Sex & Relationships

Looking for love online sucks — will the new dating apps fix that?

In a quest to court female users, new apps like Bumble and Hinge give women all the power. But is that really what we want?

mobile phone dating

Illustration, iStock.

“Hey.” 

That’s it — that’s the best I can do. “Hey.” It’s an incredibly poor first effort, and one of the cardinal sins of online dating: a limp, useless message that invites no response and demonstrates no creativity. My “Hey” hangs sadly in the air beside my profile picture, first name and age, unlikely to be returned. But I had to do something or risk losing this outdoorsy cat owner — a cat owner! — forever. 

I’m on Bumble, another addition to the ever-expanding world of “female-friendly” dating apps. It’s also a place where men can speak only when spoken to. Launched last December, Bumble informs users when they mutually “like” each other, but flirting begins only after the woman initiates conversation. To encourage prompt first moves, each match is given a 24-hour countdown before it disappears. I swiped right on Cat Guy almost 20 hours ago. He’s been my favourite match so far — the Bumble population in Toronto is small but growing — and I wanted to make a good impression with something punchy, not too corny, not too bold. Just “Hey.” 

The joy of dating apps.

Illustrations, Danielle Groen.

I’m not exactly unfamiliar with online dating: I’ve tried my share of the dating platforms on the market, and I’ve watched my friends do the same. It’s big business these days, with more than 91 million people worldwide now using a location-based dating app, according to research firm GlobalWebIndex — although of those 91 million people, women make up only a little more than a third.

It’s not a surprise that dating apps have had a harder time getting women on board. They exist at a very hostile intersection for us: The tech industry in particular and the internet in general are notorious breeding grounds for toxic masculinity, where female voices are regularly met with verbal abuse, graphic content and misogynist trolling. Unsolicited sexual messages and images are a reality for women in all online spaces, with American volunteer organization Working to Halt Online Abuse finding that almost 75 percent of online harassment cases between 2002 and 2012 were reported by women. “Probably 95 percent of the messages I get through online dating are unwanted messages,” says Eliza,* a 27-year-old who works in film and actively uses a number of apps and sites. “It wasn’t like that when I first started on OkCupid in 2010, but now most of the messages are just bad — either aggressively sexual, or barely coherent, or just so far from what I say I’m looking for in my profile.”

Bumble wants to make women feel comfortable and safe online, and they’re not the only ones with that idea. Other apps courting female users include Antidate, which lets women stay invisible until they reach out to a guy, and Double, which encourages women to pair up with a friend for double dates. There’s Jess, Meet Ken, where women recommend eligible bachelors they know to single female users, who can message either the man or his friend for more info. There’s Singled Out, where women decide who they want to talk to on the basis of answers to questions they send. They’re joined by Masque, Siren, Wyldfire, the Grade, Coffee Meets Bagel and others, making the female-friendly dating app something of a white whale in the tech industry right now.

Despite this crowded field, none of the apps has broken through with users. The ones currently on the market focus on security and privacy, usually by limiting the ability of male daters to contact female ones. But will a critical mass of men actually use an app that puts all the control in women’s hands? And, more importantly, is that the experience women are seeking out?

Alana,* a 34-year-old teacher from Toronto, has been dating online since 2012, with mixed results. “Sometimes it’s exciting and fun; sometimes it’s soul-crushing,” she says. “I find people disappear really easily online — you could have a great date and then they’re gone without any explanation. I wonder if the online-ness makes people less human about it.” Alana started with eHarmony (“They said they produced the most marriages!”) before moving to Match.com (“Mostly awful”) and then to Tinder (“I honestly haven’t had a disaster Tinder date yet”).

Ladies first
A partial list of recent female-friendly dating apps
masque-dating-appWhat Masque Since when February 2015 The sell Subverting the shallowness of some apps, daters in India choose an avatar (instead of a selfie) to flirt anonymously with strangers while they get comfortable.
wyldfire-dating-appWhat Wyldfire Since when May 2014 The sell Guys can join only after a woman extends an invite, creating a handy pool of vetted (read: datable) dudes.
siren-dating-appWhat Siren Since when July 2014 The sell Women keep their pictures private until they decide it’s time to share, while “Wing Women” can forward the profiles of promising suitors to their friends on the app.
the-grade-dating-appWhat The Grade Since when July 2014 The sell Using a school–style A-to-F grading system, people evaluate their matches’ profiles, message quality and overall responsiveness. Trolls, lazy chatters and weirdos are booted off.
coffee-meets-bagel-dating-appWhat Coffee Meets Bagel Since when November 2013 The sell Created with the busy working girl in mind, Coffee Meets Bagel sends you just one curated match per day to ponder.
hingeWhat Hinge Since when August 2013 The sell The pool is made up of mutual friends, and all education and work info is presented up front, so there won’t be any “I’m a six-foot-tall doctor, but not really!” fake-outs.
willow-dating-appWhat Willow Since when August 2014 The sell Users comb through each other’s answers to personality-revealing questions — all without seeing their faces.

