In the antipodean winter of 2013, I was at a boozy dinner at a Malaysian restaurant with friends when one pulled out her phone to show us a new app she’d just downloaded. She was the youngest at the table, and an early adopter. She talked us through Tinder, flipping through the profiles of single men in our area.
We were fascinated, and a bit horrified. But there are so many of them, I remember thinking.
I was 22, and less than a year out of university. Until then, I had managed to fall into relationships without much forethought. It was a small city, and easy to feel as though you had the lay of the land, dating-wise. We careened into one another like bumper cars: effortlessly, and often drunkenly, but within a controlled environment.
Tinder, I recognised in that moment, would remove the safety bars.
Ten years later, dating apps have been scrubbed of whatever titillating novelty they once held – and our approach to relationships has been transformed.
Today, “real life” is as meaningfully carried out online as it is face-to-face – younger generations than mine don’t register the difference. Some of us can now work entirely remotely alongside colleagues we’ve only ever met on Zoom; we strike up a conversation with a stranger on social media more readily than we would someone at our local cafe.
The result is that all kinds of relationships – platonic, romantic, professional – are routinely formed virtually. Even as disillusionment has widely set in with dating apps, the internet remains the primary pool in which single people fish for partners and signal their own availability.
My younger friends are as likely to identify someone of interest and “shoot their shot” on Instagram as they are to go to Hinge or Bumble. In the past year on X, I’ve come across more than one “dating doc”, whereby people write lengthy descriptions of themselves and what they’re looking for, then circulate the link.
Some even find love on Duolingo: it was recently reported that couples are meeting there, too. I hold a 529-day streak, and yet I cannot fathom how those connections sparked; there’s not even a private messaging function. LinkedIn, too, is allegedly being treated as a singles directory (“Endorse these skills”).
It just goes to show, as the Wall Street Journal put it, that “on the internet, every app can be a dating app”. But that’s only one direction of travel in modern-day romance: regardless of how you make the initial connection, every date sooner or later becomes an internet date.
Since that eye-opening dinner at the Malaysian restaurant, I have spent most of the interim decade single, bar for two committed relationships and many more of what gen Z has elegantly dubbed “situationships”.
In every case, every stage – from early butterflies, to getting to know each other, to one or the other pulling away, to our eventual break-up – has been in large part carried out via our phones.
Partly, that’s a reflection of my penchant for long-distance relationships. But today, even connections formed in person are inevitably tested virtually. Again, savvy Gen Z has coined a term for it: the “talking stage”, sometimes but certainly not always the precursor to a relationship, when the chief indication of a (possibly!) mutual attraction is the constant messages blowing up your phone.
My own relationship history is archived digitally . There are the WhatsApp conversations that were, for a time, an unceasingly flurry of activity, now not only silent but archived. There are the individual messages within them – still emotionally charged, and “starred” for quick referral – that I’ll sometimes allow myself to look back on, when I’m feeling lonely and seeking reassurance that connection is possible.
The glowing green dot by an ex’s name on Instagram: proof of life now that we no longer talk. Their friends’ Stories, which I hide, so that a group shot featuring them doesn’t take me unpleasantly by surprise. The photos taken “on this day”, circulated by my phone, of people I’ve expended considerable effort trying to forget.
My call log shows just one conversation, lasting 17 minutes and 22 seconds, with a man I’d messaged all day, every day, for nearly seven weeks: our only phone call, and the one he made to break it off.
Mostly, I met these men through friends or work: more “authentic” connections, at least to dating apps’ naysayers. Either way they still exist, now, as ghosts in the machine. Then there are all the contacts in my phone’s address book: “Joe Hinge”, “James Bumble” – the only evidence (bar anecdotal) of the dates that didn’t lead anywhere.
If it sounds exhausting, it’s because it is. Dating apps used to dangle excitement and possibility; now they register chiefly as thankless admin. No wonder we’re logging off en masse: a recent survey of US students found that 80% don’t use dating apps even once a month.
My sense, of the reported “dating app fatigue”, is that it stems from a collective loss of faith in the experiment: no one feels optimistic about falling for one of their matches, thereby reducing the already slim chance of it happening.
I am part of the problem, as evidenced by the messages I’ve left on “seen” (though, how does one drum up a reply to “Do you often cook pasta at home?”). I’ve given up on conversations, ghosted matches after one date, and otherwise behaved more poorly than I would in person – the apps just make it so easy.
Regardless of one’s experience, dating apps at least challenge the conventional wisdom that singles in their 30s and older can be inclined to hide behind: the claim that “everyone’s already taken”. But the parade of faces providing evidence to the contrary can come second to the real administrative, sometimes even spiritual toll of parsing them.
I don’t believe that this malaise is felt exclusively by straight women – though we doubtless have a tougher time of it.
