Exploring Millennial Romance and the Brave New World of Dating Apps

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You can find articles, video clips and nearly every type of media content deriding dating apps as the death of romance and the downfall of traditional dating. For some, that translates and escalates to a belief that millennials — the primary users of dating apps — have killed romance. A hefty claim, to be sure, but not entirely unfounded.

In some ways, dating apps have revolutionized dating and changed the way people interact in the realm of love and lust. But there are two major caveats to the idea that millennials have entirely thrown off the historical yoke that is courtship. First, just because something has changed, doesn’t mean it’s changed for the worse. And second, minor changes most often do not result in large-​scale revolution. Dating trends come and go, sometimes with little perceptible impact on the larger face of the dating tradition.

But before you can have an insightful conversation about where dating apps fit into all of this, you have to understand what a dating app is and how it is different from (and similar to) other methods of meeting mates.

The Basics

Dating apps — such as Tinder, Bumble, and Coffee Meets Bagel — all operate on the same basic platform, each with their own specific appeal and target audience. These three apps, like many popular dating apps, mostly assume a heterosexual pairing. Although you can choose to use Tinder, for example, to meet a same-​sex partner, that’s just not what Tinder was set up for, or what it excels at. (Yes, it’s a major headache for anyone who is not straight and/​or not traditionally masculine or feminine.)

The primary difference between the category of dating “apps” as compared to dating “sites” is that apps are meant to be accessed through a smartphone or tablet. Although there are ways to access these apps through a laptop or desktop, the vast majority of users simply use the interface as it was meant to be used — on a smartphone. In addition, dating sites — actual websites with actual URLs that you can type into an actual computer — such as Match and even OKCupid are typically geared toward older audiences and more mature individuals. Although they have real URLs, both Match and OKCupid now have app versions as well.

The age differences between apps and websites are clear-​cut. A 2016 study put the average age of Match users at 45, while the average OKCupid user clocks in at 32. Tinder and Bumble both average 26. Regardless of age, Tinder is by far the most popular with more than 7 million monthly users. The second most popular app among millennials is Bumble, with more than 1 million monthly users, while among all age groups OKCupid has 2.5 million monthly users and Match has more than 2 million.

The common understanding among millennials is that people on dating sites such as Match are looking to commit — while those on dating apps have different motives. A 2017 study of college students reported that 15.8% of Tinder users and 23.6% of Bumble users went on the app to find casual dating opportunities. By far the biggest subset of users said they were primarily logging onto the apps for entertainment — 34.3% on Tinder and 27.1% on Bumble. There are some romantics on the apps as well, with 9.9% of Tinder users and 12.7% of Bumble users looking for “love” — surprisingly, those percentages are just a little higher than the percent of users who said they’re mostly looking for hookups.

Another difference between apps and websites is that dating websites usually use some sort of algorithm to try to pair you with a person you “should” get along with. Apps, for the most part, just send all of the unfiltered profiles your direction and let you do the dirty work of deciding whom you like for yourself. But that all comes later.

So, dating apps are phone apps. Within the category of dating apps, most operate on the same basic principles. Tinder, by far the most popular, is also the most straightforward, and it serves as the basic model for the rest of the apps. When you download Tinder to your phone, the first thing it asks is for you to link your Facebook account to your Tinder account. This doesn’t mean that Tinder posts to Facebook for you. Instead, Tinder pulls key information from your Facebook profile — most importantly, your age and first name — to reduce the likelihood of users lying about their identity. Tinder also pulls your gender from your Facebook profile and, although you can change your preferred gender within the app, Tinder still only allows for “male” and “female,” again getting into hot water as far as heteronormativity goes.

After linking to your Facebook, Tinder will ask you to set your profile settings. You select what gender you’re looking for (again, only male or female), the distance from your current location you’d like your matches to be (from one to 100 miles), and the age range of your matches (from 18 to 55+).

Now that you’ve set what you’re looking for in another person, you can edit your own profile. Tinder will pull photos from your Facebook profile, which you can use as your Tinder profile pictures if you’d like, or you can upload your own photos. You also have a blank bio section, where you can write a little bit about yourself. Bios typically operate more like Twitter or Instagram bios than full profiles — the majority of users will write something short and quippy, an attempt to consolidate their scintillating personality and inherent mystique into a digestible one-​liner. If you’d like, you can also link your Instagram or Spotify accounts to your Tinder profile, so that other users can learn more about you without your having to actually talk to them.

