On November 5 when 50,000 runners took to the streets of the TCS New York City Marathon, my phone pinged a Bumble notification. The message announced that the online dating app partnered with a local New York City group to set up a real-life hydration and cheer zone in the Brooklyn borough for one of the world’s biggest and iconic race. After a decade of helping people match, date, hook up and, even, marry all by swiping in-app, dating apps are losing users as people of all ages around the world have reached swiping fatigue. Most dating apps, as a result, have been forced to reinvent themselves with real life events with real people.
For Tamsin, 27, an Australian traveling in Europe, says the problem lies in the fact that these apps reduce people to images. “In real life, people are so much more… how do I know whether the person is kind, caring, warm or an absolute dickhead from their pictures,” she says.
Lying, cheating, fake profiles and solicitation are other reasons people trust the apps less. Matheus from Nuremberg in southern Germany turned to dating apps after coming out of 10-year relationship during the pandemic. The 43-year-old IT professional went on a few app-facilitated dates, but the one that stands out is when he met a woman who looked nothing like her pictures. “It was not going anywhere. I don’t quite use the dating apps anymore. I prefer meeting someone at a bar, at a music gig or something, having a conversation and seeing where it goes—the good old-fashioned way,” he says.
Zainab (name changed), product manager in Chicago, finds the pressure to start the conversation on dating apps a pain point. “Texting on these apps to get to know one another takes up a lot of time. A lot. I don’t have the patience for that anymore,” says the product manager who is newly single but didn’t reinstall dating apps for many months after her break-up. She is back on apps but “it’s something I do when I am bored,” confesses the 31-year-old.
People across age groups find dating apps exhausting, says Priyanka Bharadwaj, founder of Marriage Broker Aunty, a relationship coaching and counselling startup in Bengaluru. “People who have greater opportunities to socialise (in the real world), both younger ones in their 20s and much older ones in their 50s, tend to spend less time on apps, or never bother with it. The ones in their 30s and 40s are mostly on these apps due to their busy work schedules and a lack of time to socialise. But given a choice to meet physically, they’d prefer that,” explains Bharadwaj.
Bharadwaj has had men tell her they got off these apps predominantly due to catfishing. Both men and women are unable to figure out long-term partner fit, and the transaction cost of working that out is quite high. Also, most men on dating apps are looking for casual dating. “Sifting through the noise to find suitable matches with serious intentions is exhausting,” she says.
In the early years of dating apps, people were thrilled with the ease of use and the novel way to meet single people. There are plenty of success stories ranging from simple hook-ups to relationships to marriages. Matheus from Germany had a three-month relationship, thanks to a dating app, and though the relationship ended, he has a two-year-old daughter, who is “the best thing to happen to him” through that match. Zainab’s last relationship, which lasted about three years, was via a dating app.
I have swiped for 10 years both in India and overseas and have had a range of experiences. One match took me to Wisconsin, where I spent three days with the person, and stayed in touch afterwards, while another one started in a bar in Pune and we never spoke after we parted ways. The matches that click are just a fraction of the people you chat with. Of late, however, ghosting and delayed replies are a regular affair, which tends to put people off. I had a match in Vienna in October and we agreed to meet, but she messaged a day after I had left. In places like Thailand and the UAE, these apps are used for solicitation—a problem that dating apps are addressing.
All this shouldn’t come as a surprise because dating apps aren’t designed to find love. “Thanks to dating apps, there’s an illusion of infinite choice. You swipe endlessly in the hope that the next person you see is going to be better than the one you’re currently looking at. The apps are also designed to indulge your curiosity. So, people struggle to stay in the moment and invest in the person they’re currently interested in. Although technology enables this density of interaction, people cannot keep up with it in real life. It’s physically and mentally exhausting,” says Bharadwaj.
People are going back to the basics and talking to people in bars and coffee shops, joining book clubs, running clubs, attending music gigs, nightclubs and events so that they can meet real people and have a real conversation without the fear of being ghosted. Friends are stepping in to introduce singles to potential dates in their extended circles.
A friend introduced Anisha (name changed), a 30-year-old doctor from Goa doing her master’s at Yale University, to the man she is currently dating. She’s either met the men she’s dated since moving to the US or been introduced by a friend. “It’s so much easier when you talk in real life than texting on apps. I am terrible at replying and the conversation and interest eventually fade,” she says capturing the mood of thousands of people who are turning to other ways of dating and finding love.
In metro cities, it’s easy to find book clubs, food walks, open mics and supper clubs to attend. “People tend to meet new folks at such events, and try to be a part of several communities in the hope that it may facilitate an organic date based on mutual interests,” says Bharadwaj.
From the looks of it, the future of dating is all about face-to-face interactions than swipes on a phone screen.
Shrenik Avlani is a writer and editor and the co-author of The Shivfit Way, a book on functional fitness.