Mary Rolfes: Finding love? There’s an app for that

Wednesday, September 11, 2019 - 4:58pm

“So... how did you two meet?” was a question I dreaded hearing, and one I typically answered with half-truths. Sometimes I would say we met at the coffee shop where we had our first official date. Other times I would respond vaguely with the city where we’d met and hope for no further questions. Occasionally I would claim it was a rogue LinkedIn message that brought us together. Every one of these partial truths concealed the honest beginning of our relationship, because we met in a way I was convinced no great love story could possibly begin. We met online.

More specifically, we met on a dating app, one making the seemingly counterintuitive claim that it’s “designed to be deleted.” While Hinge has been around for about as long as Tinder has, its rise in popularity has been more recent. Marketing itself as a dating app for people who want to get off dating apps, it differs from many of its dating app siblings both in profile appearance and liking mechanism. The app features answers to short prompts and personal interests alongside profile pictures, and "likes" are meant to be tailored to each profile instead of a recurrent right swipe. These choices do seem designed with relationships in mind, focusing on personality compatibility and customized first interactions rather than superficial attraction and copy-and-paste icebreakers.

Still, it’s easy to be skeptical about the ability to form a true connection via Wi-Fi connection. Topping the App Store’s Lifestyle category chart, Tinder has played a significant role in the growth of online dating, which means it has a huge impact on how online dating is perceived. And whether through design or through user experience, Tinder has gained a reputation as a "hook-up" app, which has impacted the wider perception of online dating – to many, its utility is limited to short-term partnerships and casual flings. This reputation, along with an assortment of other reasons, stigmatizes meeting online as unnatural and even desperate. But as online dating becomes more and more prevalent, it’s important to question the reason for the swiping game shame and change attitudes about starting a relationship online.

Part of the stigma surrounding meeting online may come from the remnants of the internet’s beginnings. From the Craigslist Killer to Chris Hansen’s “To Catch a Predator,” the media’s portrayal of those seeking a digital connection was defined by outsiders and people with ulterior motives, and stranger danger was expanded to the entire web. However, with the expansion of social media, it’s much easier to verify a Tinder match’s identity. By following a few simple guidelines, online dating can be a perfectly safe way of meeting someone. To many people, it can feel even safer than traditional dating. Getting to know someone from a distance presents a unique relationship phase that removes the pressure and immediacy of face-to-face interaction. It can make it easier to notice red flags and judge a situation rationally. In addition, bringing the relationship offline for the first time can be carefully planned so both parties feel safe and in control. Of course, we should still be diligent about letting trusted sources know about our plans for the first time we meet someone offline. But this isn’t a caution unique to online dating; it is the same as letting a friend know who we are leaving a party with or alerting a parent about an early morning run at the Arb. It is a fairly standard measure we take in many parts of our lives, not just for Bumble dates.

Yet for many, the hesitation surrounding dating apps isn’t about fear; it’s about following the rules. Isn’t using a dating app sort of cheating? Winning a game by cheating isn’t really winning at all. Love is meant to happen spontaneously, not through swipes, and every great love story begins with some sort of meet-cute. According to Insider senior reporter Lindsay Dodgson, the convenience provided by dating apps might even be destroying love. But classifying dating apps as the easy way out leads to questions about many of the more traditional, "valid" ways to potentially meet significant others. For some, going out to parties, bars and clubs is almost exclusively about finding a match. People join certain activities and enroll in certain courses in hopes of capturing a certain type of person. A true connection is expected to be unexpected, but in reality, many people are actively looking to date to a certain extent, whether through swiping, socializing or their sociology course. Dating online doesn’t remove the possibility of spontaneity, either. What could be more unexpected than an algorithm creating an opportunity for a perfect match out of thousands or even millions of possible pairings? A well-crafted first message can certainly make for a wonderful meet-cute story.  

Modern technology has significantly changed how we do pretty much everything, including communicating, applying to college, ordering a cab and, yes, dating. Embracing these changes breaks down stigmas and creates a society more open to non-traditional ways of finding the one. Plus, couples with online origins will no longer need to sweat the question, “So... how did you two meet?” That might actually be a pretty cute story.

Mary Rolfes can be reached at morolfes@umich.edu.