The set-​up process is fairly similar in other dating apps as well, with slight variations on the amount of information you’re required or allowed to provide.

Once your profile is set up, you can start finding matches. When you log onto the Tinder app, profiles of people in your area will immediately pop up. Based on their photos, their bio, or both, you can choose whether or not you’d like to chat with them. Although there are buttons you can push (a red X and a green checkmark), the app is known for its “swipe” feature. A simple swipe left on a profile means “no” and a swipe right means “yes.” If both users swipe right on each other, they “match.” This means that the messaging feature opens up, allowing the two users to chat with each other.

From there, the app is what you make of it, whether you’d like a self-​esteem boost, some entertainment, or an actual meet-​up.

Other dating apps are surprisingly similar to the basic template of Tinder, but with their own unique flare. For instance, Coffee Meets Bagel only provides each user with one other profile per day. The intent there is to slow the users and make them truly consider whether or not they’d like to meet someone — instead of endlessly swiping on an infinite number of profiles. Bumble, currently the second most popular dating app among millennials, is essentially the same as Tinder, with an added focus on women’s comfort and safety. Most notably, after two users match on Bumble, the female user must message first; the app does not allow the male user to send the first message. This is intended to reduce the amount of harassment and the number of unwanted sexual advances that women receive on dating apps.

Those are the basics of dating apps. You make a profile, you start swiping, and you flirt up a storm in the messaging feature. But how does all of this change the way that millennials think about dating, or the way they act once they begin dating?

Endless Options and Shifting Behavioral Scripts

The most immediately obvious impact of dating apps is the instant access to a nearly endless supply of potential partners. If you’re on a dating app, there are hundreds — perhaps thousands, depending on where you live — of profiles in the palm of your hand, each attached to a person you might be able to date. Millennials, and all users of dating apps, are no longer solely limited to the people they run across in life, their classmates and coworkers and friends of the family.

The upside of this is an instant lessening of the pressure to find a partner now. Dating apps can relieve feelings of entrapment and reduce the pressure to commit to some arbitrary person in your social circle before everyone is taken.

With so many profiles available at the touch of a finger, it becomes immediately obvious that there are so, so many fish swimming around in the sea. Endless fish. Fish as far as the eye can see. Don’t like the men in your hometown? Then don’t marry one; there are plenty more out there. Don’t like the idea of dating someone in your major at college? Then don’t; there are majors of every kind just on the other side of your Tinder profile. This expansion of options allows millennials to be pickier. It allows them to choose someone who is actually suited to them and to what they’re looking for right now, whether that be a hookup or a serious relationship. Whatever they want, it’s out there. Somewhere.

The downside of having endless options is that the prospect of actually making a choice can be paralyzing. With so many potential partners available inside your locked phone screen, committing to just one can feel like a lost opportunity with infinite others. Even after finding a person who fulfills exactly what you were looking for, you may be plagued by the idea that someone even better is still out there.

Another significant impact of dating apps, which is not as immediately obvious, is the slow shift of commonly accepted behavior in dating situations. Let’s focus here on the behavior expected of heterosexual pairings. The same principles, however, can apply to any dating situation — regardless of gender identity, sexual orientation, or number of partners involved.

But first, let’s talk psychology. Many areas of psychology, including social psychology and behavioral psychology, extensively discuss the ways that people interact with each other, particularly the subconscious patterns we follow without realizing it.

In many social situations, we are on autopilot from years of practice. Think about walking into a coffee shop and ordering a cup of coffee. For most people, walking into even an unfamiliar coffee shop is not intimidating or anxiety-​inducing, because they know exactly how the scenario will play out. They’ll walk up to the register, greet the barista or cashier, and order their drink. They’ll smile politely at the staff while they pay for their beverage, and maybe slip a bill or some spare change into the tip jar. Then they’ll wait for their drink name or their own name to be called. They’ll take their coffee and walk out. It’s all pre-​written. There are rarely surprises and, when everyone sticks to their lines, the outcome is entirely predictable.

These “lines” that we stick to are more broadly called behavioral scripts. Behavioral scripts serve as a guide for our behavior in a wide variety of social situations, and they allow us to interact with each other in a predictable and socially acceptable way. Behavioral scripts dictate most people’s behavior when they eat at restaurants, when they drink at bars, when they meet the in-​laws, when they small-​talk at work functions, and — not surprisingly — when they date.