Those blissfully ignorant may be astonished by how many men lead with open hostility – “no drama”; “swipe left if you have tattoos or can’t take a joke” – or simply stonewall any introduction. I once came across a profile that displayed, in its entirety, two pictures of camper vans, one of a cruiseliner, and one of a tinned G&T with no context but the caption: “Dating apps don’t work.” Well, not with that attitude, Mark, 39!
Even those who are finding “the apps” to be predominantly positive have had to learn and adapt to the formats and shorthand that have evolved over the past decade: an invitation to debate pineapple on pizza, a reference to Peep Show or the US Office, a desire for a “partner-in-crime” with whom to “take over the world” or a monomaniacal love of dogs.
The ubiquity of these uninstructive tropes can turn the search for meaningful connection, a journey best guided by hopeful feeling, into a monotonous one. This is a product of the technology, presenting a flattened, distorted view of three-dimensional individuals; but it’s the one that we have largely been left to work with.
As a single person, to not at least have a profile on the apps is effectively a decision to leave your romantic future open to chance (yes, we’ve asked friends to set us up. All their friends are taken). But in order to remain alive to opportunity, you have to have hope – which the apps can make hard to hang onto.
Straining to see a glimmer of possibility in five photos and two truths and a lie is lonely work. I find myself second-guessing what I’m looking for, or even attracted to. In the past it’s tended to sneak up on me, drawn out by their laugh, the stories they tell about their school days, their off-the-cuff observations, their mannerisms.
Dating apps are all tell, no show: swipe now, or forever hold your peace. Just the idea of matching, messaging, then meeting in person can seem grueling and likely low reward; it’s easier to just swipe left.
I often catch myself scrutinising someone’s profile – reading into their punctuation, their tattoos, their choice of sunglasses and swimming trunks, searching for clues – then stop short: what is it I’m supposed to be looking for?
As much as I may have presented otherwise, I am largely content as a single person. I take great pleasure in my work and my daily routines; I have wonderful friendships. Above all, I enjoy my own company.
It’s only when I’m scrolling on my phone, often late at night, when my life changes shape to be defined by what it lacks, and I start to second-guess all the choices that have led me here, to this aloneness.
In the past year or so, my Instagram has gone from a highlights reel of European holidays and pub drinks to back-to-back photos of anniversaries, engagements and babies – so many babies. It is impossible to expose yourself to this carousel of connection without extrapolating what, as a single person, even a satisfied one, is already natural to fear: everyone’s in a relationship. Everyone’s having babies.
When I stop scrolling and think, I remember that I don’t want babies, I’d rather be single than with any of my exes, and know many people who are in the same boat: their posts to Instagram just don’t provoke my insecurities the same way. The reaction is instinctual, time-worn, trigger-happy, instantly striking a well of accumulated emotion.
Recently, one of my best friends posted a picture of a baby with a celebratory caption. For a split second, I was horrified: I hadn’t even known she was pregnant. The anxious, scrambling feeling that surged inside me was disproportionate to the prompt. Then, as I teetered on another spiral, I realised: I was supposed to be looking at the blanket she’d knitted for someone else’s newborn.
A few weeks later, she posted a picture of a different baby, and I had the same knee-jerk reaction as before. “Elle,” she said, exasperatedly, “I promise that I will tell you if I am having a baby.”
These thoughts and feelings are overwhelmingly influenced by what I see on my phone – the information that I’m presented with by shadowy algorithms with laser precision. A grim display on my dating app? I’ll be forever alone! Another baby on Instagram? I’m being left behind! Even if they are without factual basis, they are a part of my day-to-day experience. A self-deprecating TikTok about “cat ladies” can have me looking askance at my own pet: was I wrong to get her?
Our brains are meaning-making, pattern-matching machines, these days working overtime to keep pace with technology. The dopamine hit of a notification is never more electric than when I’m in “the talking stage” with a crush.
Other times, the phone just reflects back the hopelessness I feel. I belong to a number of Facebook groups where women share their bad experiences of app dating, and request for intel on men they’re still getting to know. The rate at which infidelity, lies and often plainly abusive behaviour is exposed through these informal connections does not inspire confidence.
Yet I also notice women turning to the group for reassurance, crowdsourcing their responses over trusting their own; how hurt and suspicion, rooted in true, individual experiences, spreads through the group and solidifies in such a way that could prevent any connection from getting off the ground. Any expression of enthusiasm is toxic “love-bombing”; any delayed reply to a text is cause to be cut off.
I see the same brittleness on TikTok, where dating advice on a par with Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus is peddled by young women to huge followings. Sometimes it’s not just retrograde but degrading, repackaging the game-playing and misogynistic manipulation popularised nearly 20 years ago by Neil Strauss’ The Game.
