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 Illustration by James Melaugh.

On paper, it’s a great time to be on a dating app. In the seven years since Tinder’s entrance on to the dating scene in 2012, it has gone from fringe novelty to romantic ubiquity; within two years of launching, it was seeing 1bn swipes a day. Other apps have similarly impressive stats: in 2018, Bumble’s global brand director revealed it had more than 26 million users and a confirmed 20,000 marriages.

It’s a far cry from the considerably less optimistic response Tinder received when it launched. Many hailed it as the end of romance itself. In a now infamous Vanity Fair article, Nancy Jo Sales even went so far as to suggest it would usher in the “dating apocalypse”.

This scepticism, clearly, did not have much of an impact. Bumble’s marriages don’t seem to be a fluke; though figures vary, a recent study from the University of New Mexico found meeting online had finally overtaken meeting through friends, with 39% of American couples first connecting through an app.

However, a new study, published last month in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, was less positive, finding compulsive use made swipers feel lonelier than they did in the first place. This was particularly bad for those with low self-esteem: the less confident someone was, the more compulsive their use – and the worse they felt at the end of it.

This echoes what is felt by many users. While the web-based dating sites such as Match.com, which apps have largely superceded, aren’t without issues, swipe-based apps have brought with them a new layer of anxiety, prompting an increasing number of users to report malaise.

In fact swipe fatigue has prompted some daters to try an analogue approach. A few years ago, when Tindermania was in full swing, visiting a matchmaker would have seemed outdated at best, tragic at worst. In 2019, the industry has not only prevailed but thrived: gone is matchmaking’s fusty image, replaced with Instagram-worthy, blush-pink branding and a far more inclusive ethos.

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 ‘It can feel quite addictive’: Tinder’s swipey interface. Photograph: Alamy

Caroline Brealey founded Mutual Attraction, a London-based matchmaking service, eight years ago; since then, she says, the company has seen a dramatic increase in younger clients. People are fed up with the online experience, she believes, left jaded by what they see as its transactional nature. “One of the key differences with matchmaking is you’re working one on one,” she says. Unlike online dating, which can see you ghosted even after meeting, matchmakers give you feedback. Crucially, they only match you with others who are seriously looking for a relationship.

An even younger demographic – undergraduate students – also seems to be worrying about its odds of finding love online. The Marriage Pact project, initially created at Stanford and being rolled out to other universities including Oxford, seeks to provide a “marital backup plan” for students, with couples paired off via a questionnaire and algorithm. With one participant gloomily noting on Facebook that her Marriage Pact partner hadn’t even responded to a friend request, the service may not provide a smooth path to everlasting love, either. But with nearly 5,000 students signing up in Stanford alone, it does indicate that even carefree, digital-first young people are concerned about their online prospects and want an app-free alternative.

So in the face of all this gloom, what exactly is it that makes Tinder, Bumble and the rest so perpetually compelling? “Tinder doesn’t actually present anything radically new,” explains Michael Gratzke, chair of the Love Research Network, based at the University of Hull. Dating apps, Gratzke says, closely mimic the way we make snap decisions about people in real life: “When we enter a room, it takes seconds to sort who we see.”

Gratzke may be right about this – after all, the discourse around Tinder’s ability to destroy the concept of love tends to be overblown. But there is one thing about it that differs from traditional love: that dangerous, delicious swipe.

There’s been a lot of talk recently about the addictive nature of social media. Tech companies have built in features to help us manage our use of their products; Republican senator Josh Hawley has proposed a bill to limit how long users can spend online; and a well publicised campaign against the addictive nature of smartphones has been launched by ex-Google product designer Tristan Harris, who has first-hand experience of how technology seeks to monopolise our lives and attention spans.

Tinder, Bumble and other apps with a swiping mechanism could easily fall under this purview – one of their most common critiques is that they “gamify” dating. Anecdotally, this tends to be the primary reason my friends complain about apps: the endless presentation of profiles to be judged and sorted into “yes” and “no” piles does, after a while, have the uncanny feel of a game, not a search for love.

Research also bears this out, with Katy Coduto, lead author of the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships study, suggesting that limiting swipes could be one way of making the experience less addictive. In theory, Tinder already does this, giving you 100 likes per day. But you can easily get round this – Tinder Gold subscribers, who pay for extra features, get unlimited right swipes.

It’s no surprise Tinder can feel addictive – the same mechanism is used in gambling, lotteries and video games. In a 2018 documentary, Tinder cofounder Jonathan Badeen admitted its algorithm had been inspired by the behavioural reinforcement psychology he’d learned about as an undergraduate. Referred to as a variable ratio reward schedule, in it participants are given a number of unpredictable responses before the one they want, in this case a match. The unexpected hit of the win reinforces the searching behaviour, which is why you keep on swiping.

But none of this is to say user experience design is the only reason people aren’t finding what they’re looking for. Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist, has been Match.com’s chief scientific adviser since 2005. The real problem, she argues, is that we simply don’t know what we’re doing. “This is new technology and nobody has ever told us how to use it.” We shouldn’t even be thinking of these tools as “dating apps”, says Fisher. “They’re not dating sites, they’re introducing sites. The only thing they can do is if you require a certain type of person, they give you that person. That’s all any app can ever do.” If someone ghosts you, lies to you or there’s simply no spark? That’s not a tech problem – it’s a human problem.

Whether we’re searching for love online or off, we’re likely to stay bound by the inexplicable foibles of the human psyche. That’s not to say apps themselves have nothing to do with our dating woes – as Coduto says, something about that slot-machine satisfaction when we get a match isn’t quite as fulfilling as we’d like and the endless choice of partners soon seems less than liberating.

Fisher’s solution? Log off when you’ve spoken to nine people. More than this and we’re cognitively overloaded, she argues, leading to romantic fatigue. If they don’t work out? Get offline completely, she says. Meet someone in a park or a bar, ask friends for an introduction or approach someone on the street.

And if that fails, too? Well, true love could still be just a swipe away.

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