And, while behavioral scripts do reduce our social anxiety and allow us to interact with others with minimal effort, they also uphold the status quo. If rudeness is ingrained in our behavioral scripts, then we’ll most likely be rude in our behavior. We’ll snap at the slow waitress or condescend to that one co-​worker who asks endless inane questions, and the same is true of all other negative but oh-​so-​familiar behaviors. We’ll be intimidated by our uppity mother-​in-​law. We’ll be angry at the jammed-​up traffic. And we’ll expect that girl to let her date feel her up because he paid for dinner or because he’s just “such a nice guy.”

But, there is an upside to behavioral scripts, and that is that they are surprisingly easy to throw off-​kilter. All it takes is one unexpected move, and the script is broken. In most cases, this just means that when you make an unscripted joke to your barista, she laughs uncomfortably and wonders what you’re getting at. That discomfort is likely to send both of you skittering back to the script, looking for the socially acceptable thing to say next. But, if both you and your barista can handle the uncertainty that comes with not knowing what’s expected of you next, then the script stays broken. You end up in uncharted territory.

The same script-​breaking can happen in the romantic realm, and this is where dating apps come in. Unlike the traditional behavioral script, where the man starts up a conversation with the woman, flirts with her for a while, and then eventually asks her out, apps allow for an easy divergence. Quite simply, the female counterpart can start the conversation. She can message her matches first, she can ask for her match’s phone number, or ask if they would like to grab a drink. On Bumble, this isn’t just a possibility, it’s a requirement. If the woman doesn’t message first, then there is no messaging.

Changing the paradigm

When this opportunity for rewriting the script is seized, dating apps can increase the amount of control a woman has over the initial dating interactions. This can, in turn, increase the chances that she’ll be comfortable asserting control again later. For instance, a woman’s original feelings of control may empower her to take control later by paying for her and her date’s dinner. Or — in a much more vital and significant aspect of empowerment — to say “no” if and when her date makes a sexual advance that she doesn’t want. And the importance of the power to say “no” cannot be overstated. In a survey I conducted of 200 Pitt students, more than 46% said the possibility of unwanted sexual contact “sometimes” or “often” affects the way they behave. Among women, that percentage jumps to nearly 64%.

Sure, the ball can start rolling on this same dynamic shift without the help of dating apps — for example, if a woman just asks a man out in person. But for those who are still intimidated by such a blatant reversal of traditional gender roles, dating apps offer an easy and approachable format for shifting the tone of the dating world.

To be sure, not every individual agrees with this perspective. Dating apps are notorious for the harassment to which they open users — often in the form of sexually aggressive messages within the app. A 2016 Consumers’ Research survey reported that 57% of women and 21% of men on dating apps experience feelings of harassment, although it would be a challenge to find any woman and likely any person on a dating app who has not received a harassing message.

When you receive a sexually explicit message moments after you match with a man, it doesn’t feel like empowerment. However, even in this case, the empowering aspect of dating apps is the ease with which you can say “no.” When a match sends you a message that makes you uncomfortable, you can unmatch them. You can report them. Or, if confrontation is more your style, you can send them a response detailing just how inappropriate and off-​the-​mark their advances were.

Of course, shifting some small amount of control to women doesn’t solve everything. Women shouldn’t need to have control in order to avoid unwanted sexual advances — because men shouldn’t be making those advances without consent in the first place. Women shouldn’t need to be constantly on guard against the men they’re dating, because the men they’re dating should respect them enough to not take advantage, no matter the circumstances. Shifting control to women is a step in the right direction, but the steps should continue with teaching men to act and behave respectfully around everyone, including and especially the people they are dating.

So, what does it all mean — why do dating apps matter? They matter because they can help shift attitudes about what it means to date. And, since traditional dating has also come along with such terrors as date rape, in this case change is a good thing. The old way had some major pitfalls, and clearly the new way isn’t perfect, either.

As with all trends, dating trends rise and fall. But at least this trend opens up new possibilities for the way men and women interact with each other. It allows us a chance to break with the old behavioral scripts and perhaps change for the better what it means to “date.”

Emily Brindley

Emily Brindley graduated from the University of Pittsburgh in 2017 with a dual degree in nonfiction writing and psychology. Currently, she is living in Kampala, Uganda, where she writes about culture, gender equity, and human rights. She also has a twice monthly column on the online women’s travel magazine In Transit.

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