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They’ve facilitated billions of dates and helped pave the way for marriage, children and everything in between. It’s old news that dating apps and online platforms are now the most common way for prospective partners to meet in the US and have become popular around the world. But for many of those who’ve tried and failed to find true love through their devices, the novelty is long gone.

“I've met great people that later became friends and had a handful of extended flings, but never a long-term relationship,” says writer Madeleine Dore, a 30-year-old from Melbourne who’s also dated in New York and Copenhagen. She’s used apps including Tinder, Bumble and OkCupid over the last five years and describes the dates she’s been on as ranging from experiences “that feel like a scene in a rom-com” to “absolute disasters”.

Many of her friends have met their partners online, and this knowledge has encouraged her to keep persevering. But, when “conversations unexpectedly fizzle, sparks don’t translate in person [and] dates are cancelled”, she typically ends up disenchanted and temporarily deletes her apps for a couple of months.

It’s a pattern many long-term singles will be familiar with, with other complaints about the app-based dating experience ranging from a lack of matches to too many matches, misleading profiles, safety concerns, racist comments and unwanted explicit content. Not to mention a host of digital behaviours so confusing we’ve had to make up new words for them, from ghosting and catfishing to pigging and orbiting.

While almost half of adults under 35 living in the US and the UK have tried some form of digital dating, and the multibillion-dollar industry increased by 11% in North America between 2014 and the start of 2019, there are growing signs that many would rather not be using these methods. A BBC survey in 2018 found that dating apps are the least preferred way for 16- to 34-year-old Britons to meet someone new.

Bumble screen

In 2018, the BBC found 7% of over 2000 millennials least preferring dating apps as partner-seeking methods, likely due to confusing behaviour and too many choices (Credit: Alamy)

Academics are also paying increased attention to the downsides of digital romance. A study in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships in September concluded that compulsive app users can end up feeling lonelier than they did in the first place. Management Science published a study on online dating in 2017 which highlighted the paradox of choice, noting that “increasing the number of potential matches has a positive effect due to larger choice, but also a negative effect due to competition between agents on the same side.”

“You need a lot of swipes to get a match, a lot of matches to get a number, a lot of numbers to get a date and a lot of dates to get a third date,” explains Scott Harvey, editor of Global Dating Insights, the online dating industry’s trade news publication.

You need a lot of swipes to get a match, a lot of matches to get a number, a lot of numbers to get a date and a lot of dates to get a third date – Scott Harvey

“Trying to find a partner in this way is extremely labour-intensive and can be quite exasperating,” he says, adding that those working in the sector are highly aware that many consumers are no longer “completely enamoured” by apps like Tinder and Bumble.

While Julie Beck, a staff writer for The Atlantic, made waves with an article addressing the rise of dating app fatigue three years ago, 2019 stands out as the moment that deeper discussions about the downsides of dating apps and debates about the feasibility of going without them went mainstream. Millennial media from Glamour to Vice truly began shifting their focus, US dating coach Camille Virginia released an advice book called The Offline Dating Method for those seeking to rid themselves of apps, and British broadcaster Verity Geere revealed how she went on a complete detox from sex and relationships after what she describes as eight years as an online “dating junkie” that failed to score her a long-term partner. Meanwhile research analytics firm eMarketer predicted a slowdown in user growth for mainstream online platforms, with more users switching between apps than new people entering the market.

Dating in the wild

Kamila Saramak, 30, a medical doctor living in the Polish capital, Warsaw, is among those who’ve taken the decision to go cold turkey and focus on dating offline.

Several months after splitting up with her partner of two years, she says she was “pretty much playing with Tinder every day,” swiping through profiles each morning and messaging matches while she had her breakfast. But after six months she realised it was impacting on her mental health.

“I was writing to them, I was meeting with them and then they just disappeared,” she says of many of her matches. “I was very lonely at that time…and it made me feel like I was worse than other people.”

Kamila Saramak

Kamila Saramak swiped on Tinder every day for six months, until she realized its exhaustive impact on her mental health (Credit: Kamila Saramak)

For others, deleting the apps has been more about winning time back in their lives for other activities rather than a reaction to painful experiences.

“Most of the time, the girls didn't look like the pictures...and the conversation was unfortunately, most of the time absolutely uninteresting,” says Leo Pierrard, 28, a French journalist living in Berlin. He stopped using dating apps for 18 months, before meeting his current partner on a trip to Paris.

