Photo by Joe Raedle / Getty.

On the 20th anniversary of The New York Times’ popular Vows column, a weekly feature on notable weddings and engagements launched in 1992, its longtime editor wrote that Vows was meant to be more than just a news notice about society events. It aimed to give readers the backstory on marrying couples and, in the meantime, to explore how romance was changing with the times. “Twenty years ago, as now, most couples told us they’d met through their friends or family, or in college,” wrote the editor, Bob Woletz, in 2012. “For a period that ran into the late 1990s, a number said, often sheepishly, that they had met through personal advertisements.”

But in 2018, seven of the 53 couples profiled in the Vows column met on dating apps. And in the Times’ more populous Wedding Announcements section, 93 out of some 1,000 couples profiled this year met on dating apps—Tinder, Bumble, Hinge, Coffee Meets Bagel, Happn, and other specialized dating apps designed for smaller communities, like JSwipe for Jewish singles and MuzMatch for Muslims. The year before, 71 couples whose weddings were announced by the Times met on dating apps.

Matt Lundquist, a couples therapist based in Manhattan, says he’s started taking on a less excited or expectant tone when he asks young couples and recently formed couples how they met. “Because a few of them will say to me, ‘Uhhh, we met on Tinder’—like, ‘Where else do you think we would have met?’” Plus, he adds, it’s never a good start to therapy when a patient thinks the therapist is behind the times or uncool.

Dating apps originated in the gay community; Grindr and Scruff, which helped single men link up by searching for other active users within a specific geographic radius, launched in 2009 and 2010, respectively. With the launch of Tinder in 2012, iPhone-owning people of all sexualities could start looking for love, or sex, or casual dating, and it quickly became the most popular dating app on the market. But the gigantic shift in dating culture really started to take hold the following year, when Tinder expanded to Android phones, then to more than 70 percent of smartphones worldwide. Shortly thereafter, many more dating apps came online.

There’s been plenty of hand-wringing and gnashing of teeth over how Tinder could reinvent dating: Maybe it would transform the dating scene into an endless virtual marketplace where singles could shop for each other (like an Amazon for human companionship), or perhaps it would turn dating into a minimal-effort, transactional pursuit of on-demand hookups (like an Uber for sex). But the reality of dating in the age of apps is a little more nuanced than that. The relationship economy has certainly changed in terms of how humans find and court their potential partners, but what people are looking for is largely the same as it ever was: companionship and/or sexual satisfaction. Meanwhile, the underlying challenges—the loneliness, the boredom, the roller coaster of hope and disappointment—of being “single and looking,” or single and looking for something, haven’t gone away. They’ve simply changed shape.

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Sean Rad and Justin Mateen, two of Tinder’s founders, have said in interviews that the inspiration for Tinder came from their own general dissatisfaction with the lack of dating opportunities that arose naturally—or, as Rad once put it jokingly, “Justin needed help meeting people because he had, what’s that disorder you have where you don’t leave the house?”

Tinder has indeed helped people meet other people—it has expanded the reach of singles’ social networks, facilitating interactions between people who might never have crossed paths otherwise. The 30-year-old Jess Flores of Virginia Beach got married to her first and only Tinder date this past October, and she says they likely would have never met if it weren’t for the app.

For starters, Flores says, the guys she usually went for back in 2014 were what she describes as “sleeve-tattoo” types. Her now-husband Mike, though, was “clean cut, no tattoos. Completely opposite of what I would usually go for.” She decided to take a chance on him after she’d laughed at a funny line in his Tinder bio. (Today, she can no longer remember what it was.)

Plus, Mike lived in the next town over. He wasn’t that far away, “but I didn’t go where he lived to hang out, so I didn’t really mix and mingle with people in other cities,” she says. But after a few weeks of chatting on the app and one failed attempt at meeting up, they ended up on a first date at a local minor-league baseball game, drinking beer and eating hot dogs in the stands.

For Flores and her husband, having access to a bigger pool of fellow single people was a great development. In her first few years out of college, before she met Mike, “I was in the same work routine, around the same people, all the time,” Flores says, and she wasn’t exactly eager to start up a romance with any of them. But then there was Tinder, and then there was Mike.

An expanded radius of potential mates can be a great thing if you’re looking to date or hook up with a broad variety of people who are different from you, says Madeleine Fugère, a professor of psychology at Eastern Connecticut State University who specializes in attraction and romantic relationships. “Normally, if you met someone at school or at work, you would probably already have a lot in common with that person,” Fugere says. “Whereas if you’re meeting someone purely based on geographic location, there’s definitely a greater chance that they would be different from you in some way.”

