In focus

Why is it so hard to get a date using a dating app these days?

The last time Helen Coffey tried the apps, it was simple: swipe, message, meet. Eight years later, securing a rendezvous IRL feels nigh on impossible. When did it all get so complicated?

Tuesday 30 January 2024 09:31 GMT
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If there are endless dating options, why is it so tough to set up an IRL date?
If there are endless dating options, why is it so tough to set up an IRL date? (Getty)

When I was 28, circa 2015, dating apps were fun. Not as fun as having an actual relationship, obviously, but more fun than sitting at home alone on a Friday night. And really, you never had to do the latter – not if you didn’t want to. You could simply spend 10 minutes swiping on Tinder, make a handful of matches, send a couple of messages and boom: you’d secured yourself drinks for the weekend. No muss, no fuss.

You could even make a game of it if you were out with mates and so inclined, enlisting their help as you scrolled the never-ending catalogue of potential suitors to decide if it would be a thumbs up or thumbs down – like a Roman emperor assessing gladiatorial warriors and deciding whether their fate was to live or die.

It’s not as if the dates themselves were wall-to-wall wonderful – I’ll never forget the guy who put his hand on my knee three minutes in while staring deeply into my eyes and said: “I think we both know why we’re here.” But the point is, it wasn’t difficult to get one. You weren’t forced to endure a crushing amount of “date-min” (dating admin) just to secure an in-person rendezvous – unlike in 2024.

I rejoined the apps – or the “dreaded apps” as many singles have taken to calling them – at the beginning of December last year. Now, there’s a difference between reluctantly reanimating the corpse of your previously inert profile and proactively throwing yourself back into the pool. I must emphasise that I did the latter – I decided I was ready to find a long-term partner, and the only way to do that was to invest time and energy into the process.

Drew Barrymore Catfished By Fake NFL Player On Dating App

Primarily on Hinge, I would spend whatever spare time I had sifting through profiles and liking or matching with as many of them as looked vaguely suitable. Being a cishet female, once a match was made I usually gave it a day to see if they would message first – the thrill of the chase and all that – and, if not, would gamely craft my own opening gambit.

And I really do mean “craft” – not for me the lazy woman’s starter of “how are you?” or, even worse, just “hey”. I would look at a prospect’s profile and try to ask something specific: “I’ll bite: is that your dog?”; “How rare to find a man who knows the superiority of Sancerre!”; and even “You’re giving me Jonathan Creek vibes with that duffle coat and curls combo. Do you also live in a windmill and solve crime through the power of magic?”. Desperately niche as first messages go, but I cannot stress enough how little most of these guys gave me to work with.

Is dating app culture broken in 2024? (Getty/iStock)

Under the profile “prompts” – conversation starters designed to disclose insightful titbits about yourself – men had written such revealing responses as “Dating me is like... Dating me” and “The best way to ask me out is by... Asking me out”. Illuminating stuff.

After dedicating a significant portion of my time to this nonsense for nearly eight weeks, do you know how many people I have secured an in-person date with? Two. Both men were absolutely lovely, albeit they felt more like friendship connections than romantic ones. But I felt hard done by; surely the sheer effort I put in should’ve translated into a higher success rate. So, is it my dating profile and messaging game that’s off – or is dating app culture just broken?

If you leave it a few days before replying, the other person feels a lack of interest. Momentum is key

Hayley Quinn

In order to find out, I sent my Hinge profile to dating coach Hayley Quinn for analysis – a much more daunting prospect than letting any number of strangers view it online. I cringe when seeing it through an expert’s eyes: the self-conscious selfies, the trying-too-hard-to-be-funny quips. What will she make of it?

“There’s lots of your personality in there, and original opinions, which is great,” she says. “And I love the picture of you in the green dress – it’s pure Christina Hendricks.” (At this point I’m so flattered I have to stop myself from asking her on a date). Room for improvement? “You don’t have any voice prompts or reels at the moment, which can really help with engagement,” says Quinn. And the reason she likes the green dress snap is because there’s “so much colour, it’s in the daytime, nicely framed – all hallmarks of a nice shot. I’d like to see you substitute some of the selfies for more photos like that”.

If I’d be brave enough to let my pictures be rated by strangers, she recommends services like Photofeeler, a site where you can upload photos and get feedback on which ones are best (a fairly horrifying notion). Quinn also advises getting experimental and regularly changing the order of your profile images.

Logan Ury, director of relationship science at Hinge, suggests daters “include photos that clearly show your face, your full body, you doing something you love, and you with friends or family. Don’t make it hard for us to see what you look like by including filters, sunglasses, or other people who look like you”. The golden rule, says Tinder’s global relationship insights expert, Paul C Brunson, is to include at least five photos. Bumble research found that people in the UK who added at least three photos to their profile saw an average of 79 per cent more matches than those who did not.