The big picture created is, as Vox’s Rebecca Jennings writes, “extremely bleak”: there’s no preference that can’t be questioned, no room for uncertainty, surprise or simply human foibles. The intolerance of this worldview shows people not only falling in line with the narrowness of algorithms, but embodying them: dating becomes a sequence of inputs and outputs, moves and countermoves, red flags, pink flags and even beige flags. (Don’t ask.)
It reflects the insidious influence of capitalism on how we form (and maintain) relationships. Dating apps measure success not by compatible connections, but by the time users spend on the platform. Their “premium” subscriptions – promising higher-quality matches and conversations, and the chance to “see who likes you” – often cost more than a subscription to Spotify or the New York Times; Tinder recently launched an invite-only plan that costs $499 a month, or $6,000 a year.
Dating apps’ scramble to find new offerings and plunging share prices (in the case of Match Group, down 40% in the past year) suggest that their “golden age” may be over. But even as users abandon the platforms, they may have already internalised their metrics.
Between dating apps and social media, we have become accustomed to treating ourselves as brands, our online presences as billboards, and potential partners as “eyeballs” whose attention we compete to hold. If you think I’m exaggerating, see the TikTok-driven trend for sharing one’s “Dating Wrapped”, riffing on Spotify’s popular end-of-year stats to provide “insights” into the past 12 months of romance. One young woman went the extra mile to provide a year-on-year comparison, with 10% of matches enduring for four or more dates in 2023: down from 19% of five-plus dates in 2022.
She had a good year: my own Dating Wrapped would show nostalgic favourites from the past on heavy rotation, plus the occasional, experimental foray into new ground (so, a lot like my Spotify Wrapped).
But when I step back, I wonder: is this constant analysis, notes-sharing and networking helping us to navigate the dating pool, or stopping us from wading in? Ultimately, it doesn’t matter: we are already in too deep.
After more than a decade on and off dating apps, , you could say that my relationship with my phone is the defining relationship of my life. At 11 years – our steel anniversary! – it’s nearly five times as long as my longest-ever actual relationship. It’s the first thing I see in the morning, the last thing I see at night, and still my best chance at finding another relationship.
Without wanting to be unduly rosy-eyed about the analogue past, I wonder what part technology has played in all those connections: their beginnings and their ends.
Would that 17-minute conversation have gone differently, had it been in person? Would I have shared so much about myself, felt attached so quickly, if we’d been meeting twice a week after work, instead of messaging from morning to night? Did I swipe left on my great love because of a typo in his profile? Did I miss out on a great second date when I disappeared after the first?
I have to remind myself that I am not uniquely neurotic for struggling to handle this – that, to quote a viral tweet, I am “processing a non-stop 24/7 onslaught of information with a brain designed to eat berries in a cave”.
The British anthropologist Dr Robin Dunbar – he of “Dunbar’s number”, suggesting that we have evolved to handle only 150 meaningful connections at once – once explained to me that all our relationships are a reflection of the frequency and intensity of communication. You want to get to know someone, you invest more time talking to them, exchanging confidences.
At some point, you decide that you’ve settled into a rhythm that you’d like to sustain – or, alternatively, you’ve seen enough. “It’s a series of stages,” Dunbar said, “where you stop and evaluate at each one, and decide whether to go on, or not.”
Technology has made it easy for us to start that process, and just as easy for us to stop. The New York Times’ David Brooks was perspicacious on this back in 2015, writing that relationship ends were now defined by silence, a once-active message thread falling quiet.
In my last two relationships, I sensed the impending end in the increasingly infrequent contact, the withholding of xs where they once had been, weeks before it was explicitly stated. These days a relationship progresses, or stalls, as much online as it does in person; the two tracks are consecutive, tethered, inseparable.
So what does it mean for my love life – and, more pressingly, in the absence of a love life, what does it mean for my phone addiction? My phone’s “wellbeing controls” inform me that I spent half an hour on my dating app last week – and six times that on Instagram.
I took an extended break from both this summer, and found it did buffer me from the corrosive self-comparison and sense of isolation. Instead of feeling like I had my nose pressed up against the window of other people’s lives, I came to increasingly appreciate my own. But it also made me feel invisible, reducing my opportunities for romance to “real life” and chance meetings.
And so I’m back on the apps, at least until I delete them again; staring down this second decade of online dating with the ambivalence and trepidation as I approached the first, attempting all the while to remain alert and alive to potential connection.
The other day, in fact, Mark crossed my screen again – still 39, and still with the pictures of the cruiseliner and the G&T. But, I noticed, he’d swapped out one of the campervans for a sausage dog; and in the place of “dating apps don’t work”, he’d put “hoping to meet someone nice”. And so we swipe on – keeping our green dots “active” and alight.