But there’s also a downside to dating beyond one’s natural social environment. “People who are not very similar to their romantic partners end up at a greater risk for breaking up or for divorce,” she says. Indeed, some daters bemoan the fact that meeting on the apps means dating in a sort of context vacuum. Friends, co-workers, classmates, and/or relatives don’t show up to flesh out the complete picture of who a person is until further on in the timeline of a relationship—it’s unlikely that someone would introduce a blind date to friends right away. In the “old model” of dating, by contrast, the circumstances under which two people met organically could provide at least some measure of common ground between them.

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Some also believe that the relative anonymity of dating apps—that is, the social disconnect between most people who match on them—has also made the dating landscape a ruder, flakier, crueler place. For example, says Lundquist, the couples therapist, if you go on a date with your cousin’s roommate, the roommate has some incentive to not be a jerk to you. But with apps, “You’re meeting somebody you probably don’t know and probably don’t have any connections with at a bar on 39th Street. That’s kind of weird, and there’s a greater opportunity for people to be ridiculous, to be not nice.”

Many of the stories of bad behavior Lundquist hears from his patients take place in real life, at bars and restaurants. “I think it’s become more ordinary to stand each other up,” he says, and he’s had many patients (“men and women, though more women among straight folks”) recount to him stories that end with something along the lines of, “Oh my God, I got to the bar and he sat down and said, ‘Oh. You don’t look like what I thought you looked like,’ and walked away.”

But other users complain of rudeness even in early text interactions on the app. Some of that nastiness could be chalked up to dating apps’ dependence on remote, digital communication; the classic “unsolicited dick pic sent to an unsuspecting match” scenario, for example. Or the equally familiar tirade of insults from a match who’s been rebuffed, as Anna Xiques, a 33-year-old advertising copywriter based in Miami, experienced. In an essay on Medium in 2016 (cleverly titled “To the One That Got Away on Bumble”), she chronicled the time she frankly told a Bumble match she’d been chatting with that she wasn’t feeling it, only to be promptly called a cunt and told she “wasn’t even pretty.” (Bumble, launched in 2014 with the former Tinder executive Whitney Wolfe Herd at its helm, markets itself as a more women-friendly dating app because of its unique feature designed to curb unwanted messages: In heterosexual matches, the woman has to initiate chatting.)

Sometimes this is just how things go on dating apps, Xiques says. She’s been using them off and on for the past few years for dates and hookups, even though she estimates that the messages she receives have about a 50-50 ratio of mean or gross to not mean or gross. She’s only experienced this kind of creepy or hurtful behavior when she’s dating through apps, not when dating people she’s met in real-life social settings. “Because, obviously, they’re hiding behind the technology, right? You don’t have to actually face the person,” she says.

Perhaps the quotidian cruelty of app dating exists because it’s relatively impersonal compared with setting up dates in real life. “More and more people relate to this as a volume operation,” says Lundquist, the couples therapist. Time and resources are limited, while matches, at least in theory, are not. Lundquist mentions what he calls the “classic” scenario in which someone is on a Tinder date, then goes to the bathroom and talks to three other people on Tinder. “So there’s a willingness to move on more quickly,” he says, “but not necessarily a commensurate increase in skill at kindness.”

Holly Wood, who wrote her Harvard sociology dissertation last year on singles’ behaviors on dating sites and dating apps, heard a lot of these ugly stories too. And after speaking to more than 100 straight-identifying, college-educated men and women in San Francisco about their experiences on dating apps, she firmly believes that if dating apps didn’t exist, these casual acts of unkindness in dating would be far less common. But Wood’s theory is that people are meaner because they feel like they’re interacting with a stranger, and she partly blames the short and sweet bios encouraged on the apps.

“OkCupid,” she remembers, “invited walls of text. And that, for me, was really important. I’m one of those people who wants to feel like I have a sense of who you are before we go on a first date. Then Tinder”—which has a 500-character limit for bios—“happened, and the shallowness in the profile was encouraged.”

Wood also found that for some respondents (especially male respondents), apps had effectively replaced dating; in other words, the time other generations of singles might have spent going on dates, these singles spent swiping. Many of the men she talked to, Wood says, “were saying, ‘I’m putting so much work into dating and I’m not getting any results.’” When she asked what exactly they were doing, they said, “I’m on Tinder for hours every day.”

“We pretend that’s dating because it looks like dating and says it’s dating,” Wood says.

***

Wood’s academic work on dating apps is, it’s worth mentioning, something of a rarity in the broader research landscape. One big challenge of knowing how dating apps have affected dating behaviors, and in writing a story like this one, is that most of these apps have only been around for half a decade—hardly long enough for well-designed, relevant longitudinal studies to even be funded, let alone conducted.

