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I have several friends of varying ages who love to hear about my latest adventures using dating apps. They’ve been looking forward to this article ever since I told them I planned to write a column about it for Valentine's Day. They’re intrigued by the concept of internet dating because it’s wildly different from anything they experienced when they were meeting their own partners.
Dating apps are matchmaking services provided through a smartphone application. Based on the GPS location of their smartphone, users are presented with profiles of potential matches nearby, usually containing several photos and a brief biography, and must indicate their interest after each photo by swiping the screen in a certain direction. To “swipe left” is to decline, but if two users “swipe right” on each other’s profiles, they’re officially matched and can begin messaging through the app and potentially plan to meet.
While using a smartphone to find a date might seem like a bizarre concept to the 55-plus crowd, my generation — millennials — are far more receptive to it. In 2021, 53 percent of millennials indicated a positive disposition toward dating apps, according to a Morning Consult poll. That number increased to 61 percent among millennials who actually used the services and were asked about their experiences.
Once two people meet, not much is different from the previous methods of socializing.
No, app dating isn’t without controversy. The most widely-used dating app, Tinder, which boasts over 75 million monthly active users worldwide, quickly earned a reputation as a “hookup” app after its launch in 2012. Those who are seeking casual encounters indeed have an easy means of approach to a lustful fling through dating apps.
But the tendency of the promiscuous to use dating apps doesn’t necessarily mean dating app users are all promiscuous. In the same Morning Consult poll, only 5-7 percent of users cited short-term relations as their primary purpose. Long-term relationships were the most-cited reason, with a plurality of millennials, Gen-Xers and baby boomers hoping to find the one person who fills their heart with joy.
Like traditions and methods before them, dating apps aren’t without the occasional creeps, which I learned in December 2019 using Bumble, a dating app in which only females can initiate contact. My suitor seemed smart, career-oriented, capable of conversation and handsome. But after we’d agreed to meet the next hour for dinner, he sent me a message seeking the size of my, uh … undergarments.
“I know what I want and I’m not looking to waste time,” he explained.
That date didn’t go as he’d likely planned. I’d raced to the restaurant early and left some cash with the bartenders — both females — who graciously gave him my note upon his arrival explaining that dinner was my treat, and that he’d be dining alone. From my car, I watched as he stormed out of the restaurant scowling. Then I drove home with a smile on my face and my self-respect intact, leaving the cash to thank the bartenders.
Bad dates are bound to happen when we opt for such transactional methods of meeting. Yet it’s those very transactions that bring tens of millions of users and billions of dollars in revenue to apps like Tinder and Bumble and Hinge. They’re not psychologists or relationship experts with curated methods of matchmaking. They provide one single, invaluable offering to their users: the ability to meet willing people nearby.
That’s what makes the app dating experience so interesting: the idea that any of the people whose pictures the user is perusing might want to actually strike up a conversation and get to know them. In 2021, as some Iowans began to take off their masks and step back into a normal-ish existence, I logged back into my Bumble account and decided to wade back into the dating scene. It was more fun than I could have ever expected.
I assigned nicknames to each of the men I dated. Cute Arab Doctor was a radiologist in Iowa City on an exchange visa from Jordan. He was charming in a nerdy sort of way, and we dated for about six weeks before he ghosted.
“Ghosting,” according to Merriam-Webster, is the act of abruptly cutting off all contact with someone, usually without explanation by no longer accepting or responding to phone calls or text messages. I suppose that if people choose such instant and random ways to meet, it shouldn’t be surprising when some choose to depart just as randomly. But it’s still poor in form, to say the least.
Insufferable Brazilian Neuroscientist shrugged when I told him I work off and on in elections. “I’m not into politics,” he said, before spending the next 45 minutes telling me that every political belief I have is rooted in hatred for the poor. Normally, the free food is enough to see me through to the end of a cringey date, but I should have bolted for the door the moment that guy ordered us a pizza with broccoli on it.
Some just happened to be passing through at the right moment. Jimmy the Roadie was in town with Teresa Caputo, a TV personality who did a show in Cedar Rapids last September. He bought me a big steak and told me he wanted to watch me eat the whole thing. Challenge accepted!
I realized pretty quickly that I didn’t feel any romantic inclinations toward Jimmy, but our date lasted for several hours while we talked about the heavy stuff in our lives. Even if it was just for that night, we knew that we’d each found a friend.
Had I learned ahead of time that Quirky Colorado Chemist was living in his van and had cleaned up for our date by bathing in Lake Macbride, I might have canceled on him. It turned out that he’d spent a year outfitting the interior of the vehicle as an impressive little log cabin on wheels. We played pinball all night and chatted until 1 a.m. before bidding adieu as he continued his on his journey to Chicago to start a new job.
If not for geography, some I would have gladly seen again. Hot for Teacher, an English professor in Chicago who was pursuing his doctorate, was even better-looking than his photos suggested. The conversation flowed easily as he marveled at my ability to say the alphabet backward in under five seconds, clocking me at a personal best 3.75.
I suppose that at some point this ritual could become monotonous, but that hasn’t happened yet for this user. Dating apps have breathed new life in our ability to connect and interact, but once two people meet, not much is different from the previous methods of socializing. The jitters still exist before a first date. The smiles and laughter still indicate that it went well, and the questions about how soon to call afterward still linger. The mechanism for finding love may be changing, the concept remains largely the same.
Althea Cole is a Gazette editorial fellow. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org