While there are many ways of meeting people in real life, and this might be preferable for a lot of people, the reality is online is such a big part of dating today that it can’t be ignored. If you want to maximise the size of your pool of potential partners, you have to take advantage of every means at your disposal.
Although online dating came to prominence in the twenty-first century, most people probably don’t realise that it really started in the 1960s. And it began where a lot of tech ideas come from: a prestigious university. In 1965, three Harvard undergraduates by the names of Jeffrey C. Tarr, David L. Crump and Vaughan Morrill created Operation Match for students of Ivy League universities. Users filled out a questionnaire and returned it with a fee. Their answers were then run through a computer algorithm and, a couple of weeks later, a list of matches and their telephone numbers was sent back. It was all about matching people based on their interests and values. One of the things I find most interesting about Operation Match is that it didn’t include a photo, and there were very few questions about attractiveness – the only one was along the lines of ‘How important is attractiveness to you?’ When you fast-forward to today, it’s all about photos.
Although Tarr and Crump later set up a business called Compatibility Research, Inc. with a former Cornell student called Douglas H. Ginsburg, who went on to become a senior judge, computer dating didn’t really take off for another thirty years with the introduction of Match.com in 1995. This was an online dating site that again centred around a long list of questions, although there was now the option to upload photos too. This was followed by other popular sites, such as eHarmony, which had an almost 14 per cent share of the US dating-services market in 2015. This was the year that the online dating landscape changed for ever with the introduction of Tinder, the first mobile dating app. This allowed quick access and introduced the concept of the swipe feature in dating – swipe right if you’re interested, swipe left for no – simplifying the process compared with the previous generation of web-based dating sites (the eHarmony questionnaire had as many as 450 questions at one point).
Tinder also opened up the dating landscape to casual dating, or what we now know evolutionary psychologists would call short-term mating, leading to it being known as the hook-up app. The developers realised that a lot of people don’t start out wanting a long-term partner and that the dating landscape is made up of people with all sorts of different relationship goals. Tinder was the first to say, ‘There is no judgement – everybody is welcome to jump into this party.’ As a result, it became the cool spot. As well as convenience, people want to be at the place where everybody else is. When I was at college, some of my friends always wanted to go to the club that was known to have the most women. They didn’t care where it was or what music it was playing as long as it was where the majority of women were likely to be. A big part of the success of Tinder was the sense that everybody was there, and it quickly became the number-one dating app, and it’s continued to retain the top spot in the world today.
Tinder and the other apps that followed it soon proceeded to double down on the features that really worked, like photos. And as online dating has developed further over the years, it’s changed how we go about seeking a partner and what we’re looking for in a relationship. For example, Tinder doesn’t ask its users to designate things like ethnicity or education. It’s what we call frictionless dating, based around the belief that it’s to your advantage to meet people outside of your social circle. It’s back to those weak ties, right? You want to introduce new people into your social circle, because when you do, you’re not just introducing that person, you’re introducing their network too. So Tinder’s position was that they wanted to open it up to everyone.
When other dating apps entered the market, these newcomers figured they couldn’t compete with the shopping mall, so they instead decided to build boutique stores. There was the app for all the farmers. The app for the left-handers. Then the app for the left-handed farmers. The apps became increasingly niche to the point that a big player like Hinge realised that some people like to search based on type and allowed you to opt in to a silo for education, a silo for ethnicity, a silo for age, and so on. However, I believe that we’re now reaching a point where interrelationships – interracial, interreligious, international – will be the standard and not the exception. On Tinder, 61 per cent of users have dated someone of a different ethnicity and 80 per cent are open to marrying someone of a different ethnicity, while 70 per cent are open to someone of a different religion. And you have people identifying in a more diverse way than they ever have before. So, long story short, I think frictionless dating and not pushing people into silos is the future, because that’s what Gen Z wants, and, as we’ve seen, it makes up the majority of the dating population.
One of the major benefits of online dating is that it’s actually quite empowering. You’re more in control, and you’re able to make connections in a way that feels safe. There’s not the same fear or sense of shame. And you can meet people who have the same relationship goals as you and assess if there’s some level of compatibility right off the bat.
Your potential matches can also be from anywhere in the world. Tinder has a feature called Passport, which allows you to select a city in another country and look for people there. On Tinder Passport, London is the number-one city in the world. I have an American friend, a popular television personality, who thinks she’s going to meet her husband in London. In fact, I suspect a lot of Americans think they’re going to meet their prince or princess there.
The downside to this is that, if you can select someone from any city in the world, it can be pretty overwhelming. It also means that you can be rejected by anyone in the world. And it’s painful to be rejected. The sting of rejection is relative. For some people, being rejected online could have as much of an impact as someone else being publicly humiliated. As a result of all of this, people can become disgruntled with online dating very quickly.
Men in the incel movement – ‘incel’ being short for ‘involuntary celibate’ – are at the extreme end of this spectrum, as they are not even willing to engage in the process. Because they believe it’s a zero-sum game and that they’re not going to win, they choose to opt out and instead place the blame on women. This extreme reaction speaks to the disillusionment that can arise with dating. It can be a difficult and tiring process, especially if you have to meet a lot of people in order to maximise your chances of finding someone suitable. With online dating, a lot of people drop out after three months – some because they have found a match but many out of frustration. Often, though, these people come back, and a cycle of leaving and then returning develops.