Of course, even the absence of hard data hasn’t stopped dating experts—both people who study it and people who do a lot of it—from theorizing. There’s a popular suspicion, for example, that Tinder and other dating apps might make people pickier or more reluctant to settle on a single monogamous partner, a theory that the comedian Aziz Ansari spends a lot of time on in his 2015 book, Modern Romance, written with the sociologist Eric Klinenberg.

Eli Finkel, however, a professor of psychology at Northwestern and the author of The All-or-Nothing Marriage, rejects that notion. “Very smart people have expressed concern that having such easy access makes us commitment-phobic,” he says, “but I’m not actually that worried about it.” Research has shown that people who find a partner they’re really into quickly become less interested in alternatives, and Finkel is fond of a sentiment expressed in a 1997 Journal of Personality and Social Psychology paper on the subject: “Even if the grass is greener elsewhere, happy gardeners may not notice.”

Like the anthropologist Helen Fisher, Finkel believes that dating apps haven’t changed happy relationships much—but he does think they’ve lowered the threshold of when to leave an unhappy one. In the past, there was a step in which you’d have to go to the trouble of “getting dolled up and going to a bar,” Finkel says, and you’d have to look at yourself and say, “What am I doing right now? I’m going out to meet a guy. I’m going out to meet a girl,” even though you were in a relationship already. Now, he says, “you can just tinker around, just for a sort of a goof; swipe a little just ’cause it’s fun and playful. And then it’s like, oh—[suddenly] you’re on a date.”

***

The other subtle ways in which people believe dating is different now that Tinder is a thing are, quite frankly, innumerable. Some believe that dating apps’ visual-heavy format encourages people to choose their partners more superficially (and with racial or sexual stereotypes in mind); others argue that humans choose their partners with physical attraction in mind even without the help of Tinder. There are equally compelling arguments that dating apps have made dating both more awkward and less awkward by allowing matches to get to know each other remotely before they ever meet face-to-face—which can in some cases create a weird, sometimes tense first few minutes of a first date.

And for some singles in the LGBTQ community, dating apps like Tinder and Bumble have been a small miracle. They can help users locate other LGBTQ singles in an area where it might otherwise be hard to know—and their explicit spelling-out of what gender or genders a user is interested in can mean fewer awkward initial interactions. Other LGBTQ users, however, say they’ve had better luck finding dates or hookups on dating apps other than Tinder, or even on social media. “Twitter in the gay community is kind of like a dating app now. Tinder doesn’t do too well,” says Riley Rivera Moore, a 21-year-old based in Austin. Riley’s wife Niki, 23, says that when she was on Tinder, a good portion of her potential matches who were women were “a couple, and the woman had created the Tinder profile because they were looking for a ‘unicorn,’ or a third person.” That said, the recently married Rivera Moores met on Tinder.

But perhaps the most consequential change to dating has been in where and how dates get initiated—and where and how they don’t.

When Ingram Hodges, a freshman at the University of Texas at Austin, goes to a party, he goes there expecting only to hang out with friends. It’d be a pleasant surprise, he says, if he happened to talk to a cute girl there and ask her to hang out. “It wouldn’t be an abnormal thing to do,” he says, “but it’s just not as common. When it does happen, people are surprised, taken aback.”

I pointed out to Hodges that when I was a freshman in college—all of 10 years ago—meeting cute people to go on a date with or to hook up with was the point of going to parties. But being 18, Hodges is relatively new to both Tinder and dating in general; the only dating he’s known has been in a post-Tinder world. When Hodges is in the mood to flirt or go on a date, he turns to Tinder (or Bumble, which he jokingly calls “classy Tinder”), where sometimes he finds that other UT students’ profiles include instructions like “If I know you from school, don’t swipe right on me.”

Hodges knows that there was a time, way back in the day, when people mostly met through school, or work, or friends, or family. But for people his age, Hodges says, “dating has become isolated from the rest of social life.”

Hailey, a financial-services professional in Boston (who asked to only be identified by her first name because her last name is a unique one and she’d prefer to not be recognizable in work contexts), is considerably older than Hodges, but even at 34, she sees the same phenomenon in action. She and her boyfriend met on Tinder in 2014, and they soon discovered that they lived in the same neighborhood. Before long, they realized that they’d probably even seen each other around before they met.

Still, she says, “we would have never interacted had it not been for Tinder. He’s not going out all the time. I’m not going out all the time. The reality is, if he is out at a bar, he’s hanging with his friends.