“I think, definitely people are getting tired of it,” agrees Linda Jonsson, a 27-year-old gym instructor from Stockholm. She says she used Tinder for two years and had a nine-month relationship with one person she met on the app, but deleted it for the foreseeable future earlier this year and remains single.

In her friendship circle, “good first dates” that don’t lead to anything more serious are the most frequent irritation, which can, she says, feel like a waste of effort.

“It was really fine for a couple of years just to try it out and see what happens. But more and more of my friends are actually just deleting them and going out the old-fashioned way just to find people.”

Meanwhile meeting an unattached millennial who has never used a dating app is like searching for a needle in a haystack, but they do exist.

Linda Jonsson

A good first date leading to nothing serious is a waste of time, says Linda Jonsson, who is now opting for more traditional ways of meeting people (Credit: Linda Jonsson)

Matt Franzetti, 30, who is originally from Milan and works for a non-profit organisation in Transylvania, Romania, says he is put off by the idea of having to sell himself using photos and pithy profile texts.

You have to be very good about describing yourself to look very interesting – Matt Franzetti

“You have to be very good about describing yourself to look very interesting,” he argues.

He has met some women after having “deeper conversations” at parties or through blogging about his interests, which include rock music and art, but his dating history is limited and he is “usually single”.

Against the odds?

So what is the likelihood of finding a long-term partner in the analogue world, especially for a cohort that has grown up glued to smartphones and with far more limited traditional interactions with strangers compared to previous generations? We shop online, order transportation and food online and chat with friends online. Do most of us even know how to approach people we fancy in public these days?

Matt Lundquist, a relationship therapist based in New York says that many of his single patients have grown so used to meeting hookups or partners online that they end up ignoring potential matches elsewhere.

“When people are going out, going to a party, to a bar, often they are actually not at all thinking about dating,” he says. This means that even if they end up having an interesting conversation with someone they would have swiped right on “it’s just not where their brain is”.

“The clarity of a match online has perhaps made us more timid in real life meetings,” agrees Melbourne-based singleton Madeleine Dore. “Without a ‘swipe yes’ or ‘swipe no’ function, we risk putting our feelings out there to be rejected in full view. Better to open the app and endlessly swipe, blissfully unaware of who swiped you away.”

Matt Franzetti

Put off by the idea of crafting and selling one’s identity online, Matt Franzetti has never used a dating app (Credit: Matt Franzetti)

Ambivalence to relationships

Lundquist reflects that the rise of app-based dating coincided with a decline in social spaces in which people used to find potential sexual partners and dates. Gay bars are closing at a rapid rate in around the world, including in London, Stockholm and the across the US. Half of the UK’s nightclubs shut their doors between 2005 and 2015 according to research for the BBC’s Newsbeat programme.

The current climate around sexual harassment in the workplace in the wake of the #MeToo movement may even be putting off colleagues from embarking on traditional office romances. Some studies suggest fewer workers are dating one another compared to a decade ago and a greater tendency for employees to feel uncomfortable with the idea of colleagues having a workplace relationship.

The current climate around sexual harassment in the workplace in the wake of the #MeToo movement may even be putting off colleagues from embarking on traditional office romances.

For Lundquist, anyone refusing to use dating apps is therefore “dramatically reducing” their odds of meeting someone, since they remain the most normalised way to meet people. “I think that apps are complicated and suck in lots of very legitimate ways. But that's what's happening. That is where people are dating.”

He argues that meeting romantic partners has always been challenging and that it’s important to remember that online platforms first came on the market as a way to help those who were struggling. For many of his patients, the decision to turn off dating platforms, blame them for a lack of dating success, or conversely use them too frequently, can therefore often reflect a more general ambivalence to relationships based on human behaviours and feelings that have actually “been around for millennia”. These might range from previous relationship traumas triggered by former partners or during childhood, to body hang-ups or conflicts around sexual identity, monogamy and confidence.

#MeToo protests

In a 2018 survey by careers consultancy Vault, one in four workers said the #MeToo movement had made them view workplace relationships as less acceptable (Credit: Alamy)

He advises those who are committed to dating, to improve the process of using apps by making it “more social”, for example sharing profiles with friends, brainstorming ideas about where to go on dates and deciding when to have conversations about exclusivity.

