*Feature image by Jess Ferraro

There’s no denying that apps like Tinder have shifted the culture around coupling, but how have they influenced our capacity to be alone?

A case could be made that falling in love requires the tension-and-release of being interested in someone and finding out that they’re interested in you as well. A chance encounter between mutual friends or locking eyes with someone at a bar is much more viscerally affecting than the little dopamine hit of a new match or an engaging text conversation.

Dating apps like Tinder have a way of anodising potential romance, creating structured interactions devoid of a sense of spontaneity and risk. Dates are routinised, the same stories and observations made ad nauseum. Frequent daters develop a toolkit they repeatedly use, behaviours and talking points they know will consistently engage people. This toolkit isn’t exclusive to Tinder, and is a part of offline dating (and to some extent, socialising in general), but Tinder’s structured framework makes them feel more repetitive. A 2017 study noted: “authenticity is constructed through one’s ability to consistently reference a coherent, routinized narrative of the self.” This narrative of the self is reinforced through our dating habits, themselves becoming more routine.

This is not to discount the many examples of positive connections that form with the help of these platforms, but these are things that bring about fatigue, and can make meeting people feel more like work than play.

People use dating apps for all sorts of reasons. For some, it’s simple validation. For many, it’s just leaving the window open, the sense of potential is almost its own end. Obviously there’s the promise of a hook-up, and for less jaded users, the hope of a “genuine” connection.

The ever-present potential to meet someone through an app at short notice creates an anxiety in a single person, the feeling that they could always be doing more. Tinder has done for dating what other social media platforms have done for friendship, and what email did for the workplace. The mentality of “bringing work home with you”, where a job can produce anxiety outside the office; there are emails to respond to and prep-work to be done, making it difficult to disengage. This mentality now pervades the social sphere, both generally through Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat – and romantically through Tinder, Grindr, Bumble etc. The “always there” potential, and the convenience of those platforms means that, instead of leaving romantic possibility at the bar or the house party, it joins us in our beds before we sleep or while we’re watching a movie. The possibility of a new match, the upkeep of text banter, the maintenance of personal narratives and dating-profile representations has become a pervasive force in the parts of our daily lives where we could previously focus on other things. The single person is constantly reminded of their singleness.

A recent study analysing people’s motivations for using Tinder identified the difficulty of single identity in 2017:

“The availability of an app that helps individuals to identify a significant other in their close surroundings at the click of a button may create the perception that nowadays it is very easy to connect and meet up with others. […] Now that there are supposedly no more excuses to stay single, being single may be experienced as especially hard.”

Picture this: you go to a bar to try to meet someone. Maybe you succeed, maybe you fail, but when you arrive home you have to accept the circumstances. Once you’re away from that specific social environment, it’s easier to be free of the pressure to find a partner. Now, that potential follows us around. A recent Vice article likened using dating apps to having a Tamagotchi, a virtual pet that requires constant maintenance, turning a person into “a ghost in someone’s machine”.

As with any phenomenon that reaches such mass participation, there’s an inevitable pushback. It’s tempting to want to revert to an idealised pre-digital dating life that prioritises real-world interactions and chance meetings. Further, it can be tempting to ditch the dating world altogether and focus on yourself. But how easy is that to accomplish, really?

Like most half-hearted attempts to ditch social media, quitting Tinder feels like an enterprise doomed to fail. A lonely Saturday night or a slow day at work, and you might find yourself on the app store hitting the download button. You’ll find it just the same as you left it, with some stale matches, dozens or hundreds of faces you’ll probably never look at again because the immediacy of fresh matches is everything.

Convenient dating apps are here to stay, and whether you choose to engage with them or not, it forms a huge part of the culture around sex and relationships. Disengaging from the mainstream experience in any field of culture is problematic for the individual – however inane the latest surreal Facebook meme trend, it helps us to operate on the same level as our peers, to have the same cultural touchstones. Taking time away from dating apps as a single person can surely be helpful in short bursts, but perhaps engaging with them is an uncomfortable necessity in the long term, if only to have a shared frame of reference to others, to be a part of the conversation.

Duguay, S. (2017). Dressing up Tinderella: Interrogating authenticity claims on the mobile dating app Tinder. Information, Communication & Society, 20(3), 351-367.
Sumter, S. R., Vandenbosch, L., & Ligtenberg, L. (2017). Love me Tinder: Untangling emerging adults’ motivations for using the dating application Tinder. Telematics and Informatics, 34(1), 67-78.