Tom wants to kiss you until the sun comes up. James wants to go to a gig with you (he loves the visceral thrill of seeing live music). Ben wants you to share your travel tips for Japan. Alex wants them too – but only if you like dogs (he’s got two, and can not be dealing with any cat people.)
Dating apps are like a game, and it only takes a few hours for you to get to know the rules. If you’ve been on them for longer than that – for months or years – then you may even get to know the characters; from the softbois and the gym bros, to the ghosters and catfishers.
But all good games must eventually come to an end. So what happens when you keep seeing the same profiles and there’s no one left to swipe? Is it really possible – say, in a pandemic – to exhaust all your options? To finally reach the end, and to “complete” the apps altogether?
For many users, it’s starting to feel that way. Apps like Tinder, Happn, OkCupid and Bumble have been around since the early 2010s, with Hinge joining the fray in 2017. While their popularity has been on an upward trajectory since then, a lot of users – especially the long-term swipers – are becoming jaded by the process.
“I hate dating apps,” says Violet, 31, who has been using Tinder and Hinge on and off for several years. “I delete them all the time because I find them boring and don’t have time for shit chat. You have to invest so much time in figuring out whether you like someone. You really have to put the work in.”
Some users – particularly those who have been using the apps more heavily, and for longer periods of time – claim to be running into the same people, time and time again, even if they’ve already matched (disastrously) before. It’s a surprisingly common problem: on Reddit, there are dozens of posters who have complained that Tinder keeps recycling the same profiles, with one user writing that he “re-matched with an awkward date around five or six times”.
Another Bumble user found himself being tormented by “a chick” who appeared on his feed “over 20 times”. (“Sometimes I swipe right, sometimes left,” he wrote. “Those eyebrows are haunting my dreams.”)
Even apps that have been around for less time, like Hinge, aren’t immune. “I once went on a date with a guy from Hinge who messaged me the next day saying that I was ‘too difficult’ a woman, and he didn’t want to deal with me because his ex had been ‘a psycho’,” says Belle, 32. “It was awful. Then, a week later, he matched with me again.”
In areas where there are less people, it makes sense that there are fewer active users. Because of that, it’s relatively easy to run out of swipes in a small village or rural area, especially if your preferred distance parameters are kept local. But in major cities, where there are thousands – potentially even millions – of users active at any given point, ‘completing’ shouldn’t really be happening.
“In a bigger city, ‘completing’ the app would be really hard to do because there are literally thousands of new daters that join OKCupid every day,” says Melissa Hobley, a spokesperson from OKCupid. It’s likely that it would be equally hard on Hinge, Bumble, and Tinder (the latter apparently has around 500,000 active users in London alone).
“If you live in a very small town, and you've set your location to be a small area, you might just not have a lot of folks that fit your criteria, so it would be possible to go through your potential matches,” Melissa adds. “But that would be for someone in a small population.”
And yet, even in heaving metropolises, it still seems to be happening. So is the problem the apps, or has our obsessive and prolonged swiping just reached an extreme level?
Sometimes, the fact that you’re repeatedly seeing the same people can just come down to simple software glitch; one that can likely be fixed with a quick update.
But dissatisfied users suspect there may also be other more sinister forces at play. As the online dating market becomes increasingly saturated, apps need to do whatever they can to stand out and keep profitable. In recent years, this has meant introducing premium (or paid) options to users, including Tinder Plus (and Gold), Bumble Boost and Hinge Preferred.
“They’ve changed Tinder so much in the last few years,” says Scott, 27. “Now, I find that I rarely match with people. I used to match much more; on average around 10 times a day. But I think they’re encouraging people to buy premium. It’s very rare I match with anyone now, because you don’t appear near the top so less people see you.”
Others have made the same complaints about Tinder, with some Reddit users even pointing out the suspiciously abundant “model” accounts that seem to appear once you update to a premium account. “These [fake accounts] are extremely prolific, about one in four by my estimate,” wrote one Tinder Plus user. “My tinfoil theory is that these accounts are owned and operated by Tinder, meant to pad the accounts you see.” (Tinder refused to comment for this article).
The algorithm system is complex and opaque, but one thing is certain: if it doesn’t favour you, your experience will suffer. Tinder, Hinge and Bumble are known for using, at least on some level, “collaborative filtering” – a system which recommends certain profiles based on majority opinion.
Users are therefore more likely to be seen on the app if they are popular with other swipers – in the same way certain titles and topics start “trending” on Twitter or Netflix – while others can end up being excluded, marginalised or put to the bottom of the pile.
There’s no clear data on who exactly this algorithm favours, but it’s likely that gender, race and age can affect your placing. (One 2018 study found that straight men on dating apps found teenage girls to be the most desirable.) Even the amount of time you spent on the app could play some kind of role.
Whatever the truth is, it’s probably not going to stop us swiping. Apps like Tinder, Hinge and Bumble are more popular than ever, especially in this new age of isolation and social distancing. But there’s at least potential for us to be less reliant on, and trusting of, them in the future.
“I think social networks offer a valuable parable for the future of dating apps,” says Professor Giulia Ranzini, an assistant professor in communication at Amsterdam’s Vrije University. “Take Facebook: it started off as a platform for university students, and then grew to include other demographics, to the point where young users barely use it anymore.”
“It’s possible that Tinder will go through a similar cycle: progressively be less ‘a thing of the young’ until it is replaced by something else. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that it becomes irrelevant for other demographics. I don’t think dating apps are going anywhere, at least in the foreseeable future.”