“One of the paths to which people find their way to misery in this domain is that they are doing it in a much too isolated way,” says Lundquist. The process will, however, take time and dedication, he argues, suggesting that “if you’re not engaged daily, the odds of it working I think are close to zero.”

Damona Hoffman, an LA-based dating coach and host of the Dates & Mates podcast agrees that a dating app is “the most powerful tool in your dating tool box” but is more optimistic about analogue options.

“I completely disagree with the feeling that if you're not online, you don't have a prayer of meeting someone today. But I do think dating today requires a level of intention that I see a lot of millennials lacking,” she argues.

I do think dating today requires a level of intention that I see a lot of millennials lacking – Damona Hoffman

Her tips include dedicating around five hours a week to chat to potential matches or meet people in real life, being more conscious about the kind of person you are looking for, and actively searching for relevant spaces where you can approach potential dates directly.

“If you're looking for someone that has a professional career, you might want to go downtown at happy hour and make sure that you're talking to people that work in those office buildings, or if you're looking for someone who has a big heart, you go to charity events and places where you're going to meet people who make philanthropy a part of their lifestyle.”

For those with significant money to spare, hiring a dating coach is another option she recommends (her services cost a minimum of $1,000 a month) or even paying for matchmaking services. This seemingly outdated concept is enjoying a resurgence among wealthy, time-poor professionals in some US cities, while Sweden’s first personal matchmaking agency launched just three years ago and has a growing client base across Europe.

Damona Hoffman

Damona Hoffman argues that dating requires a certain degree of dedication and intention that many millennials are lacking (Credit: Damona Hoffman)

However, Hoffman sympathises with the feeling of dating fatigue and says that anyone who feels at the point of burnout should take a short break, “because then you're bringing the wrong energy into dating”.

What’s next for dating?

When it comes to the future of dating, Scott Harvey, editor of Global Dating Insights, says that artificial intelligence and video are the “two main talking points in the industry” right now.

Facebook’s new dating product, an opt-in feature of the main Facebook app, which has launched in the US and 20 other countries and is scheduled to go live in Europe next year, includes the option for users to share video or photo based Stories from their main feeds to potential dates, cutting down on the effort of creating curated content for separate dating platforms. Since Facebook already knows so much about us, it will, Harvey argues, end up with an “unparalleled insight” into which kinds of matches end in relationships, marriage or divorce, which can be used to inform future matching algorithms.

In terms of video, he says dating app companies also want to test “whether people can get a feel for in-person chemistry by chatting face-to-face” using video chat functions and “whether people will actually go to the trouble of having short video dates on a Sunday afternoon or Tuesday evening” as a way of avoiding lacklustre real life encounters.

Meanwhile industry analysts and coaches including both Scott Harvey and Damona Hoffman also point to a resurgence in offline singles events on both sides of the Atlantic, whether run by larger online dating companies seeking to find new ways of connecting existing pools of singles who are tired of swiping, or newer players looking to capitalise on current debates about the challenges of dating in today’s digital era.

“We saw this huge demand for authentic connection and genuine meetings and how difficult it is to create this on your own,” says Philip Jonzon Jarl, co-founder of Relate, a Scandinavian dating and relationships start-up which organises singles parties, matching guests with a handful of attendees based on their values.

Relate meeting

Relate, a Scandinavian dating and relationships start-up, arranges singles parties to foster deeper connections and personal growth (Credit: Relate)

They still need an app for the process, but Jonzon Jarl views it as “a tool for a deeper conversation” that is typically lacking at speed-dating events or mingles for singles. His longer-term vision is for “dating meets personal development”, with couples who connect via the platform able to unlock tips and tools to aid them as their relationship develops, in part, to help them avoid the temptation to jump too quickly back into the online dating pool if things don’t immediately run smoothly.

Therapist Matt Lundquist is sceptical about how much of an impact new methods like these will have and suggests that it would be “rather remarkable” if someone created a silver bullet to dispense with the “challenging” behaviours that have become routinised in modern day dating, such as ghosting and a lack of transparency.

However he believes it’s a positive step that some singles event organisers are at least trying to make our experience of forming new relationships “less routine and anonymous” and attempting to create more “opportunities for a real connection” between people.

“I think the world needs that really badly, not just the realm of dating.”

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