For most people, downloading their first dating app is exciting, albeit a little scary. It means you now have an almost intoxicating level of choice in potential partners, with dozens upon dozens of eligible singles popping up in your queue like a linear version of whack-a-mole. But much digital ink has been spilled over whether the sheer volume of potential matches is ultimately a good thing for daters.
With all the options dating apps expose us to, we risk not making any choice at all — or so the argument goes. Dating apps like Tinder have been criticized for being time-consuming and more likely to lead to us choosing partners who diverge from our stated preferences. Still, millions upon millions of people all over the world use them and, for some, the number of potential connections is a large part of the appeal.
Richard, 30, has had some success with dating apps, but he thinks that too much choice can be a real limitation. “It’s really easy to meet up with someone, obviously, but once you get a few dates in, you can’t stop yourself from holding them up to insane standards and going down a rabbit hole of overthinking things,” he explains. “Like, okay, this girl’s fun and we have a lot in common, but she’s not as tall as that girl I matched with the other day. But what about that girl I saw the other week? Is she gonna match me? Am I cool enough for her?”
Some critics of dating apps worry about this line of questioning. They wonder, why would someone settle down with one person when they can have no-strings-attached sex with dozens of available singles? But research doesn’t confirm these fears. In a study of 641 Norwegian university students aged between 19 and 29 years, for example, researchers found that when controlling for sex, age, and sociosexuality, there was no evidence that length of use of apps like Tinder increased lifetime casual sex partners. The study’s authors concluded that the new technology merely represents a new arena for short-term sexual behavior and not necessarily a facilitator of new sexual behaviors. In other words, casual sex has always been an option — dating apps are just one way of facilitating that pre-existing urge.
If I wanted to meet someone who had the exact same background, education, and experiences as me, I would just get one of my friends to set me up with someone.
The criticism also fails to acknowledge that people use dating apps for many different reasons. A study of 163 current or former Tinder users in the Netherlands uncovered six motivations for using the app: love, casual sex, ease of communication, self-worth validation, thrill of excitement, and trendiness. Love, it turns out, outweighed casual sex. The authors concluded that dating apps merely provide a platform for people to seek out whichever kind of relationships they’re looking for, be they casual, committed, open, or something else.
Eleanor, 24, uses dating apps to to expose herself to host of new potential partners. “[Dating apps are] a fantastic way to meet a whole host of different people who I would otherwise never come across in my ‘real-life’ circles,” she says. “For me, the diversity and range of people is the entire point. If I wanted to meet someone who had the exact same background, education, and experiences as me, I would just get one of my friends to set me up with someone.”
Addie, 29, is similarly positive. “[It’s like] meeting people at a bar, except that you erase all the socioeconomic boundaries that a bar has,” she explains. “So I do think [it’s] is more equitable than ‘traditional’ dating and allows you the opportunity to find someone who shares your values more than just someone who exists in the same social barrio as you.” One side effect of this volume of choice might be that people can be more selective in choosing their dates. “I think it just shows how many people in the past settled for relationships they weren’t that enthused about but thought they didn’t have any better options,” says Eleanor. Getting a sense of exactly how many singles are out there is an active counternarrative to the idea that eligible singles are scarce, and you should commit to the person you’re with, regardless of how dissatisfying the relationship has become. For women, who are told more so than men that being unmarried or unpartnered is a personal failing, this can be especially important. It send the message that settling is rarely a better option than holding out for a stronger match.
It’s also worth noting that “too much choice” is more of a problem for certain demographics than it is for others. Queer people are already a relatively small percentage of the population — only about 8 percent of millenials identify as such — so some LGBTQ daters are particularly excited to have access to more potential mates. Ella, 20, who identifies as bisexual, is especially grateful for the fact that dating apps reduce ambiguity in the already stressful dating game. “I find it quite hard to bring up in conversation with people [that I’m bisexual] sometimes, especially as a woman who doesn’t ‘look’ LGBTQ, or isn’t identifiable as such,” she says. “[Dating apps] remove the anxiety of, Are they just really friendly, or are they into me?, which I have very frequently with women [in real life].”
Ella also finds that dating apps allow her to move beyond the limits of conventional LGBTQ spaces. “It’s really nice to be able to meet women without having to put myself in stressful situations at LGBT+ bars,” she explains. “Almost all LGBT+ spaces involve alcohol, which I don’t find mixes well with dating for me.” In other words, the question of choice extends beyond the people users are matching with and to the environment in which they’re doing the matching.
No matter how you feel about the number of choices dating apps introduce, one thing’s for sure: They seem to be here to stay. Each day, millions of matches are made. If you’re one of them, that’s fantastic. If you choose to go another route, that’s equally great. But why not let everyone do what works for them?