops people using them more? We took a look at the online conversation to find out.
How are the major apps viewed?
Across the online world people share their experiences of dating apps, from the good to the bad, the amusing, and the heartbreaking. Most are looking for advice – to make sense of rejection, or to see how they can ‘improve’ their profile and get more matches. Looking at Reddit, one of the key forums for this kind of conversation, we looked at the different subreddits for Tinder, Bumble and OKCupid, then analysed the characteristic words used when discussing each platform.
The difference between Tinder and the other two apps was pretty stark (see below). The Tinder conversation was much more “bro”-dominated, with a lot of discussion about what ‘really works’ with girls. The higher usage of phrases such as ‘pickup lines’ and ‘hookup app’ shows how perception and reality go hand in hand for Tinder – it is more about casual hook-ups than Bumble or OKCupid. Men are expected to make the first move, and are consequently looking for pick-up artist formulas for what works best.
Bumble and OKCupid users are slightly more circumspect about the whole experience than Tinder users. They are discussing the mental health implications of using swiping apps, and particularly in the case of users of Bumble, are more reluctant users of dating apps.
There is also a strong indication through the analysis that Bumble and OKCupid are more successfully creating long-term relationships. Users of these apps are more likely to discuss actually going on dates, making plans and even whether wanting kids or not can cause a breakup – hardly frivolous discussions.
Politics is a discussion point for the dating world in general, but less so in Tinder conversations than for the other apps. For example Ayn Rand, a famous libertarian, is a hot topic for the more American user base of OKCupid. Again, this fits with the more long-term view of Bumble and OKCupid users. A discussion on the legacy of Maggie Thatcher is hardly the best way to slide into someone’s DMs.
From a wider analysis of online conversation across a number of different sources, the following frustrations and fears emerge:
1. It’s a big old waste of time…
Swiping, matching - small talk, large talk – it all takes time. Then there’s actually going on a date. And if it doesn’t work out users can feel like they’ve wasted a whole lot of time and effort, with nothing to show for it.
2. …and some people aren’t taking it seriously
More disheartening than someone who doesn’t like you is someone that doesn’t care. Complaints often centre around people not taking it seriously, or in the words of one user – people who are only on the app to ‘boost their already over-inflated egos’.
3. Getting harassed…
This can be too much attention from people you don’t want attention from, right up to hurtful or vindictive behaviour. According to Pew Research Center, 28% of US online daters have been contacted by someone in a way that made them feel harassed or uncomfortable. Looking at UK comments it feels safe to assume there is a similar issue here, too.
4. …or catfished
Straight-up catfishing is fairly rare, but tales of people who didn’t look like their pictures are numerous. One Reddit user screenshotted a profile picture that still had the Shutterstock watermark. We presume most people won’t fall for that one…
5. It’s depressing (and possibly bad for my mental health)
Swiping through all those people and not getting a match can be pretty depressing. And for those who are successful on the app, it can be overwhelming. There’s a growing awareness that it’s not good for your health to be playing the numbers game on dating apps – swiping past and seeing the faces of so many potential partners.
Dating apps causing anxiety
This anxiety over seeing so many potential ‘matches’ is a big topic of concern, and one that grew online over the course of 2018 (see above).
Some experts draw a distinction between apps based purely on swiping and images, vs. the more old school sites such as Match.com or eHarmony. Speaking to the BBC, behavioural psychologist and dating coach Jo Hemmings said that cumulative, throwaway rejections could be harmful, whereas the more traditional online dating sites demanded more investment (questionnaires, biographies etc.) and therefore encouraged a more human environment.
Some academics have even suggested that in the case of Tinder, a ‘feedback loop’ is being created between the sexes, whereby men swipe less and less discriminately to get more matches, and women become even more fussy in the face of the resultant deluge.
To get a sense of this issue we looked at Twitter conversation on this topic – discussion of major dating apps in relation to anxiety, depression and stress - over the last year. We then compared Male and Female tweets within the dataset. The share of conversation is equal between men (49%) and women (51%), but the issue is discussed in quite different ways.
Firstly, Tinder is specifically referenced much more by women when discussing anxiety. Tinder seems to be causing more angst for women than it is for men. However Bumble is also mentioned, suggesting that putting women back in control does not necessarily allay their worries – the swiping mechanic is still there after all, and it’s this that seems to be the root cause of anxiety.
Men come across as more superficial when it comes to the opposite sex, but also focus more on their own rejection and self-doubt. This contrast in mindset between the two sexes is subtle but marked: men use words groupings such as ‘crippling self doubt’ and ‘confidence self worth’, whereas women use many more word pairings which reference the opposite sex e.g. ‘guy bumble’, ‘think men’ and ‘tinder boys’. Men are largely still expected to play the active role – women are focusing on men and men are focusing on themselves as the source of their anxieties.
A different approach
What makes all this interesting for the dating app market is that we seem to be moving back to where we were before the advent of Tinder, but with a millennial twist. The growing dislike of swiping-based apps is borne out of a desire for quality over quantity, and a realisation that playing the numbers game is only enjoyable for the most hardened of daters.
Apps like Hinge are exploiting this niche by bringing back the more invested approach, but with a slicker, younger feel. Hinge is very much focused on relationships, so there’s likely room for other apps in this brave new world (for example there will still be a desire for casual hook-ups, that doesn’t mean the mechanic for that can’t be made more human). But its slogan - ‘Designed to be Deleted’ - is a sign of how the market (and the world) is changing.
In fact it owes a lot to the ‘Time Well Spent’ movement, where tech platforms are encouraged to redefine their design goals towards the user’s ultimate objective, rather than simply spending more time on their platform.
Dating will likely always leave some people downhearted. Statistically you’re unlikely to meet your perfect partner as soon as you start looking, in real life or on an app. We are also prone to very human errors of judgement – we often want what we can’t have, or perhaps more likely, we don’t really know what we want or what will make us happy. But if the dating app market can keep a space for everyone’s wants and needs, whilst removing some of the causes of anxiety described above, then things will be a little more enjoyable for everyone 💖
Written by Daniel Johnson
3. Has Brexit affected the dating scene?
4. Are 'swipe left' dating apps bad for our mental health? https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-45419105
5. A First Look at User Activity on Tinder
6. How better tech could protect us from distraction