One of the first things I did when a long relationship ended in 2019 was download a dating app – mainly motivated, I must admit, by fantasies about my ex’s reaction to seeing my profile. Since then, I’ve never really stopped. I sit on them during TV ad breaks, while I’m waiting for the microwave to ping, in all those pockets of time where I used to listen to my own thoughts. In bed I lie on my back scrolling until my hand tingles because all the blood has run from it. Yet, despite my commitment, they’ve not found me a boyfriend, or even much sex. In fact, they’ve done the complete opposite to what I thought they would do when I first heard about them. They don’t make anything easy – they make it much harder.
I was at university when the people around me first started using Tinder. I had a boyfriend back then, so I never signed up. But I remember being jealous of the people who did. It would make it so much easier to find someone, I assumed: you wouldn’t have to waste nights out chatting to people in the smoking area only to find out they have a girlfriend, or open the door to rejection by writing your name on a napkin and giving it to a waiter. You just had to decide whether you like the look of someone, wait for them to do the same and if so, you can both meet up and have sex, or date, whatever you wanted. Apps would make the ambiguity of attraction explicit, obvious.
Admittedly, my initial experience with apps was fun. Walking out of the tube station towards my date, I’d take out my headphones and think about how exciting it was that I got to spend the whole evening getting to know this stranger. The apps allowed me to interact with people outside my comfortable circle of journalist friends. There was the delivery man I met at a pub five minutes from mine who liked heavy metal because he heard that if you listened to it at the gym, it brought your heart rate up; who pointed out the corner shop where he could never buy booze because the owner knew his mum. There were disappointments too, like the guy who spent 12 minutes trying to find this video of himself on ketamine because it was “really funny” (it wasn’t). But even when things didn’t go to plan, they were still in motion, there were opportunities, there were people saying: “Are you about on Thursday?”
Over time these dates became sparser. Instead of asking you out, they’d ask for your Instagram handle and then occasionally send you flame emojis in reaction to selfies. If you did end up meeting they’d often disappear after the third date, or you would. It started to feel like everything was falling through your hands. Finding a date felt tiring, impossible even. Apps place a lot of hidden obstacles in the way of you actually finding someone, and after a while, people stopped trying to manoeuvre around them.
Part of the problem is that apps give you so many options that no one ever seems like the right one. You might have had loads of fun with that lawyer with the sexy throaty laugh, but then the girl with a meme about landlords on her profile might seem as if she’d be more your type. So you stop replying, often without an explanation, and it’s easier to do that when you’ve met over an app because they don’t know any of your friends, don’t work in the same building as you, don’t cross over into your world. You can ghost them without any repercussions for your actions. No judgment.
Even the fun of meeting a diverse range of people quickly fades, because after a while the algorithm seems to identify your type and starts showing you endless carbon copies of the same person. (For me that usually means some guy in a fleece with a little hoop earring who makes documentaries.)
In retrospect it seems quite naive of me to think that apps would result in connections. Hinge’s tagline is “Designed to be deleted”, but if that were true, it wouldn’t have much of a business model – that’s why each day you’re tempted with a notification showing your “most compatible” on the app.
Ten years into the reign of Tinder, will we start leaving? There have been signs – recent articles about the decline of apps, pieces offering advice on meeting people offline. But turning back time may not be so easy. Apps allowed us to portion off our romantic lives away from general socialising, so now when you’re out, you don’t really think about meeting anyone – that’s become something you do while you’re waiting for the shower water to heat up. Sometimes I’ll be around actual hot men at a party and I don’t even register them until the next day, when my anxious brain is running over the night to obsess over every mistake I made.
Obviously love still happens, despite it all. People reply even when they’re tired from work, they turn up at 6.30pm on a Tuesday even if it means they’ll get a four-quid fine for missing their spin class. “You have to break the cycle!” commanded my friend who did meet her boyfriend on an app. “Push through the nonchalance!”
A few days later I got my opportunity to try. I matched with a man who’d I’d matched with on three separate occasions across different apps. “Not you again,” he messaged. To which I replied, “Here we go again”. There was something weirdly romantic about it – like we were these star-crossed lovers, brought together by several different algorithmic organising methods, all the stats and patterns pointing us towards each other then pulling us away. If only we could fight through our lethargy, through another “so how was your weekend?” conversation, perhaps we might find something real. Maybe we’ll stick around to learn each other’s favourite sort of sandwich, the birthmark on the top of their shoulder. So I told him I was free that week, even though I was meant to get a train to my parents’ house. I took him into account when working out my hair-washing schedule.
Needless to say, we never met up.
Annie Lord is a writer based in London and the author of Notes on Heartbreak