I tried seven dating apps in seven days

Wednesday, November 11, 2015 - 6:21pm

This week, we put three Daily Arts Writers to the test: they picked a subject they could immerse themselves in, then wrote a first-person narrative about their experience. You can read the other pieces in this issue here and here.

*Disclaimer: All names have been changed to protect the identities of the individuals. The author did not identify herself as a reporter for The Daily, and no conversations have been recorded without consent.

Seven days, seven dates: Tinder, Bumble, Hinge, OkCupid, Coffee Meets Bagel, Match.com and my real life best friends vying to make the perfect match.

For context, I have never been on a date with anyone I met online. As a 20-year-old college senior, I in no way claim to be an expert in anything love, sex or relationship-related. The intent of this social exercise was to explore firsthand some disparities between dating in real life to dating on new media. I simply posed as the subject of my own experiment, and I’m here to relay my personal observations.

Since its release as a $750 million start-up in 2012, Tinder has boasted over 9 billion matches. Match, the parent company that owns Tinder, OkCupid, Match.com and other dating apps, touted a $49.3 million profit in the first half of this year. The company just filed to go public three weeks ago.

As freshmen, my friends and I giggled abashedly as we downloaded the app, only to swipe sarcastically, we affirmed. Though we stood proudly as anti-slut shamers, we turned a side-eye to those who prowled for casual sex, and even more for long-term relationships. Especially with aggressive pick-up lines like, “Your cute wanna fuck?” — there has stemmed a sense of stigma with its use. News sources have criticized the app for “ruining romance” and inciting the “dawn of the dating apocalypse” — pinning culprit on the millennials who use it.

Contrarily, in New York City this past summer, with a much larger swiping vicinity, my coworkers’ solution to all my dating woes was always, “Have you ever tried Tinder?” In the Big Apple, dating apps aren’t taboo; they’re simply ways to make an isolating city intimate, a way to meet like-minded individuals you typically wouldn’t. In Ann Arbor, with less opportunity for mobility, stumbling across friends (or GSIs) on the app always feels too close for comfort.

However, John Cacioppo, a psychology professor at the University of Chicago, found that more than one third of marriages between 2005 and 2012 started on the Internet. In his 2013 study, he ascertained that couples who have met online have 1.6 percent fewer marriage breakups, and also higher marriage satisfaction ratings.

Currently, the average age for first marriage is 27 for women and 29 for men – a wedlock rate down 10 percent from just the previous generation. Though Cacioppo’s study proved positive long-term effects, how does online dating fare with casual relationships among millennials at a time when they aren’t necessarily looking for The One?

So, with mixed responses, I delved further into the world of cyber romance — warily, but with an open mind. For the purposes of my study, I limited my age range from 22 to 30, a pool representative of “millennials” — mostly upperclassmen and recent post-grads.

On the first night, Tinder’s new “super-like” feature landed me at Marnee Thai for dinner with Matt*, a 24-year-old University graduate student whom I found physically attractive enough and his profile intriguing enough to reciprocate his super-like.

However, like many stories go, his unkempt facial hair didn’t quite mirror the carefully vetted photos on his profile — and his bio’s claim that he had studied across Asia didn’t actually materialize itself into a cultured personality. On “paper” (online), we had common interests in travel, literature and art museums — but when discussing in depth and in person, we realized how vague “commonalities” were really just dissimilarities.

After our two-hour dinner, Matt still had no idea where I was originally from, what my college major was, what my career aspirations were — no details about my family, friends or hobbies. While I attempted to reciprocate genuine curiosity about his life in response to his online “super-like,” I never felt his real-life interest reciprocated back.

Had Matt and I initially met each other in person, it would have been evident within the first five minutes that we couldn’t be well-suited romantic partners. We wouldn’t have wasted time over a superficial dinner or poured effort into online impression management. However, offline — in person — we probably wouldn’t have had the chance to meet each other in the first place.

My Bumble, Hinge, OkCupid and Coffee Meets Bagel dates all ensued in a similar fashion — with men where there was fleeting cyber infatuation, but little chemistry in real life. Our lack of connection wasn’t necessarily due to a deficiency on my or their part. Rather, it was simply a lack of social and dispositional compatibility that a mobile app couldn’t possibly discern with six photos and a three-line bio.

On day two, I tried Hinge. While all the apps paired by proximity, Hinge took similarity-pairing to another level — matching based on mutual Facebook friends — forming connections that could very well be made in person in real life. My coffee date with Patrick*, a 23-year-old recent University grad who shared few acquaintances, didn’t incite any romantic sparks, but we found a platonic affability from which we could keep in touch as friends.

