Tinder and other dating apps have totally upended the modern romantic experience, yet we don't really know how they work or how other people use them. We share stories of IRL meetups with friends, and guess at how other people behave on the app. Why didn't this person respond to my carefully-picked emoji? Why did this other person flood me with an unending stream of inane messages for a week, only to disappear?
Here's why: dating apps are a sad, pointless game people play while mindlessly watching Netflix and drinking too much wine for a Tuesday night. And now research confirms it, thanks to a massive study that looked at 19 million messages between 400,000 hetero people on a dating app that couldn't be named due to a non-disclosure agreement. (We reached out to Tinder and were told that the company didn't provide the data for the study.)
According to researchers Taha Yasseri and Jennie Zhang at the Oxford Internet Institute, 39 percent of all communications on the app consisted of a single, unresponded-to message and another 10 percent of conversations consisted of two or more unreciprocated messages. Of those conversations that actually got going, just 19 percent resulted in one of the parties sharing a phone number over the app.
"This is probably sad to some people, but reassuring to others who think there is something wrong with them"
"This is probably sad to some people, but reassuring to others who think there is something wrong with them because nobody is responding to their messages," said Yasseri in an interview. "It's not you, it's just a general trend. For some reason, people do not take these sorts of conversations too seriously."
Perhaps most dishearteningly, the researchers conclude that many men who used the app appeared to treat it as a "numbers game" where they swiped right on everyone they could and then filtered through the people who liked them back.
"We interviewed some users and realized that men usually swipe right way more often than females, and they pay way less attention to profiles," Yasseri said. "Females users are quite picky, and when they swipe right, they are more likely to mean it."
Zhang and Yasseri's paper is available on the arXiv preprint server, and is currently going through the peer review process.
This all paints a pretty bleak picture of the modern dating scene, as mediated by algorithm-driven apps, but there is hope. If we know that dating apps have a connection gap between short, frivolous exchanges and meaningful connections, it tells us that future apps need a way to close it. Yasseri didn't have any immediate suggestions.
These findings are likely generalizable to dating apps beyond the one they studied, Yasseri said. The three key aspects of the app were that users get a visual image of potential suitors and a short description, potential matches are filtered by geographic location, and users can swipe left or right on each other. Since these aspects are shared among many popular dating apps, the findings should have some explanatory potential across platforms.
But regardless of the specific hook-up app, the takeaway is this: All of those unrequited messages, all of those failed dates… It's not your fault.
Read that again, and this time in Robin Williams' voice like in Good Will Hunting—it's not your fault.
Now get out there and flaunt what you've got in meatspace, hot stuff.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article stated that 49 percent of all conversations in the researcher's study consisted of a single, unreciprocated message. In fact, 39 percent of all conversations consisted of a single unreciprocated messaged, and an additional 10 percent consisted of two or more unreciprocated messages. This article has been updated to reflect this and Motherboard regrets the error.