Another downside of online dating is that there’s a significant amount of fraud, ranging from catfishing to financial. In fact, financial romance fraud, whereby someone is tricked into entering a relationship so that money can be stolen from them, is one of the fastest growing types of fraud in the United States at the time of writing. This is why online safety has become an increasing focus for apps such as Tinder, leading to them building in features that deter fraud, as well as preventing crude messages and any photos apart from those on your profile from being shared.
Then there is the time needed to maintain your profile and keep on top of your potential matches and messages. People work long hours, and they often use work devices which aren’t suitable for personal use. So even though apps have in some ways made the process of meeting people easier, some users still feel like they don’t have a lot of time to devote to it and accessibility can still be a challenge.
The next disadvantage of online dating is perhaps going to sound a bit strange, but a lot of men report that they don’t feel like they have good photos of themselves to upload. When I joined Tinder as their Global Research Expert, I remember talking to people in the company about how horrendous the men’s photos were. They were holding a fish they’d caught. Or they didn’t have a shirt on and were leaning up against a car. Just terrible photos. But I wasn’t in a great place to criticise. So that I could better understand the app and how it was used, I set up an account. It took me a while to find a good photo, and I was in the matchmaking business! I then had a call with the Head of Product Development, and she told me my photo was terrible too – and she was right. I didn’t have any good photos of myself. It’s a big issue for a lot of guys, because photos have become central to the online dating experience.
This shift in emphasis from no photos in the early days to photos being so important has benefits and downsides. On the plus side, an image tells a thousand words, and you could argue that a photo allows for a better sense of a person than text alone. However, this only holds true if the photos are authentic. When photos first came into vogue on dating sites in the late 1990s, a lot of people would use a professional headshot. The common response to that was, ‘Well, that’s not really how you look on a day-to-day basis.’ It was also expensive to get a professional image, so you’d only get one or two, and you’d have that professional image for years. Even people who didn’t get a professional photo taken would instead use old photos of themselves. It got to the point that the average age of a photo was ten years old. No one looks like they did ten years ago. We all like to think we do, but unfortunately we don’t.
Over the years, this issue of authenticity has only been exacerbated by the introduction of filters and photo editing. People naturally want to know if what they are seeing is really you or your digitally enhanced representative. And this is important, because being physically attracted to someone is still very important. It’s not just about connecting on an intellectual or emotional level. You still have to like the look of someone.
The bottom line is that a dating site or app is a tool, and it can be used badly or it can be used well. So even before worrying about how good your photos are, make sure you include some in the first place. You would think this is obvious, but a lot of people don’t include any photos at all, even though a high percentage of the decision to engage with you is based on what you look like. And having multiple photos is better, because the data shows that if you have three to five photos, you will be engaged with more than if you have just one. And why is that? Because of the authenticity problem – if people only see one photo, they’re not sure it’s actually you. This issue is also being helped by apps like Tinder introducing photo verification.
So, you need to have the right number of photos, but you also need to have the right types of photos. There are three kinds that are optimal. Number one is a photo of you smiling a nice, authentic smile. So how do you do that? Ask somebody to tell you a joke and have them fire off a couple of photos at the same time. Number two is a full-body shot, because the truth is everyone wants to see what your body looks like. And I think we put a little bit more pressure on that than we need to. Instagram has obviously reshaped what we think is a standard level of physical attractiveness, but in essence people are again just looking to see that it’s really you, and also that you conform broadly to the golden mean. And even if you don’t, different people are attracted to and prioritise different things. Also, Tinder’s The Future of Dating 2023 revealed that many people are now saying that feeling comfortable with someone is of higher importance than physical attractiveness. The third photo is one of you doing an activity that you’re passionate about. This is much more engaging than just a photo of you on a night out drinking.
Next, you need to complete your profile. And I mean really complete it, because online dating is a computer system, and the algorithms will favour you if you have filled out all of the questions and uploaded your photos. This is because the app wants to showcase people who look like they’re fully using and engaging with it. Then, when it comes to the content of your profile, you should stay away from saying all the things you don’t want. Talk about what you are interested in as opposed to what you are not interested in. This is a much better way of getting across your values. These tips might all seem very basic, but they are the keys to optimising your profile, and you’d be surprised, in my experience, how many people don’t do it.
Of course, creating your profile is only half the battle. To use a dating app or site effectively, you actually have to engage with people. Someone’s profile can only tell you so much, and your goal is probably not to establish a relationship online – you therefore need to meet potential matches in real life. People are typically very meticulous, and it’s not uncommon for someone to spend thirty or forty minutes on a dating app and not engage with anyone in that time, but this is not the approach I’d recommend – you really need to engage with as many people as possible. This means being open to people who you are even remotely interested in and getting to the point where you’re actually meeting them in real life so you can really make your assessment.
Whether you meet someone in real life or online, authenticity is the name of the game. Baby boomers, Gen Xers and millennials are much quicker to lie in their profiles. But Gen Z is really all about authenticity and what I call embracing the quirk – in my opinion, it’s a much healthier way of going about things. The key is to stand out based on your individuality. You want to be utterly true to yourself, and you want to be so transparent in terms of who you are and what you believe that it might even push some people away. This is why we’re beginning to see more people include political and social beliefs in their dating profiles.
I realise that not everyone is good at talking about themselves or putting themselves forward and identifying what their virtues are, but you can get help from other people. Ask your friends and family to look at your profile and photos so that they can give you honest feedback. You can even hire a dating coach. And AI is being heavily integrated into dating apps right now, which can help you to create a narrative around your likes and interests. So you can definitely get assistance on this. But whether you do it yourself or you get some help, try to use online dating well; otherwise, you’re probably better off not using it all.