I can’t remember how we started talking, only that we were sitting on the rooftop of a friend’s house with the fake leather of the sofa underneath us tacky on the back of my thighs. He wasn’t my usual type. In his vintage football shirt and mullet he looked a bit like an art school student, but he was funny enough to make up for it. We spoke about the benefits of dating posh people and he said they always know good restaurants and then offered to take me to the pizza one his ex showed him. I joked that pizza is never that expensive even when it’s fancy and he said, “Exactly!” We talked and talked until the sky turned raspberry ripple colour and it was time to go home and I jumped in an Uber and he texted me on the way home saying that he liked my snake print boots. We messaged for a couple of days after that, until eventually he stopped replying.
A few years ago a situation like this would have materialised into a date. As would that guy I kissed all night through club smoke a week later. The teacher I met through Hinge would have actually taken me to see the new Bond film we talked about. But this stuff doesn’t happen any more, we find connections and then we let them fall through our hands, we choose nights out with friends instead of date nights, we work too hard to make time to go out at all, we delete dating apps, redownload them and try again, then ignore the people we match with. It’s not my fault and it’s not the fault of the men I’m approaching. It’s dating as a whole. It’s in crisis.
It has been 10 years since Tinder revolutionised the landscape of dating by allowing its users to swipe right to like someone, and left to say no. In February it celebrated an impressive 75m monthly active users, but apps are coming under increased criticism as more of us begin to question the benefits of our constant swiping. The rate at which people download and delete dating apps is second only to online gambling, and a recent study from the Pew Research Center found that 45% of people who used dating apps recently said they left them feeling more frustrated than hopeful.
“Everyone’s got so flakey,” says Amy, 27, from London. “When you meet someone through an app you have no loyalty to that person, they don’t know your friends, they don’t work with you, so it’s all too easy for them to not follow up on promises.” Amy’s right, apps have moved dating from the public into the private sphere and in doing so they have removed any accountability. Now we connect with people when we’re shut away at home, under duvets, behind closed doors, which makes it so much easier to behave badly. We bench (put partners on hold until we find someone better), breadcrumb (provide enough attention to keep someone interested without ever actually committing) and ghost (disappear without explanation).
Others complain of “swipe fatigue”, when the pressure to match with and talk to multiple people at once starts to feel overwhelming. “I don’t think our brains are meant to process that many people in one go,” says Maddie, 25, from Leeds. “I have room for two and maybe at a push three, so why am I talking to like 10 guys?” Maddie mentions that it starts to feel like a “full-time job” communicating with people. Faced with this endless conveyor belt of faces people become increasingly disposable to us.
Amy and Maddie deleted their dating apps in July, because they were starting to make them feel depressed. When they opened them up it felt as if their chests were sinking and they hadn’t been on a date in months. I did the same, then recently ended up downloading mine again for another try and was surprised at how noticeably empty it all felt. When I first subscribed three years ago I was met with a stream of cute guys with sandy summer skin, small hoop earrings and fleeces sitting on broken camping chairs at festivals. There wasn’t any of that this time, just men flexing their biceps in the gym, taking dull-eyed selfies in the driver side of their cars. It was like everyone had left except for the hardcore reply guys who make apps even worse. I only matched with 10 men where before I started off with about 40 and the number grew to more than 100. Once again, I deleted it.
The growing backlash against dating apps sounds like an exciting prospect. Will we lean over and start chatting up people on trains, asking them what they think of the book they’re reading, that you just happened to have finished two weeks ago? The two of you sharing tiny bottles of wine from the tea trolley until you realise you’re soulmates somewhere outside Stevenage. Maybe you’ll dare to approach the new girl at the office with the suede jacket and the messy fringe and ask if you can take her for dinner sometime.
Emily Rhodes, creative foresight analyst at the Future Laboratory consultancy is not so sure. “It’s become so formalised to look for dates through apps now that we’ve forgotten how to approach people in person. We worry if it’s inappropriate, if we might say something wrong or that the other person isn’t interested. On an app you can see on the profile what a person is looking for, something serious or casual. It’s all about communication and without apps maybe we’d have to relearn these social cues.”
Dating apps have changed us and in reality there’s probably no going back. When people don’t use apps, it doesn’t mean they start meeting in person, it just means they don’t meet anyone at all. A friend of mine recently compared the situation to Uber and the way the ride sharing app monopolised the market by offering crazily low fares so that even though it barely works any more you have no option but to use it, standing and waiting while car after car cancels your trip. I can’t remember the last time someone approached me at a party, or when I did the same to someone else. We’re now so used to conducting our dating life via our phones, when we’re out we never think of meeting anyone. The day after a big night out I’ll remember that there were actually hot guys there – I just didn’t talk to them. That’s something I save for when I’m on my phone waiting for food to warm up in the microwave. When you do manage to meet anyone IRL they’re just as lazy. The malaise of dating through apps has spilled out into everyday life so that we see everyone as disposable. That guy I mentioned earlier was someone I did actually meet at a party and still our conversation faded after a couple of days. Maybe I used an emoji he didn’t like, or he thought there were better options. All I know is neither me, nor many of my friends have made it beyond a second date in a long time.
For Rhodes, “Change is going to have to come from the dating app because the app has changed the game so much.” The amount of choice these apps provide is something we would find it hard to relinquish, even if that choice rarely translates into a date with someone you really like. “You can find a bigger pool of people using these formats, ones that you might not come across in your daily life. That’s the benefit of digital dating really, the sheer amount of people on there, and the ability to find people beyond your work, your circle of friends.”