“And he’s not gonna be like, ‘Hey, how’s it going?’ as we’re both getting milk or something at the grocery store,” she adds. “I don’t see that happening at all anymore.”

The Atlantic’s Kate Julian found something similar in her recent story on why today’s young people are having less sex than prior generations:

Another woman fantasized to me about what it would be like to have a man hit on her in a bookstore … But then she seemed to snap out of her reverie, and changed the subject to Sex and the City reruns and how hopelessly dated they seem. “Miranda meets Steve at a bar,” she said, in a tone suggesting that the scenario might as well be out of a Jane Austen novel, for all the relevance it had to her life.

There’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg effect when it comes to Tinder and the disentanglement of dating from the rest of social life. It’s possible, certainly, that dating apps have erected walls between the search for potential partners and the normal routines of work and community. But it’s also possible that dating apps thrive in this particular moment in history because people have stopped looking for potential partners while they go about their work and community routines.

Finkel, for one, believes that the new boundaries between romance and other forms of social interaction have their benefits—especially in a time when what constitutes sexual harassment, especially in the workplace, is being renegotiated. “People used to meet people at work, but my God, it doesn’t seem like the best idea to do that right now,” Finkel says. “For better or worse, people are setting up firmer boundaries between the personal and the professional. And we’re figuring all that stuff out, but it’s kind of a tumultuous time.” Meanwhile, he says, dating apps offer separate environments where finding dates or sex is the point.

But, naturally, with the compartmentalization of dating comes the notion that if you want to be dating, you have to be active on the apps. And that can make the whole process of finding a partner, which essentially boils down to semi-blind date after semi-blind date, feel like a chore or a dystopian game show. As my colleague Julie Beck wrote in 2016,

Now that the shine of novelty has worn off these apps, they aren’t fun or exciting anymore. They’ve become a normalized part of dating. There’s a sense that if you’re single, and you don’t want to be, you need to do something to change that. If you just sit on your butt and wait to see if life delivers you love, then you have no right to complain.

Hailey has heard her friends complain that dating now feels like a second, after-hours job; Twitter is rife with sentiments similar in tone. It’s not uncommon nowadays to hear singles say wistfully that they’d just like to meet someone in real life.

Of course, it’s quite possible that this is a new problem created by the solving of an old one.

A decade ago, the complaint that Lundquist, the couples therapist, heard most often was, “Boy, I just don’t meet any interesting people.” Now, he says, “it’s more like, ‘Oh, God, I meet all these not-interesting people.’”

“It’s cliche to say, but it’s a numbers game,” Lundquist adds. “So the assumption is, the odds are pretty good that [any given date] will suck, but, you know. Whatever. You’ve gotta do it.”

Finkel, for his part, puts it a little more bluntly. To him, there’s one thing that all these wistful romantics, longing for the days of yore when people met in real life, are missing: that Tinder, Bumble, and Hinge—like eHarmony, OkCupid, and Match.com before them—exist because meeting in real life is really hard.

“I’m not saying that it’s not a hassle to go on bad dates. It is a nuisance. You could be hanging out with your friends, you could be sleeping, you could be reading a book,” he says. But, Finkel adds, singletons of generations past would “break out the world’s smallest violin” for young people who complain about Tinder dates becoming a chore.

“It’s like, Ugh so many dates, and they’re just not that interesting,” Finkel adds with a laugh. “It used to be hard to find someone to date!”

Ashley Fetters is a staff writer at The Atlantic.

What Pocket Users are Saying

  • Dami Ajayi

    October 6, 2019

    “Even if the grass is greener elsewhere, happy gardeners may not notice.”

  • Ravi Sandhu

    December 24, 2018

    A very fascinating read.

  • chantel nx

    September 12, 2019

    Super fascinating.

  • Hulk

    June 13, 2019

    It’s possible, certainly, that dating apps have erected walls between the search for potential partners and the normal routines of work and community. But it’s also possible that dating apps thrive in this particular moment in history because people have stopped looking for potential partners while they go about their work and community routines.

    Finkel, for one, believes that the new boundaries between romance and other forms of social interaction have their benefits—especially in a time when what constitutes sexual harassment, especially in the workplace, is being renegotiated.

  • Aurimas Račas

    December 28, 2018

    Another woman fantasized to me about what it would be like to have a man hit on her in a bookstore … But then she seemed to snap out of her reverie, and changed the subject to Sex and the City reruns and how hopelessly dated they seem. “Miranda meets Steve at a bar,” she said, in a tone suggesting that the scenario might as well be out of a Jane Austen novel, for all the relevance it had to her life.

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