Friday, August 24, 2018

The Dating App Revolution

Will dating apps revolutionize dating? Will they produce more happy marriages? Or, will they lead to more better hookups?

Dating apps are generational. The millennial generation, in particular, has adopted them as a lifestyle accessory. Everyone uses them. Everyone swears by them. Everyone speaks highly of them.

If you want a quick hookup there’s Tinder. If you are looking for a relationship, there’s and Hinge, among others.

In fairness, the jury is still out. The Economist tells us, in a comprehensive report, that dating apps are producing more, better marriages. On the other hand, it wittily calls them a "meet market."

One might respond that these apps have not been in use for long enough for us to have a good sense of whether they are producing more marital stability or more marital instability. We do know, from other reports, that marriages in India, which are semi-arranged last longer and seem to be happier than American love matches.

What is semi-arranged? It means that parents vet prospective partners before the young people get together. Much of the dating process involves forming a judgment about the other person’s character. If you have met a random anonymous stranger through a dating app, it will take you longer to judge the person’s character. If your parent knows the person and his or her family, you need to do less research. The same applies to choosing a partner from the neighborhood or through mutual friends.

When using dating apps, you do not know what you are getting. You are confined to the most superficial standards. Is this good or bad? The Economist is optimistic. I think it better to say that time will tell.

Statistically, dating apps are the hot new thing. The magazine reports:

Today dating sites and apps account for about a sixth of the first meetings that lead to marriage there; roughly the same number result from online encounters in venues not devoted to such matters.

As early as 2010 the internet had overtaken churches, neighbourhoods, classrooms and offices as a setting in which Americans might meet a partner of the opposite sex. Bars and restaurants have fallen since (see chart).

The dating app continues a trend that has been developing over a couple of centuries. The less people have been tied to their local communities, the more possible partners they have had:

For most of human history, the choice of life partner was limited by class, location and parental diktat. In the 19th and 20th centuries those constraints were weakened, at least in the West. The bicycle increased young people’s choices immeasurably; so did city life. But freed from their villages, people faced new difficulties: how to work out who was interested, who was not and who might be, if only they knew you were.

Of course, there are apps and there are apps. Using Tinder with a cell phone produces a level of near-instant gratification that is not available to those who prefer to take their time to learn to know something about each other:

Such phone-based services are more immediate, more personal and more public than their keyboard-based predecessors. More immediate because instead of being used to plan future encounters, or to chat at a distance, they can be used on the fly to find someone right here, right now. More personal because the phone is intimate in a way the keyboard is not, camera-ready and always with you. More public for the same reason. Many people now feel quite happy swiping left or right on public transport, gossiping to their friends about potential matches. Screenshots of possible partners fly back and forth over WhatsApp and iMessage. Once confined to particular times and places, dating can extend everywhere and anywhere.

One will be forgiven for assuming the Tinder-inspired hookups are probably not the path to holy matrimony. But then, again I could be wrong.

Among the virtues of the app revolution is this: you can reject someone’s profile without having to face him or her. In China, this matters a lot:

In countries where marriage is still very much in the hands of parents, today’s apps offer an option which used hardly to exist: casual dating. Yu Wang, the chief executive of Tantan, founded in 2015 and now one of China’s largest dating apps, says the country’s offline dating culture is practically non-existent. “If you approach someone you don’t know and start flirting, you’re a scoundrel,” he says. But on Tantan “you don’t expose yourself, there’s no danger of getting rejected, you cannot lose face.” As of February, Tantan had 20m users and had created some 10m couples, Mr Wang says, adding: “That’s a significant effect on society.”

The party line today is that dating apps lead to better matches and better marriages. It’s a big business and where would the business be if someone were to discover that it did not lead you down the aisle:

Where data are available, mostly through national surveys, sociologists like Mr Thomas have found that online dating by and large leads to better matches—presumably because of the far greater choice of partners it offers.

The benefits are clearest for people whose preferences mean that discovering possible partners is particularly hard, either because of social isolation or physical isolation.

In a 2013 study researchers from Harvard University and the University of Chicago showed that marriages that started online were less likely to end in break-up and were associated with higher levels of satisfaction than marriages of the same vintage between similar couples who had met offline: the difference was not huge, but it was statistically significant. Couples who met online also reported being slightly more satisfied with their marriage than those who met offline, by an average of one fifth of a point more on a seven-point scale. Scaled up to the third or more of marriages in America that start online, that would mean that close to a million people have found happier marriages than they would have otherwise thanks to the internet—as have millions more around the world.

Of course, these happy marriages are of relatively recent mintage. We do not know how well they will endure. Sociologists have suggested that happy marriages require that couples have more, not less, in common. The more you have in common the easier it is to evaluate the other person’s character.

The Economist ignores this research and touts the fact that those who use apps have access to a more diverse population:

Offline, people meet others who are like them in various ways—who know the same people and work in the same places. Online they can meet people not like them in those ways, but like them in other ways that may matter more. You can meet people who aren’t like you and select those who are, says Jess Carbino, the in-house sociologist at Bumble.

I suspect that the in-house sociologist of a dating app is less than objective here.

Of course, dating apps offer so many options that users might suffer from an embarrassment of riches. Psychologists know that the more options you have the more difficult it is to make a selection. One suspects that dating apps have not repealed this law.

The Economist mentions it:

For those who find popularity on the apps, endless choice can become something of a burden. Blessing Mark, a 24-year-old massage therapist from Lagos, Nigeria, uses Tinder for two purposes. She finds clients (rather as your correspondent found people through Tinder in researching this piece) and she seeks out romantic partners. For marketing her business, she says, Tinder is essential, but her love life on the app has turned sour. “I feel like I’m no longer the person I used to be,” she says. “I go for dinner and I fuck and that’s it.”

Others talk of the exhaustion of trawling through endless matches, going on disappointing dates with some of them, then having to drag themselves back onto the net when it goes nowhere. There is a loneliness, too. The internet uncouples dating from other social activities which might comfort a shy or spurned heart in the offline world; love’s vicissitudes can be harder when taken away from the context of a club or church hall.

After appearing to be marketers for dating apps, The Economist concludes that the business interests of the app companies do not include your developing good relationships:

Dating apps want existing users to keep using them, maybe even to start paying for new features. Desperation is not necessarily their enemy; the achievement of domestic bliss is certainly not their friend.


David Foster said...

The jihad against relationships with colleagues at work has greatly inhibited one major venue for people getting matched up with people they know over a protacted time period.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

A very important point. I agree fully, and have not seen it mentioned seriously anywhere.