Choosing a picture in daylight where you’re clearly in frame is better than a selfie (Helen Coffey)

Words are crucial, too. Ury says you should choose your prompts thoughtfully: “Don’t go with one-word answers or your Instagram handle. Put effort in and avoid cliches.” Properly filling out your bio leads to 40 per cent more matches, according to recent UK-focused Bumble research.

As I’ve found, though, matching is one thing; getting a date is another. What truly baffles me is the legions of lost men – the ones who message enthusiastically, even going so far as to suggest a date, before falling off the face of the Earth. They might have died, suddenly and tragically, as far as I’m concerned. (Sometimes I prefer to believe that they have.)

I’m not the only one struggling, it seems. I can at least take some comfort in the 2022 Pew Research Center survey, which found that most singles experienced dating to be more difficult post-pandemic, despite the level of interest in finding a committed partner remaining the same. Meanwhile, more than 90 per cent of Gen Z feel frustrated with dating apps, according to youth research agency Savanta.

“Several factors make converting matches to real-life dates more challenging in recent years,” says senior therapist and relationship expert Sally Baker. “For many singles, their expectations about finding love online are pretty low. They have an online dating profile a little like a gym membership – it’s something everyone does, but it doesn’t mean you devote any time or energy to it or believe you’ll end up with an impressive six-pack.” Just because someone is on an app, doesn’t necessarily mean they’re placed to date someone, agrees Quinn: “Lots of people aren’t actively creating time and space for dating.”

The dopamine hit of a new connection can become addictive and make the actual face-to-face meeting feel superfluous

Sally Baker

Another trend on the rise is people connecting online but rarely getting past the messaging stage, says Baker. “It’s as if connecting is enough in itself. The flurry of backwards and forwards communication is exhilarating until it inevitably peters out and is replaced with the rush of excitement of the next fresh connection,” she says. “The dopamine hit of a new connection can become addictive and make the actual face-to-face meeting feel superfluous.”

To avoid this rather disappointing fate, Quinn suggests scheduling an IRL date early on. “If you’re on the fence about meeting someone, instead of kicking the can down the road, arrange a video or phone call. If they can’t commit to that, say ‘no thanks’ and move on to another potential connection,” she says.

One way to up your success rate, on Hinge at least, is by using your voice. Research from the app in 2023 found that conversations with voice notes were 48 per cent more likely to lead to an actual date. According to Quinn, being emotionally open and prepared to demonstrate your personality in messages can help. “If we have the same old cliche-filled chats, it’s hard for both of you to realise there’s a different human being at the end of it,” she says. Being responsive in a timely fashion also helps: “If you leave it a few days before replying, the other person feels a lack of interest. Momentum is key.”

But if you have hit app burnout, consider pressing pause and trying a real-world alternative. Bored of Dating Apps (BODA) is one such model. Set up by Jess Evans in 2021 following her own heartbreak and subsequent distaste for the “mentally draining” process of returning to online romance, BODA organises IRL socials and events where singles can meet each other. They’ve grown hugely in popularity over the past 18 months – which is hardly surprising given that, in a survey of 12,000 singles, BODA found that 91 per cent of people said they’d prefer to meet offline than online. Then there’s Thursday: a dating app that only works once a week for 24 hours, and which also throws IRL singles events at bars in cities around the world every Thursday night.

Getting matches is one thing; getting dates is quite another (Getty)

But clearly the apps are still working for plenty of us – however difficult it might feel at times. Some 37 per cent of millennials have met a romantic partner on a dating app or website, according to YPulse’s February 2023 Dating and Relationships Report. “We know dating can be hard,” says a spokesperson for Match Group, which owns the largest global portfolio of popular online dating services, including Tinder, Hinge and Match.com. “It’s always had ups and downs for singles. But we’ve always been focused on trying to make it easier for singles to connect, and we will continue to innovate and improve our products to get people on better dates.”

And, as Baker puts it, “the benefit of online dating is the possibility of meeting someone special you would not have encountered in your daily life”. Her parting advice? Believe that there are good people out there who want to meet you just as much as you want to meet them. “They can’t find you if you’re ensconced at home and never go out,” she says. “Be open and courageous; the more you embrace your life, the more you will draw the right person to you.”

As for me, I still have a glimmer of hope when it comes to the apps. It looks like I might have just scored my third IRL date; time will tell. But if he puts his hand on my knee, stares deeply into my eyes, and says, “I think we both know why we’re here” – I’m out.

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