After OkCupid and Coffee Meets Bagel, I’d seen many of the same men across the different apps. I felt like I’d small-talked all of Ann Arbor to the point where I copied and pasted the same responses to the same stale questions: What was I for Halloween? Did I have a favorite travel destination? Did I want to come over that night at 11 p.m.?

On day five, I explored Bumble, an app founded by Whitney Wolfe, the sole female co-founder of Tinder, one year after she sued her original company for sexual harassment. Inspired by Wolfe’s experiences with sexism, Bumble contests traditional gender conventions by giving females 24 hours to initiate conversation before their match disappears. Though the men on the app should presumably be comfortable with women making the first move, I received comments calling out my “confidence,” “assertive” nature and “forward” personality. After lunch with Logan*, a 25-year-old model from London, he “teased” that I should pick up the bill — because that’s what a “feminist Bumble-user like (my)self would do, right?” Though I generally have no issue paying on dates, I want my generosity to stem from pleasure instead of obligation. The criticisms that dating apps favored men more evidently peaked through.

By day six, I reached my final app: the dreaded Match.com. Notoriously a serious platform geared toward a middle-aged demographic, I worried about finding men in my 22-30 range. Unlike the five free mobile apps I tried, Match thoroughly vetted potential candidates — down to the most minute of preferences in both appearance and personality.

First and foremost, I realized how appearance profiles weren’t based on reality — but rather on the confidence (or cockiness) which one chose to convey oneself. Some response options to the “body type” question included:  “slender,” “athletic and toned,” “heavyset” and “a few extra pounds.” Not only did I have to classify myself, but I also had to preference the physique of my ideal date — as well as the option to make body type a “deal-breaker” quality. However, even if I demanded an “athletic and toned” man, I would only end up with someone who deemed himself worthy of that title.

I knew I reached a red flag zone when inquired about my marriage history, potential children and current salary — queries rarely of careful contemplation to a younger audience. Perhaps more disturbingly, the site forced me to preference his relationship status and salary range (in case I wanted to date a married father or a Sugar Daddy).

Ultimately, though I value Match’s careful selection process, the site certainly revealed the discriminatory side of dating apps. Match.com forced me to be picky — but in superficial terms of appearance and financial worth.

After navigating through the “winks,” “likes” and “faves” the site offers, I deemed one message worthy of pursuing: Connor* was 29, but his photos coddled puppies and his four paragraph biography detailed his adventures around 38 countries in the past year. His hobbies included tea, yoga and, simply, “massage.” I never would have imagined I’d be on a Match.com date, but there we sat at Mani Osteria with our napkins in our laps and pizza fresh on our plates. Compared to the previous five dates, it was actually the most pleasant, perhaps because our similarities were so carefully vetted.

While all five of the apps I tried are free, Match puts a $16.99 per month price tag on the elusive concept of love — which consequently heightens the desperation to find romance when attached to a fiscal investment. For its target demographic, Match may be worth the pretty penny — but for a generation that isn’t looking for Mr. or Mrs. Right, it seems silly to make a monetary transaction for a relationship.

Another observation: dating apps bred a desperation I never knew I had. As a college senior planning to move across the country soon, I rarely yearn for romantic commitment or even companionship at this point. However, after just one week perusing six different sites, I developed a vicious addiction to checking and rechecking for matches — a guilty pleasure in selectively replying to messages that gave me a lurid ownership over my dating life.

Ultimately, these are all my singular experiences with the apps — neither representative of all experiences, nor my future luck on the same apps.

A week before my experiment, I had given my friends the task of finding me a blind date — a match made the “old fashioned” way. After seven entire days, they returned with text messages from their male friends:

“Lol a blind date? That’s so weird.”

“#tbt to the 19th century.”

“How would I know she’s not a monster or a serial killer?”

All these messages came before even seeing my photo or learning any personal details.

Though I expected real-life match-making to occur much more organically than any app encounter, the guys in real life seemed to make the situation far more awkward (and frustrating) than any initial message on Tinder or Match.com. They may often be labeled as for the “desperate” or the “thirsty,” but apps have become more popular for dating, regardless of how stigmatized.

In real life, initial face-to-face conversations with crushes are (and always have been) clunky and terse. Perhaps the issue with “the Millennial generation” is not that we’re “flighting from conversation,” but that we’ve reconstructed methods of communication to make us feel more comfortable – and in turn, make us more approachable.

In real life, there’s no way 35 “matches” could (or want to) pine after me. Online, it’s easy to feel wanted — lusted after in the moment. However, the fallacy of reality is that the initial desire often dissipates when online chemistry doesn’t translate outside of cyberspace.

Ultimately, the goal of any relationship is to build a connection. Does it matter whether that’s done through a real friend or through an online venture?