The Big Secret of Every Dating App: Tech Doesn’t Matter

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Photo: Godong/Getty Images

Two years ago, I broke up with my boyfriend and, one month later, became a sex columnist. Since then I have been dating nonstop in every conceivable manner. I have used 15 dating apps personally and half a dozen others on behalf of friends and acquaintances. (I’m either the Cyrano de Bergerac of Grindr or a serial catfisher.) I love dating apps. I advocate for them all the time. I steal people’s phones and install dating apps on them when they aren’t looking. But I also think the vast majority of discourse around dating apps — including discourse coming from dating-app designers — is garbage. Every time a new dating app comes out (or an old one gets new features), we talk about its matching algorithm, swiping patterns, protocols, and gimmicks. But I have come to believe that the technology powering any one dating app doesn’t matter at all. The only thing that matters is its users.

In other words: It’s not the technology, it’s the marketing — and what kind of people that marketing attracts.

This idea is so simple that it almost defies explanation. We choose our dating apps the same way we choose bars, parties, coffee shops, concerts, and everywhere else we go with the vague hope of finding a mate — based on the people. Sure, you may prefer the drinks at this bar, or the décor at another — just as you may prefer the user interface of one app or the chat features of another — but the make-or-break factor in whether you stick around to flirt, or clam up and leave, is the crowd. The atmosphere may affect the way you interact: Is the bar so loud that you have to yell? Does the app have rules about who is allowed to initiate contact? (For his second-ever episode of The Daily Show, Trevor Noah interviewed the founder of Bumble, a dating app that requires women to initiate contact. I used to go to a bar that required this, too.) But ultimately the window dressing is beside the point. Because no matter how much dating behavior changes, the goal of dating remains exactly the same: Everyone is sifting through eligible strangers with the hope of finding one who will stick — be it for a lifetime, for a night, or for one happy hour. If you don’t find what you’re looking for in one place, then you switch.

(The only reason this principle wouldn’t feel obvious is because, on the subject of dating apps, America has been brainwashed by two nominally opposing forces that are actually mutually reinforcing: On one side are stodgy technophobes, who insist that dating apps are destroying romance and cheapening sex. On the other side are dating-app founders and investors, who claim they are “changing the world” by liberating love. But these opposing forces are, on a philosophical level, aligned: Both assume “online dating” is different from, and disruptive to, every other form of dating — which it is not.)

Some dating apps will tell you their algorithms provide better matches — and maybe they’d be right, if they didn’t have so many competitors. But with new apps getting launched every few months — and all apps fighting for popularity in a rapidly fluctuating market — the dating app you’ll like best is, invariably, the one that happens to have a user base that fits the demographic of people you want.

How do you know if an app’s users are people you’ll like? The obvious answer is to, you know, try it. But I have noticed a correlation between how long an app has been on the market, and how many good dates I can find on it — which boils down to how many degrees of separation I want between my dates and the tech industry. When the app is brand-new, its users are the tech-industry people. Next, the base expands to whomever the app is specifically marketing itself to, which usually amounts to “friends of tech-industry people” or “specific segment of the founder’s friends.” (The League targeted its overachiever friends. Raya targeted its rich nightlife friends.) In Silicon Valley, these tech-industry-adjacent users are called “early adopters.” In the dating world, they are generally called “nerds.” If you like dating nerds, then you should use apps when they are new.

The next wave of users, known in tech as “first followers,” are the friends of the friends of the people who designed the app. This second wave is, for me, the best moment to use an app: Most users have at least two degrees of separation from the tech industry (there will be no tech-bro best men at my wedding), but the pool isn’t yet wide enough to include aspiring male models and gym rats. The app’s journey from tech insiders to the mainstream — as well as the speed with which it moves — will be shaped by marketing, media attention, and word of mouth. As the population changes, so will the mood of the app.

Here’s a rough breakdown of 15 dating apps I have experimented with, and the kinds of users that typified them at the last time I browsed:

Tinder: Single people who hang out at bars.

OKCupid: Single people who hang out at coffee shops.

Match: Squares.

JDate: Jewish squares.

eHarmony: Christian squares.

Ashley Madison: Horny married guys.

Blendr: Horny single guys.

3nder: Horny married guys and horny single guys.

Heavenly Sinful: People with virgin-whore complexes.

Happn: People with nice jeans who live near your subway stop.

How About We: Socality Barbie.

Coffee Meets Bagel: Risk-averse nice guys.

The League: Hedge funds and Hamptons.

Raya: Heiresses and DJs.

Naturally, many of these groups overlap. (OKCupid is just Tinder with more words and fewer alcoholics.) Just as a single girl may visit more than one bar or neighborhood while trolling for dick, she may use more than one dating app, with varying degrees of frequency and fervor. There are many men she could probably fall in love with, hanging out at any number of places where she could meet them, as well as anomalous men who pop up in places she doesn’t expect to meet them. Dating apps — like all of dating — are simply a system for putting yourself out there, in a variety of places, to whatever degree you feel like playing the odds.

As it happens, I’m not playing the odds anymore. I met my boyfriend the old-fashioned way: through a friend at a bar late at night while drunk. But we weren’t exclusive until, several months later, we matched on Tinder — forcing us to admit that neither of us really wanted to use that app anymore. Given the prolific dating-app use that preceded this event, some would say my story is proof that dating apps don’t work. But I prefer to see it as proof that dating apps, like all social situations, are malleable. They’re whatever you and the people you meet there want them to be. I didn’t use an app to hook up with my boyfriend — but we did use a hookup app to settle down.