Online dating is more popular than ever, but that doesn’t mean it has stopped evolving
BY DENISE RYAN, VANCOUVER SUN
Virginia Lynn is dating again, this time with the help of Tinder.
For better or worse, online dating has long since lost any whiff of the lonely hearts stigma. The biggest game-changer for the lovelorn is Tinder app.
On Tinder, there’s no need for a thoughtful profile. You choose your match based on a quick look at a photo, swipe right for yes and left for no. If that person also swipes right on your photo, you can message each other — it’s sort of like shopping with a pre-approved mortgage.
Tinder’s giddy, rapid game of choosing a match based on looks alone has a predictable downside (Vanity Fair blames the app for bringing on a “dating apocalypse”). With nothing at stake, and nothing to lose, the messages Virginia gets are half-serious — and sometimes half-naked.
This tweet on Virginia’s feed says it all: “Got a marriage proposal from one hopeful & a hook up inquiry from a 19yr old. Still got it—ish. Ugh.”
The 27-year-old Vancouver karaoke host and DJ recently returned to the dating scene after a long-term relationship ended. Despite the regular and unsolicited “dick pics” her Tinder hopefuls send her, other, more genuine prospects are also swiping right for her. And that feels good (ish).
Virginia, like plenty of others, is looking for a real relationship. Love. Sure, lust needs to be part of it, but she’s not on Tinder just to hook up. She’s on Tinder because, she says, “everyone else is.”
The app is changing how we date online, and although its reputation as a hook-up app is changing, for some users, anything goes.
“It’s Russian roulette,” Virginia says with a laugh. “I’m looking for the traditional kind of dating. But it’s 2015, and things are completely different now. I just hate that I remember how it used to be.”
How it used to be is relative to how old you are, but are Millenials still talking online dating, which has its own surprising and disappointingly conventional norms.
According to data collected by Plenty of Fish, the Vancouver-based online site that claims about 80 million users worldwide, men do the hunting — firing off messages to women they find attractive — and women do the gathering, sorting through the messages and deciding who they will respond to. The Plenty of Fish data shows the breakdown of all contacts initiated by women is as low as nine per cent in Vancouver’s core, and the national average is a mere 13 per cent.
According to Tinder co-founder Whitney Wolfe, the app was created to give women more control (you won’t get messages unless you’ve already “swiped right” on someone). It launched in 2012 and includes geo-location so you can find someone in your own neighborhood, or at the other end of the bar, and was similar to the gay-male-oriented meetup app, Grindr. The app was launched on college campuses and caught fire. By 2014, Tinder was claiming a billion swipes a day worldwide. And it’s free.
Tinder’s upside is that it’s fun. No more lonely nights sitting in your apartment combing through profiles in front of a computer. Tinder is a social experience — friends Tinder with friends.
“I’ll be at the bar waiting to set up for a show, and all of us will be sitting there on Tinder together,” says Virginia.
But even if the app changed the way we meet, the social conventions that stigmatize women who make the first move may take longer to change.
NYU Sociologist Eric Klinenberg, who recently co-authored a book, Modern Romance, with comedian Aziz Ansari, said in a phone interview, “Online dating is the most common way Americans meet their spouses, and 70 per cent of people in the U.S. in same-sex relationships. It’s an incredibly high number, and it’s growing.”
Klinenberg’s research shows that 80 years ago, people in North American cities overwhelmingly married people who lived just steps away, or on the same block. “The new technology gives us the ability to have relationships all around the world, and different kinds of relationships.”
People are marrying later in life, and because women are more educated and self-sufficient, the very nature of why we marry has changed. “People used to seek out what we called the ‘good enough’ marriage, someone who was stable, and reliable and trustworthy, and who would be a good person to have a family with. If you knew their parents and they knew yours, that was a plus. If there was romantic passion, that was great, but it wasn’t always necessary.”
“In 1967,” said Klinenberg, “the great majority of women in the U.S. said they would marry someone they weren’t romantically in love with.”
It is this change that has altered what it means to date. “We are looking for the soulmate marriage. We are after the perfect person, and we hope our marriage fills an enormous number of needs for us, from intimacy and romance to passion, spontaneity, familiarity, co-parenting, a spiritual connection, intellectual connection. We ask for an enormous amount from our partners, and we are willing to look for a long, long time.”
“Tinder and Grindr have made online dating a much more social experience,” says Klinenberg, “much less sad and lonely.” The downside is that you get less information about people. “It’s a little like walking into a bar and walking up to people you are attracted to and walking away from those you aren’t.”
Finding a soulmate, however, is about more than just attraction. “To find a soulmate you need to have a second and third and fourth interaction. You have to get beneath the skin.”
The downside to any online dating platform is what Klinenberg calls “selection paralysis.” Too many choices. (Or, in webspeak, FOMO — fear of missing out on others.) “When people have too many choices, they tend to have more problems. It’s hard to make a choice, it’s hard to figure out what is the best option, and after making a choice they wonder about all the ones they turned away from.”