In an attempt to forge deeper and more meaningful connections, apps are now responding to the current crisis in dating with personality-first or more niche formats. There’s Schmooze which attempts to match singles based on their humour. Ilios uses astrology to find your perfect partner, and Kippo allows you to date in the metaverse as a playable character. Snack, meanwhile, is a video-based dating app. And on the even more obscure side, there’s apps for clowns, farmers and people with beards.
“When we see app companies introducing new features, we’re just like, fantastic, you’re missing the point yet again,” says Matt McNeill Love, co-founder of Thursday, the rapidly growing dating app and events company. “No amount of gimmicks, videos, voice notes on your profiles, icebreaker games, vegan-only dating apps, gym lover-apps, is going to fix the issue with the singles market which is that at some point you’re going to have to get face-to-face and you’re better doing that sooner rather than later. You can spend weeks getting to know someone, building up this image of who they are and then you go for a coffee with them and it’s a complete letdown because they’re not who you thought they were.”
Thursday, which has been around since May last year, markets itself as the “offline dating app” and aims to get singles off their phones and in front of each other as quickly as possible. It only works on Thursdays and anyone you match with will disappear by midnight, meaning if you want to meet them you have to act fast. This year the company has branched out beyond the app to in-person singles events, also only on Thursdays. “What we’ve gone on to realise is not everybody likes the online-dating side,” McNeill Love explains. “What singles really want is to be around other singles in an environment that makes them feel comfortable.” Since March, Thursday has sold more than 100,000 tickets to their events, and they range from fitness classes to art classes, and cocktail bars to boat parties, fashion shows and more.
The success of these events is interesting given there’s still quite a lot of stigma surrounding singles nights. My flatmate has been persuading me to go for ages, but I can’t imagine anyone hot would be there. I just keep picturing myself sitting across from some sad man in a wrinkled suit who’s telling me what a cow his ex wife was. “It’s not speed dating,” clarifies McNeill Love. “There’s not any cringey icebreaker activities going on, some rep going around saying, ‘You have to talk to this person,’ or anyone asking you what your favourite pet is. It’s a normal event, a fitness class, a gallery, it’s just that everyone there happens to be single.” He mentions a particularly successful night they put on at a bar in Waterloo. “We put in 50% males, 50% females of a certain age at a certain time on a Thursday night and it sells out every single time, because it’s just like being out on a normal night of the week, except you’ve got a much better chance of meeting someone.”
It sounds great, but if it’s just like going to a normal bar, it’s unclear why we have to rely on these events rather than just meeting people out in the world. Why can’t we go back to life before apps when it wasn’t strange to strike up a conversation in public? “There’s a comfort in knowing everyone else is single and is there for the same thing,” explains McNeill Love. “You can be as confident as you like, but if you start approaching people on a Saturday night you’re going to get rejected a lot more than you get accepted.”
Thursday isn’t the only place people are seeking offline connections, there’s been a spike in speed dating events, singles nights and matchmaking services at a more grassroots level. Cem A, the admin behind the art meme account Freeze decided to organise his own dating event after it became clear that exhibitions and private views were a great place to meet new people with similar interests. Sex therapist Eliza Lawrence organises a genderless dating event at 180 The Strand. In Liverpool there’s BODA or Bored of Dating Apps, a series of in-person events that focus on what organiser Jessica Hope-Evans calls “more mindful dating”, which could mean anything from dumpling-making masterclasses to sip and paint evenings. Matchmaking service Bowes-Lyon Partnership claims that 75% of its members form a long-term relationship, which sounds great, although that’s only if you can afford the annual membership fee of £10,000.
“You get a moment to actually talk to someone that maybe you wouldn’t have fancied if you just saw their online profile,” says Sam Rubinstein, founder of Link Ting, a speed-dating event that takes place around London. “Maybe they’re quite extroverted and you like that, maybe they’ve got a nice voice and you like that. It’s just about giving people opportunities.” Rubinstein came up with the idea after they became a hairdresser and started noticing that their 99.9% queer clientele would get on really well with each other. “Someone would come in and talk about being single and I’d think, you’d get on so well with my previous client.”
Rubinstein is telling me about an upcoming Link Ting event where people are going to draw portraits of each other. It strikes me as a very intimate thing to do and it makes me wonder whether there’s a possibility we’re getting to a place where we are more comfortable putting ourselves out there. Hannah Clifton, 33, from Liverpool and a regular at BODA thinks so. “You just have to look at how many people turn up to these sorts of events on their own to see that things are changing. To me, that’s brave and shows how willing someone is to be vulnerable in their search for finding someone.”
Among my friends I’ve also started to notice a change. One of them is keen to go to a local football game because they’ve heard hot guys go there. We’ve introduced each other to men we know are each other’s type at parties. Another told me recently about a guy who chatted her up on the tube. “Nice turnip,” he said looking down at the produce overspilling from the brown paper bag full of farmer’s market produce. They’re going out together on Wednesday.
“I feel hopeful,” I said to my friend when she told me about her date and thinking about the potential dates coming my way. “Thinking things could be different is half the battle,” she said. “That’s what makes people text back, that’s what makes us keep trying.”
Notes on Heartbreak by Annie Lord is published by Orion at £16.99. Buy it for £14.78 at guardianbookshop.com. The paperback is out next summer