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Let’s Unpack That

‘You get to see more of who a person is’: How Instagram became the hottest new dating app

As single people tire of dating app games and fakery, Olivia Petter examines how they are turning to everyone’s favourite photo-sharing app for love

Sunday 21 January 2024 06:00 GMT
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Introducing the dark horse of the dating world: Instagram
Introducing the dark horse of the dating world: Instagram (Getty/iStock)

Thanks to dating app burnout, another digital platform has usurped the stronghold that Hinge, Bumble and their offspring have long had on the ways we find love. Perhaps you’ve heard of it. It might be the thing you spend the most time looking at. Maybe you’re using it right now while also reading this article. Introducing the dark horse of the dating world: Instagram.

Whether it’s by sliding into someone’s DMs, commenting on their posts with a few fire emojis, or simply responding to their stories and starting a conversation, the opportunities to form meaningful connections on Instagram are as endless as they are on a traditional dating app, if not more.

This has been common practice among celebrities for some time, particularly the young starlets. Take 19-year-old Millie Bobby Brown who met her now-fiance, Jake Bongiovi, 21, on the ‘gram. As part of a Q&A video filmed for Wired, the Stranger Things star was asked how their relationship blossomed. “We met on Instagram,” she replied. “We were friends for a bit, and then, what can I say?”

It’s a meeting that follows a long line of other famous twosomes. Joe Jonas and Sophie Turner’s relationship might not have lasted, but for the four years they were married, they remained one of Hollywood’s hottest – and most adorable – couples. “We had a lot of mutual friends, and they’d been trying to introduce us for a long time,” Turner once told People magazine. “We were following each other on Instagram and he direct messaged me one fine day, out of the blue.” The couple, who split last year, share two children together.

The DM slide also proved successful for Dua Lipa, who messaged her ex Anwar Hadid on Instagram after meeting him at a barbeque. When asked by Andy Cohen on his Watch What Happens Live chat show if she had ever privately messaged a celebrity on social media, the singer replied: “I have a confession to make… mine was my boyfriend, so my current boyfriend. I definitely did that.” The couple dated for two years.

Elsewhere, there’s Dylan Sprouse and Barbara Palvin, who initially met at a party but didn’t exchange numbers. “She followed me, so I was like, I guess I’ll give her something,” he said in 2019. “I slid into her DMs. She didn’t message me for six months.” Eventually, Palvin did respond; the couple got engaged in September 2022.

I often recommend my single friends start following the hashtags of the things they are interested in to find a partner who has similar interests

Barry, 34, who found love on Instagram

Finally, there’s Mandy Moore, whose relationship with Taylor Goldsmith, the frontman of the folk rock band Dawes, began after she posted a photograph of one of their albums on Instagram. “Somehow, Taylor saw it and sent a note to me,” the actress told People. “We started emailing back and forth, then we went on a date and the rest is history. Thanks Instagram, for helping me meet my fiancé!”

But back to us mere mortals. The general consensus among singles today is that dating apps have gamified romance. One survey from dating app Badoo found that more than three-quarters of singles felt burnt out by unrewarding interactions and inappropriate matches from platforms and apps. Meanwhile, a US study from 2022 showed four in five adults experienced “some degree of emotional fatigue or burnout from online dating”. Perhaps Instagram offers us something different.

“One day, Instagram randomly surfaced a picture from a hashtag I was following and in the photo was a cute girl wearing a cool cosplay from Mass Effect, my all-time favorite video game series,” recalls Barry, 34. “Naturally, I then did what any other guy would do in that situation and looked at her profile. Her pictures depicted her as a genuine nerd who loved to make her own art and had a good sense of humor.”

Barry commented on the first photo he’d seen to compliment her on her costume; they started direct messaging soon after. The couple have now been married for six months. Instagram has been touted as the go-to dating platform for Generation Z, which might be why it keeps giving us new opportunities to flirt. Take the relatively recent feature that allows you to “like” other people’s stories: a subtle way of showing your interest in someone, perhaps, before committing to the DM slide?

“I often recommend my single friends start following the hashtags of the things they are interested in to find a partner who has similar interests,” advises Barry. “For me it was the genuine, uncommercialised passion of my wife that really got me interested.”

Barry’s story highlights one of the key appeals of using Instagram to find love: it offers a more rounded sense of a person than a dating app profile ever could. On any given app, the information you’re asked to provide is often minimal and surface level, covering basics such as whether or not you want children, if you drink or smoke, as well as your age, height, and maybe even your star sign.

Sure, these things can be important, but they’re often incidental pieces of information that mean very little when it comes to reflecting our identity. Through posts, stories, and captions, Instagram offers a deeper insight into the things we enjoy, the way we communicate them, and how we choose to live our lives.

More couples are turning to Instagram over dating apps to find love online (iStock)

“I think with Instagram you get a chance to see more of who a person is rather than a dating app with just a bio and a couple of pictures,” says Deunta, 35, who met his girlfriend on Instagram. “We had been following each other for a while but neither one of us remembers how or why, because we both live in two different states with no mutual friends. We never spoke and just liked each other’s posts from time to time. One day I got a haircut and posted a video of my new look and she commented with the heart-eye emoji.” She slid into his DMs the next day. “We exchanged numbers and soon were speaking every day. Three years later, she moved to Texas with me.”

Sometimes, just as in real life, meeting someone online can be as simple as being in the right place at the right time. Take Sharath, 34, who found himself house sitting in Rhode Island one summer while his neighbours were in Machu Picchu. Out of boredom, he started looking through their photos on Instagram and soon found himself browsing other people’s snaps from the famous Peruvian destination. That’s when he noticed Sundeep, 39.

“He came across my profile and tapped ‘follow’,” Sundeep recalls. “Fast forward a few weeks and Sharath eventually slid into my DMs in response to one of my stories. We started getting to know each other and within one week had exchanged numbers.” Despite living on opposite sides of the US – Sundeep in Sacramento, California, and Sharath in New York – the couple managed to make it work and eventually got married in September 2020.

“Using dating apps is like the Wild West,” says Sundeep. “You don’t know what types of people you’ll encounter or how quickly the conversation will steer into something purely sexual.” The difference with Instagram is that dating is not the intention. At least not at first. “Its primary intent is to share moments of your life with your followers. So our first messages were mostly about the experiences that I shared on Instagram instead of the flirty things you might send on a dating app.”

The thing that unites all of these stories? None of them were initially romantic. Taken out of the context of a dating app, those initial conversations were just everyday exchanges that enabled people to feel at ease with one another. Perhaps that’s what allowed romance to flourish. With the pressure off, it gave room for something else. The very thing we all crave when it comes to love, and often lack on a dating app: authenticity. And that can be more easily found when the initial bond you have with someone is based on common interests than, say, a few photos and how tall someone is.

For Sundeep, the moment that bond changed came on his third FaceTime conversation with Sharath. “I said to him, ‘I don’t know what’s going on here, but I can’t leave northern California due to all of my commitments’. He replied, ‘There’s nothing holding me back’.”

The rest was history.

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