Klinenberg cites the well-known grocery store example — when there are 30 flavours of jam, consumers are less likely to buy even one. When there are only six, they can more easily make a choice.
Ironically, the one dating stigma the online interface hasn’t changed is the pattern of men making the first move.
“We talked to a lot of women who said they would like to make the first move online, but they feared that would make them look desperate and unattractive and that men would be less likely to go out with them if they reached out first.”
Silvia Bartolic, a UBC sociology instructor said the socialization of men and women has not caught up with technology. “In general, women are socialized to be pursued and men are socialized to be the pursuers,” said Bartolic. “Those are the social norms we are taught and perpetuate. The online forum or presence doesn’t change the norm.”
Although the social norms are “still complicated and unclear,” she cites Monica Moore, whose research suggests women signal men in various ways to indicate they are willing to be pursued, whether it’s face-to-face or online, “women give out signals that say ‘Come talk to me. I would like you to approach me.’ And then we wait. Do we get to choose? You could say we do because we give the signal.”
Even so, there seems to be no shortage of relationship possibilities for online daters who know what they want, know how to use the technology and feel comfortable doing so.
Plenty of Fish, the Vancouver-based dating site that claims to be the world’s largest traditional meet-market, relies on a team of data scientists to monitor patterns, detect scams and develop matching algorithms that are more meaningful, and hopefully more successful, than what a swipe app can offer.
Steve Oldridge, the research team lead at Plenty of Fish, said data is “critical” to developing the matching algorithms that make the site successful. “Our matching algorithms, a lot of them are machine-learning based. They use the data itself to build models that help predict better couples.”
The questions users answer about what they are looking for, and their “chemistry test” creates data that becomes part of a matching algorithm and determines which profiles are sent to you. The data is also used to create new and evermore refined “matching algorithms” that will help you find a mate.
Vancouverites Romina San Jose and Brendan Wilson met on Plenty of Fish two years ago, and just announced their engagement.
Brendan says his Plenty of Fish profile was “honest” — something he believes is crucial. “If the goal is to actually meet someone, you want to come across as who you really are.”
Brendan sent Romina the first message after seeing her profile. “She wrote a very straightforward, honest and open profile,” said Brendan
“I was getting probably a hundred messages a day,” says Romina. There was no way she could sort through them all. Brendan’s pictures attracted her attention. “He was outdoorsy” she said, even though she wasn’t. And most importantly, he was looking for a serious relationship.
Brendan says he feels lucky to have gotten a reply from Romina, who he found “stunning.” Once they met — for appetizers and drinks at Earl’s — their chemistry was evident.
Romina spontaneously kissed him — just a peck — when they parted. That impulsive smooch took both of them by surprise — “Normally I would never do that. I don’t know what came over me,” said Romina.
The couple has been together ever since.
Perhaps the no-kissing-on-the-first-date rule might be like other “rules” — made to be broken.
Darren and Jessica MacDonald also met on Plenty of Fish about five years ago, and they are now happily married. Contrary to “the rules”, Jessica initiated contact with Darren. “I saw his photos. He was a firefighter and I sent the first message.”
Darren wasn’t at all put off by Jessica reaching out first. “She’s a beautiful girl who I shared lots of interests with,” he said.
Nicole Paradis, a 29-year-old single parent from Coquitlam, hasn’t found her love match yet, but she has used online sites for about eight years. Paradis has had no shortage of dates, but says it has taken a few years to figure out how to have a good first date. She recommends avoiding the deadly coffee date, letting a friend know where you are going, and doing something where there are “lots of people around.”
“Do something fun, something you’ve wanted to do, that way even if it’s not a romantic connection there’s something fun to do.” She’s gone go-carting, gone to a shooting range, the Aquarium, the Grouse Grind and Stanley Park.
Over time, she has developed her profile to include “every detail about what I really am passionate about.” After a few bad experiences (including with a married man who duped her for a year), she has become more forthright in her profile about what kind of relationship she wants, and she checks out potential dates’ Facebook and social media sites. If she can’t verify their identity through a secondary source, she won’t date them. “There are a lot less people just wanting to hook up. You get the people who want to go out for dinner.”
With all the online dating options and apps available to us, Klinenberg said, “this should be the golden age for being single. But the closer you look at the experience of trying to find the right person in today’s environment, the harder and more stressful it looks.”
The bottom line is, no matter what app or site you are using, dating still involves putting yourself out there and risking rejection.
For Virginia Lynn, the risk is worth it. She is still having fun. She just has to swipe away the “dick pics” — “that’s an automatic delete” — and move on to the next.
But she has also decided to take matters into her own hands. She will be hosting her own dating-game-style singles nights called Plenty of Fishery starting in October at the Displace Hashery in Kits. “I think it’s time to go back to meeting in real life,” she says.