Tinder — a location-based app that allows users to select matches based on a few photos and a couple lines of text — revolutionized mobile dating in 2012. The company now manages more than one billion swipes and 12 million matches per day, and should have exceeded 40 million monthly active users by April of this year. By contrast, eHarmony, which has been around since 2000, has 33 million total members. Tinder’s game-like interface, combined with the ego-boosting instantaneousness of its matches, makes the app a popular choice; it’s also less work than other dating sites that require users to fill out long profiles or answer questionnaires. In contrast to the GlobalWebIndex numbers, Tinder boasts a male-to-female ratio of 55:45. 

That success with the elusive female demographic has surprised some who saw Tinder primarily as a hookup app. Wasn’t this low-stakes, looks-based approach to sex and dating the opposite of what women were looking for? Or might they — gasp! — be after the same things from online dating as men? “It feels honest,” says Eliza, who thinks the app’s reputation helps all users take things a little less seriously. “There isn’t the pressure to find the love of your life immediately. Everyone on Tinder is just trying to have fun.”

Still, despite Tinder’s impressive numbers, the online-dating experience remains far from ideal for many women. Dr. Caroline Pukall, a professor of psychology and director of the sexual-health research lab at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., says she’s heard plenty of stories of app-based disasters. “A few common themes emerge consistently,” she says. “Some people can’t take no for an answer, and the person receiving these messages can feel stalked, frustrated or annoyed.” Pukall also cites problems such as mismatched intentions, stereotypical gender-based assumptions about what men and women want online (sex and relationships, respectively) and disparity between what people convey in their photos or profile and their actual looks or personality. 

When Alana heard about Bumble, billed when it launched last year as a Tinder that puts women first, she was intrigued. In her first day on the app, she found four matches and messaged all of them before the countdown ran out. One man never replied, two conversations went nowhere, and one match — with a scruffy 34-year-old city worker — yielded a date. “It seems like people [on Bumble] are less about one-night stands,” she says, noting that the messages she’s exchanged with her Bumble matches have been more respectful than those on other online dating sites. “Also, the expiration means there’s not as much match collecting,” Alana adds, referring to the practice of “liking” every profile just to see who likes you back. “It really does feel like a more female-friendly Tinder.”

That’s by design. Bumble is the brainchild of Tinder co-founder Whitney Wolfe and a handful of other former Tinder staff. In April 2014, Wolfe left Tinder and, two months later, sued both the company and Justin Mateen — a fellow co-founder and Wolfe’s ex-boyfriend — for sexual harassment. In the lawsuit, which was settled in September for just over $1 million, Wolfe said she was harassed via text message and email, was called a “slut” and a “liar” and felt intimidated and bullied at Tinder HQ — many of the same problems experienced by women in the online-dating sphere.

Bumble’s vice-president of brand development, Jennifer Stith, explains that Wolfe “saw a need to create something that encouraged social responsibility, challenged traditional dating norms and inspired people to more carefully consider their connections and conversations.” She says men have been overwhelmingly supportive of the women-first approach, which was inspired by Sadie Hawkins dances. “It allows them to be invited into a conversation rather than being expected, as usual, to initiate it.”

It does seem to be going well: In Bumble’s first three months of operation, the app easily surpassed one million matches in the United States and Canada. Perhaps more promisingly, Stith reports a current 50:50 male-to-female split among users, suggesting that if women flock to an app, men are sure to follow.

I never did hear back from Cat Guy. (According to Stith, about 60 percent of matches on Bumble result in conversations.) I had a few lively chats after taking Stith’s suggestion to let the app’s photo-messaging function do the talking for me — sending photos of whatever I happened to be looking at, instead of thinking up a clever opener — but I didn’t get hooked on the app. I found myself overwhelmed at the prospect of an online future where I had to speak first if I ever wanted to be spoken to. While I never enjoyed the barrage of unwanted contact on OkCupid and other mainstream dating sites, this approach felt sterile and forced.

mobile-dating-nude-pics-harassment

Ultimately, I’m not sure the various restrictions supplied by Bumble and other female-friendly apps are going to solve the problems of online dating. With so many steps to finding a match, the apps have lost sight of what made Tinder so successful: It’s fun and effortless, the technological equivalent of smiling at a stranger at a party, then seeing if he comes to you. And none of these apps has done away with one factor that can make online dating a precarious proposition for women: the relative anonymity. I knew Cat Guy had a beard, and he seemed to have a cat, but that’s about all I knew. The fact that I approached him first on Bumble wouldn’t have made meeting in person him any less risky. 

Anecdotally, I’ve heard the most positive reviews about Hinge, which launched in the U.S. in 2013 and came to Toronto this February. The app matches only users who share friends on Facebook, sending out a list of dates once a day. Rather than making women do the legwork or keeping them anonymous, it provides accountability in the form of disclosure. Users’ names, alma maters and workplace information accompany their profiles, as do the names of mutual friends. The details help remind daters: You are speaking to an actual person, and that person is capable of identifying you. One of Bumble’s features — in fact, its most interesting one — operates similarly, tagging all sent photos with the user’s first name and profile picture. (If we were accountable in real life for the indiscretions we commit online, wouldn’t people think twice before sending unsolicited photos of their genitals?)

Online-dating services rely on anonymity and ease; those features keep the experience popular, but they also keep the culture toxic for women. Maybe a truly female-friendly app is not one that allows women to conceal their location or pair up with a pal or send a customized questionnaire or block trolls. Maybe it’s one that demands all users stop hiding behind their phones and say exactly who they are.

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